Center for Strategic Communication

by Matthew Morris and Joseph Faina

Thanks to David Horowitz, American college students won’t forget about terrorism any time soon. From October 22-26, The David Horowitz Freedom Center coordinated with conservative groups on campuses nationwide to organize “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week (IFAW).”

According to the Terrorism Awareness Project’s Website:

The purpose of this protest is as simple as it is crucial: to confront the two Big Lies of the political left: that George Bush created the war on terror and that Global Warming is a greater danger to Americans than the terrorist threat.

Horowitz planned for IFAW to be the largest conservative campus protest ever, with promises of participation from more than 200 schools. However, the final list of schools only included sixty-six. Arizona State University, a large university in a conservative state, was originally listed as a participant but had no actual events. Some campuses, like Liberty University, asked to be disassociated from the event altogether.

The week included speakers on terrorism and oppression of Muslim women. Predictably, the events met with opposition from Muslim student advocacy groups and the Muslim American Society who objected to the use of the term “Islamo-fascism” on the grounds that it equates the religion of Islam with fascism. Additionally, the event was picked up in the Middle East press, causing public diplomacy problems.

Horowitz says that it was not his intent to disparage all Muslims, but rather to bring attention to the violent extremists that he says pose a threat to the American way of life and, he claims, have sympathizers on American college campuses. He argues that the “liberal elite” on college campuses is so obsessed with political correctness that they are de facto supporters of the Jihadist agenda.

In fact, the reaction against IFAW has been labeled “fascist” by Horowitz and other conservative commentators.  This reaction includes students shouting down Horowitz during a speech at Emory University and various commentaries in student newspapers and other media.

Despite not reaching nearly as many campuses as planned, Horowitz hails it as a success. He applauded the students who helped organize IFAW for their courage against the opposition, including the fascist liberal elite, jihadi sympathizers and communists.

IFAW continues in the tradition of another Horowitz organization, Students for Academic Freedom, which purports to fight for academic integrity against the ideological indoctrination of America’s vulnerable college students by liberal college professors. SAF encourages students to covertly report on instructors who make unapproved political statements in the classroom so they can be added to a list compiled by SAF and targeted for further investigation.


Two communication principles can be applied to this event.  First, the fallout of IFAW can be seen as an example of Retrospective Sensemaking. According to Karl Weick et al (2005), organizations and individuals engage in retrospective sensemaking when they try to understand past events. For example, the 9/11 commission used retrospective sensemaking when it determined that there were in fact warning signs before the attacks that went unnoticed at the time.  Only in retrospect did those warning signs have meaning, or in other words, hindsight is 20/20.

Second, we can look to Kenneth Burke’s concept of the Terministic Screen.  In Language as Symbolic Action (1968), Burke explains that the language we use to define something also determines how we look at it.  The language we use creates a “frame,” or specific way of viewing a phenomenon that excludes other possible ways of viewing the same situation.  For example, the estate tax is often referred to as the “death” tax.  Using the term “death” in defining the tax effectively alters the way we view and talk about it.  Thus a “terministic screen” is created that eliminates, or “screens” out, other possible interpretations.


Horowitz’s acclaim for the week as a success is an example of retrospective sensemaking because it shows how a preferred interpretation can be retrofit to events. If millions of college students had demonstrated against “Islamo-fascism,” it would have been obviously successful. But the reaction against IFAW provides Horowitz with another option in his retrospective sensemaking by reaffirming his belief that college campuses are bastions of liberal elites that support cadres of jihadi terrorists and communist conspirators.

Another possible interpretation is that the successful speaking engagements of many IFAW experts indicate that college campuses are places where diverse viewpoints are welcome. It reaffirms the principle of free speech that Horowitz and his allies were able to hold their protests and others were able to demonstrate against them.

Second, Horowitz’s use of the term “Islamo-fascism” functions as a terministic screen, limiting the debate over terrorism by equating it with fascism. This is problematic from a strategic communication standpoint because of the connection of the word “Islam,” which describes a major world religion, to the word “fascism,” which typically is used to describe state control over the individual.

Although Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist groups do seek to impose their own violent interpretation of Islam on the Middle East, their existence as a terrorist group and not as a state entity makes the word “fascist” an inaccurate description. The use of this terministic screen is clearly an attempt to equate our enemies in the GWOT with other fascist groups such as the Nazis.

However, doing so has several disadvantages for American public diplomacy:

  1. Al-Qaeda is not Nazi Germany and our war against them involves more of an ideological struggle than the type of military triumph that brought us success in WWII.
  2. Tying the words Islam and Fascism is offensive to many Muslims, and whether that is the intent or not, the interpretation of it as such risks hurting ties with important allies in the Muslim world.
  3. Calling “Islamo-Fascism” a threat to freedom in the same way Fascism was during WWII gives the terrorists more credit than they deserve.

If college students are now more aware of terrorism than they were two weeks ago does this constitute a victory in the GWOT? Or on the other hand, does dedicating a week to “awareness” of terrorism not invoke terrorism itself by reminding us that we need to be afraid? By not giving the students an effective course of action, it is possible that this week could have just resulted in increased anxiety about terrorism, which is what gives terrorists their power.

If terrorism is a threat to the American way of life, what better testament to American values could college students have than going about their regular routines without fear of vague threats?

Further Reading

  • Burke, K. (1968) Language as Symbolic Action: Esssays on Life, Literature and Method. Berkley, CA: University of California Press
  • Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking. Organization Science. 16(4), 409-421.