News from London Thursday morning that British intelligence agents had foiled a potential new terrorist plot in its advanced stages prompted the highest level security alert in the United States since 9/11, and brought trans-Atlantic travel to its knees.
It was a “stark reminder,” President Bush said in his first public reaction to the events, that “this nation is at war with Islamic fascists,” seeking to destroy freedom-loving societies.
At this dramatic moment, it was not “war with terrorism,” as the president characterized events shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, or a “war on terror," as he has referred to it more commonly over time.
Instead, the war was now with “Islamic fascists” — a term that has rarely been used by the president before this week. Was it used in the heat of the moment, or was the president rolling out a new way of explaining U.S. policy — choosing new words to explain and solidify support?
The term is not new inside the Beltway. Washington’s neo-conservatives have bandied about “Islamo-fascist” and “Islamic fascism,” for months. And it's true that the president referred to the term at least once before, in a speech in October. But the president chose to use the expression pointedly at a key moment: the day after the arrests of British men of Pakistani ancestry in a plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners — and almost exactly three months before congressional elections.
The phrase contrasted sharply with the words used by British officials, who went out of their way to play down the religion and ethnic background of the terror suspects, characterizing them as criminals who did not represent the majority of British Muslim citizens.
The president’s choice of words prompted an immediate backlash from American Muslims. To leaders in that community, it represented a nasty turn from previous speeches, in which the president characterized Islam as a good religion being corrupted and used by violent extremists.
"Unfortunately, your statement this morning that America 'is at war with Islamic fascists' contributes to a rising level of hostility to Islam and the American-Muslim community,” wrote Parvez Ahmed, board chairman of the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations in an open letter to President Bush Thursday.
"You have on many occasions said Islam is a 'religion of peace’,” he wrote. “Today you equated the religion of peace with the ugliness of fascism.”
Certainly, the administration is under pressure to convince the public that controversial security measures, as well as military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan are the right policies. Bush's approval ratings have been sagging and he has come under fire from conservative critics who have argued that his “war on terror” was too squishy, and losing impact with mainstream America.
Senator pushes to "define" enemy
In the current debate over foreign policy, no politician has pushed harder for the term Islamic fascism than Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
"In World War II we fought Nazism and Japanese imperialism," Santorum said in a high-profile speech at the National Press Club on July 20. "Today we are fighting Islamic fascism. They attacked us on Sept. 11, because we are the greatest obstacle in front of them to their openly declared mission of subjecting the entire world to their fanatical rule."
It is not just the challenge of al-Qaida that Santorum refers to, but challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan — indeed, the whole world.
"Every major Islamic leader, from heads of states to al-Qaida has openly identified the United States as their prime target and repeatedly promises the creation of a new global caliphate, where Islamic fascism will rule mankind."
In his press club speech, Santorum lamented what he called “our fear of speaking clearly, publicly and consistently about our enemy.”
In a conference call with reporters Friday Santorum said that it was vital that “we correctly define the enemy in front of us ... One of the reasons I gave the speech at the Press Club was that I thought we had to better define this enemy and clearly articulate that to the American public of what we’re up against, that these are not isolated instances but this is a coordinated Islamic fascist movement against us.”
Speaking to the voters
Santorum also faces a difficult re-election battle against Democrat Bob Casey in November.
Casey campaign spokesman Larry Smar countered that “Rick Santorum is more concerned about spin and word choice” than concrete steps such as implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
The advantage of using the phrase, Santorum’s media consultant John Brabender said, is that “it makes clear who the enemy is.”
“The senator has been very vocal that the definition of the war was terribly miscast as ‘the war on terror,’” Brabender said.
He said Santorum has been using the phrase for months, and finds it helpful as he travels the state in his bid for re-election to a third term.
“You see it at campaign stops, a number of people leave the event and understand it, they say ‘aha,” Brabender said.
Politically, he said, Santorum’s framing of the issue “creates less of a question of Democrats versus Republicans, or a referendum on the president. It comes across more as somebody explaining clearly what the priorities are.”
Creeping into the lexicon
Perhaps this is why the phrase is surfacing more frequently at the White House. About two weeks ago, White House spokesman Tony Snow used the term at a press briefing, suggesting that people are not understanding the threat.
Addressing a question about al-Qaida deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, Snow said: “…you've got to keep in mind it's not merely a war against an abstraction, it's a war against something very concrete, which are Islamo-fascists, Islamic fascists, whatever you want to brand them — people who have a totalitarian view of things which they claim to be representation of a religion, using that to destabilize sovereign states.”
On Aug. 7, just days before the foiled terror plot was revealed, Bush used the term in a press briefing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the conflict in Lebanon.
"This is the beginning of a long struggle against an ideology that is real and profound," the president said. "It's Islamo-fascism. It comes in different forms. They share the same tactics, which is to destroy people and things in order to create chaos in the hopes that their vision of the world becomes predominant in the Middle East."
Stanford University linguist Goeffrey Nunberg argues that fascism is not really the right word to describe this global terror network.
“There’s no historical or philosophical connection between al-Qaida and fascism,” says Nunberg, an expert on the language of politics. “They’re creepy people, but that doesn’t mean they’re fascist.”
The word fascism is usually associated with a particularly oppressive government, almost always hostile to religious clerics, he says. In the United States, it is most commonly associated with Hitler’s bloody Nazi regime.
Nunberg says the term “fascist” has been broadly abused throughout the last few decades — by the Left and the Right to mean anyone, or even anything, oppressive and cruel. Although it has lost its definition, he says, it retains its emotional impact.
“Fascism is the epitome of evil,” he says. “If you want to say something is as evil as evil can be, then its fascism.”
Definitions aside, Nunberg says if the administration wants to stay the course in Iraq, and push difficult but unpopular security policies, its choice of words might be effective.
"Given that they have decided on this strategy, then the analogies to fascism seem rhetorically the smart thing to do in a certain sense," he says. "You want to evoke these 'just wars' of the past."
Asked about the expression Thursday on MSNBC's Hardball, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said: “It might may not be classic fascism as you had with Mussolini or Hitler. But it is a totalitarian, intolerant imperialism that has a vision that is totally at odds with Western society and our rules of law.”
For American Muslims, though, the language is uncomfortably provocative.
“We ought to take advantage of these incidents to make sure that we do not start a religious war against Islam and Muslims,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations advocacy group Thursday. “We urge him (Bush) and we urge other public officials to restrain themselves.”