Everyone knows the easiest, most annoying way to win an argument on the internet: compare your opponent to Hitler. (Also known as Godwin’s Law, here are two shining examples from pop culture: Troy in my favorite monologue from the third season of Community, “I use comparisons to Hitler to win arguments on the internet at the drop of a hat.” Next, Emily Nussbaum writing about Veep, “The show has more Hitler comparisons than an Internet flame war.”)
Over the last few weeks, we pointed out examples of people--mainstream and not--demonizing America’s extremist enemies with terms like “barbarian”, “savage”, and “primitive”. But those examples explicitly denigrate and demonize our enemies. Another term has the same effect, only more subtly and with a veneer of intellectual rigor:
“Islamofascism” (and its close relative “Islamism”) compares extremist Muslims to Hitler. All in a single word. It’s a one word example of Godwin’s Law.
To start, let’s break the terms down. And they need to be broken down, because as words, “Islamofascism” and “Islamism” make no sense.
We’ll begin with the proponents of the phrase trying to defend these terms. Christopher Hitchens advocated for the term here, writing that both fascism and Islamism love empire, oppose intellectualism, and display anti-modern, anti-gay, anti-women and anti-semitic tendencies. Except that, as Hitchens writes, “There isn't a perfect congruence. Historically, fascism laid great emphasis on glorifying the nation-state and the corporate structure.”
In other words, the most important part of fascism--the importance of the state over all else--is also the biggest difference between it and so-called Islamofascism--which is based on a love of religion over all else. Fascism is, primarily, a form of government, an authoritarian/totalitarian dictatorship. Islamofascism most commonly refers to a group of non-state actors--al Qaeda--which just seems especially silly. Though al Qaeda dreams of a caliphate (a Sunni Caliphate), they don’t actually represent a state...yet.
Of course, in the last few months, Islamic extremists, for the first time, took over and maintained parts of Iraq and Syria, but the term Islamo-facism existed well before Islamic extremists started their first, completely unrecognized and fragile nation-state. And those extremists clearly value religion over the idea of a nation.
As On V fave Geoffrey Nunberg wrote, this particularly didn’t apply to Iraq:
“Actually, the term "Islamo-fascism," if taken literally, doesn't make sense. The "fascist" part might fit Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with its militaristic nationalism, its secret police and its silly peaked officers' hats. But there was nothing "Islamo" about the regime; Iraq's Baathists tried to make the state the real object of the people's devotion.”
The next problem with Islamofascism is that it exaggerates the threat posed by Islamic extremists. Hitler and Nazi Germany actually did threaten millions and millions of people. They threatened all of Europe, if not the globe. As Paul Krugman’s sarcastically wrote about this comparison, “Yep, a bunch of lightly armed terrorists and a fourth-rate military power — which aren’t even allies — pose a greater danger than Hitler’s panzers or the Soviet nuclear arsenal ever did.”
Which brings us to the third problem: this term lumps way too many people together under one umbrella term. Katha Pollitt of The Nation explains:
"Islamo-fascism" conflates a wide variety of disparate states, movements and organizations as if, like the fascists, they all want similar things and are working together to achieve them. Neocons have called Saddam Hussein and the Baathists of Syria Islamo-fascists, but these relatively secular nationalist tyrants have nothing in common with shadowy, stateless, fundamentalist Al Qaeda--as even Bush now acknowledges--or with the Taliban, who want to return Afghanistan to the seventh century; and the Taliban aren't much like Iran, which is different from (and somewhat less repressive than) Saudi Arabia--whoops, our big ally in the Middle East! Who are the "Islamo-fascists" in Saudi Arabia--the current regime or its religious-fanatical opponents? It was under the actually existing US-supported government that female students were forced back into their burning school rather than be allowed to escape unveiled.”
Which brings us to the fourth problem, “the Saudi Arabia problem”. If one country represents both Islamic theology and dictatorship, it’s Saudi Arabia. Why does Saudi Arabia take the crown from Iran? Because Iran has a working parliamentary system with elections. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have anything close to that, and oppresses women and minorities way more than Iran.
They’re also one of America’s closest allies.
Some pundits--like Christopher Hitchens above--fear a pan-Islamic front. They believe that all Islamic nations could rise up together to oppose, and possibly destroy, the Western world. Except that Muslims aren’t uniting; they’re dividing. Dexter Filkins, on the New Yorker’s “Political Scene” podcast, (somewhat accurately) predicted an all out Sunni/Shiite civil war. Instead of the world facing a unified front, America’s greater concern would be a multi-state religious war...between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Which just goes to the point of the whole thing. If there is a giant Sunni/Shiite rift in the religion of Islam--even if there isn’t a gigantic pan-national intra-Islamic war--it doesn’t make sense to use one term to bunch all extremist Muslims together. Unless you want to dehumanize and demonize them.
America has enemies. Some of them are Islamic, but we can’t group them under one umbrella term. Especially an umbrella with overt references to America’s number one historical enemy, Hitler--who superseded the British for Northerners and Abraham Lincoln for formerly confederate states--as America’s number one enemy. It prevents any sort of dialogue or bridge building.
Instead of “Islamo-fascism” we should use what we always have: Islamic extremists. This phrase does two things: 1. Identifies a group (or groups) that uses violence to achieve a myriad of political goals. 2. Separates the extremists from the rest of the Muslim world.
Which is much more accurate.