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'Islamofascism': Dusting Off an Old Name for a New Form of Extremism

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: extremism by any other name.

RS: The term "Islamofascism," or "Islamic fascists," has prompted some debate. We were curious how the term fascism originated and how political scientists define it.

AA: So we called Manus Midlarsky, a Rutgers University professor who studies war and extremism.

MANUS MIDLARKSY: "It's originally Italian. It comes from the word 'fasci,' which is plural for bundle or group. It originally comes from the sign of authority of the Roman magistrate, of a bundle of rods together with an ax in the middle, carried forward anytime the magistrates met -- and more recently, in the late nineteenth century, got to mean certain radical groups, bundles of people, or groups of people who were gathering for certain political purposes.

"Mussolini, in particular, led the Fasci de Combattimento, which was a group of ex-servicemen from World War One in the early nineteen twenties. That became the basis for the fascist movement and then the Fascist Party that governed Italy until nineteen forty-three."

AA: "I suppose most people tend to associate the term fascism with the Nazis from Germany from World War Two. So how did they come into it?"

MANUS MIDLARKSY: "Partly out of the alliance with Italy during World War Two. Some scholars differentiate between fascism and Nazism. I think these days most agree that Nazism is a form of fascism, meaning that the state is supreme and that the individual is subject to the dictates of the state.

"Moreover, there's extreme nationalism in the case of both Italian fascism and German Nazism -- and in the case of Nazism, of course, racism. And all forms of fascism, Nazism and extremism have a collective imperative -- that is, the collectivity takes precedence over the individual -- and arrogate themselves the right to commit mass murder if necessary to effect their political program."

RS: "How has the movement evolved in a modern context?"

MANUS MIDLARKSY: "I don't think that fascism as we understood it in the inter-war period or during World War Two for Italy or Germany has evolved. What's really happened most recently is President Bush's and other high officials' use of the term Islamofascism or Islamic fascism, especially after the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, and I think that is where the evolution is found today."

RS: "What is, or how is President Bush using this term Islamic fascism -- what did he mean when he said those words?"

MANUS MIDLARKSY: "I think he meant extremism, and one quality of extremist movements is that they tend to hark back to an earlier time. I believe President Bush used this example -- they want to re-establish the Caliphate, where the Caliphate was the seat of Islamic rule over the Middle East and beyond, and it was terminated by Kamal Ataturk in Turkey in the early nineteen twenties. And Osama bin Laden, in particular, wants to resurrect that. He has stated so openly. Other radical Islamist groups also have that goal."

AA: "So do you think then that as a scholar of extremism, that this is an appropriate term?"

MANUS MIDLARKSY: "I don't think Islamic fascism is an appropriate term. I think extremism is an appropriate term, because they do allow themselves to kill large numbers as we saw on 9/11 and the more recent, apparently al-Qaida-linked plot with the British-born Muslims that were arrested recently in the London area. So I would not be comfortable with the term Islamic fascism, but I would be comfortable with the term 'radical Islamism' or 'Islamic extremism' -- which uses the religion in a distorted way to justify extreme acts such mass killing."

AA: "Just for technical reasons, or why?"

MANUS MIDLARKSY: "Fascism was a European phenomenon. Now we've got a surge of something else that looks like it, it has certain similarities with it. But, in the final analysis, it is religion-based. Fascism was not based on any religious ideas; neither was Nazism. Both were anti-Christian, of course anti-Jewish -- anti- virtually any religion."

RS: "I hear what you're saying there. However, do you feel that the use of 'fascism' in American English is really substituting for the word 'extremism.'"

MANUS MIDLARKSY: "To a certain extent, yes. It's almost like a curse word: 'You're a fascist.' For that reason, it becomes a term of -- almost a term of hate, really. And that's another reason I like to avoid it, because you want to keep these things as emotion-free as you possibly can, I think, in order to reach some sort of settlement."

AA: Rutgers University Professor Manus Midlarsky is working on his next book, "The Origins of Political Extremism: Fascism, Communism and Radical Islamism." He will be discussing this topic at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association which opens next week in Philadelphia.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Send e-mail to, and our segments are online at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.