WASHINGTON - Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold called on President Bush to refrain from using the phrase "Islamic fascists," saying it was offensive to Muslims and has nothing to do with terrorists fighting the United States.
"We must avoid using misleading and offensive terms that link Islam with those who subvert this great religion or who distort its teachings to justify terrorist activities," Feingold said Tuesday in a speech to the Arab American Institute on Capitol Hill.
The Wisconsin senator, a potential 2008 presidential candidate, said the label "Islamic fascists" makes no sense and doesn't help the U.S. effort to combat terrorism.
"Fascist ideology doesn't have anything to do with the way global terrorist networks think or operate, and it doesn't have anything to do with the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world who practice the peaceful teachings of Islam," Feingold said.
In seeking to explain the term, the White House referred to comments made last week by homeland security adviser Fran Townsend.
"What the president was trying to capture was this idea of using violence to achieve ideological ends _ and that's wrong," Townsend said at a news conference. "Regardless of what label you pin on it, it is this form of radical extremism that really wants to deny people freedom and impose a totalitarian vision of society on everyone, that we object to."
Bush isn't the only politician to use the phrase. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., has drawn parallels between World War II and the current war against "Islamic fascism," saying they both require fighting a common foe in multiple countries.
Feingold's comments drew applause from the Arab American Institute audience and praise from the group's president, James Zogby, who argued that the term "Islamic fascism" scares Americans and inflames passions.
"It indicates no understanding of Islam, and it actually degrades the meaning of the word fascism," Zogby said in an interview. "That's not what fascism means. Fascism means national socialism. It doesn't refer to a gang of criminal terrorists who are using a cult-like ideology to murder people."
Bush has used the term to refer to enemies facing the U.S. in the war on terror. For example, in an Aug. 10 speech in Feingold's home state of Wisconsin, the president called the alleged terror plot to bomb British passenger jets "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists."
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group, said he hasn't heard Bush use the term in a while, including the president's speech Monday night.
"I think it's pretty clear now that the use of the term was counterproductive in winning the hearts and minds in the war on terror," he said. "I think even President Bush and his advisers now recognize that."