Wednesday, October 24, 2007

"Islamofascism": More Sloppyspeak

This week, David Horowitz brought his "Islamofascism Awareness Week" campaign here, speaking on campus on Monday. I wasn't there, but I hear that the always-entertaining Kevin Barret created a disturbance and was removed from the hall.

Before this event, a faculty email list I'm on heated up considerably when someone attacked Horowitz' use of the term "Islamofascism." I guess it's okay if I reveal that this was Howard Schweber of the Poli Sci Department. More conservative people on the list were inclined to defend Horowitz on this point, and one sent around an essay of Christopher Hitchens' in which he defends this usage.

I have to side with Howard on this one. I think this is another example of the morally sloppy sort of talk for which I earlier snapped Desmond Tutu's suspenders.

Fascism is a political ideology with several distinctive features. One is the idea that the state is more important and valuable than the individual or any other part of the total social whole. Another is corporatism: the idea that the individual and all other social units are to be "incorporated" into the whole by various political means, including government-controlled unions and guilds, heavy regulation, and a deliberately cartelized economy. These means do not include the state owning everything outright, as in Communism, but the intended result is the same: total control. Much of this is reflected in Mussolini's memorable motto: "All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

Obviously, this has little to do with Islamism (a much better word than that of Horowitz and Hitchens*), which generally boils down to the idea that the state ought to impose Sharia (Islamic morality written up as a legal code) on the entire population, regardless of their own religious convictions. Osama probably doesn't give a damn about cartelizing the economy. He's much more interested in beating women up for not wearing their veils properly.

In the wide, nasty family of authoritarian political ideologies, Islamism and fascism are not even first cousins, let alone identical twins. To speak as if they were is to blur factors that are morally and politically distinct.

Hitchen's argument (see the link above) seems to go more or less like this:
1. Islamism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
2. Fascism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
3. Therefore, Islamism is fascism.
So interpreted, the argument is an obvious example of the fallacy of the undistributed middle:
1. Dogs are animals.
2. Pigeons are animals.
3. Therefore, dogs are pigeons.
There is, however, a more charitable way of reading what he is saying, which involves a more modest conclusion, something like: It is alright to speak of Islamism and fascism as if they were the same. But then the argument will need a new premise, something like the one labeled #3 below:
1. Islamism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
2. Fascism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
3. It is alright to speak of two things as the same if they share common features.
4. Therefore, It is alright to speak of Islamism and fascism as if they were the same.
With some trivial revision, this will become an obviously valid argument -- except that the new line 3 is not true as stated. To justify speaking of two things as if they were the same, the common features involved have to be essential, or really important, or so important that they outweigh the features you are blurring out of focus when you speak of these two things as if they were the same. Are Islamism and fascism similar in that way?

Here's where things get interesting.

I think, in a way, that Horowitz and and Hitchens do have a reason to say "yes," but that I do not and most likely neither do you. They, unlike most of us, are from the Old Left, or, in Horowitz' case, from the New Left of the 'sixties. In that political environment, the word "fascist" was a loose, sloppy term of political abuse. It meant "any sort of anti-progressive authoritarianism," as contrasted with Communism, which was progressive authoritarianism.

When they moved from the Left to the Right, these two men brought some of their old bad habits with them, like unruly boys tracking mud into a Victorian parlor. I don't think American conservatives should pick this particular habit up from them, of using "fascist" as a term for a broad spectrum of things they don't like. I think they should get out the carpet-sweeper.
* I admit though that it is far from perfect, because it might seem to obscure the absolute difference between Islam and Islamism. But to call the phenomenon "Islamic extremism" or "Islamic fundamentalism" seems clearly objectionable in other ways, and on the whole worse. I am certainly open to suggestions on this point.
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