Originally posted August 15, 2006
The war in which we are currently engaged confuses us, in part because many will not admit it is a war. We do not know what to call it. Nor do we know what to call the self-declared enemy who has been attacking us in one form or another for some twenty-five years, ever more visibly and dangerously since 9/11, 2001, with subsequent events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Spain, London, Bombay, Bali, Paris, Lebanon, and Israel.
There are those who insist that it is not a "war" at all but perhaps, at best, a police issue -- no big problem. Others contend that it is a result of American or Western expansionism so that its cure is simply for us to return to our frontiers and be content with what we have. If we do this withdrawal, every threat will immediately cease at this point. In another view it is due to poverty and oppression, even though most of the perpetrators of the war are quite rich. Yet another interpretation is that this turmoil stems from a very small minority with no relation to national or religious origins, a kind of floating international brigade of bandits, like the Mafia, out for their own profit and glory. The variants on these themes are almost infinite.
What names should we use that will accurately define and designate the cause? Calling things by their right names is the first requirement of reality; refusing to do so, the first cause of confusion, if not defeat. At first, we were told that the war is against something called "terrorism." Its perpetrators were logically called "terrorists." It was considered "hate-language" to call them anything else. However, we find listed on no map a place called "Terroritoria," where said "terrorists" otherwise dwell in peace plotting our demise. It has no capital, no military uniform for its mostly invisible troops, no rules of combat. In this designation, some difficult ensues when we try to identify or designate a group that just wants to "terrorize" others, as if that is an explanation. Some may like to travel or to fish for pleasure; they like "terror" for terror's sake, just a question of taste.
Of course, this membership in a supposed organization called "Terror International" is not what the known "terrorists" claim for themselves. They look on this designation with contempt since it misses the whole nature of what they think that they are doing. But the term "terrorism" seems temporarily useful because it avoids the politics of naming more carefully just who these actual men (and women) are who carry out these, to us, seemingly senseless bombings. Are they so "senseless" after all? That is, do they have their own rationale and are we intellectually willing to face what it is?
All along, as a chief tactic of the "terrorists," we have had "suicide bombers." "Suicide bombing" is, thus far, the main delivery system of the "terrorists." It is remarkably effective in creating immediate chaos. We have almost forgotten how used we have become to this utterly corrupt practice that undermines, and seeks to undermine, the very basis of any possible civilization opposed to it. Those who practice "suicide bombing" (it is a once in a lifetime occupation, to be sure) call themselves "martyrs." They are, when successful, treated as heroes by other "terrorists" and their admirers. Thus, the same action is called in one political zone "terrorism," while, in another, it is called "martyrdom." What do words mean?
To perform this switch of meaning, of course, the "terrorists" had also to call the "victims" of "suicide bombers," not innocent objects of terrorism, as we call them, but guilty opponents of the cause for which "terrorism" really stands, its religious mission in the world. Even when people of one's own religion are killed, they are said, theologically, like the "suicide bombers" themselves, to have been done a favor in reaching heaven more quickly.
So what language do we use to speak of this horrendous situation? We also hear used the word "Islamicist," or "Islamism." We hear "Jihadists," or holy warriors. We are struck with the fierceness with which the "terrorists" themselves reject being called "fascists" or, what they also are, "terrorists." They sense that the term, "Islamo-fascism," or any of its variants, undermines or disparages what, in their own minds, is the legitimacy or morality of their "cause." We have here an issue that forces us to consider the very roots of the "terrorists'" understanding of their own motivations.
The fact that almost all the "terrorists," no matter their country of birth, have Muslim origins, moreover, brings us up against our own ecumenical or liberal theories, which do not allow us to "profile" or stigmatize or even accuse of bad motives those who do carry out the killings. The argument sometimes goes: All religions are "peaceful." Islam is a religion. Therefore, Islam is peaceful. This is not an historical syllogism that explains the actual record of the expansion of Islam from its beginning in Arabia till its reaching Tours in the eighth century and Vienna in the sixteenth. Nor does it explain the violence and law used within Muslim states to prevent any expression of faith or philosophy that does not conform to their own understanding of the Koran. This earlier expansion was almost exclusively by military conquest, often extremely brutal, against Christian, Persian, Hindu, or other lands.
More recently, the term "Islamo-fascism" has been coined in an effort to describe the source and nature of "terrorism." I want to examine the appropriateness of this term, as I think it serves to get at the core of the problem. Is "Islamo-fascism" really accurate for what the reality is? Initially, the term obviously is not a product of Islamic thinkers thinking of themselves, though some more recent Muslim thinkers have studied the Marxists and the fascists. No Imam in Iran or Egypt, however, suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night and shouts, "That's it! I am an Islamo-fascist; why did I not think of that before?" No pious youth in Mecca reads the Collected Works of Benito Mussolini and muses to himself, "Yes, this is what Mohammed was about in the Koran."
Rather the term comes from Western politicians and writers. They are desperately seeking a word or expression that they can use, one that avoids suggesting that the war in fact has religious roots, as the people who are doing the attacking claim it does. To say that war has "religious" roots violates a code, a constitutional principle. Wars are political not religious. Therefore, their explanation must be political, must arise from modern political science. Hobbes, "where are you when we need you?" Religion cannot be a serious motivation, especially over the centuries. We must look elsewhere. Only social "science" can explain this phenomenon.
"Fascism," in this context, thus becomes a handy term. We thought that we were rid of that menace after World War II, of course. Compared to Marxism and Nazism, it was, in fact, the mildest of the ideologies of our recent time. Many of its features, originally designed for other situations, can appear to apply to what is going on in our "terrorist"-infected world. This happy analytic result, it is said, justifies us in joining "Islam" and "fascism" together in a way that apparently absolves most of Islam of anything to do with the problem or any responsibility for Muslims doing anything about it. At the same time, it demonstrates the usefulness of western political science in understanding modern movements. If science cannot understand something, it cannot be understood, goes the accepted wisdom.
If for no other reason than the sake of clarity, let us think our way further through this murky issue of what to call what we are dealing with. We have to call it something because it is something. It will not "go away" peacefully any time soon. Aristotle indicated that the first issue in political things is to describe accurately the nature of a regime under scrutiny. What exactly is it? This seemingly simple explanatory effort can itself be quite dangerous, quite personally dangerous, as Muslims who question their own roots soon find out. Many powerful, even many weak, governments do not like to be called what they scientifically are. Moreover, a distinction can be found between what some political thing is and what we are allowed to call it because of our own philosophical or political positions. The political control of language, as George Orwell suggested, is itself an instrument of tyranny. Moreover, such a thing as political philosophy exists even apart from any actual regime and what it allows us to call it.
We should by now be used to totalitarian regimes insisting on calling themselves "republics" or "democracies" and punishing anyone who refuses to accept a government's own definition of itself. Today, the accurate use of language, apparently something guaranteed in our amendments, is a minefield. We have something like "hate crimes" whose effect is in fact to prevent us from naming exactly what we are dealing with. Philosophy in these circumstances is driven underground. The phenomenon of philosophy being driven underground was, as Leo Strauss once remarked, a major issue within medieval Islamic philosophy.
The Washington Times recently (August 12, 2006) published a useful and insightful editorial, "It's Fascism," that I will use to comment on this nomenclature. First, the editorial points out the gradual change in President Bush's designation of the enemy. He, with Mr. Blair, began using the word "terrorist," but more recently he has used the designation "fascist." "Is this a legitimate use?" the editorial asks. Fascism, it continues, is a "political philosophy" that exalts a group or nation over the individual. It could also imply a religion. Fascism promoted central rule, subordinated individuals to "political leadership." The term thus can legitimately be used to designate those responsible for the recent "terrorist" understandings of themselves.
The editorial identifies groups like "al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas" and other organizations as "fascist," that is, they operate in effect on these principles. "Non-Muslims" are regarded as "a lesser breed of expendable or contemptible dhimmis and infidels." Social and economic restrictions are placed on every group that does not conform to the ruling power. The editorial says, "this is not mainstream Islam.... It is a corruption of the faith."
Evidently, The Washington Times was among the first to use the designation "Islamofascism." It was related to a German-born Muslim scholar, Kalid Duran, in an interview about his book, An Introduction to Islam for Jews, in The Washington Times. In spite of Muslim organization protests, the editorial maintained that its use of the term was simply an accurate description of what, with proper distinctions, these people did. "Islamofascism speaks for itself. It is a real phenomenon." It is not illegal, immoral, or even impolite to call it what, judging from its actions, it is.
The question I ask, in the light of this case for the use of the term "Islamofascism," is this: does this term clarify or obscure the issue? Let me propose a thought process. Recently, a friend told me of reading a report from London about how one of the "terrorists" designated to blow up a transatlantic flight was to be accompanied by his wife and child. The explosive was to be in the baby's bottle. The man was willing to blow up himself, his wife, and his young child in the cause for which these ten or so planes were to be destroyed by similar methods.
Now this proposal, in itself, strikes us as simply horrendous, insane, mad. Moreover, let us suppose that the plot was not detected and was successful. Within the course of several hours, analogous to the relative success of 9/11, ten planes with a total of, say, two or three thousand passengers flying from London to New York had been destroyed. What would the reaction of this news been in Tehran or Cairo or other Muslim capitals? I would like to be wrong on this, but judging from previous instances, I greatly fear that, in too many cases, there would have been cheering, not horror. This heinous act would have been interpreted -- not by all but by many -- as a stunning success and a blow at the great Satan. We would probably have heard from the President of Iran or Osama ben Laden himself or someone of that level that more was in store, that the final day of reckoning is nearer.
What do these speculations have to do with the term "Islamofascism?" When 9/11 first happened, I recall commenting on this very issue, this time in the case of the young men who plotted, planned, and carried out the destruction of the World Trade Center. What, in their own minds, did they think they were doing? Did they think they were executing an "Islamofascist" plot? Hardly. Did they think they were in it for money? Surely not. They were in it for the glory that comes from what they saw to be the "brave" act of destroying the symbol of the great emery, his communication center. This act would go down in sacred history as the first step. Other successes would surely follow.
What was in it for them? Exactly what their religion said was in it. They were doing the work of Allah. The world could not know peace until it was subjugated to his rule as laid down in the holy book. The advance had been stymied for hundreds of years, set back, but now a new, glorious opportunity arose. Young men, willing to die, flocked to the cause. There is a sense of purpose, the reestablishment of the Caliphate, the subjugation and elimination of the enemies, the Christians, the Jews, the Hindus, the Chinese. Not all would be eliminated, of course. It is a religion of peace. All would be "converted," except perhaps for a few insignificant ones. This is why Islam is in the world.
But, one might protest, are there no rules about means? And Islam is said to want to achieve these world goals "peacefully." My only point in following this question of the use of the word "Islamofascism" is that it does not describe what these men think they are doing. Nor does it help that some thus far ineffective Muslim apologists do not think that the term describes what the religion means. It is what these men think and evidently practice. What has to take place, in response, is some more adequate confrontation with the incoherence of this claim to world-subjection to Allah as an inner-worldly political mission powered by a quasi-mystical devotion to its cause. In this sense, in the minds of the ones carrying out the attacks, it is religious, not ideological, in origin.
A somewhat bewildered American President and British Prime Minister have understood, whereas many politicians have not, that there is a real war and a real enemy. They have been prudent in their use of language, catering to differing usages both in western democracies and in the Muslim world. Their general approach has been to seek to isolate the "terrorists" from the rest of the Muslim world. This world itself has been caught up for centuries in a stagnant and almost totally controlled system usually under the power of a military that has served to sit on top of those religious radicals who would tear up the world. What the President thus has sought to do is finally to allow and encourage what he considers to be the great majority of Muslim citizens to be able to participate in a culture that is not dominated by such motives that burst forth frequently from within Islam to employ terror.
Just as The Washington Times proposes "Islamofascism" to describe what these missionary groups do to further their cause, so the President proposes "democracy" as the alternative way of life that would both mitigate the fanaticism and allow the majority to escape into their own self-ruling states. One drawback of this solution is often the internal moral condition of the democracies themselves. The "terrorists" never tire of pointing to this inner corruption that often manifests itself within our own souls. So there is a kind of war on two fronts that comes forth from thinking about "Islamofascism" -- that envisioned by the "terrorists" themselves and that of the alternative they see in us which justifies, in their own minds, their violent ways.
Words, I am sure, have to be themselves used "wisely." It is not always easy to describe or hear what we actually are. The root causes of "suicide bombers" and the attacks of the "terrorists" are not primarily in western political philosophy. The "suicide bombers," while they sometimes learn to use sophisticated weapons, have shown the folly of much discussion about nuclear weapons -- the weapons are not the problem, but who has them. Moreover, as 9/11 showed, modern civilization is so complex than even the simplest acts like flying a plane into a building are as lethal as anything we can conceive. No one doubts, however, that these "terrorists" would use more sophisticated means if they could manage it.
In the meantime, one or two potential terrorists have made everyone of us take our shoes off or empty our bottles before we fly anywhere in the world. The cost of their even trying unsuccessfully to blow us up is itself astronomical. The first question remains, not "How do we protect themselves from their threats?" We must ask that, of course. But the first question has to be, "Why in the first place do they still want to threaten and, yes, conquer us?" I suspect we cannot answer this latter question primarily for reasons within our own political philosophy.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.