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 like Islamist”; 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?Read it all and see how.
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...