Say I am discussing Egypt, which has some 70 million Muslims, and I want to refer to those particular Muslims seeking to enforce full Sharia (the “bad guys”): with what noun shall I distinguish them from the rest of Egypt’s Muslims? Or shall I simply call them “Muslims” and assume that everyone understands by “Muslim” I mean those Muslims?
Such an approach would imply that Egypt’s 70 million Muslims are all out to enforce Sharia — which is not true — and push the many undecided, potential allies in the West, whose common sense rejects such an exaggerated assertion, over the wrong side of the fence into thinking that no Muslim is the enemy.
Likewise, insisting on always using “Muslim” instead of “Islamist” can actually backfire by concealing the threat. Consider this recent news headline: “Egypt’s Islamists secure 75 percent of parliament.” Most informed readers would gather from this that Egypt is taking a turn for the worst. But what a redundant headline it would be had it simply read “Egypt’s Muslims secure 75 percent of parliament.” Exactly who else is supposed to dominate the parliament of a Muslim-majority nation if not Muslims?
Same with these reports: “U.S. official meets with Egypt’s Islamists” and “Islamist Named Speaker of Egypt House.” Many readers will take from these titles that an American official is meeting with the “bad guys,” one of whom has become house-speaker. Think of how meaningless these headlines would be if they had simply read “U.S. official meets with Egypt’s Muslims” and “Muslim Named Speaker of Egypt House.” In a country that is 90% Muslim, what is so remarkable about an official meeting with Muslims, or a Muslim being named speaker?
Is it not better, then, to utilize the accepted terms — “Islamist,” “Muslim radical,” “Islamic supremacist,” “Islamic fundamentalist,” anything other than the generic “Muslim” — simply to be understood, at least in certain contexts? The question is not how well the actions of such Muslims correspond with “true” Islam — as mentioned, that is an entirely different question, to be addressed on its own terms — but rather how we can intelligibly and practically talk about them.
Nor is the word “Islamist” — which thrusts the name of the religion center-stage — necessarily “politically correct”: consider how Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Stockton could not even bring himself to agree that al-Qaeda is acting out “violent Islamist extremism,” fearful that describing “our adversary as Islamic with any set of qualifiers” implies we are at “war with Islam.”
Perhaps the greatest argument justifying use of words like “Islamist” is that Muslims themselves regularly use them to signify their more “adamant” coreligionists (“al-Islamiyin”). Indeed, even the Islamists use such words to distinguish themselves from the average Muslim, such as Egypt’s “Salafis.” They have no other choice — if they want to be understood.
In short, the need for words like “Islamist” is less to make a doctrinal distinction and more to make a practical, linguistic distinction. Perhaps in a more exacting world, the word “Muslim” will not be conflated with a “race,” or refer to a billion people, many of whom identify with Islam only on a cultural or heritage level; perhaps “Muslim” will be reserved, literally, for those who truly submit to the dictates of Islam. But until that day comes, why speak a language that is easily misunderstood and even has the potential to backfire?