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Fascism in fashion

I am, frankly, puzzled by the sudden vogue for calling Islamic militants fascists or Islamo-fascists, a point my learned colleague Pam Robinson has addressed at her blog, "Words at Work."

Fascism, to the extent that it means anything in particular, is one of the two principal 20th-century forms of totalitarianism. Communism and fascism both involve control by the state of all aspects of their citizens’ lives. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but the fundamental point is that fascism requires the apparatus of a state. And while communism purported to be international, fascism was a nationalist movement, in Italy, in Germany, in Spain and elsewhere, identifying itself with particular states.

The cheapening of the word can be laid in part to my generation. In the fabled ’60s, liberal and radical college students started out by denouncing unseemly links between the university, the state, the military and industry — a legitimate if occasionally overstated form of social criticism. In time, that discourse degenerated to the point that anyone who insisted that students attend classes and take examinations was called a fascist.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that the word is now applied to a loose confederation of militant groups, not states, that use terrorist tactics against states.

These militant splinter groups seem to envision something far older than 20th-century fascism, the authoritarian or theocratic state, the imposition of a religious regime on a populace. Denouncing Islamo-theocrats lacks the punch of Islamo-fascists and has the additional potential to irritate the splinter groups in this country to whom theocracy sounds like an appealing idea.

But perhaps a better parallel is with the Hashshash, the Nizari sect or cult of Ismaili Islam that is more familiarly known in the West as the Assassins. Thriving in the 11th to 13th centuries, the Assassins conducted a campaign of terrorism against the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and the Fatimid caliphate in Cairo. (You can look it up in Britannica, as I did.) Though they operated out of strongholds, they did not constitute a state; their aim was to unsettle established regimes, and they succeeded in making a great deal of trouble until the Mongols crushed them.

For anyone interested in history rather than cheap and inaccurate rhetorical brickbats, there is a parallel to be drawn with Osama bin Laden that is more compelling than Hitler or Mussolini or Franco.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:37 AM | | Comments (4)


Thanks for this. I've been quite annoyed at the misuse of "fascist".

Then again, it's just one example of the current president's torture of the English language.

Wait -- let's not cheapen the word "torture," too. Language can be maimed, metaphorically, but its welfare and dignity are not protected by international treaties. Torture -- the real thing -- is in the news today.

So what do I do? I need a blood insult to apply to the petty bureaucrats who invaded my back yard in May and informed me, among other things, that my garage must be painted under penalty of law. Conventional locker-room epithets don't seem to suit: "Authoritarian" is rather too academic; "storm troopers of the clogged-gutter brigade" is too long; and the names of petty tyrants from literature ("damned Queegs"?) would go over their heads.

In line with your recent post on commercial English, it might be most appropriate for the Bush administration to insist that we use (R) [circle-R] after the word.

Or perhaps "sm" -- service mark.

Or maybe "pr" in a circle, which could stand for both Public Relations and PRopaganda.

Or maybe a little vortex symbol, to indicate a term of art amongthe spinmeisters.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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