In Which We Explain Ourselves
Yes, yes, I know. Islamofascism is a word that became popular 4 years ago and is already dated, irrelevant, and gathering mildew in the dank basement of some aging linguist. I know. But (there is always a “but”), I just learned that last week was Islamofascism Awareness Week, ya know, somewhere, and this allows me to talk about two (or three, depending on how you count) of my favorite subjects: Language (specifically in relation to the fantastic word Islamofascism), and the one-and-only Rick Santorum.
For those of you who aren’t from ’round here, or just don’t follow politics, Rick Santorum used to be a US Senator from Pennsylvania. He was wildly insane. Well, he’s still alive, and I’d imagine he’s still insane, but, politicians who aren’t re-elected are a much more benign sort of crazy, and, frankly, I stopped paying attention to him. And then, this morning, I found the most wonderful thing while trolling the Tubes. Crazy-Pants former Senator Rick Santorum was scheduled, to speak about Islamofascism at Temple University, Penn Sate, and UPenn last week. If I had known about this, I might have gone. Really.
Islamofascism is a compound word, of course, gracefully compounding one of the world’s most populous religions, Islam, and Benito Mussolini’s coinage, fascism. So, we’ll have some fun and deal with “Islam”, with “fascism”, and then finally, we’ll have a whiz-bang conclusion with Rick Santorum and “Islamofascism”.
Islam is a word derived from the Arabic word “salaam”. Salaam, like many Arabic words, doesn’t have an easy translation to English, but is most commonly interpreted as “peace”. Another nuance of this word’s meaning, though, reveals that “submission” is a possible translation, as in “submission to God”. Thus, a Muslim is one who “submits to God”, and Islam is a religion of “submission to God”. The religion, historically, dates back to the 7th century, AD, and we can assume that “Islam”, in some form, appeared at the time.
Fascism is, as mentioned already, a creation of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The word comes from the Latin “fasces”. A fasces was the symbol of authority of the highest level of Roman magistrate. It consisted of a bundle of sticks, bound tightly together, and amongst the sticks rested an axe, as in the picture on the right.
Fascism, of course, is a system of government–sorta–in which individual opinions, desires, and rights are suppressed at the expense of the will of a dictator. In the most effective fascist states, nationalism is promoted to a feverish pitch, which creates a heavy and violent bias against foreign nationalities, religions, and creeds. Despite Mussolini’s coinage, Adolf Hitler is most frequently cited when discussion of fascism and fascist dictators crop up.
Because Hitler and the Nazi party are most frequently used in discussion of fascism, some distortion has occurred in the word’s meaning. Hitler, of course, is known less for his elevation of Germany (out of economic depression and into status as a world power), and for the nationalism and national pride he inspired in his people, and far more for World War II and the Holocaust.
This chain, connecting fascism to Hitler and Hitler to dictatorial mass violence, leads to a colloquial connection between overt, mass violence and fascism. That is, there is currently an implication that the end product of fascism is violence, whereas originally violence was either a side-effect.
So, sometime after 9/11, some newspaper writer started trying to find a good and succinct way to talk about the Islamic terrorists who crashed airplanes into buildings. During the Polish coup of 1981, Susan Sonstag used a phrase that would become famous: “fascism with a human face”. This phrase was co-opted by Christopher Hitchens, an Atlantic Monthly writer, as “fascism with an Islamic face” to describe the attackers. Over the next 2 or 3 years, this became the staggering “Islamic fascism”, and then became the better flowing but aesthetically mediocre “Islamo-fascism”, and then, finally, Islamofascism.
This word gained a lot use by war supporters, as it gave a name to the enemy. The war opponents, naturally, just want the Islamofascists to win. Or something. Rick Santorum, kickass insane Senator, advocated on behalf of the War on Islamofascism. As with everything, however, there was backlash.
Islam–devotion to God–is a religion of peace. So says Mohammed, and so says every prominent Muslim with 2 minutes on cable network news in the early years of the current war. Thus, creating a word that unites a religion of peace with a fundamentally violent form of government was, at a basic level, self-contradictory. At a grander level, it’s terribly offensive. Those Muslims who completely believe in the peaceful nature of their beliefs were appalled to find the US government using the name of Islam to describe a violent group of heretics.
Naturally, because of this, President Bush and most other war supporters dropped its usage. Newstations reported that the Republican party was quietly telling its members to stop using the phrase. Undaunted, however, was Rick Santorum.
Islamofascism was a lousy word to describe the enemy because it’s not an enemy. During WWII, the Germans were the enemy. For the Romans, the Carthagians were the enemy. For us, the ambiguously unidentifiable Islamofascists were the enemy. No good, at all.
I don’t know if Islamofascism Awareness Week will come around again next year, or if it was just a one-time thing, but here’s hoping that Santorum can stay as keynote speaker for years to come.