Responding to the Critics

Having skimmed through the many comments of my recent PJM article, "Why We Need Words Like Islamist," it appears that many either do not (or simply refuse to) understand the point of the article; others I doubt even bothered to read it before commenting.  In any case, some clarifications: 1) As I clearly spelled out in the article, I am not arguing that “Islamism” is bad, “Islam” is good, as some seem to think; in fact, I pointed out that "traditional, mainstream Islam" is often more problematic than "Islamism"; 2)  I am not making an argument for the specific word “Islamist,” but rather, as the very title of my article indicates, “words like Islamist"; 3) The whole point of the article is to help create precision of speech and clarity of thought, especially as a way to reach out to the Western mainstream—not argue doctrine; 4) Finally, I am pleased that some commenters duplicated my challenge, and that those critical had no response.  Namely, my “news headline” examples, which show how insistence on using the word “Muslim” in every single context leads precisely to what those who are against words “like Islamist” claim to be combating: a completely misinformed Western public.

I close by pasting that portion of the article below, for any takers:

[I]nsisting 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.