Just call it Islam, stupid!

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.”

Here’s the full article arguing in favor of it:

Raymond Ibrahim: Why We Need Words Like ‘Islamist’

Over at PJ Media (via RaymondIbrahim.com), I discuss the reason why words like “Islamist” are useful. Based on some comments on PJ Media, which misunderstand the point of the article (probably by not even reading it and just going by the title), some clarifications may be in order: 1) I am not arguing that “Islamism” is bad, “Islam” is good, as some seem to think; in fact, I point 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 likeIslamist”; 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 expound on Islamic doctrine.

For example, consider these recent news headlines: “Egypt’s Islamists secure 75 percent of parliament”; “U.S. official meets with Egypt’s Islamists”; and “Islamist Named Speaker of Egypt House.” Think of how meaningless it would be to use the word “Muslim” in these headlines, and how it would lead precisely to what those who staunchly oppose using words like “Islamist” claim to be combating: a completely misinformed Western public. In 90% Muslim Egypt, what’s the point of saying that parliament is 75% “Muslim,” or that the house-speaker is a “Muslim,” etc? Where’s the news? But by using “Islamist,” readers quickly understand that these are new developments of concern.

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 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…

Read it all and see how.

One thought on “Just call it Islam, stupid!”

  1. That’s why I just use the term Mohammedan.It also has the added bonus that most Muslims don’t like it.

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