What’s in a Name?

It's time to rethink how reporters handle dubious claims by politicians -- as the recent use of the term "Islamofascist" shows.

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.

On August 24, Katha Pollitt argued in her column in The Nation that the term is way off base. Her two primary reasons: the historical analogy to European, nationalist, secularist, state-obsessed, modern, bureaucratic, and “rational” movements is inaccurate, and the term conflates a variety of disparate states, movements, and organizations as though, like fascists, they all want similar things and are colluding in their efforts to get those things (a la Hitler and Mussolini). She says that the term appears analytical, but is in essence an emotional ploy designed to get us to “think less and fear more.”

The New Republic’s Spencer Ackerman wrote on the magazine’s blog that he regretted using “Islamofascism” recently, especially after spending a week in Dearborn, Michigan, surrounded by American Muslims who felt maligned by the term. Ackerman notes that these people are not “primitive” but rather “moderate, pro-American, well-integrated” folks who could form “one of the greatest bulwarks against Al Qaeda.”

Aside from the various criticisms of why the fascism analogy fails, the larger point is that it remains folly to try to coin a term that adequately characterizes all the groups and individuals that the White House would like to cram under this umbrella — from Saddam to Hezbollah.

To be sure, some of their characteristics are open to debate, and we would do well to keep in mind the old credo that one woman’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Other characteristics, though, can be identified and evaluated objectively. Is the group secular or Islamic (and having Muslim members does not automatically make it Islamic)? Is it part of the government or does it operate outside the state? If it is part of the government, was the group elected or installed by force? Are its goals regional or global?

Asking these and other questions would expose many of the significant differences among the groups that the White House lumps together under “Islamofascism.” It could be argued that such distinctions are little more than nuances, but while politicians have a vested interest in keeping things black and white, the press cannot afford such a luxury. We need to be in the nuance business.

The press and this administration, like any co-dependents in a six-year relationship, are not without their baggage. There were no WMD in Iraq and Saddam had no connection to the attacks of 9/11, yet the administration managed to convince many Americans that its version of reality was the truth. While the press did eventually muster a challenge to the White House’s line, it also played a central role in allowing that line to take hold.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, the unprecedented combination of the speed and nonstop nature of the news cycle and the willingness of the candidates to say almost anything they felt was necessary to win (no matter how tenuous its connection to reality) led to a suggestion from us that newsrooms deploy truth squads — essentially teams of reporters with appropriate expertise to help reporters in the field factcheck and contextualize the claims coming from the campaigns. Some papers took us up on it. Perhaps therein lies the seed of a solution to the dilemma of how to handle “Islamofascism.” If editors had some boilerplate language to insert when appropriate that would give readers at least some sense of why the term is misleading, it could help repair some of the damage done by this type of propaganda.

It sounds cumbersome, but so did the extra sentence or two to explain why sources were granted anonymity. The need to be precise, and to give readers as much help as possible in navigating a complex world, is worth the effort.

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Alia Malek is an assistant editor at CJR.