What are the differences between the traditional Muslim and the so-called “Islamist”? As words dealing with Islam continue to morph and multiply, it is important to differentiate, for there are real, if subtle, differences.
A recent Arabic talk show on Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak’s trial sheds some light. The question was whether Mubarak, in the sight of Sharia law, should stand trial and be punished for, among other things, selling gas cheaply to Israel — or, as popularly portrayed, traitorously giving away Egypt’s precious resources to its mortal enemy.
Two Islam authorities debated. Taking the controversial position — that Mubarak should not be condemned — was Sheikh Mahmoud Amer, leader of Ansar al-Sunna, or, those who imitate prophet Muhammad’s way of living, which, of course, is what traditional Muslims — literally, Sunnis — have always done. His opponent, arguing that Mubarak deserves to be tried without mercy, was famous Islamist lawyer Montasser al-Zayyat (who most recently professed his “love” for Osama bin Laden).
The sheikh, representing traditional Islam, stressed two points to exonerate Mubarak: 1) Dealing with the enemy (in this case, Israel) is permissible according to Sharia; Muhammad himself often appeased his infidel enemies, including Jews, when to his advantage, “for” — as the sheikh quoted Muhammad — “war is deceit”; 2) According to Sharia, the only justification for deposing a ruler is if he becomes an infidel; if he is unjust, violent, and tyrannical to his Muslim subjects, that is not reason enough.
In fact, the sheikh’s position is very much in keeping with Sharia: Muslims — particularly their political leaders — are permitted to deceive and dupe non-Muslims, including by playing the role of appeaser, when circumstances call for it; moreover, even al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri admits that Islam’s jurists are “unanimously agreed” that “it is forbidden to overthrow” Muslim rulers, even if they are “cruel and despotic,” whereas “it is obligatory to wage jihad against” rulers found to be “apostate infidels” (The Al Qaeda Reader, pgs. 121-122, 129).
It’s interesting to note, then, how “Islamists,” such as Zayyat, who appear tenacious about upholding Sharia, sometimes advocate positions that actually contradict it. To understand this phenomenon, one must first understand “Islamism” — a hybrid abomination of sorts, whereby the better principles of Western civilization are absorbed and rearticulated within a distinctly Muslim paradigm. For instance, the Western stress on human freedom, human dignity, and universal justice is, for Islamists, transformed into a stress on Muslim freedom, Muslim dignity, and Muslim justice — all, naturally, at the sake of the infidel.