Hitchens' Weak Defense of "Islamo-Fascism"

Misusing terms for propaganda purposes does violence to reason and to informed debate -- precisely the qualities that should distinguish us from fascists and religious extremists.
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Christopher Hitchens attempts to defend the term "Islamo-Fascism" in Slate today and falls far short of his goal. The term is, in fact, incorrect and counter-productive. Fascism, by commonly accepted definition, incorporates extreme statism, nationalism, and corporatism.

Fascism is a state-based phenomenon. Those who talk of "Islamo-Fascism" are encouraging a climate that fosters state-to-state warfare, although police and intelligence work will counter terrorism more effectively. But then, that's probably the point. Iraq II, anyone?

What's more, words matter - both for their inherent meaning and for their intended impact. Misusing a word for propaganda purposes should be antithetical to a society that values free and honest debate.

Let's conduct a quick analysis of the Hitchens argument. He makes the following points:

1. That the conflation of "fascism" with religion began on the Left with its critiques of the Catholic Church's political role in countries like Spain, Croatia, and Slovakia.

True, but irrelevant. The political activities of some Catholic leaders in these countries more accurately reflected the accepted definition of fascism. The movements they supported were strongly nationalistic, emphasized centralized state control (as opposed to clerical control), and were strongly allied with corporate interests.

Hitchens also throws in the red herring that Muslims are not being treated differently from other religions in that those other faiths are also sometimes labelled "Fascist. " That may or may not be true, but it doesn't help answer the question at hand.

2. That Fascist movements and Islamic extremism both involve a "cult of murderous violence that exalts death and destruction and despises the life of the mind."

Probably true, and hateful, but still irrelevant. Birds, meteors, and F-16s all fly. Viruses, cluster bombs, and fatty foods are all bad for your health. That does not make them the same thing.

3. That both fascism and Islamic extremism are "hostile to modernity."

This generality is demonstrably false. Fascism has, in fact, been very pro-modernity at various times. Certainly the erudite Mr. Hitchens is familiar with Futurism, the Italian art movement that was closely allied with the Italian Fascist movement. Consider the following quote, from the 1910 Manifesto of Futurist Painters:

"We will fight with all our might the fanatical, senseless and snobbish religion of the past ... against everything which is filthy and worm-ridden and corroded by time. We consider the habitual contempt for everything which is young, new and burning with life to be unjust and even criminal."

Islamic radicals are clearly "hostile to modernity" in some ways. Fascists? Not necessarily.

4. "Both (movements) are chronically infected with the toxin of anti-Jewish paranoia ... leader worship ... the power of one great book ... sexual repression ... art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence."

True, and interesting. But see "birds, meteors, and F-16s" above. Both movements are clearly authoritarian, and their followers probably share many psychological characteristics. But words have specific meanings, and Hitchens knows that better than most. "Authoritarian Islamist" is a defensible phrase. But these qualities are not the defining characteristics of fascism. That word is being conjoined with "Islam" not to educate, or enlighten, but to inflame.

5. "Both (movements) burn books and destroy museums and treasures."

Often incorrect. Both Italian and German fascism built museums and protected (or stole) great works of art. Both movements share with Islamic extremism a great contempt for what they considered "decadent" art. But, again, while that tendency is totalitarian, it is not specifically statist or corporatist - both defining elements of fascism.

Hitchens goes on to gloss over the fact that Islamic extremism fails to meet the definition of fascism with this phrase: "There isn't a perfect congruence." That's putting it mildly. He offers no foundation for moving from this imperfect "congruence" to suggesting that it's "permissible ... to mention the two phenomena in the same breath and suggest they constitute comparable threats to civilization ..."

It's "permissible" to say anything in a democratic society. But ignoring the established definition of a word in order to coin an inflammatory neologism? Permissible, perhaps, but hardly defensible. Misusing terms for propaganda purposes does violence to reason and to informed debate -- precisely the qualities that should distinguish us from fascists and religious extremists, even if those two groups are not one and the same.

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