Fighting Words: The Abuse of Islam in Political Rhetoric

L. Ali Khan

Posted Aug 24, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Fighting Words: The Abuse of Islam in Political Rhetoric

It is becoming fashionable for elected officials in the Anglo-American world, notably in the United States and the United Kingdom, to employ abusive language involving Islam. Phrases such as “Islamic terrorism,” “totalitarian Islam,” “crimes of Islam,” and “Islamic fascism” are freely used, with sadist disrespect, to condemn real and imagined terrorists who practice the faith of Islam. For years, and long before the 9/11 attacks, neo-conservative scholarship has been determined to popularize the concept of the essentialist terrorist [PDF] who purportedly draws his deepest inspiration from the puritanical beliefs of Islam and equipped with cruelty, commits violence against innocent Jews and Christians. According to this, occupations, invasions, territorial thefts, assassinations, house demolitions, human rights violations, and other such grievances have nothing to do with Islamic resistance. Islamic terrorism, according to neo-conservative scholarship, stems from the Sharia, from passages of the Quran, and from a puritanical mindset that manufactures pretexts to maim and kill. These killers, it is further contended, wish to impose Islamic law over the entire world.

Gradually but successfully, the propagandized essentialist terrorist and the attendant abusive language against Islam have entered political rhetoric. Presidents, prime ministers, congressmen, senators, and other officials are now freely using abusive language to malign Islam, not through uncaught moments of Freudian slips but as a policy of expressive audacity.

Commenting on the alleged plan of British nationals of Pakistani descent to blow up US-bound planes over the Atlantic, President Bush said: “This is a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists.” Senator Rick Santorum distinguishes between terrorism and Islamic fascism, arguing that terrorism is a tactic but what the West is fighting is “Islamic fascism” which is “truly evil” and which is “as big a threat today as Nazism and communism.”

This new trend to openly curse Islam echoes the words of UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said: “We should not be apologetic or defensive in defining the problems of terrorism.”

One wonders why elected officials in supposedly democratic nations, which tout the principles of equal respect and dignity for all, use abusive language to wound the sentiments of more than a billion people across the world. Several explanations come to mind.

First, the abusive language may be described as an effect of an over-generalization. Suppose that Muslim militants indeed wish to impose Islam on the Anglo-American world, a supposition that even the militants would ridicule as blatant propaganda to infuriate domestic audiences. Though mounted on a questionable supposition, the label is accurate to the extent that the use of violence to forcibly modify the values of a foreign nation is indeed fascism - a definition that, ironically, would also paint President Bush as an American fascist for his forcible democratization of Afghanistan and Iraq. Even if President Bush were declared a fascist, it would be wrong to describe his foreign policy as American fascism because that is tantamount to over- as well as mis-generalization.

Islamic fascism as a descriptive label also fails to capture the limited meaning of describing militants who are supposedly fascists. The label comes across as a prescriptive indictment, suggesting that Islam is intolerant, violent, and aggressively self-righteous in imposing its values on non-Islamic cultures. If Anglo-American politicians are using the label in this broad sense, and thus accusing Islam and not merely the militants, they should say so. If they are using the label in a limited sense and do not wish to antagonize the entire Muslim world or malign the faith of Islam, they must abandon the label. The label of Islamic fascism even in a limited sense is not an intelligent use of the language, for it is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Its use in the broad sense is highly provocative and counterproductive to the war on terrorism. It foolishly alienates all Muslims.

Second, there might be a democratic argument for politicians using abusive language involving Islam. But no American politician would describe pedophilia scandals in some Catholic churches as Catholic pedophilia. Such an over-generalization would be politically unwise because no prudent politician would want to lose Catholic money and votes. Likewise, no politician would use abusive language against Jews or Judaism for fear of alienating that community, not to mention the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which keeps a close tab on what American politicians are saying and doing. Because American Muslims do not have loads of money, lobbying clout, or votes, however, they constitute a minority that can be easily sacrificed and trashed. If this is the reason behind abusive rhetoric against Islam, however, it reveals a sad truth about democracy in general and American democracy in particular which has had a tainted record when it comes to the abusive treatment of minorities including native Indians, Blacks, and others.

Third, there seems to exist an unexamined assumption in American political circles that Islam is a foreign religion, an outsider, the other. Politicians who use abusive language against Islam do not see Islam as part of American multi-religious fabric. Despite their enchantment with secularism, they still see this nation as Christian, perhaps Judeo-Christian, ignoring the fact that millions of Muslims, immigrants and native born, now live in all states of the United States. Hundreds of mosques in America, though under surveillance, furnish indelible signs that Islam has arrived in this country, not to forcibly convert anyone but to enrich American culture, diversity, history, architecture, sciences, and, yes, laws. Let American politicians greet Islam and Muslims with Assalaam ulaikum (peace be upon you) if for no other reason than to remind them that their religion is one of peace and not of violence.

Ali Khan is a professor at Washburn University School of Law in Kansas. His publications are available on his site at