The recent resurgence of the term “Islamofascism” raises a key question: What should journalists do when sources — especially those as significant as the president and his cabinet members — persistently employ propagandistic language?


“Islamofascism” has occasionally popped up on the commentary pages during the last decade, especially after 9/11 and in the context of the so-called “war on terror.” But the Bush administration gave it a huge shot in the arm when it began using the events of the past month to suggest that violence committed by groups and individuals as divergent as Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and the would-be airline bombers in England is all part of a singular global, Muslim threat — one that is heir apparent to Hitler and the Third Reich.


Islamofascism’s goal? To stop the spread of democracy, we’re told.


Islamofascism’s coming-out began on August 7, at a presidential press conference in Crawford, when Bush, in discussing Hezbollah, said that “the great challenge of this century” would be confronting those trying to spread “Islamic fascism.” On August 10, Bush remarked that the arrests in Britain were a “stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists.” Then last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that the world faces “a new type of fascism,” invoked Neville Chamberlain, and warned against appeasement. Last Thursday, Bush said that America’s newest enemies are the “successors to fascists, to Nazis.”


The point of this clearly coordinated effort — especially now with crucial midterm elections looming — seems to be to reinvigorate the waning national will on the war in Iraq, by portraying it as part of a global struggle with the same moral weight as World War II. Islamofascism then was the opening salvo in what has rightly been billed as a massive PR offensive by the White House.


But the “fascism” analogy has holes in it large enough to drive an Abrams tank through, and so its spawn, “Islamofascism,” is also imprecise. Any political PR offensive relies on the airwaves and printed pages of the MSM for its dissemination. By reporting “just the facts” and on news-pegged events — in this case the various speeches by the president and his cabinet members — the press, whether or not it thinks the term “Islamofascism” apt, is helping to disseminate propaganda.


Still, what’s a beat reporter to do? When the president says something, it’s news. To ignore it or to suggest, in the body of the story, that he is spewing propaganda, would bring condemnation from the bias police.

The recent use (and misuse) of “Islamofascism” got considerable attention on the commentary pages and in the blogs. On August 17 the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, in which he argued that the term made no sense. Nunberg wrote: “The ‘fascist’ part might fit Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with its militaristic nationalism, its secret police and its silly peaked officers’ hats. But there is nothing ‘Islamo’ about the regime; Iraq’s Baathists tried to make the state the real object of people’s devotion.”


That same day the Weekly Standard ran a piece by Stephen Schwartz in which he claims to have been the first to ever use the term right after 9/11 . Schwartz said the term refers to those who would use the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology. Though he said it should be used “sparingly and precisely,” he defended its use and called Muslims who object to the term “primitive.”


Then, on August 20, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by the author Roger Scruton that traces the use of “Islamofascism” to the French writer Maxine Rodinson, who employed it to describe the Iranian revolution. Scruton is grateful to Rodinson for giving the left a term it can use to comfortably criticize Muslim terrorists, but he doesn’t really engage the question of the term’s accuracy and blasts Muslims for lacking a robust sense of humor about their religion.

Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.