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Time to retire the word "Islamism"?

Summary

8 April 2013

The article lower down was originally posted on the Daily Telegraph website when I had a blog there. At that time relatively few people were making the points that the word Islamist is too elastic, and that an attack on Islamism is too easily misunderstood by many Muslims as being an attack on Islam.

More recently on 3 January 2013 the US advocacy organisation CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) made the same point in a piece by its national communications director Ibrahim Hooper, prompted by the Associated Press (AP) including the term in its 2012 style guide. I have copied part of his argument below:

The Associated Press (AP) added the term to its influential Stylebook in 2012. That entry reads: "Islamist -- Supporter of government in accord with the laws of Islam. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi."

...

There are few, if any, positive references to "Islamist" in news articles. There are also no -- nor should there be -- references to "Christianists," "Judaists" or "Hinduists" for those who would similarly seek governments "in accord with the laws" of their respective faiths.

No journalist would think of referring to the "Judaist government of Israel," the "Christianist leader Rick Santorum" or "Hinduist Indian politician Narendra Modi," while use of "Islamist" has become ubiquitous. It might be an interesting exercise to hold a contest, the winner of which would be the first to find a positive mainstream media reference to "Islamist."

Quite likely, such a contest would end up being similar to a unicorn hunt.

...

By not dropping or modifying use of the term, the media are making a political and religious value judgment each time it is used.

I was pleased to learn from US News & World Report on 4 April 2013 that AP has modified the definition of Islamist in its style guide to read:

"An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.

Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi."

While the term will continue to be used, the new definition is a significant improvement. The modification demonstrates the importance of speaking up and challenging poor use of vocabulary.

Mohammed Amin: Time to retire Islamism? - 30 March 2010

Over 60 years ago, writing only a year after the defeat of Nazi Germany, George Orwell pointed out in "Politics and the English Language" that “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” The term Islamism appears to have gone the same way if it can be used to describe both Osama bin Laden and the democratically elected AKP government in Turkey.

Andrew Gilligan's series “Islamist Blogpost of the Day”, posted on the Telegraph website has provided a certain amount of entertainment for readers, but I am left wondering where it gets us. I also think Mr Gilligan should perhaps worry about some of his more enthusiastic fans, when they start to adopt pseudonyms such as "juliusstreicher" (See footnote)

Fascism at least started in a particular time and space in Italy, so it had a meaning before losing it through overstretch. However with Islamism I cannot even find agreement on when it is supposed to have started. The word was once used by French writers as an exact substitute for Islam but somewhere along the way changed its meaning.

As the examples of Osama bin Laden and the AKP show, once one cannot tell what a person classified as an Islamist believes or intends to do, then the description has no merit. However, the repercussions of using this word stretch far beyond its lack of semantic use. The average “Muslim in the street” is not a philologist or a political scientist. When they hear politicians or journalists attacking "Islamism", they often do not get past the first five letters. While Mr Gilligan may regard this failure to read the last three letters as the fault of the reader, it becomes more understandable when you reflect that today organisations such as the English Defence League proudly proclaim on their website that they aim to save England from Islamism but have no objection to Islam. Their professed non-objection to Islam in Britain needs to be taken with a pinch of salt given that the English Defence League wants to prohibit the building of any more mosques.

Muslims are right to cry foul when they are accused of religiously based politics.

In Germany and Italy we have political parties which openly call themselves Christian Democrats. However, I would expect an Islamic Democratic party in the UK to be greeted with howls of protest. The reality is that no politician can leave his religious principles in the umbrella stand before he enters the House of Commons; they are an integral part of who you are. Perhaps Mr Gilligan would like to do a series attacking “political Roman Catholicism” on the grounds that Roman Catholic members of Parliament often vote against abortion and other policies on religious grounds?

It would be much more sensible if we could all agree exactly what we are against.

My own position is very simple. Nobody has the right to impose their religious or moral principles on other people. Accordingly, I equally oppose religious people who persecute homosexuals and antivivisectionists who vandalise research laboratories and threaten researchers with violence.

If we can agree on this, perhaps Mr Gilligan can move onto a new target?

Mohammed Amin

Footnote

Julius Streicher was the editor of the newspaper of Nazi Germany, Der Sturmer, and was executed after the Nuremberg trials in 1946.

‘juliusstreicher' was the online login name used by a commenter on Mr Gilligan’s ‘Islamists in power: key council sympathiser under pressure.’

His comment read as follows:

juliusstreicher on Mar 15th, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Andrew Gilligan may be a geek but he sure is a good investigative journalist.
But I fear we may be missing the wider point here.
Tower Hamlets has been turned into an utter sh1thole by mass Islamic immigration.
It is a veritable Augean Stables.
and we all know what happened to those.
It’s the only answer. The place is too far gone.
Like necrosis.

 

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