Shortly after terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush’s speechwriters began grappling with a linguistic puzzle: What to call the enemy? In the five years since, Mr. Bush has road-tested an array of terms: evildoers, jihadists, Islamic extremists, even “Al Qaeda suiciders.”
But no phrase has crashed and burned as fast as the president’s most recent entry into the foreign policy lexicon: Islamic fascists, or, Islamo-fascism.
This latest iteration, which has percolated in neoconservative circles for several years, turned up in one of the president’s speeches last year, and resurfaced in August when British authorities foiled a plot to blow up airliners headed for the United States. It was, Mr. Bush said then, “a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom.”
By Labor Day, Islamic fascists and Islamo-fascism were the hot new conservative buzzwords.
And then, just as suddenly, they were gone – at least from the president’s lips.
“The debate that we wanted to launch was about an ideological struggle against an enemy that has very specific plans, ambitions and aspirations, much like movements of the past, like fascism and Nazism,” said Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president. Addressing the term Islamic fascists, Mr. Bartlett said, “I’m sure he’ll use it again.”
But it seems unlikely Mr. Bush will use it again, given the outcry it provoked.
Muslims, both here and in other countries, were deeply offended. Even Karen Hughes, the former counselor to Mr. Bush who now runs the public diplomacy arm of the State Department, pushed back, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that she typically does not “use religious terms” for fear they will be misinterpreted around the world.
“The problem with the phrase is that it confuses more than it clarifies,” says David Gergen, a former speechwriter for Richard Nixon. “It’s important to find a phrase that’s meaningful in the Arabic world, and Islamic fascism has no meaning.”
The precise etymology of “Islamo-fascism” is unclear. Some say that the writer Christopher Hitchens introduced it into post-9/11 discourse. But Stephen Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, which promotes moderate Muslim views, also takes credit, describing the phrase in a recent article as one that “refers to the use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology.”
If “Islamic fascists” and “Islamo-fascism” have disappeared from Mr. Bush’s oratory – they were nowhere to be found in his 9/11 anniversary speeches, for instance – questions about the phrases have not. The president was forced to grapple with such inquiries twice last week alone. On Friday, in response to a Pakistani journalist, Mr. Bush invoked a far more general term: “these extremists.”
All of which leaves the central problem – what to call the enemy – unresolved.