Saturday, February 09, 2008

Let's Define the Terms, Please!

Something’s been bugging me lately in all the rhetorical sound bites that are being thrown around in the Presidential campaign. OK, so a lot of things bug me about it, but I’m only going to mention one right now. When I hear candidates talk about the “War on Terror” I often hear them describe the enemy with the term “Islamic Fascism” or “Islamofacism” (which is not technically a word, but W. has shown us that Merriam Webster is no obstacle). This is a very handy term because it recalls our communal fears of another rise of Naziism, and it stokes our fears of Islam because most of us don’t know anything about it other than crazy stories we’ve heard about the Taliban. The term “Islamic Fascism” is very useful for making people afraid. I totally disagree with using fear as the sole motivation for anything, but that’s a subject for another post. What I want to point out today is that “Islamic Fascism” is a contradiction in terms.

Simply put, Fascism and Islam have absolutely nothing to do with one another. Fascism is a political philosophy that arose after most of the monarchies in Europe collapsed and states like Italy and Germany unified during the nineteenth century. Nationalism that was based on common geographic, ethnic, and cultural identity, rather than allegiance to a particular monarch, was on the rise and Fascism began to take shape. The major examples of Fascist governments were those of Mussolini in Italy and the National Socialist government under Hitler in Germany.

The basic principle of Fascism is that loyalty to the state trumps all other loyalties. Fascism is essentially atheistic because religion can lead to divided loyalties. Fascism only tolerates religion insofar as it serves the needs of the state and promotes loyalty to the state. Fascism stood in direct opposition to Communism, which had as it’s goal the eventual elimination of all state structures, relying on the essential altruism of human beings to care for the needs of others. Fascism believes that people are not essentially good and therefore need to be controlled.

Islam is first and foremost a religion, not a political philosophy. In Islam, loyalty to God, not to the state, is the first and only priority. In fact the word “Muslim” means one who submits to the will of God. While it is true that many Muslims have expressed the desire to see the entire Muslim world united under an Islamic caliphate, that is more a product of medieval Middle Eastern political culture than specifically Islamic theology. It is also true that certain governments, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, have been heavy handed states that attempted to control almost all aspects of their citizens’ lives, but this is indicative of a particularly radical interpretation of Islam that does not represent the majority of the Muslim world.

Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam believes that humanity is fallen and sinful, but that it has not totally lost its capacity for good. For a Muslim, following the five pillars of Islam is a way of disciplining oneself and ordering one’s actions to reflect the will of God. Islam does not, like Fascism, believe that people’s actions have to be completely controlled for the common good to be served.

Using terms like “Islamic Fascism” is not only an insult to Muslims, it’s an insult to educated, thinking people everywhere. Using terms like that reveals an assumption that people’s fear of the unknown is a greater motivator than their desire for the common good. This is the same assumption that Fascism makes, by the way, which is more than a little ironic.

Instead of using invented terms like “Islamic Fascism”, I implore all candidates for office to talk about real issues and real problems and not simply create phony “straw men” to scare people into voting for you. The only way we can make positive change and achieve the common good is to be honest about what we’re really trying to do, and not to exploit fear and misunderstanding for personal and political gain.


Frank said...

Thank you for the great clarity of this post. It's troubling that some (with no regard for a Muslim perspective on the subject) will say, "Oh, we're not against Islam, we're against 'radical Islam' or 'Islamofascism.'" The problem is that such thinking identifies Islam as the source of the problem in that it implies that Islam has a tendency to generate such "radical" and "fascist" threats. Furthermore, it pays no heed to what Muslims think about the characterization nor their feelings about terrorism. It would be like referring to certain Christian groups as "violently political" Christianity and "Christio-McCarthyism." As your post indicates, we Christians can learn something about peaceful submission to God's will from our Muslim friends, especially here in the U.S.

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