WASHINGTON, Aug 10 (Reuters) - U.S. Muslim groups criticized U.S. President George W. Bush on Thursday for calling a foiled plot to blow up airplanes part of a "war with Islamic fascists," saying the term could inflame anti-Muslim tensions.
U.S. officials have said the plot, thwarted by Britain, to blow up several aircraft over the Atlantic bore many of the hallmarks of al Qaeda.
"We believe this is an ill-advised term and we believe that it is counterproductive to associate Islam or Muslims with fascism," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations advocacy group.
"We ought to take advantage of these incidents to make sure that we do not start a religious war against Islam and Muslims," he told a news conference in Washington.
"We urge him (Bush) and we urge other public officials to restrain themselves."
Awad said U.S. officials should take the lead from their British counterparts who steered clear of using what he considered inflammatory terms when they announced the arrest of more than 20 suspects in the reported plot.
Hours after the news broke, Bush said it was "a stark reminder that 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."
Bush and other administration officials have used variations of the term "Islamo-fascism" on several occasions in the past to describe militant groups including al Qaeda, its allies in Iraq and Hizbollah in Lebanon.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told MSNBC television the phrase reflected what he called Osama bin Laden's own vision of leading a totalitarian empire under the guise of religion.
"It might may not be classic fascism as you had with Mussolini or Hitler. But it is a totalitarian, intolerant imperialism that has a vision that is totally at odds with Western society and our rules of law," Chertoff said.
Many American Muslims, who say they have felt singled out for discrimination since the Sept. 11 attacks, reject the term and say it unfairly links their faith to notions of dictatorship, oppression and racism.
"The problem with the phrase is it attaches the religion of Islam to tyranny and fascism, rather than isolating the threat to a specific group of individuals," said Edina Lekovic, spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.
She said the terms cast suspicions on all Muslims, even the vast majority who want to live in safety like other Americans.
Bush upset many Muslims after the Sept. 11 attacks by referring to the global war against terrorism early on as a "crusade," a term which for many Muslims connotes a Christian battle against Islam. The White House quickly stopped using the word, expressing regrets if it had caused offense.
Mohamed Elibiary, a Texas-based Muslim activist, said he was upset by the president's latest comments.
"We've got Osama bin Laden hijacking the religion in order to define it one way. ... We feel the president and anyone who's using these kinds of terminologies is hijacking it too from a different side," he said.
"The president's use of the language is going to ratchet up the hate meter, but I think it would have caused much more damage if he had done this after 9/11," Elibiary said, adding that tensions were not running as high as they had been in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 attacks.