Why We Need Words Like ‘Islamist’

Is the problem Islam or Islamism?  Muslims or Islamists?

These and related questions regularly foster debate (see the exchange between Robert Spencer and Andrew McCarthy for a recent example). The greatest obstacle on the road to consensus is what such words imply; namely, that Islamism and Islamists are “bad,” and Islam and Muslims are good (or simply neutral).


Some observations in this regard:

Islamism is a distinct phenomenon and, to an extent, different from historic Islam.  The staunch literalness of today’s Islamists is so artificial and anachronistic that, if only in this way, it contradicts the practices of medieval Muslims, which often came natural and better fit their historical context.

More to the point, for all their talk that they are out to enact the literal example of the early Muslims, today’s Islamists often permit and forbid things that their forbears did not, simply because, like it or not, they are influenced by Westernization.  As Daniel Pipes observes:

Whereas traditional Islam’s sacred law is a personal law, a law a Muslim must follow wherever he is, Islamism tries to apply a Western-style geographic law that depends on where one lives. Take the case of Sudan, where traditionally a Christian was perfectly entitled to drink alcohol, for he is a Christian, and Islamic law applies only to Muslims. But the current regime has banned alcohol for every Sudanese. It assumes Islamic law is territorial because that is the way a Western society is run.

That said, there is no denying that Islam’s sacred law, Sharia — the backbone of mainstream Islam — is intrinsically problematic. One example:  hostility for Muslim apostates — from ostracizing them to executing them — is simply a part of the religion of Islam, historically and doctrinally.  The same can be said about the duty of offensive jihad and the subjugation of religious minorities and females.


Accordingly, while there is room for the word Islamism — in that it is a distinct phenomenon — that does not mean Islam proper is trouble-free.  In fact, sometimes Islam’s traditional teachings are more problematic than Islamist teachings.  For instance, during the “Arab spring,” many traditional Muslim sheikhs correctly pointed out that Sharia commands Muslims to obey their leader, even if he is unjust and tyrannical, as long as he is a Muslim, while Westernized Islamists were making the “humanitarian argument” against tyrants, one that had little grounding in Sharia.

At this point, one might argue that use of words like “Islamist,” while valid, are ultimately academic and have the potential further to confuse the layman.  However, what is often missed in this debate is the true significance of such words: they satisfy a linguistic need — the need to differentiate and be precise — without which meaningful talk becomes next to impossible.

Consider: even the severest critic of Islam will concede that not all who are labeled “Muslim” — well over a billion people — are “the enemy.”  Well, then, how shall we differentiate them in speech? What words shall we use?

One might insist that those whom we call “Islamists” should be called “Muslims,” while the majority whom we call “Muslims” — and which often indicate “moderate Muslims” — should not even be factored in the equation: after all, if they are not upholders of Sharia, then they are not practicing “true Islam” and do not count as Muslims.


Whatever the merits of this definition, by contradicting the ingrained and widespread usage of the word “Muslim,” it is impractical and counterproductive.

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?



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