President Bush has toned down his war rhetoric after Muslim-rights groups complained his description of the enemy as “Islamic fascists” unfairly equates Islam with terrorism.

President Bush addressing American Legion

In his speech to the American Legion Thursday, Bush backed away from the term, defining the enemy simply as “fascists” and “totalitarians.”

He said the war on terror was an “ideological struggle” with terrorists who “kill those who stand in the way of their totalitarian ideology,” but he did not identify the source of the ideology. His only reference to Islam during the speech was in noting that the Muslim terrorists are distorting the tenets of the religion. “Free societies are a threat to their twisted view of Islam,” he said.

In a press conference last week, Bush also avoided repeating the phrase “Islamic fascists,” reverting instead to more general language such as “extremists” to describe the threat.

“This is a global war on terror. We’re facing, you know, extremists that believe something,” he said. “And they want to achieve objectives.”

While the White House declined to comment officially about the dropping of the term ‘Islamic fascists,’ a White House insider explained that the president is sensitive to concerns raised by Muslim leaders.

“The president never meant to imply we’re at war with Islam, but some took it that way,” the official said. “It’s not a climb-down as much as a recognition of the concerns of the Muslim community.”

In a major rhetorical shift, Bush last month began describing the enemy as “Islamic fascists,” sparking a firestorm of criticism from Muslim groups.

The pressure groups, led by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, lobbied the president to stop using the term. Washington-based CAIR fired off a letter to Bush arguing that continued use of the “hot-button” term would only harm the image of America “in the Islamic world.”

“We believe this is an ill-advised term and we believe that it is counterproductive to associate Islam or Muslims with fascism,” added CAIR executive director Nihad Awad.

Awad warned Bush to choose his words carefully so as not to “start a religious war against Islam and Muslims.”

“We urge him and we urge other public officials to restrain themselves,” he asserted.

CAIR is a spin-off of the Islamic Association for Palestine, identified by two former FBI counterterrorism chiefs as a “front group” for the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas. Several CAIR leaders have been convicted on terror-related charges.

Washington officials have been careful during the war on terror to distinguish between Islam and the terrorists so as not to offend Muslims.

The distinction has rankled many conservatives who see little difference.

After 9-11, Bush frequently referred to Islam as a “religion of peace” and asserted the terrorists were “perverting” or “hijacking” the faith. A search of transcripts shows that, to date, the president has not publicly used the terms “Islamic terrorists” or “Islamic terrorism.”

The White House insider says it’s unlikely Bush will repeat the term “Islamic fascists” out of deference to Muslim groups.

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