Is It Time to Reconsider the Term Islamist?

The modern use of the term Islamist is a Western creation, but it was adopted by many with the intent of providing a more accurate label for Muslims seeking to integrate their faith into public life.
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Motivated by her faith, she was a powerful advocate for radical political and social change. Upon meeting her, President Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."

Was Harriet Beecher Stowe a Christianist?

At this year's National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama said his policies were grounded in his Christian beliefs. In a 2008 speech, former GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum said America was in the middle of a spiritual war in which "Satan has his sights on the United States of America."

Are Obama and/or Santorum Christianists?

The answers to those questions would depend on how the term is defined. But it is unlikely you will hear any Christian politician or activist referred to in that way.

What American and western audiences are increasingly hearing, however, since the political and social upheaval that accompanied the Arab spring, is the term Islamist.

Muslims already face significant prejudice in the U.S.: 43 percent of Muslims in a 2011 Pew Forum survey reported experiences with intolerance or discrimination in the past year. And now there is growing concern that the label that was once welcomed by some as an alternative to more pejorative terms such as Islamic fundamentalist may itself be more a source of stereotyping than understanding.

"I used to like it [Islamist] because I thought it represented a broad term that represented those who believe Islam should have a role in society," said University of Kentucky researcher Ihsan Bagby, who led the U.S. Mosque Survey 2011. "But it's been used so much in the media for a little while now to conjure up militant, extremist, radical" imagery.

A larger question is whether the term still holds a coherent meaning for general audiences.

"Right now, it's confusing," Bagby said. "Who is an Islamist?"

An Evolving Term

The modern use of the term Islamist is a Western creation, but it was adopted by many with the intent of providing a more accurate label for Muslims seeking to integrate their faith into public life.

In the wake of the Iranian revolution, the term Islamic fundamentalism gained currency, Martin Kramer noted in a comprehensive 2003 article in the Middle East Quarterly. "Journalists, ever on the lookout for a shorthand way to reference things new and unfamiliar, gravitated toward the term fundamentalism," he wrote.

Against that backdrop, the term Islamist gained increasing favor as a more accurate alternative that was designed to encompass the wide range of ways Muslims sought to participate in the civic arena.

That didn't happen. As Kramer noted back in 2003, "To all intents and purposes, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamism have become synonyms in contemporary American usage."

Since the 9/11 attacks, the term has often acquired a "quasi-criminal connotation," according to The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. "In Western mainstream media, 'Islamists' are those who want to establish, preferably though violent means, an 'Islamic state,'" the encyclopedia said.

Bridging The Gap

The reality, many observers say, is far more complex. Like individuals from other religious traditions, Islamic activists have differing interpretations of sacred texts, varying ideas of religion-state relations and complex motives that can have as much or more to do with historical, cultural, economic and political factors as religious considerations.

"The use of the term Islamist does not capture the phenomena that is quite heterogeneous," said sociologist Mansoor Moaddel of Eastern Michigan University. "It is not a good term."

In his own interviews, for example, Moaddel has found that, "In some respects, Mr. Santorum is more extremist" than leading figures of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, who today talk relatively less about Islamic law than about having to face the challenges of economic development and cutting back on pollution.

Overall, most Muslim believers want religious principles and democratic values to coexist, John Esposito, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, said in a paper for the Association of Religion Data Archives. Esposito explored Gallup Poll data from 2001-2007, encompassing a survey sample including more than 90 percent of the world's Muslims.

Significant majorities of Muslims in many countries said religious leaders should play no direct role in legislation, foreign policy or restricting freedom of the press. Citizens in countries in which Muslims are a majority said they want greater political freedoms and rule of law, Esposito said.

In the United States, Pew surveys have found 63 percent of Muslims see no conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society. Sixty-four percent of U.S. Christians see no conflict between being a devout Christian and living in a modern society.

So what is the solution to a more accurate portrayal of Muslims who believe the values of their faith deserve a place in the public square?

For starters, it is not to place an undue focus on the violence associated with "what has been termed Islamist or radical expressions" of faith, Azim Nanji said in the Encyclopedia of Religion, Second Edition.

"While their relevance to contemporary politics and current affairs cannot be dismissed," Nanji said, "it would be erroneous and limiting to make it the primary expression of Islam in the modern world."

Scholars and journalists are able to describe the particular relation between religion and politics among non-Muslim individuals and groups without a shorthand term adding a suffix to the faith of the activists.

The question now becomes: Is it time to reconsider the term Islamist?

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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