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Editor’s note: The article below is written in response to Raymond Ibrahim’s article, Why We Need Words Like ‘Islamist’, which appeared in our Feb 17th issue.
Since I previously had an exchange with Andy McCarthy about the utility of the term “Islamist” (article here; video with transcript here); I read Raymond Ibrahim’s new piece, “Why We Need Words Like ‘Islamist,'” with great interest.
Raymond initially states the controversy this way:
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).
That is a bit caricatured, but it does express what is essentially the disagreement: is Islam a religion of peace that has been hijacked by a tiny minority of extremists (the “Islamists,”) or are supremacism and violence part of the core and mainstream teachings of Islam, in all its various sects and manifestations?
Several factors make the question more complicated: one is that many analysts use the term “Islamist” to mean an adherent of the tenets of political Islam. And certainly, as Raymond points out in his piece here, some term is needed for such people: for example, a follower of Mubarak in Egypt would likely be a Muslim but not an “Islamist”: i.e., not a proponent of Sharia rule. But because of the baggage that is attached to the word “Islamist,” and the misleading way it is used in order to deny or downplay the violence, hatred, and supremacism that is in core Islamic texts and teachings, I generally use “Islamic supremacist” instead for the adherents of Sharia and political Islam.
Andy McCarthy, meanwhile, acknowledges the violence in Islamic texts and teachings but uses the term “Islamist” for those acting upon that violence, so as not to discourage moderate Muslim reformers. This is a strange tactic, since genuine reform cannot proceed without an honest acknowledgment of the fact that there is something that needs reforming, and yet McCarthy’s usage is intended to distance the problem within Islam from Islam itself — a comforting fiction that will only discourage genuine reform and make it more difficult.
Here again, the problem with the terms “Islamist” and “Islamism” is that they mislead the uninformed into thinking that the problem of jihad and Islamic supremacism is not as large as it really is, not as deeply rooted within Islam as it really is, and more easily solved than it really is.
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