Is a Muslim an Islamist?

‘Islamist’, a word loaded with meaning and a plethora of definitions depending upon where one looks. In Google, “define; Islamist” returns “a scholar who is knowledgeable in Islamic studies”. Dictionary.com claims one a “supporter or advocate of Islamic fundamentalism”. Thefreedictionary.com explains ‘Islamism’ is “1. An Islamic revivalist movement, often characterized by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life. 2. The religious faith, principles, or cause of Islam”. Lediccionaire.com ‘a supporter of Islamism, a religious political movement which is a precursor to radical ‘islamicisation’ of institutions, law, etc’ and the Oxford English avoids the issue altogether.

The term wormed its way into the media most noticeably post 9/11 in order to cover the vernacular hole defining the wave of political attacks from Islamically inspired groups upon non-Islamic states or unappreciated ideologies. The word ‘Islamist’ brazenly splattered across the media without clear definition before usage, for years in many cases, now triggers mental images of violence and terrorism.

Whilst dictionary.com describes one as a believer in the fundamental form of Islam, journalists employ the term in describing the Morsi government in Egypt (1) to fighter groups in Mali (2) to terrorist groups. Are reporters therefore using the term unduly? Should the word Islamist be used to define both scholar and terrorist? Are Muslims justified in finding offence in this? Olivier Roy, a scholar on political Islam and Asia, states “rather than a reaction against the modernization of Muslim societies, Islamism is a product of it.” He believes that Islamism is not the traditional form of Islamic observance but the current reaction to twentieth century pressures upon majority muslim states.

Daniel Pipes, founder of the Middle East Forum (and infamous for his Islamophobic views), describes Islamism as a phenomena separate from economic status – a desire to enforce Islam upon the political, economic and social system to be adopted by members of society be they Muslim, consenting, or otherwise – contradicting the traditionally personal nature of Islamic practice compatible with secularism. (3) Many post/mid-revolutionary nations in the Middle East such as Tunisia and Egypt are now experiencing the reaction described by Olivier Roy of oppressed minorities free of their dictator governments.

It is little secret; the weight given to words shapes an audience’s reaction and future outlook. ‘Islamist’ is not currently a word plausibly deemed racist but lackadaisical usage will only further vulgarise the term and ‘Islam’ in some minds, thus strengthening its synonymy with odious stereotypes. The broad use of such terms in the media, highlight a gulf of misunderstanding and the desire to demonise and mislead. Responsibility lies with both individuals within the media and communities surrounding them to battle misconceptions born out of broadcasting.

Noora Ismail

For further reading on the danger of misuse of language in media, read: Ashley, L, (2013), Language and Politics.

(1)   http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/egypts-military-islamist-president-opponents-48-hours-reach-19543454

(2)   http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2013/jul/01/islamist-insurgency-mali-timbuktu

(3)   http://www.danielpipes.org/954/distinguishing-between-islam-and-islamism

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