A 2010 survey conducted by the PEW Research Center found that a majority of American citizens said they knew little or nothing about Islam, with no less than 35 per cent of Americans believing that Islam itself encourages violence more than other religions.
These are troubling statistics, whose figures have most likely increased over the past six years. One reason for this ignorance of Islam in the West* is the misunderstanding of a number of key notions that are central to Islam and ideologies surrounding it. One of these notions is Islamism.
If you were to Google the word ‘Islamism’, you would find the top definition to be plain and simple: “Islamic militancy and fundamentalism.” This Western definition is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, for a society largely uneducated about Islam, four words are not enough to express the true essence of such an extensive political ideology. And secondly, this definition is simply not accurate.
If you pull back the curtains on this concept of Islamism, you will not find a stationary understanding of this term. You will find a power struggle between two sets of actors: moderate Islamist parties and militant Islamist groups. With terrorist attacks plaguing the media and the threat of ISIS a central talking point in the 2016 presidential election, it has become evident that the power of this notion lies firmly in the hands of the latter, rather than the former.
In order to shift the Western perception of Islamism away from one drowned in violent overtones, and rather towards an accurate and balanced definition, we must re-evaluate our understanding of this unnecessarily controversial notion. To do so, we start with the help of a number of acclaimed Islamic and Arab scholars providing a coherent explanation of Islamism.
A unity between Islam and the state
Bassam Tibi, a Syrian and German political scientist, states that “Islamism can be identified as an ideology that connects din (religion) and dawla (state) in a Shari’a-based political order.” What must be emphasized here is that Islamism, first and foremost, is a unity between Islam and the state, and therefore a perfectly legitimate political ideology.
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute supports this claim, suggesting that there is no ideological correlation with militancy, nor with fundamentalism, as a Google search may suggest.
Islamic fundamentalism, as defined by Tibi, is a worldview that seeks to establish its own order based on the principles conveyed by Allah and the prophet Muhammad upon Islam’s conception in the 7th century. Islamism, on the other hand, is a modern impression of this unity between state and religion.
To be or become an Islamist is a conscious act of political affirmation and this sense of action that surrounds the notion of Islamism derives from its relationship to the West. In the words of Hamid, “Islamism isn’t just a reaction to Western imperialism, but a product of it.” In the pre-modern era, Islam imbued every aspect of public life, providing an overarching religious, legal, and moral culture: it went without saying, so it wasn’t said. With the advent of a crumbling Ottoman Empire, Islam, for the first time, became a distinct political project.
While the ends of this distinct political project may be similar between the movements promoting Islamism, the means are by no means the same. Bassam Tibi argues that all Islamists have a common commitment to the reconceptualization of political order in the Islamic world. However, despite having a common end-goal, there are deep divisions as to how this goal can be achieved. Tibi perceives this division to lie primarily between institutional Islamists and militant Islamists.
Whereas institutional Islamists, like Ennahda in Tunisia, operate within a nation’s legal and political framework, militant Islamists, like Al-Qaida in Afghanistan, have adopted an aggressive policy of jihad in order to achieve the formerly mentioned unity between the state and Islam. It is between these two sets of Islamist actors that the power dynamics behind the notion of Islamism lie.
What follows is not an analysis of the ideology itself, for I, as a Western writer, do not have the authority to provide such an analysis. Instead, by analyzing the power dynamics behind this notion of Islamism, I encourage a re-evaluation of the Western perception of this notion.
Correcting the Western perception
The power dynamics behind the notion of Islamism and how it is perceived in the West go hand in hand with the phenomena of Orientalism. Coined by renowned scholar, Edward W. Said, an Orientalist is anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient (‘Eastern civilizations’) either in its specific or general aspects, and what he or she says and does is Orientalism.
However, Said discusses this on a more profound level: “The sense of Islam as a threatening Other – with Muslims depicted as fanatical, violent, lustful, irrational – develops during the colonial period in what I called Orientalism. The study of the Other has a lot to do with the control and dominance of Europe and the West generally in the Islamic world. And it has persisted because it is based very, very deeply in religious roots, where Islam is seen as a kind of competitor of Christianity.”
In other words, Said regards Orientalism to be the demonization of the Orient in order for the West to maintain a sense of power over the region. Orientalism is very much a modern phenomenon and acts as a mechanism by which the power dynamics behind the notion of Islamism are exerted onto Western societies.
Western media seems to channel these power dynamics into Western societies, thereby acting as a modern messenger of Orientalist attitudes. For example, Islamist terrorism and the media prove to be a dangerous symbiosis: a constant exposure to a notion of Islamism that is directly correlated to violence allows for the power of this notion to remain in the hands of those Islamist groups conducting the terrorist attacks.
The understanding of this term has shifted so far towards violent connotations that formerly known Islamist parties have shied away from describing themselves as such. At its 2016 Party Congress, Ennahda of Tunisia moved away from the label of ‘Islamist’ and rebranded itself as a ‘Muslim Democratic’ party. This was done despite a shift in political attitudes or agenda, which is characteristic of the fact that a considerable amount of stigmatization has developed around this notion.
This precise stigmatization of the ideology of Islamism is representative of so many other notions that have been skewed in Western societies. By having offered a more nuanced explanation of Islamism, the aim of this piece has been to stimulate the readership to question and re-evaluate not only this notion, but other notions as well, behind which the power dynamics may seem fixed. These skewed perceptions held in the West are a significant hurdle to the achievement of a more integrated and globalized society and it is for this reason that we must reshape the way we understand the world.
* It must be noted that the West will be defined as the areas of the World that have been heavily influenced by the traditions of the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Age of Enlightenment, thereby first and foremost referring to Europe and the Americas.