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Columbia Spectator Staff

Over the past weeks, writers on this page have decried the conflation of fascism and Islam and have written in opposition to David Horowitz's upcoming Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. But they are guilty of a pretty egregious conflation themselves, one that prevents them from examining a potentially important idea solely on its merits: the conflation of the phrase "Islamo-fascism" with the objectively despicable individual who is speaking at our University this coming Friday.

Indeed, you can reject Horowitz's Islamophobic posturing without fully rejecting the term "Islamo-Fascism." Like any phrase, it carries a historical weight that's lost on the people who most frequently invoke it, and I doubt that Horowitz is himself aware of just how his beloved phraseology emerged.

While columnist Christopher Hitchens didn't invent the term "Islamo-fascism," his 2001 discussion of terrorism as a symptom of "fascism with an Islamic face" (in, of all places, The Nation) lent the term a certain amount of popular currency. Hitchens' phrase was a play on Susan Sontag's reference to Soviet martial law in Poland as "fascism with a human face," which is itself a reference to the idea of "socialism with a human face" advanced during the "Prague Spring" of 1968. Trace the popular usage of "Islamo-fascism" to its origins and you have a history of self-negation: socialism with a human face might have been theoretically possible up until the devastating Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia later that year; meanwhile fascism with a human face is plainly impossible, especially after the world's violent encounter with that particular ideology.

Except if "Islamo-fascism" is implicitly self-negating, "fascism" itself must be divorced from any underlying ideology. Which it absolutely is: as George Orwell argued in an essay entitled "What is Fascism?," in its popular usage fascism operates more as a swear word than a word for a specific political or economic system. Interestingly, Orwell once described fascism as "socialism with the virtues left out"—an assessment which seems to ignore that fascism is explicitly anti-socialist in its most orthodox manifestations. The implication that the two are in any way similar reinforces Orwell's own still-relevant observation in "What is Fascism?" that the word is used to describe things that are, "roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class."

Fascism was originally a nationalist counter to communist socialism, but ever since World War II, "fascism" has been a word with no ideological referent, possibly because the "ideologies" of the truly fascist regimes had more to do with weeding out national and political opponents than advancing any higher ideals. So fascism could mean authoritarian anti-socialism, or it could mean socialism sans principle; it could be used in phrases like "Catholic fascism" to bring attention to the Catholic Church's support for Franco, "Christian fascism" to demonize the Evangelical right, "Jewish fascism" to oppose Israeli expansionism, or "Islamo-fascism" to bring attention to religiously justified oppression in the Muslim world.

Today, fascism is nothing but power without principle, and the word comes in handy because everything has a fascist or potentially fascist streak to it. There's American fascism, religious fascism, and even environmental fascism—with this in mind it's obvious that "fascism with an Islamic face" is less a commentary on Islam than it is on the functioning of ideology (and in this case Islamic ideology) as a blank check.
So when New York Times columnist and political lexicographer William Safire wrote about the term "Islamo-fascism" last year, he saw it as a potential counter to Islamophobia. Wrote Safire: "The compound defines those terrorists who profess a religious mission while embracing totalitarian methods and helps separate them from devout Muslims who want no part of terrorist means." The term "Islamo-fascism" describes power hungry leaders who use religion as a cheap justification for political thuggery. But religion and thuggery are not causally linked, and the disjunction between fascism and ideology (a separation underscored by the term "Islamo-fascism's" curious history) is implicit in the term itself—the brilliance of the phrase "fascism with an Islamic face" is that the word "Islamic" could be replaced with practically anything.

Horowtiz doesn't seem to think so. And while we should be discussing why any instrument of oppression should be completely immune from the "fascism" label, we're instead left wondering why a phrase with such universal reach is being used to single out a particular faith. Maybe we should oppose Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week. But it would be dangerous to retire the phrase just because one of our least illustrious alumni happens to have hijacked it.

The author is a sophomore in List College.

David Horowitz Islamo Facism Awareness Week