Naming It– William Safire Weighs In

William Safire,  former New York Times token conservative columnist and ongoing expert on language weighs in from the Sunday magazine on the appropriate name for the war we are fighting (against Islamo-fascism).  In his long running column “On Language”–

Excerpts: …Every war is entitled to a name. World War II was a warmed-over name, and the Korean conflict was not at first even given the name of
“war,” which Vietnam rated until it was overtaken by
“syndrome.” And not until 1947 was our intense but not-hot war
against the Soviet Union named – in a speech by Bernard Baruch, written
by Herbert Bayard Swope – the cold war.

We are now engaged in what many stay-the-coursers like to call “the
long war,” which may turn out to be its name in history unless good
fortune shortens it. But more important than the name of the war – at
least to the people on our side fighting and supporting it – is the name
of the enemy. To allow a sworn enemy to remain nameless is to grant it
the propaganda advantage of eternal mystery.

Accordingly, President Bush and his legion of the resolved tried out
“war on terror.” But that was derivative (“war on poverty,”
“war on drugs,” “war on” a variety of isms), and terror was
the method used by the enemy, not the enemy itself – an amorphous idea
of intimidation rather than a specific, belligerent nation or a hostile

What rallying title to use? Not the “Iraqi war”; the elected Iraqi
government is on our side. The “war on Saddam” is over, and the
“war on bin Laden” would only build up a TV ghost. The “war on
Islam”? No; we’re not fighting a whole religion. Bush tried
narrowing that to “Islamic radicals,” but that formulation was
denounced by Democratic senators and nonradical Muslims. “There was a
conscious desire not to use just one definitive word,” said Michael
Gerson, until last year the president’s chief speechwriter, now a
Newsweek columnist, “because there wasn’t a perfect word.”

Bush has been sensitive from the first days after 9/11 to the wrong of
tarring the vast majority of Muslims with guilt-by-association rhetoric.
In straining to be fair, however, he set out a few suggested labels but
declined to choose: “Some call this evil Islamic radicalism; others,
militant jihadism; still others, Islamofascism. Whatever it’s called,
this ideology is very different from the religion of Islam.”

That’s the tie-salesman approach to war-naming. (“You like this
one? How about this one? Or this?”) …

But the option preferred by “still others” bears closer scrutiny:
Islamofascism treats the opening Islam as the specifying modifier for
the dominant noun, the repugnant ideology of fascism.

What’s a fascist? In 1922, the Italian politician Benito Mussolini
turned to a symbol of the ancient Roman imperium, the fasces, which the
Penn State professor of classics Daniel Berman informs me was “a
bundle” of birch rods and an ax standing for penal authority. Il
Duce’s Partito Nazionale Fascista stood for militarism, social
elitism and fierce nationalism, combined with contempt for democracy and
anger at the rise of Communism. In Germany soon afterward, Adolf
Hitler’s version of fascism – his party was called National
Socialism, or Nazi – added to that menacing bundle of sticks a fury
against “decadence” represented by the despised weak and
intellectual, demanding the replacement of “feminine lamentation”
with “virile hatred” of Marxists and, above all, Jews.

But in current usage, fascism is remembered less as an ideology than as
a dictatorship employing violent repression at home and military
aggression abroad. Because of its anti-Communist beginnings and despite
early socialist pretensions, the intolerant “axis” of Rome and
Berlin, and later Tokyo, is semantically associated with
ultraconservativism. The imprecation fascist has been more often flung
at the far right by the extreme left than vice versa.

…First, Islamic radicalism seems long, bookish and weak, because a
radical need not be any kind of terrorist.

Second, militant jihadist is redundant if you take jihad to mean
“holy war.” But some Muslim scholars translate the Arabic word as
“spiritual struggle,” from jahada, “to strive,” and besides,
jihad is too unfamiliar to many English-speakers to register quickly as
a label.

Third, Islamofascism. A popularizer of the term has been Christopher
Hitchens, who writes for The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair and Slate. He
declines coinage credit, informing me that he wrote that the 9/11
attacks represented “fascism with an Islamic face,” (a play on Susan
Sontag’s phrase about the Polish coup of 1981, “fascism with a human
face,” in turn based on the 1968 “Prague spring” theme,
“Communism with a human face”). The first use I can find is in
The Independent of Sept. 8, 1990: “Authoritarian government, not to
say ‘Islamo-fascism,”‘ wrote Malise Ruthven in the London
newspaper, “is the rule rather than the exception from Morocco to

The O.E.D. has a half-dozen citations of the Islamo combining form
dating to 1906, from IslamoArab to Islamocentrist. Why the connective
“o” and not a divisive “ic”? Euphony; the Greek construction
flows more easily. That’s why Islamofascism may have legs: the
compound defines those terrorists who profess a religious mission while
embracing totalitarian methods and helps separate them from devout
Muslims who want no part of terrorist means.


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