By Omar Soliman
The biggest obstacle facing the Muslim community today is its inability to respond to the essentialists. (Reuters Photo)
The presidential election of 2008 was won by the power of words — and we are all better off that it was so. That America now has at its helm a President who is defined as much by the diversity of his upbringing as the clarity and coherence of his message is a benefit to us all.
In April 1946, English author Eric Arthur Blair — a man more popularly known as George Orwell — expressed his thoughts on politics and the English language: “One ought to recognize,” he wrote, “that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” One of Orwell’s points was to demonstrate that the effect (in this case, bad writing) can very easily become a cause: “[One’s writing] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
It cannot be said that this sordid state of affairs was encouraged solely by the work of public relations professionals and political spin doctors — even though this class of “brainiacs” can be credited for contaminating the public discourse with the “death tax” (formerly known as the “estate tax”) and “climate change” (more ominously known as “global warming”). The blame can more appropriately be leveled at journalists, this one included. “Look back through this essay,” says Orwell, “and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.”
My apologies in advance.
But every now and then, in the midst of my very own struggle against what Columbia University’s William Zinsser refers to as “the lazinesses of logic,” I encounter a phrase or a word whose construction is so lacking in mental effort as to spontaneously induce something akin to a migraine headache.
“Islamo-fascism” is just such a word. Every time I see it, I feel inclined to read Orwell’s essay again — a kind of quiet therapy against the enemies of the English language, and of the rational use of language in general.
|“One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” — George Orwell|
As the New York Times’ William Safire writes, “Islamo-fascism treats the opening Islam as the specifying modifier for the dominant noun, the repugnant ideology of fascism.” The purpose, unmistakable, is to situate the present-day “War on Terror” as harmonious with the psychological framework of the fight against European fascism.
Should moderate Muslims take offense to the use of this term? After all, it might be said that, at one level or another, everyone is someone’s fascist — see Rush Limbaugh’s “feminazis” or Jonah Goldberg’s “liberal fascists”, both oxymorons without the oxy.
My answer is “yes”, Muslims should be greatly offended at the application of this most unworthy of metaphors, even as it is applied to extremist Muslims that we have altogether repudiated. Why? Because, as Orwell says — and as President Obama has inspired — the decadence of our language (and therefore our politics) are indeed curable.
The effort becomes even more important when Americans have as fresh in their minds the memories of a political season with contestants employing the most vitriolic language against an American minority in recent political history.
It is no irony that a former mayor of America’s largest and most diverse city, Rudolph Giuliani, would preside over much of the vitriol. Speaking of the Democratic candidates who were debating at The Citadel Military College in South Carolina, the Republican candidate said, to loud ovation, “at no time during [the Democratic] debates have they used the words ‘Islamic terrorists’. If they do tonight, I will take credit for it.”
Former President George W. Bush, himself an infamous wordsmith of sorts, has employed the Islamo-fascist label on at least a dozen occasions; the weight of these utterances by then the President thereby has given a force of its own. “The recent arrests that our fellow citizens are now learning about,” he said in an address on August 10, 2006, “are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation.”
|What is needed now is, as Orwell so wisely notes, to begin anew the process of letting “the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”|
Republican nominee John McCain, occasionally considered a Senator of compromise and moderation on foreign policy issues, delivered a stump speech that found hard-line neoconservative-speak (“[Islamo-fascist extremists] are the greatest force of evil perhaps we have ever confronted”) very oddly wedged in-between a friendlier, softer rhetoric (“I’m going to give you a cleaner planet”).
Those who use the term, like professional controversialist Christopher Hitchens, who devoted an entire column in the fall of 2007 in its defense, claim that there are several “obvious points of comparison”:
• “Both are obsessed with real and imagined ‘humiliations’ and thirsty for revenge;”
• “Both are inclined to leader worship and to the exclusive stress on the power of one great book;”
• “Both have a strong commitment to sexual repression … and to its counterparts the subordination of the female and contempt for the feminine;”
• “Both despise art and literature as symptoms of degeneracy and decadence; both burn books and destroy museums and treasures.”
But let’s think about this for a moment. Even if we were to assume that all of these hopelessly vague “points of comparison” — which are unfortunately apt in the description of many a body — are true, what gives Hitchens and others the literary license to stamp one body as a descriptor for the other?
These comparisons, however deep, cannot warrant an outright connection between the two. My friend Bobby may have long, flowing hair and wear pink shirts, and if you stood from afar you might even guess that you were looking at a female, even though it isn’t so.
|In the eyes of Pipes and gang, “the only good Muslim is a non-Muslim.”|
The biggest obstacle facing the Muslim community today is its inability to respond to the essentialists. Who are the essentialists? They are the men and women (mainly journalists but now a growing contingent of politicians and academics) who believe that “the behavior of Muslims throughout all centuries and countries can be explained primarily by reference uniquely to their belief systems.”
Terrorism thus becomes “Islamic”, and fascism is preceded by “Islamo”, by virtue of the religious influences of its host.
It is undeniable that the men who use essentialist interpretations of Islam for their own political gain (men like Daniel Pipes, for example) have greatly increased the public’s understanding of the forces that shape radical Islam. But it is also abundantly clear that they have done so at the cost of engaging intellectually with moderate Muslims. As a well-known conservative author, Dinesh D’Souza, argued in a debate with Robert Spencer at the Conservative Political Action Conference in early March 2007, in the eyes of Pipes and gang, “the only good Muslim is a non-Muslim.” The criticism must be valid when self-learned Islamic terrorism expert Robert Spencer argues that “mainstream Muslim theology mandates warfare against the unbelievers,” an outrageous statement that renders even moderate, observant Muslims as complicit with the sinister agenda of Islamism (or political Islam).
In a subheading titled “Meaningless Words,” Orwell notes that “the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.'” Taken with a grain of salt, then, we see Islamo-fascism’s true, if understated, meaning: “Islam-o-not something desirable.”
Such, perhaps, is the language of war. But what is needed now, maybe more than ever, is, as Orwell so wisely notes, to begin anew the process of letting “the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”