| by Sarah Mills |
Much has been said regarding the terms Islam and Islamism. Some argue the distinction is an artificial one, imposed by the politically correct Left. Others stress it is essential to distinguish between the religion and its violent imposition so that Muslims are not indiscriminately condemned with a broad brush. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics states that Islamism “at the very least represents a form of social and political activism, grounded in an idea that public and political life should be guided by a set of Islamic principles.” Such a liberal definition would strip the term of its harsher connotations, thereby bestowing the label “Islamist” upon a broader swath of the Muslim population. With prominent figures on either side of the debate weighing in, and with the recent murders of free thinkers in places where there is little or no separation of religion and state, it is imperative that we examine the implications of this semantic squabble. Is Islam itself the problem?
Maajid Nawaz — former Islamist turned secular Muslim, founding chairman of the counter-extremism organization Quilliam, and outspoken critic of fundamentalism — recently reasserted his position regarding the tricky terminology on Twitter. The parameters he set were, for the most part, politically defined. He conceded that fundamentalism sprouts from a plausible reading of the Quran but that Islamism is “the political quest to impose any version of Islam over society.” He correctly stated that most Muslims are not jihadists and it is worth noting that Muslims are very often victims of extremism themselves. He went on to criticize dismissal of the debate: “To blur this distinction is to “hinder” our ability to devise tactics that play to divisions between them.” At the core of his message is the noble — and logical — call to not dismiss all Muslims as latent fascists.
Is Islamism, then, fascism by another name? Daniel Pipes, President of the Middle East Forum, historian, and specialist in Islamism, says the comparison is apt. He calls it a “radical utopian scheme” that relies heavily on the power of the state. “The word ‘Islamism’ is highly appropriate, for this is an ‘-ism’ like other ‘-isms’ such as fascism and nationalism.” Like other totalitarian ideologies, it seeks to control every aspect of life, even going so far as to impose its system on the physical body.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute, writes that Islamism defines itself in opposition to other groups and ideas. Much like the Third Position, Islamism opposes capitalism and communism because the former is a product of the decadent western world, and the latter, that of a Jew. “Islamism,” he says, “is not a form of the Muslim faith…Rather, it is a political ideology that strives to derive legitimacy from Islam.” A perversion of the faith, as it were.
Lalo Dagach, commentator, host of the eponymous podcast, and frequent contributor to the discourse surrounding contemporary Islam, disagreed. “All these distinctions… are ultimately descriptions of how much belief individual Muslims have in a religious dogma, and how much they’re working to impose religion on society.” He argued that Islamism is a convenient word for people wanting to avoid being labeled as bigots.
These perspectives beg the questions: How far can we reasonably separate Islam, the fastest-growing major religion in the world, with its followers?
Pew Research Center surveys of Muslims from 39 different countries show that beliefs are largely determined geographically. This means that in countries like Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, people overwhelmingly support sharia law — 84, 91, and 99% respectively– whereas in the secular, ex-USSR countries of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, only 8 and 10%, respectively, favor its implementation. Even so, Muslim communities in Britain hold convictions that contrast deeply with the rest of the population. When asked, for example, whether homosexuality should be legal in Britain, 52% of Muslims said they disagreed, compared with 5% of the general public. Almost one third of those interviewed thought it acceptable for a Muslim man to practice polygamy, compared to 8%, and nearly 40% agreed wives should be submissive to their husbands, compared to only 5% of the rest of the population. In this case, religion, rather than geography, decided belief.
Trevor Philips, former head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, noticed a correlation between a lack of willingness to assimilate, and sympathy with terrorists: “One in six Muslims say they would like to live more separately, a quarter would like to live under sharia law. It means that as a society we have a group of people who basically do not want to participate in the way that other people [do].”
Citing this worrying find, he stressed the urgency of integration and the danger in sacrificing disagreement for the sake of being non-confrontational: “We are more nervous about Muslims because we feel people will be offended. But my view is that looking at the results of this survey…we have gone beyond the situation where we can say: ‘OK, don’t worry; they will come round in time.’ ”
Integration is at the heart of the issue when it comes to assessing identity, a major factor in the extent to which a person will choose to side with his community over another, or over his adopted country. Critics of multiculturalism argue the “mosaic” approach is idealistic and doesn’t take into account conflicting, much less incompatible, world-views. While a very small percentage of people become violent, unassimilated communities will often see politics through a tribal lens, especially when the “us-them” dichotomy is so marked. It’s the reason why a western Muslimah will argue sharia law is empowering and feminist, while a Saudi woman will defy it and suffer the horrific consequences. In a similar vein, it is the perceived threat to identity that serves as fuel for nationalist and populist movements in Europe.
It is precisely the concern that radical beliefs may not be the exclusive domain of radicals, however, that makes the distinction between Islam and Islamism so pertinent. While Daniel Pipes declares that Islamists are a minority, he acknowledges that they are a “very active minority” whose reach is “greater than its numbers. Islamists are also present here, in the United States, and, to a stunning extent, dominate the discourse of American Islam.” To actively combat violent manifestations of the ideology, he says “we must very specifically and very repeatedly distinguish between Islam and Islamism.” This includes, as he goes on to say, calling out Islamist terror groups — and the states that sponsor them — for what they are and avoiding dialogue with them; refraining from pushing elections onto nations tentatively experimenting with democracy; and supporting states that successfully contain the threat of extremism. All this he wrote several years before the Arab Spring.
Does this strategy also include condemning the Wahhabi nation of Saudi Arabia? Does it include questioning whether definitions of Islamism accurately account for Quranic verses that smack of fascism themselves? Is Geert Wilders, for example, wrong to question the logic in restricting the sale of Mein Kampf while not also doing the same for the Quran? While banning a book is rarely ever the answer, the arbitrariness in giving one a free pass and attacking the other is problematic for those who argue that the violent, intolerant aspects of Islam — and thus, its threat — are being overlooked or even defended in the name of diversity, cultural relativism, and freedom of religion. When looking at the book from which both the faithful and the militant draw their inspiration, it would be easy to obfuscate Islam and Islamism. But how much does the Quran matter when discussing the problem with radicalization?
One could argue that to say all religions are equal is dishonest. Bill Maher, television host, writer, and unabashed critic of religious fundamentalism, often ridicules the hesitation to label Islamic terrorist as such. It’s safe to say they aren’t Amish, goes the joke. There’s the sentiment that honest debate regarding the Quran is being silenced in favor of political correctness: all religions are the same, Islam is as benign or malevolent as any other belief system, and terrorists are politically driven. As is most often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, between the equally ridiculous arguments that attribute extremist inclinations to the poor, disenfranchised, and disillusioned — absolving religion of any responsibility — and those that make Islam out to be the root of all evil. Reductionism is misleading and lends itself easily to fear-mongers and fanatics on either side of the political spectrum.
To understand whether a religion is responsible for the acts of its adherents, and thus whether they can be expected to consistently act in accordance with its principles to the detriment of non-believers, we mustn’t only examine one religion. Defenders of Christianity often cite the New Testament as proof of its inherent superiority, as the core message is one of love, forgiveness, and charity. True. But it also deals with heaven and hell, martyrdom, persecution, proselytism, the ultimate death of non-believers, and a new world order — reminiscent of the equally contentious concepts of jihad, Dar al-Harb, the kafir, and the caliphate. The tu quoque rebuttals that the Left often bring up are fallacious when talking about a terrorist attack. It doesn’t matter that Christians have been responsible for atrocities in the past — they are not the ones mowing down people while shouting “God is great” now. But it does matter when we say, “That had nothing to do with Christianity” because apologists are saying the same of Islam now.
The same responses that are fallacious in one context are legitimate in another, in so far as they are irrefutable facts. Organized Christianity did engage in forced conversions on indigenous peoples. It did carry out the Inquisition. It was responsible for the systematic persecution of heretics, — often Christians themselves who deviated only slightly from accepted dogma — and the brutal torture and execution of homosexuals, Jews, and women. Shall we separate these from the doctrines of Christianity? If the answer is yes, then we can plausibly do the same for other religions. But the answer is unequivocally no. The Bible certainly allows for these interpretations. And it’s a tired old trope saying communism wasn’t real communism, those weren’t real Christians, and terrorists can’t call themselves true Muslims. No one is buying the forced distancing of atrocities committed in the name of one ideology or another from their idealistic or cherry-picked versions. Westboro Baptists have all they need in the Bible to justify their hate. And we never shied away from identifying the problem when abortion doctors were being murdered.
To rely on the simplistic assumption that people are guided exclusively by “holy” texts, on the other hand, is to ignore the multi-faceted nature of our modern problem with Islamic extremism. It’s also a bit like saying video games are what make people kill — it seeks an easy scapegoat. While not denying the role religion plays in terrorism, we must be aware that there are other factors at play that make the distinction between Islam and Islamism especially important. We must also take into consideration that many Islamist movements are a recent phenomenon: the Iran Revolution, India and Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, Hamas. Quinn Mecham, assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and researcher in Middle Eastern politics and Political Islam, writes:
“Although most Islamist movements, such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, were initially slow to lead popular mobilization against autocratic Arab regimes, they recognized that they could benefit from changes in the post-uprisings political landscape. As it became apparent in many Arab countries that new elections could translate popular support for Islamist movements into political power, many Islamist groups supported the electoral process and launched aggressive campaigns to define society’s needs and capture votes.” 
Fred Halliday, an academic specializing in international relations and the Middle East, sets the rise of Islamism in an international context, associating it, surprisingly or not, with communism and the Cold War. “The modern relationship of the left to militant Islamism dates to the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. At that time, the Soviet leadership was promoting an “anti-imperialist” movement in Asia against the British, French and Dutch colonial empires, and did indeed see militant Muslims as at least tactical allies.” 
He goes on to prove precisely that any text can lend itself to the purpose of whomever exploits it: “A verse in the Qur’an stating that ‘water, grass and fire are common among the people’ was interpreted as an early, nomadic, form of collective means of production; while Muslim concepts of ijma’ (consensus), zakat (charitable donation), and ‘adala (justice) were interpreted in line with the dictates of the “non-capitalist” road. Jihad was obviously a form of anti-imperialist struggle.” As time went on, the stance of Islamist groups became more defined: “In essence, Islamism…saw socialism in all its forms as another head of the western secular hydra; it had to be fought all the more bitterly because it had such a following in the Arab world, in Iran and in other Muslim countries.” What is perhaps most striking is the similarity in rhetoric shared by communism and Islamism: “…our lands are occupied by imperialism, our rulers betray our interests, the west is robbing our resources, we are the victim of double standards.”
Combatting the proliferation and influence of terror groups has involved, historically, military operations. But now, many doubt the efficacy of the “War on Terror.” Zeyno Baran, Nixon Center Director for International Security and Energy Programs, in Hizb ut-Tahrir: Islam’s Political Insurgency, argues that these solutions “do not address the existential problem of the spread of an ideology that is fundamentally in contrast to the democratic capitalist system and the Western conception of freedom. This ideology exploits certain Islamic teachings to unite the global Muslim community, or umma, to bring down the existing order.” She says, “The tolerance of intolerance is no longer acceptable if we are to win the battle of ideas.”
In her statement is the explicit reference to the role of Islamic teachings in this existential struggle. To expect, however, that believers are going to unanimously disavow their faith is unreasonable and idealistic. Even the most militant atheist will agree that if we cannot do away with religion entirely, it is far preferable to reconcile faith with modern, secular values and work with religion than to accept the status quo. A text, unfortunately, is not a painting. Variety in plausible interpretations and scholarly commentary can only be stretched so far. But the problem largely resides in shutting down any attempt to suggest allegorical or contextual interpretations that would open the doors for Islam to embark on a reforming journey such as what Christianity went through. Doing so would mean fighting ISIS’s propaganda claim that it is the authentic and inimitable representation of Islam.
It only obstructs progress when people insist on the benignity of Islam and deny its politicization and role in radicalization. This effectively hinders any reformers who would challenge, much like the Christian reformers of yore, the literal and political application of Islam. Accusations of Islamophobia silence critics. It is the mentality of dictating certain things as sacred that contributes to the persecution of humanists, skeptics, atheists, dissenters, and even those suspected or falsely accused of being so.
We saw this in the case of Mashal Khan and Farkhunda Malikzada. We saw this in the hashtag calling for the execution of Ayaz Nizami. We see this every day on social media from people who would see nonconformists, many of them women, put to death for speaking their minds, for uncovering their heads, for attempting to escape their hellish prisons. The scariest thing is that these people do not seem to be a minority. So while in Europe the threat of violence comes from a small percentage, abroad where religion is entrenched and inextricable from public life, it is a constant peril. In this case, the distinction between Islam and Islamism is not so clear.
Those who wish to identify as Muslims, especially for reasons of heritage and family tradition, must be offered the choice to interpret the Quran as a philosophical text, much like secular Christians who do not necessarily believe in the divine infallibility of the Bible but choose to follow Christ’s compassionate example. This would lead to a clear demarcation between church and state, private and public. The relationship with the divine would shift from public to private. The onus is on figures of authority, like imams, to instigate and encourage this interpretation. There is no place for the violent, primitive practices of the Bible and Quran in modern society, if there ever was a place for it in history. We all share a responsibility in decriminalizing criticism and skepticism. This is exactly why it is so crucial to distinguish between an ideology and individuals. If they are one and the same, we cannot criticize the former without appearing bigoted towards the latter. Though the lines may seem to blur, as in the tragic cases outlined in the previous paragraph, we must criticize the ideology that motivates individuals to abandon their humanity.
And should you see Muslims side by side with LGBT rights groups, risking their relationships and even their lives to stand for liberal values and show solidarity with their fellow humans, please refrain from calling them wolves in sheep’s clothing. Yes, I’ve seen the picture “Gays for Islam vs Islam for Gays,” but that’s not what I’m talking about. The individuals who stand with other individuals are the ones we should actively praise and encourage for while a book may tell them heretics and “deviants” are not worthy of life, they choose to embrace only the positive aspects of their creed. You should be able to do that and still call yourself a Muslim. After all, we do have gay bishops.
Times are changing. Why shouldn’t religion get an update?
Sarah Mills is a Lebanese-American fiction writer and essayist based in Italy. She holds a BA Hons in Italian and French studies and is currently completing a Master’s programme in creative writing. She has a passion for the Fertile Crescent, nuanced thinking, and historical parallels. You can connect with her on Twitter @saerahwrites
Header Photo: Peter Hershey