Straight Talk

What's in a name?

You just can't make this stuff up. When I first read about it in Maureen Dowd's New York Times column earlier this week, I wasn't sure whether to take it seriously or not. Surely this was just hyperbole on Ms. Dowd's part or she must have gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick or somehow misunderstood. Right?
But no, she was deadly serious. According to the Terrorism Awareness Project web-site: "During the week of October 22-26, the nation will be rocked by the biggest conservative campus protest ever -- Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week, a wake-up call for Americans on 200 university and college campuses."
This is not a joke. Starting next week, this is really happening the length and breadth of the US. Read it again. 200 university and college campuses. That's right.
The project is the brainchild of David Horowitz, whose current incarnation appears to be as the head of the modestly named David Horowitz Freedom Center. For those of you who have the good fortune not to know who he is, Horowitz is a neo-conservative in the original sense of the word (i.e. one who started his political life on the left before ending up on the extreme fringes of the right).
Raised by communist parents, Horowitz was a committed leftie throughout the sixties, among other things editing the fire-breathing Ramparts magazine. Disillusioned and embittered after falling out with the Black Panthers, in the mid-seventies Horowitz drifted rightwards in his political beliefs, moving effortlessly, as one commentator puts it, from the infantile left to the infantile right, and ending up the sick, rage-filled hate-monger he is today.
But enough about the execrable Horowitz. The unfortunate fact is that he is merely one of very many and his views are by no means out of the mainstream of the modern American conservative movement.
I have written at length in this column about the iniquities of the American right and how the current Bush administration's actions and rhetoric serve only to further create the impression that it is Islam and not terrorists acting in the name of Islam that they are opposed to.
There is really nothing I can add by way of commentary here. Stunts such as Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week make the point for me with perfect eloquence. If Horowitz and the educational institutions involved cannot see how this is offensive to all Muslims and how sponsoring such an event can only serve to poison the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, fanning the flames of fear and distrust on both sides of the divide, then nothing I write here is likely to persuade either him or the other haters.
But I am not writing this column to rail -- once again! -- against how tragically misguided the American right is when it comes to the war on terror.
Instead, I would like to take a moment to talk about definitions and nomenclature. Nomenclature is important -- if nothing else, Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week should bring home to us the dangers inherent in not being able to come up with a generally acceptable term to differentiate practitioners of one of the world's great religions from those who commit crimes against humanity in the name of the religion, and letting others do the naming.
Initially, the term used in the media and elsewhere to describe militants and fanatics was "fundamentalist." This, however, has its drawbacks, since there are many pious and observant Muslims who would call themselves fundamentalists, but who can by no means be thought of as either militants or fanatics or radicals. The pejorative nature of the term as a catch-all grouping is thus offensive to many people.
Next up is the term "Islamist" which has gained wide currency in Europe and the US and is now catching on in other parts of the world, as well. I don't know, though. Something about the term does not sit quite right with me.
It seems to me that the term gives too much credit to those who politicise the religion and pervert it to their own ends. Even though it intends to convey the opposite, the term actually seems to suggest that there is something Islamic in the message and actions of the so-called "Islamists."
In addition, the term is surely too similar to "Islamic" and thus bound to create confusion among the theologically illiterate and likewise cause discomfort for the many Muslims who discern no connection between their faith and that of those who believe that it is acceptable to kill innocents in the name of religion.
The term I favour and would like to see gain more widespread currency to describe militants and fanatics who commit terror in the name of Islam is "pseudo-Islamic."
The idea came to me when I recently read an editorial of a Dhaka daily that railed against "pseudo-liberals." The daily defined the pseudo-liberal as one who professes ostensibly liberal values and beliefs but in truth is extremely illiberal in his or her thoughts and actions.
The efficacy of this term is that it not only suggests that the pseudo-liberals are illiberal, it suggests that they are in act the very opposite of what they profess to be. It suggests that they are using liberalism as a cloak for illiberalism.
But liberalism is not the only creed that has its pseudo-practitioners. It seems to me that the term pseudo- could also be appropriately prefixed to all kinds of religious extremists whose thoughts and actions have absolutely nothing in common with the religion they claim to profess. Thus we have pseudo-Christians who by conduct and rhetoric appear to be thoroughly un-Christian (see, e.g., Iraq, destruction of) and pseudo-Hindus who distort their faith into something ugly and unrecognisable (see, e.g., Babri Mosque, destruction of). You get the picture.
It thus seems to me that "pseudo-Islamic" is the perfect term to use for those who hide behind Islam, politicise Islam, and manipulate Islam for their own nefarious ends. These people cloak their profoundly un-Islamic thoughts and actions in the garb of Islam. Not only are they un-Islamic, they are the very antithesis of Islamic.
The term is not merely descriptive, it is pejorative, and it is meant to be so. There is a value-judgment, an opposition implicit in the usage that I believe is warranted. Use of the term implies condemnation of those who are so described (and at the same time differentiates them from genuine practitioners) and it is this strong implied condemnation that gives the term its edge, its bite.
So what to call those who commit terror in the name of Islam. Perhaps there is an argument for simply calling them terrorists, without recourse to mentioning their putative or ostensible religion. But this lets them off too lightly.
One, it is significant that they are acting in the name of religion and thus to obscure this fact is not helpful to the discourse. But, more importantly, the fact that they are abusing the teachings of a great religion needs to be pointed out at every opportunity. The fact that these people are not Muslims in any true sense of the word needs to be brought out.
So: not fundamentalists and not Islamists. And certainly not Islamo-fascists. Let us call the people who dare to commit terror in the name of Islam for what they truly are: pseudo-Islamic.

Zafar Sobhan is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.


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