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.


Anonymous said...

Lester Hunt at his best!

For an alternative to Islamofascism, why not call it by its proper name: Qutbism, after the Egyptian godfather of the whole movement, Sayyid Qutb. (I think we would pronounce the noun Kotebism and the adjective Kotebist.) Too esoteric? Then how about Islamobigotry? Or would that have the odious effect of associating Islam with bigotry?

Anyway, an excellent post, especially the logic lesson.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Qutbism is of course not original with me. Karen Armstrong and others recommended it some time back, but it didn't catch on.

Lester Hunt said...

I was about to say that "Qutbism" seems exactly accurate, but may never catch on. Ordinary usage always seems to evolve from the more accurate and more difficult to use, to the less accurate and less difficult to use. Alas, it's hard to get it to move in the other direction. This suggests that "Islamofascism" might well become standard usage unless people continue to object to it. (Thanks for the kind word, BTW.)

Craig D said...

So "Sand Nazis" is probably not acceptable either?

(I just had this link thrust at me yesterday!)

Anonymous said...

I share your reservations about the use of this term whic is certainly used for effect. However, although no expert, I think there is a legitimate historical link between the development of Islamism/ Qutbism and fascism. My sketchy understanding is that the Islamic Brotherhood under the leadership of al-Banna had political aims (in Egypt) that drew direct inspiration from European fascism, including the ambition for a one party state.

I draw this knowledge almost entirely from an article in the New Republic (06.04.07) "Who's afraid of Tariq Ramadan". This article notes that if not fascist this ideology was at least totalitarian. Apparently the mufti of Jerusalem and friend of al-Banna helped organise a muslim division of the Waffen-SS. al-Banna's idea for an Islamic Empire was very much based on the German Reich and Mussolini's dream of recreating the Roman Empire. al-Banna is also blamed for promulgating a "cult of death" (see about 6 pages into the article).

Whilst I am not sure to what writers like Hitchens are referring to I assume that this history is bound up in their usage (or they are trying to make this connection, valid or not)- although so too are their political projects.

Lester Hunt said...

Enrico, Yes, there are a number of historical connections between fascism and various things going on in that part of the world during the thirties. There was even a Zionist splinter group, the Sternists, that was deeply influenced by fascism. I didn't know about the particular connection you are talking about here. I've known for a long time that the Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, was strongly pro-Nazi, but I had never thought of him as a Qutbist. I have to plead ignorance on that. These historical connections deserve to be studied further. But, as I'm sure you can guess, I don't think they justify Horowitz' propagandistic use of the term "fascist." (BTW, I just got an email about this post from someone who has written several scholarly books on fascism saying "Of course, Lester, you are right." But I can't really insist on that as evidence because I don't have permission to use his name.)

Anonymous said...

I think the proper term for the threatening ideology we face is neither "islamo-fascism" nor "islamism". It's "islam".

The people threatening the West are simply muslims following the dictates of their prophet, who commanded them to subjugate the entire world for Islam. The only reason they haven't been doing so for the last hundred years or so, as they did for a millenium before that, is that they haven't had the power. Otherwise they haven't changed and their religion hasn't changed. It can't change, because they are taught it is the divine, unchangeable command of God, and they are in no position to meddle with that.

As long as we try to find other terms like "islamofascist" or "islamist" to apply to this phenomenon, we will be ignoring the actual threat, which is plain old Islam. And as long as we ignore it, we will continue to welcome its adherants into our nations, where they will set about the work they are commanded by their God to do, namely convert our nations to Islam. The airport controversies in Minneapolis with muslim cabdrivers are only the tiny, tiny front edge of this.

You may argue that many muslim immigrants aren't hostile to us. (1) They may be practicing taqfir, which is deception of infidels. (2) They may genuinely be friendly, but that doesn't mean their children and grandchildren will be (see what has happened in Europe witht the children of muslim immigrants). (3) They aren't really "muslims" then, because muslims cannot be truly muslim and willingly live indefinitely under the rule of infidels. Again, they are commanded to convert the world to Islam.

I highly recommend this discussion at Lawrence Auster's site about this islamofascism issue and Horowitz' current campus tour:

View from the Right

To conclude, if we're going to look for words other than "islam" to apply to these ideologies, we should be looking for a word to apply to "muslims" who don't actually follow the dictates of their faith. Rather than calling those who follow true, traditional, unchanging islam "islamists", we should be calling those who do not follow their religion's dictates something else. How about "apostates"? I think that's what their co-religionists call them.

Lester Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lester Hunt said...

Then what do we call Christians who do not follow their religion's scriptural injunctions to execute homosexuals and witches (I think the prescribed method is burning)?

My point is that Christianity went through a change in the last few centuries, and decided to ignore the nastier parts of their own scriptures. Islam is, I hope, now beginning to do the same thing. The usage you are recommending seems to declare in advance that this can't, or perhaps shouldn't, be done. That doesn't sound like a good idea to me

Anonymous said...

None of the nasty stuff in historical Christianity was advocated through the words of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels. Burning witches and so on were atrocities committed by "followers" of his centuries later, who weren't actually doing as Christ said they should do.

Mohammed is a different matter. Christ was a man of peace through and through. Mohammed was a man of war. He was a tribal warlord who explicitly, in his own words, commanded his followers to subjugate the world by force if necessary. He said that it was necessary to do so because God commanded it.

Thus, to compare Christians and muslims like you do is tremendously unfair. Christianity (like Buddhism, I think) is based on a philosophy of love. Islam is essentially a 7th century personality cult that never died out and is about conquering the world. Christ never rode across the landscape slaying and conquering other peoples as Mohammed did. To equate Christians and muslims is, I think, malicious.

I don't know where you see evidence that Islam is changing, because what I see is Islam being Islam, and Islam spreading. Especially as the West loses its self-confidence and displays weakness in the face of muslim aggression. If nothing changes and we continue to allow muslims to immigrate to the West, the degree of cultural intrusion and outright danger to ourselves and our way of life is going to render moot any arguments about whether to call it "islamism" or "islam". Whatever you call it, it's going to be bad.

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous, A Muslim friend of mine likes to point out the Islam is seven centuries younger than Christianity. Just think, he says, of where Christianity was seven centuries ago. Western European Christians were not to give up killing witches for another three centuries. Islam is actually ahead of schedule, measured by that standard. You seem to think that, though there is some pretty nasty stuff in the Old Testament, everything changed suddenly when Jesus came along. That really isn't how things worked out. It took Christians a long, long time to arrive at the now-current view of which parts of the old dispensation to lose (burning witches, etc.) and which to keep (all of the Ten Commandments, etc.).

Anonymous said...

Dr Hunt,

If Christianity has a seven century head start on Islam, then I guess muslims should be ready to integrate into our societies in about 700 years. That sounds just about right to me.

I suggest we require that they work through their own Enlightenment, Reformation, etc at home in their own lands. I'm not willing to gamble the future of my civilization and my descendants' lives on whether muslims can successfully accelerate themselves through seven centuries' worth of development AFTER arriving in our Western countries. They have an absolutely atrocious record. Our ancestors suffered greatly at the hands of muslims for over a thousand years. They would be horrified that we are throwing open our doors to people whose fundamental worldview and beliefs have not changed since then.

Why are we accepting immigrants from countries 700 years behind ours, anyway? Why? As some grand altruistic, suicidal gesture? To prove how "good" we are? What do we get out of it that could possibly equal the risk to our very survival and the survival of our way of life? If we need any immigrants at all - and I don't think a healthy nation should have to rely on immigration to stay healthy - then let's pick the cream of the crop from advanced nations like our own who can step right in, ASSIMILATE, and begin contributing right away. We can be picky. We don't owe the muslim world an open invitation to colonize us, which is exactly what is happening.

Muslims have a very long way to go before they prove they are worthy of our trust. They can earn that trust by behaving in a civilized manner in their own countries for a good long time until we are assured that the barbaric era of Islam has passed. At present it clearly has not.

Forgive my rhetorical heat but I feel strongly about this. We are engaging in a very likely suicidal experiment in "diversity" that is completely unnecessary.

Tina Boyer said...

I always cringe when someone uses the word "fascism", as it has become one of those words that no longer has any meaning in garden-variety conversation. It means whatever anyone wants it to mean. I believe that use of the word should be entirely dropped, outside of a discussion of the political developments of the 1920's and 1930's.

However, Bernard Lewis, whom I much admire and respect, has written and spoken of many parallels between fascism and the current practice of Islam, so perhaps persons who use the term "Islamofascism" should not be dismissed quite so quickly as some would like.


Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous, I think that we should always bear in mind that "they" are one and a half billion individuals, who differ widely among themselves. One of my best friends is a Muslim immigrant, and he is vastly more civilized, rational, and (small "l") liberal than many millions of Christians, including millions who were born here. That's always the main trouble with any sort of anti-group prejudice: the group does not exist. Anything we do to "them," we do to individuals, like him.

Anonymous said...


The word ‘fascism’ is being thrown around a lot, often inaccurately. However, the word ‘Islamofascism’ is very specific and is applied accurately almost every time.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Hunt,

Your argument apparently is that it is illegitimate to make judgments about people based on a group they belong to. Because you have a friend who is a muslim and because you like this friend and he seems like no threat to you, then you conclude that muslims as a group pose no threat.

Making judgments about people based on groups they belong to is perfectly legitimate and is something we do all the time and must do because there isn't enough time in life to get to know every person as an individual before we make decisions about how they might affect us.

For example, I'll bet that there are individual 14 year olds who would be better, safer drivers than millions of older people who have licenses. However we forbid all people of that age and younger from having drivers licenses. That is a type of "anti-group prejudice", right? This is discrimination against an entire class of human beings based on something over which they have no control. I could say that I know a particular 14 year old who would be a fantastic driver, but that would prove nothing about 14 year olds as a group or whether our society should allow them to drive. A sample size of one, even if it's someone who's our best friend, means nothing in a serious discussion. The fact is that age is a very important and reliable basis for making judgments about a group of people even though those judgments may not apply to every single member of the age group. A thing does not have to be true about every single member of a group for that thing to be useful information upon which we can act to protect ourselves. We use means, averages, standard deviations and such all the time when talking about groups because life is not usually clear-cut yet we must still make decisions.

Imagine if this country were to become, say, 70% muslim. Can you seriously suggest to me that you think there would be no reason to suspect the lives of non-muslims would be any different? Upon what historical evidence would you base such a belief? All experience - including that of Europe now - suggests that when a population of muslims reaches a certain point they begin (sometimes violently) to try to change the society to become more islamic. Do you want to live in an islamic society? I don't! Why should I have to? Why should I calmly sit back and watch as muslims colonize our lands? They have their own nations, and their nations are no place I'd want to live. (And apparently are no place a lot of them want to live, either.)

We're talking about an ideology that expressly commands its adherants to conquer the world. Would you be so sanguine if it were Nazis who were immigrating here? If I said one of my best friends was a Nazi, and thus it was illegitimate to judge Nazis as a group, would that be enough for you to be unconcerned about the prospect of millions of Nazis emigrating here? I doubt you'd hesitate at all to make judgments about Nazis as a group, or make the argument that such anti-group judgments were illegitimate. Yet I'm sure there were all sorts of really nice Nazis who'd have made great friends.

Perhaps you are making this argument BECAUSE you have a close muslim friend and would be embarrassed to have him read your blog, see my comments, and for you to leave them unopposed. If so, this is another example of how dangerous it is to allow muslims into the country. People make one muslim friend and are disarmed with regard to the threat to our culture and way of life from muslims as a whole.

I have gone on too long, but it is insanity to allow such an unassimilable group into the country. We do not want to live as muslims, and yet that is exactly what we will be forced to do if their numbers grow too large. Islam is not just another religion. It is a total political/religious/social ideology whose adherants are commanded to spread it over the world by any means necessary. You cannot be a devout muslim and not do that. Western liberals seem to be under the impression that all religious believers are as easy to push around as Western christians, or that their religious belief is just a personal quirk or preference with no real importance. That is suicidally naive.

Lester Hunt said...

Anonymous, It is legitimate to prevent some people from driving cars if there is good enough reason to think that they, as individuals, pose a danger to the rest of us. Below a certain age (and it makes no difference for present purposes what the correct cut-off age is), there is such overwhelming reason to think that each one of them (again, as an individual) is not a safe driver that the expense of actually testing them would be wasted. This is not moral collectivism, of the sort that you are advocating, but mere rationality. On the other hand, if we were to deport all Muslim-Americans for the mere fact that they are Muslims, we know that we would be doing that to over a million completely innocent human beings who pose no threat to anyone. (The overwhelming majority of them ignore any Koranic injunctions to conquer infidels, just as most Christians ignore Biblical injunctions to burn "magicians.") That would be a massive violation of human rights.

Anonymous said...

Yes it's true that terrorism threatens the safety of innocent people but the 8000 lb Gorilla in the room is that all of these movements including environmentalism threaten the American corporate and economic state. Islamic terrorism feeds off of global povery which is why it gathers such a threat against the Western establishment. Little wonder that the right wing is so adamant about attacking Islamo terror as well as environmentalism. I don't consider myself a Marxist but as Ralph Nader points out, the corporate state dominates everything including the media.

Lester Hunt said...

The only thing I would change in that would be to point out that "environmentalism" as it now exists is itself a product of the corporate state. Al Gore and the Sierra Club are very far from being radical outsiders. Their policies would give more power to people who already have plenty. It's been a long time since the environmental movement consisted of people who love natural places and want to see them unspoiled. (Note, as one small scrap of evidence, the curiously gemütlich attitude toward local ranchers in this Sierra Club proposal.)

Anonymous said...


I, too, have problems with the term "Islamofascism," mainly for the reasons you articulate here. But I confess some sympathy for Hitchens on this issue, if only because, whether we like it or not, "fascism" (and sometimes even "Nazi") has become very widely used in contexts that aren't strictly limited to the right-authoritarian ideologies of Mussolini, Hitler or Franco. It is sloppy, of course, but at some point a sloppy colloquialism may become a part of language. That's no reason to give in, and participate in the disintegration of language, but I think it's reason for sympathy for those who like the term.

On an aesthetic level, of course, it has far more of a ring to it than the more accurate Islamo-Authoritarianism, or Islamo-Totalitarianism. I'd prefer one of those terms to Islamofascism, but I have to admit they are a bit unwieldy.

- Jason,

Lester Hunt said...


For me I guess the bottom line is that Horowitz and Hitchens are breathing new life into "fascist" as a semi-meaningless old leftie smear word. The sort of use we saw this weekend at the conference where the King of Spain told Hugo Chavez to "shut up." Among Chavez's ravings -- Speaking of the conservative former Spanish Prime Minister of Spain, whom he kept calling a "fascist": "Fascists are not human. A snake is more human." Of course, you know what we do with snakes. This is why that sloppy use of the word gives me the chills.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, A Muslim friend of mine likes to point out the Islam is seven centuries younger than Christianity. Just think, he says, of where Christianity was seven centuries ago. Western European Christians were not to give up killing witches for another three centuries. Islam is actually ahead of schedule, measured by that standard. You seem to think that, though there is some pretty nasty stuff in the Old Testament, everything changed suddenly when Jesus came along. That really isn't how things worked out. It took Christians a long, long time to arrive at the now-current view of which parts of the old dispensation to lose (burning witches, etc.) and which to keep (all of the Ten Commandments, etc.).

What an apology!
It is understandable that the uneducated might make such an excuse for barbaric behavior, but someone with an education, access to a library *and* a pc?!
Shall we begin slavery again, since the muslims have never stopped the practice?

Ralph Musgrave said...

Lester Hunt accuses Hitchens of a logical fallacy, the “undistributed middle”:

1. Islamism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
2. Fascism is murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian.
3. Therefore, Islamism is fascism.

Lester Hunt illustrates the alleged false logic with the following.

1. Dogs are animals.
2. Pigeons are animals.
3. Therefore, dogs are pigeons.

The above “dog / pigeon” argument is obviously false. However, I suggest the flaw in Lester Hunt’s argument is that the “undistributed middle” fallacy applies to objects which are members of larger categories, but not to characteristics or attributes. To illustrate, the following “three sentence” argument is similar to the dog – pigeon argument, but is TRUE!

1. Democracy is a characteristic of countries have free and fair elections.
2. France has free and fair elections.
3. Therefore France is a democracy.

Likewise, fascism is a characteristic of various regimes (involving murder, authoritarianism or whatever). Therefore the “three point” argument that Hunt attributes to Hitchens is valid.

Lester Hunt said...

You mean it is valid, not that it is true.

Your argument, if clarified enough to make it work, is valid, but it is not analogous to the argument I attribute to Hitchens.

Democracy characterizes all regimes that "have free and fair elections," but Islamism does not characterize all regimes that are "murderous, anti-intellectual, and authoritarian." The latter fact is what makes the first argument a fallacy.