Published in PJ Media
Is the problem Islam or Islamism? Muslims or Islamists?
These and related questions regularly foster debate. 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 areinfluenced 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 Western-influenced 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,” and that one of them 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, who else are U.S. officials to meet with, and who else should be house-speaker, if not Muslims? The danger becomes altogether missed.
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 a word like “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 and are therefore what we call “moderate”; perhaps “Muslim” will be reserved, literally, for those who truly submit to the dictates of Islam. But until that day comes, why insist on a language that is easily misunderstood and even has the potential to backfire?
Postscript 1: “Responding to the Critics” (via PJ Media):
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.
Postscript 2: The following is my response to Robert Spencer’s article, “Why We Don’t Need Words Like Islamist“:
My article argues that we need words that differentiate, “at least in certain contexts.” I gave several examples—three news headlines that use the word “Islamist,” for instance—to show that, in certain situations, it ranges from meaningless to absurd to use the word “Muslim.” (No one thus far has been able to refute this, to show that we can use “Muslim” in those contexts.)
Intentionally titled “Why We Need Words Like Islamist”—not “Why We Need The Word Islamist”—I argue throughout the article that it really doesn’t matter to me if the word used to differentiate is “Islamist” or something else. After stating my case, I wrote: “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?”
Robert’s response, titled “Why We Don’t Need Words Like Islamist,” in fact agrees that we do need words “like Islamist,” only he “propose[s] the term ‘Islamic supremacist,’ which does not have the baggage of ‘Islamist,’ and leads no one to believe that Islam itself is ‘trouble-free.'”
As I wrote, I have no problem with using “Islamic supremacist” instead of “Islamist.” However, I also believe that to the layperson—the many hundreds of millions we are trying to reach—”Islamist,” “Islamic supremacist,” “Muslim radical,” ad infinitum, are at best synonymous: they all imply something affiliated to Islam, but that is other than “Muslim.” More to the point, I really don’t see how “Islamic supremacist … leads no one to believe that Islam itself is trouble free,” anymore than the word “Islamist.” Seems one can accuse “Islamic supremacist” as a politically correct code word for “Muslim” no less than “Islamist,” though neither of them necessarily are, and are needed for the reasons both Robert and I cite.
Finally, I used “Islamist” as the main example of my article simply because it is the most recognizable and mainstream. So many seem to forget that this isn’t—or shouldn’t be—about preaching to a small choir that already understands the threat, but rather reaching out to a grossly misinformed public—a public that, if it merely begins to accept that “Islamists” or “Islamic supremacists” are the “bad guys,” would already be making progress.
Keep the true enemy in mind and march on, using whichever word you deem most appropriate.