US President George W. Bush, trying a different approach to galvanizing support for the unpopular Iraq war, has framed it as the central front in a global war against "Islamic fascists."
"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," the president said on August 10 in response to the alleged British airliner bomb plot.
The controversial expression quickly drew fire from at least one prominent US Muslim group that said it fanned anti-Muslim hate, as well as from Saudi Arabia, where the cabinet declared "terrorism has no religion or nationality."
Bush aides grudgingly acknowledge that the expression stretches the dictionary definition of fascism but say it is useful "shorthand" to get the US public to grasp that it is locked in a world-wide ideological struggle.
And that is a critical part of the White House's strategy for limiting the political damage from the unpopular war in Iraq ahead of November elections that will decide control of the US Congress.
"What it does, I think, is it clarifies the kind of struggle that is the war on terrorism, it is an ideological struggle at its root," said a senior Bush aide on condition that he not be named.
"The term succinctly encapsulates that idea rather better than 'the war against radical extremists who have a twisted interpretation of Islam.' It's a shorthand way of saying that," the official said.
Fascism as a political movement has its roots in Italy, where it became a formal political movement in 1919 and the driving force behind Benito Mussolini's rise to power in 1922.
While US dictionaries call it an authoritarian system of government with rigid one-party dictatorship, suppression of opposition, centralized government control over the economy, belligerent nationalism, the term has become synonymous with authoritarianism of any sort since World War II.
"That's true, but the core of it is suppression of thought, suppression of speech freedoms, freedom of worship, etc, through terror and use of violence," said the anonymous US official.
And he noted Bush's other description of Islamist extremists as "successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists, and other totalitarians of the 20th century."
Although "Islamo-fascist" gained wide currency among US conservatives after the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes, a search of global news outlets turns up the term in a September 1990 article in London's The Independent newspaper.
And the expression "Islamic fascist" appears in a January 1979 Washington Post article on Washington's response to Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Bush has used -- and quickly dropped -- controversial expressions about the war on terrorism before.
Shortly after the attacks of 2001, Bush referred to the war on terrorism as a "crusade," drawing an unhappy reaction worldwide because it recalled the bloody wars between Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages.
In August 2004, he briefly mused that "we actually misnamed the 'war on terror.'"
"It ought to be 'the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies and who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world,'" he said.
Asked why Bush and his Republican party had settled on "fascism" just 10 weeks before the elections, Republican National Committee head Ken Mehlman told MSNBC television: "I think it's a very apt description of what we face."
"The fact is, like earlier fascists -- there were fascists in Italy and there were fascists in Nazi Germany -- here are folks who want to subordinate the freedom all over the place," he said.