Word of the Day: Islamist

Posted by sepoy on February 23, 2005 · 6 mins read

I don't like the word Islamist - not one bit. Today, I would like to take a skewed opinion poll from my lagging readership. What do you think about that word? In a headline today, NYT writes, "Shiites in Iraq Back Islamist to Be Premier".

Islamist is referenced in the very first sentence: " Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite doctor with an Islamist bent, was chosen Tuesday by the victorious Shiite alliance as its candidate to become Iraq's new prime minister." With an Islamist bent. I read the article with great interest to try and find which of the two meanings OED provides for Islamist applied:
a. Islamism, n. Add: Islamist n., (b) one who is versed in Islamic studies.
b. Islamism, n. The religious system of the Muslims; Muhammadanism. So Islamist, an orthodox Muslim; Islamistic a., Islamic [OED]

So, the NYT is obviously going for the second definition, but not quite adhering to the script. Look at this para:

Dr. Jaafari, the Shiite alliance picked a soft-spoken leader whose personal modesty and ties to the Dawa Party, a victim of bloody purges carried out by Mr. Hussein, have made him, at least according to opinion polls, the most popular leader in Iraq. A native of the holy city of Karbala, where his father worked at the Imam Hussein shrine, Dr. Jaafari fled Iraq in 1980, after Mr. Hussein began a campaign of killing and torturing thousands of Dawa members. Since returning to Iraq after Mr. Hussein was toppled, Dr. Jaafari has cut a cautious political path, tacitly supporting the American presence here but staking out a strongly adversarial position on many key issues.

As a member of the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, Dr. Jaafari pushed for a more expansive role for Islam in the country's interim constitution. And he was one of several Shiite leaders who initially refused to sign the document, based on his opposition to a provision that would allow a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq's 18 provinces to nullify the constitution when it goes before voters later this year. Dr. Jaafari, whose Shiites represent a 60 percent majority in the country, said the provision was undemocratic.
He eventually signed the interim constitution, but even now says he may lead a move to reverse the provisions he opposed last year. That prospect is viewed with alarm by many groups here, including Kurds, secular parties, and the Americans.

The CSM also used Islamist in a similiar fashion in the headline, "A 'pragmatic' Islamist for Iraq", a few days ago defining Jaafari as:

As a politician, Jaafari presents a blend of a secular style, human rights rhetoric, and commitment to Islamic values that sometimes seem contradictory to Western observers. But his friends and allies say no contradiction exists - that he's a pragmatic politician who sees Islam as the best guarantee against more turmoil, and who believes that a modern interpretation of Islam's political role can be found that's acceptable to most who live here.
"Iraq's minorities must be protected, and they must be given their rights,'' Jaafari said in a recent interview with the Monitor. "But we must also respect the majority, so Islam should be the official religion of the state ... and we shouldn't have any laws that contradict Islam." "He looks at Islam as a bridge to all humanity, not just for on particular type of people,'' says Mr. Khadimi. "He doesn't want an Islamic republic like Iran's, or a system like Saudi Arabia's. He wants to see something modernized and that recognizes that Iraqis are closely tied to their religion and traditions. He's going with what the Iraqi people want."

In both cases, the reference is to a politician who may or may not be a devout Muslim but is using Islam as a political tool to reform/enact laws in the land.

From MSM, lets move to the blogosphere. Here, Islamist, has a very specific meaning.

Islamist, hence, can mean someone who studies Islam, someone who is an "orthodox" believer [whatever that means], someone who is using Islam as a political tool for mobilization, someone who wants to bring back the Golden Age of Islam, someone who endorses resistance against govts. and civilians, someone who is engaged in subversive or terrorist acts against the US/West, someone somewhere anyone anywhere who is a MUSLIM - a practitioner of Islam.

You see my frustration? Is Bush ever refered to as having a "Christian bent"? And I abhor the implications in "bent". Is Will Bennet a Christianist? Or how about Billy Graham? Or James Dobson? Can you tell me with a straight face that the faith of a billion people - with all of its complexities, rigidities, varieties of expression and belief - can all be described unapologetically and bluntly by one word? And that word a condemning one at that? Because the taint is not on the believer. The taint is on the faith. No matter what you say or do, your avowal taints you with that disease which may be dormant, mild or in full onset but it is always there. And that is exactly the point made by the Pipes and the Malkins.

To be precise, NYT also qualifies Islamist with "militant" or "radical" in certain cases but the curse remains. Should the NYT and CSM use the same word to describe Jafaari as they do for al-Zarqawi? Is there no difference between the two? Is there a problem here? Am I being overly sensitive? Have we lost the word "Islam" forever?


Zack | February 23, 2005

While I have used the term "Islamist" on ocassion, I agree that it is not useful and varies in application from person to person. There was some discussion on my blog about it some time ago. Then there are those who use "Islamist" to tar all Muslims with a broad brush. Some of these people are also against the use of such Muslim terms as "Ansar", "jihad", "mujahid", etc. etc. I think Tacitus argued that some time ago though I can't find it now.

praktike | February 23, 2005

What about "political Islamist?" How else would you distinguish Ja'fari from a secular politician?

praktike | February 23, 2005

As for your questions: Is Will Bennet a Christianist? Or how about Billy Graham? Or James Dobson? Yes, yes, and yes. As opposed to, say, Bill Clinton, who is a Christian politician but not a Christianist politician like Jesse Helms.

nykol | February 23, 2005

Dude - you are not being overly sensitive. This "Islamist" coding is for real. "Islamist" seems be code for all kind of negatively perceived "-ists." It seems to be code for "fundamentalist" which is, of course, incorrectly associated with "radical" or "extremist" in the media. I won't even try to discuss "bent." WTF????

rob | February 23, 2005

Don't have much love for it myself, although it's in a lesser-of-two-evils duel with "Islamofascist".

sepoy | February 23, 2005

praktike: A Muslim would answer, there is no need to distinguish between a "secularist" or anything since secularism itself is problematic term. Why can't he just be a politician? Maybe a leftist or a rightist? maybe a liberal or a conservative? Are those categories only for the cool western pols? rob & nykol: That is exactly my point that Islamist is a code for Islamofascist [the freeper term] and worse. So, when I see NYT use it in a headline to describe the possible future PM of Iraq, it gets my goat. zack: your blog is amazing, man.

dacoit | February 23, 2005

To weigh in on the straw poll (what's the score, by the way?): In my view 'Islamism' is a useful term to refer to Islam when invoked as modern political ideology (in the narrow sense, comprising electoral politics, and domestic and international governance) as opposed to Islam as a language of religious and social ethics. A term, however, that tends to be wildly misused, usually by Islamophobes. What would you prefer, 'political Islam' perhaps? Does not do much for me. Aurangzeb, Sayyid Qutb and Muhammad bin Qasim all participated in 'political Islam' (or should we say that they are examples of political Muslims?, oof), but only the second qualifies as an Islamist. In describing pre-modern Islam, Hodgson coined the term 'Islamicate' as distinct from 'Islamic' in order to designate the secular elements of the civilizational ideas that spread coterminously with Muslim empires, as opposed to those considered to be religiously founded (in this case, tracable to precedent in the Quran or Sunnah). A problematic distinction to make on a lot of levels, but nevertheless indispensible to scholars of much of the pre-modern world. 'Islamism' is equally problematic, since the line between the political and the social, personal and religious (very difficult to define precisely in its own right) is impossible to accurately sketch. Nevertheless, to refer specifically to the peculiarly modern way that political rhetoric is presented as scripturally-derived and divine inspired directive, 'Islamism' is crucial (far better than 'fundamentalism', which is meaningless in a Muslim context, in my view). One should be careful to distinguish in principle between militant, xenophobic and fanatical Islamism (Al-Qaeda) ultraconservative capitalist Islamism (wahhabism) and progressive anti-imperialist Islamism (al-Afghani), though on the ground the picture is a lot less clear cut (Osama bin Laden, Omid Safi and the Aga Khan probably all see al-Afghani as a progenitor of the agendas they are trying to advance to one degree or another). But to the extent that we coin neologisms to describe emergent cultural phenomena, Islamism is useful. Sepoy very rightly points out that the term all too often serves as a code word for 'Islamofascism'. People like Pipes and the other members of the neocon quadrant of the blogosphere are going to express positions of this kind no matter what terms are or are not available to them. It is indeed troubling that NYT is now trumping out Islamism so generalized a manner that a lot of people will immediately associate Jaafari with the extensively demonized 'bad Muslims' of the world. But I still think that a careful use of the term provided alongside a fairly dense description is useful to signify specific ways that Islam is invoked in modern political discourses. Also, I agree that a term something like Christianist (as opposed to Christian fundamentalist) would be useful to describe people such as Graham, Helms, perhaps even Bush. This would distinguish them from the Bill Clintons and Benny Hinns of the world. It also occurs to me that we have not had to come up against this quandary of terminology so much to describe Hindu majoritatian politicing, since in their own rhetorics they have provided us with the effective term 'Hindutva' (a practitioner of which is 'Hindutva-vadi'). Finally, I supose we have to believe the OED, but I always thought nowadays a scholar of Islam is to be referred to as an Islamicist. (The OED also gives "Oriental style or quality" as the first definition of Orientalism, but the way).

Jonathan Dresner | February 24, 2005

Chapati knows where I stand on the use of the term. dacoit's comments about the distinctions obscured by the term seem on target to me (I made a very similar, but not as detailed, comment elsewhere recently) with two caveats: even "Islamo-fascism" is a sloppy term, when we don't distinguish in studies of fascism between Western European neo-pagan or Catholic fascism (i.e. German and Italian/Spanish) and Asian neo-pagan/neo-confucian fascism (i.e. Japanese and Chinese Nationalist) on the basis of religion; and it's not clear to me that the generally accepted hallmarks of fascism are really met by most of the movements so termed. As David Neiwert recently argued, in his award winning series (I can say that now!), and the award winning Suburban Guerrilla has other references, the US has almost as many proto-fascist hallmarks as some of the movements we officially deem dangerous.

Chanad | February 24, 2005

Interesting post and replies... here's what I think: I think the term "Islamist" is very useful in the way it was originally used by the French sociologists/poliscientists, i.e. Olivier Roy, Gilles Kepel, Dorronosoro, etc. For them, Islamism didn't refer to just anyone who viewed the world through the lenses of "Islam", but rather it referred to a very specific group within that who had a specific ideology and sociological profile. For Roy, Kepel, et al "Islamism" was a movement born out of modernity (not as a reaction to it)... prime examples of Islamists are the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat in Pakistan. Islamism was specifically concerned with taking control of the State, rather than perceived societal piety. Since the State was their goal, the Islamists succumbed to adopting nationalistic rhetoric and icons, and were never able to organize themselves on a transnational level, etc etc etc. The important thing was to distinguish the Islamists from other Muslims movements, like "neo-fundamentalism" as coined by Roy. It allows us to understand the difference between the GIA and FIS in Algeria, or between the Jamaat, JUI and Tabligh in Pakistan. After 9-11 though, the American media lumped all Muslim movements together calling them Islamists, which screwed those of us who liked the French definition. I agree with you that today Islamism is a useful word in its popular usage. But the concepts and distinctions that Roy and Kepel introduced when they used the term are still very useful. So even if I don't use ther word in my discussions, I still think using the term "Islamism". Regarding Jaafari, I think he is very much an Islamist in the original sense of the word. The Da'wa party is a classic example of an Islamist movement, founded by the late Moh'd Baqer al-Sadr. I've written too much already... interseting stuff..

Chanad | February 24, 2005

Oops,... change "I agree with you that today Islamism is a useful word" to "useless word" in my comment above.

sepoy | February 24, 2005

Chanad: HA! what difference a "word" makes! I do agree with the historical usage of Islamism [though I have preferred Islamic Revivalism]. However, it is the "standardization" of the term that concerns me. Jonathan's point about the diversity in "fascism" even makes that point clearly. My view is that you taint the Muslim politician/doctor/whatever to begin the conversation. Ja'afri has to clear his name from association with terrorists [the fracas with Hilary Clinton shows that brilliantly] while Bush never had to defend himself from the work of Eric Rudolph.

Brian Ulrich | February 24, 2005

I don't like it either, but have gotten used to it. I was first introduced to it as a preferred alternative to "Islamic fundamentalist." There are mostly academic reasons why people don't want to use "fundamentalist" when talking about Islam, and there is apparently an Arabic word "Islamiyya" which is used to refer to those who wish to Islamize society. In general political discourse, however, I fear it seizes control of the word "Islam" as well, which is bad.

Martin Kramer | February 24, 2005

Terms are adopted, then abandoned, in the ceaseless quest for the perfect picnic spot. See my article, "Coming to Terms: Fundamentalists or Islamists?," on the whole question.

Morcy | February 24, 2005

A few little, quick points from the peeved peanut gallery: 1. "islamofascist" is a great term since adding "fascist" to anything is kind of great. I don't mean this entirely flippantly, but, rather, in a way that manages to automatically delegitimise one half of the arguing parties. The knowledge of that moves one into using code. "Islamist," in the MSM, means, I think, what the nuts like Pipes probably imagine it to mean: hates America, hates freedom, etc. That's why there is the "bent"--to make us understand that the fellow ain't exactly George Washington. I think they very explicitly, in a dumbing-down program that is motivated by sales and laziness, have conflated "islamist" with "freedomhater." It's funny--that's a word I immediately got a sense of the meaning of the first time I read it, in, probably, a Hitch article in The Nation. The backbone of French sociology is new to me, but fits in with the motto of "simplify!"; we had a nuanced, specific term, and now it's just one way we continue to other brown people. 2. Yes, Bush is a Christianist. However, Christianists are, in the US understanding (alleged), Ideal subjects--they get to move through space without having to contest themselves or explain or justify themselves. This is, at least, the fantasy. This then gets mobilised in a persecution complex (as it were) that provides us with the evidence of Bush's Christianism. This is all fucked, of course, since he's a corporatist before a Christianist, so there's a way that he has to mobilise the persecution, again, as proof of his Christianism. 3. Why no equivalent hate for "fundamentalism"? I would never have thought about this before overhearing in one of Bernard Wasserstein's office hours how he sort of encouraged a student to strike all descriptions of "radical" or "orthodox" (I'm imagining these qualifiers) Islam as "fundamentalist." He said that word had far too specific a prod connotation, and applying it to Islam sugggests that it has reacted similarly and developed similar sects based on similar disgareements. I don't think anyone would agree with that. But it's probably no worse than saying "islamofascist." I guess I don't understand the original question though. We all know about framing and the power of terminology. Then why try to salvage the term? Isn't it beyond salvaging? (this is how I used to justify the Nation's calling itself a magazine of "progressive" instead of "liberal" politics. But that was before I knew anything)

sepoy | February 24, 2005

morcy: I don't think I am trying to "salvage" Islamist rather "Islam" - for obvious reasons. martin: thanks for referring to your piece. and yes, the study of the other is, after all, the story of "creation" by naming. Bickering about words is all we historians have the power to do, oftentimes. I remember John Woods asking what the Middle East was in the middle of and east of?

thabet | February 25, 2005

"Islamist" and "Islamism" are modern versions of "Mohammadan" and "Mohammadenism".

dacoit | February 28, 2005

How are 'Islamist' and 'Islamism' modern versions of 'Mohammedan' and 'Mohammedanism'? Those last two, while they may have often been used by people both ignorant and hostile towards Muslims, are based on a mistaken presumption that Muslims relate to Muhammad in the same way that Christians relate to Christ. I fail to see how the political presumptions that certain Islamophobes seek to inscribe in the term Islamism is the modern equivalent of the faulty understandings of Muslim ideas of prophethood that give rise to the designation Mohammedan(ism). As I argued earlier, I think it is a mistake to give up on the term 'Islamism', which is useful to describe peculiarly modern trends in the political deployment of the language of Muslim religiosity prominent from the era of European colonial imperialism onwards. I do not think this is yet the universal (or even predominant) understanding of the word. 'Islamic' is a Westerner-coined term as well, and while there are a lot of small-minded, reactionary and xenophobic people in US (not to mention Europe and other non-Western locations) who think that 'Islamic' equals 'terrorist' or 'anti-modern', I think few of us would suggest we discontinue the use of that word.

donzelion | March 09, 2005

When 'secularists' deploy the same language as 'Islamists,' and distinguishing their goals is difficult, a focus upon the relative concentration of citations to holy texts is misguided. Terminological disputes are academic. Whatever term is selected, it acquires only the merit of exposing distinctions the observer wishes to consider, and hiding alternative distinctions that might also be considered. Thus, 'Islamists' tells us next to nothing about Muslims themselves, but it does reveal a great deal about non-Muslims observing Muslims. When 'Fundamentalists' was vogue, it suggested something about the American view of religion in American government. The term 'Islamists' similarly indicates American prejudices: 'Fundamentalist beliefs' are acceptable, just not Muslim ones.

Baraka | June 30, 2005

Orientalism is alive & well.

Procrastination | May 06, 2005

Islamists Everywhere It seems like Islamists are everywhere nowadays. But the latest trend is intriguing because now it looks like you don't even have to be a Muslim to be an Islamist.

Political Islam and Dictatorship « The Shape Of The World | May 04, 2009

[...] See Word of the Day: Islamist by Manan Ahmed a.k.a Sepoy [...]

Nikolai | March 29, 2010

i attended a lecture by a professor from israel on karaite judaism, in medieval baghdad. she said she was was very happy because this area would bring together the areas of expertise of judaicists and islamists alike. i laughed inside when she used the word.

Luay | October 25, 2011

I listen to the BBC world service all the time, I started to notice the term Islamist being used very frequently, As a Muslim it makes me very uncomfortable . I heard it today describing the Dawaa party that has won Tunisia's first democratic election . What does that mean? Does it mean that the Dawaa party is a terrorist group or that it just adhirs to the teachings of Islam ? I don't know what it means...but I do know that it has a strong negative conatation . The loose usage of this term should be considered politically incorrect.

Jay | July 03, 2012

I really thank you for addressing this! It is my opinion that the word is of a sly construction with the simple suffix "-ist" to trigger negative reactions, a whispering of caution. It is fascinating how "-ist" went from a harmless suffix like novelist to that of connoting "outside the norm, an extreme 'bent' ". Furthermore, words can activate conditioned conceptions. So, does this now mean that I should say s/he authors novels in order not to create fear/suspicion of the person in today's times.