Why We Don’t Need Words Like ‘Islamist’

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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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  • Leo

    How is "Islamic supremacist" better than "Islamist"? If "Muslims" are the problem, then both words are equally misleading! "Islamic supremacist" implies there is a non- supremacist Islam, just like "radical Islam" implies there is a non-radical Islam. Lots of disagreement about nothing.

    • Joe

      Leo, I think I agree with you. However, I don't think all Muslims are the problem, only those who try to take the whole Koran and the teachings/example of Mohammad seriously. The real problem, as I see it, is the supremacist, totalitarian, and violent teachings in the Koran that lead some Muslims to engage in Jihad (holy war) and terrorism against other Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

      There may not be a non-supremacist Islam, but I think there are many (so called) Muslims who do not believe in or adhere to the supremacist, totalitarian, and violent teachings in the Koran or in the example of Mohammad. They are Muslims by name only and they would probably choose to leave Islam if it were not for the strangle hold that they are under.

      The problem for the "religion" of Islam, in my opinion, is that there is no place for it as it is in the free world. The supremacist and violent doctrines of Islamic law, including Jihad and Apostasy, to say the least, need to be done away with in Islam is to continue to be granted freedom of religion in America. I think you would agree.

    • Mansoon

      Bingo – you captured my thoughts exactly. I thought this article was about a real disagreement with Ibrahim – but I don't see it. In fact, I think "Islamist" is netter than "Islamic supremacist," since the last only stresses one negative aspect of Islam, supremacy.

  • Gunner57

    How about "Islam" and "Muslim".TYhe rest is just PC cowardice meant to obfuscate the fact that "Islam is Islam". There is no moderate Islam. That is all you need unless you wish to inform the reader if they are Sunni or Shia.

    • DeepBreathPeople

      I agree that "Islamist" and terms like it are BS. However, you clearly have not met many Muslims and have never visited a Muslim country. There are hundreds of millions of moderate Muslims.

      Go to Istanbul. Great history, fun city, nd almost entirely Muslim, yet they live in a constitutional republic.

      I also bet 80% of Iranians would love to be rid of Ahmadinejad. I've met a bunch of Iranians and they loathe his existence and those who have relatives in Iran fear for their lives daily.

  • LindaRivera

    To Soylent Green,

    Indeed, and it was NOT only the major Muslim terror attack perpetrated in the name of the Muslim god, but the fact that in America, Muslims celebrated 9/11 in the streets. A lot of Muslims celebrated openly in Britain. Turkish Muslims in Germany celebrated by sending hundreds of bottle rockets into the air. Muslims celebrated in countries around the world and in the Palestinian Authority THOUSANDS of Muslims celebrated in the streets, dancing and passing out sweets and firing into the air – Muslims that Americans are FORCED to finance with their tax dollars.

    The Muslims who celebrated 9/11 were not terrorists. They were just regular Muslims.

    I hope my comment won't get deleted.

    • Secular Jew

      Very excellent comment.

  • WilliamJamesWard

    Rag head was popular after 9/11 and covers all of the dirt bags. Why try to be
    civil with barbarian ilk. The fine art of tuning in on naming the beast opens up
    the multitude of shades of darkness in the human soul, from totally inhuman to
    passibly human but will bite you on the leg. Islam like alcohol may start out with
    a little here a little there but the alcohol takes over and a 24/7 drunk is the end
    result. Do not start drinking it leads to destruction and the Islamist/Muslim cup
    of tea is no better at the line up for DUI," Dead Under Islam", keep them off of the
    street. No degree is healthy, just don't get any on you………………..William

  • Mickey Oberman

    Enough pilpul (hairsplitting).

    If someone believes in the Koran and desires to practice what it preaches he/she is a danger to our western civilization no matter what that person is called.
    The Koran is immutable. One either believes it entirely or is an apostate.

    Yes, The Torah has some bloody awful passages but Judaism, for the most part, has put them aside, ignores what is wrong by today's standards and practices what is good, moral and uplifting despite what many would like to say. Judaism has evolved into a modern, life valuing religion and way of life.

    The Christian Bible is, in general, a marvelous treatise on how to be good and caring and honourable. For much of its 2000 years Christianity has not practiced the lessons of the bible. Try as they may, they keep reverting back to the savages from which they evolved. But Christians are capable of great good when they act like a believer should.

    Islam has not moved one dunam from the bloody, intractable, tribal sect that it was 1400 years ago.

    It – can – not – be – modified.
    It – has – not – been – modified.

    It is a life threatening danger to its own adherents and to the rest of the world.

    It can not be lived with as an equal.
    It can only be subdued to be kept under control.
    Its very name tells non Muslims what Islam requires – Submission.

  • kafirman

    The best word to use to distinguish the active violent jihadist type (e.g., bin Laden) from the Westernized diluted type (e.g., Dr. Zuhdi Jasser) who functions as a moral veneer on the evil of Islam is "Mohammadian." It is necessary to bring the evil of Islam back to Mohammad, that person who is a murderer, a promoter of offensive genocide (Koran 9:5), the Jizya tax (9:29), sexual slavery (Koran 4:3), a torturer …. Thus there are Mohammadian Muslims and milquetoasty Muslims. Each group of Muslims advances Islam and therefore advances death.

    • ObamaYoMoma

      The best word to use to distinguish the active violent jihadist type (e.g., bin Laden) from the Westernized diluted type (e.g., Dr. Zuhdi Jasser) who functions as a moral veneer on the evil of Islam is "Mohammadian."

      Actually, what you perceive as the the Westernized diluted type (e.g., Dr. Zuhdi Jasser), in reality are not diluted at all. What they really are in fact are covert non-violent jihadists, and covert non-violent jihad relative to violent jihad is employed by the Islamic world against the West astronomically far more prevalently and therefore represents an exponentially far greater threat to the peace and security of the West.

      Indeed, unless something drastic happens, Muslim can't hope to conquer the West via violent jihad as the West is far too rich, technologically advanced, and too powerful for that to happen. However, via covert non-violent jihad, such as mass Muslim immigration to the West for the purpose of infiltration and stealth demographic conquest, they can. As a matter of fact, it is already happening as in the next 30 to 40 years several Western European countries will become Islamic.

      In fact, it is exceedingly stupid to waste trillions of dollars going after AQ, while at the same time wasting trillions of dollars at home protecting our homeland from so-called terrorist attacks. All we need to do is outlaw Islam and ban and reverse mass Muslim immigration with all of its excess baggage ASAP. As zero Muslims living in America as a fifth column would equal zero possibility of violent jihad attacks. Indeed, if they can't get into the country in the first place, then they can't hit us with violent jihad attacks and at the same time it would also end the much greater threat of stealth demographic conquest.

      As a matter of fact, we must end the so-called “War on Terror” disaster ASAP and transition to a new saner strategy of containment, to contain the spread, growth, and expansion of Islam.

      • kafirman

        "All we need to do is outlaw Islam and ban and reverse mass Muslim immigration with all of its excess baggage ASAP. As zero Muslims living in America as a fifth column would equal zero possibility of violent jihad attacks."
        I think it is only necessary to deny 501(c)3 status to Islam. Deny Islam it's legal and economic privileges and moral standing in the US, and a real informed debate can occur. Italy does not recognize Islam as a religion. Until 80% of the population understands the Jizya, Islam's roots in American will continue to be deep. Dr. Jasser is absolutely "diluted." That is why CAIR et al. so renounce him. But Dr. Jasser is nonetheless promoting the oppression of Islam. Please consider joining the FB group, "No 501(c)3 status for Islam."

  • Glennd1

    I think there is also another perspective here. Islamist has long been used to describe say the Muslim Brotherhood and while some folks on this thread might not like to hear it, they are in some very real ways more moderate than Al Qaeda and other radicals. Another aspect of the MB is that they have built real political support in the populations in which they reside as well as institutions that serve those people. It's this political action, power and responsibility that makes them more moderate. Example: They didn't immediately support the abrogation of Egypt's treaty with Israel. As well, they don't seem to seek as theocracy in Egypt but some kind of civil govt, whereas the Salafists wish to implement a theocracy.

    My question is what are their ultimate aims? Some of their rhetoric and history should give us great pause. I don't pretend to understand all this, but I do think distinctions need to be drawn between the different factions operating in the Islamic world. It's not sufficient to just lump them all together. Finally, save yourselves any comments about me being soft on Islamists or supremacists – rather I seek to react appropriately to the actual threat. Maybe we could avoid invading another country that way?

  • Anonymous

    In Robert Spencer's article on Jihad Watch, http://www.jihadwatch.org/2012/02/robert-spencer-

    Raymond Ibrahim responded, pasted below, making excellent points and rebuttals:

    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 are necessary, 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.