Why We Don't Need Words Like 'Islamist'

My disagreement with Raymond Ibrahim.

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.

Raymond goes on:

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.

There is some truth to this, but here again, one would be in dangerous waters if one takes Raymond's statement that "Islamism is a distinct phenomenon and, to an extent, different from historic Islam" as meaning that Islam in its various mainstream forms has not always been political and supremacist. Take, for instance, the medieval Muslim Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), a pioneering historian and philosopher, who was also a Maliki legal theorist. In his renowned Muqaddimah, the first work of historical theory, he notes that “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.” In Islam, the person in charge of religious affairs is concerned with “power politics,” because Islam is “under obligation to gain power over other nations.”

Another medieval Muslim, Ibn Taymiyya (Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya, 1263-1328), was a Hanbali jurist. He directed that “since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought.”

In light of that, whether or not they are, as Raymond goes on to argue, "influenced by Westernization," even before these Westernizing influences entered in, they were energized by an imperative to make war against and subjugate unbelievers.

Raymond thus quite rightly goes on to point out that "Islam proper" is not "trouble-free." I agree with those whose views he characterizes this way: "one might argue that use of words like 'Islamist,' while valid, are ultimately academic and have the potential further to confuse the layman." He then goes on to argue for the need for a term for the adherents of political Islam -- and there again, I propose the term "Islamic supremacist," which does not have the baggage of "Islamist," and leads no one to believe that Islam itself is "trouble-free."

Raymond concludes: "why insist on a language that is easily misunderstood and even has the potential to backfire?"

Indeed. And that's why I reject the term "Islamist."

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