For the full version of this paper, please click here.
The word ‘Islamism’ has come to occupy a central place within the canon of western scholarship when describing Muslims who seek any form of political autonomy or governance that is tied to their faith. In popular narratives in the media, the word is often juxtaposed with others giving the impression that it relates to an ever-constant threat posed by Muslims, hence the ubiquity of terms like ‘Islamist extremists’ or ‘violent Islamists’. Within academic circles, there is an assumption that the word ‘Islamist’ is value neutral and is only used as a descriptor for Muslims who express political ambitions.
This paper will seek to problematise the word ‘Islamist’, by highlighting the colonial origins of the word, and the way the word was traditionally used as a euphemism for Muslims who were seditious to colonial/imperial interests. Chiefly concerned with a ‘Pan-Islamism’ movement that sought to politically unify the Muslim world – by recognising the Ottoman Sultanate as being the spiritual and political leader of all Muslims – British officials made a concerted effort to subvert this movement from gaining any hold over their Muslim populations.
While not all uses of the word ‘Islamism’ in the colonial era were a pejorative, when invoked as part of the formula ‘pan-Islamism’, it took on the meaning of a threat. This began before the political project of the Ottomans to politically unify the ummah, but really took its pejorative meaning since the 1870s. With WW Hunter having been commissioned by the British government to conduct a review of the loyalties of Indian Muslims to the Queen, the notion of an ummahwiy connection between Muslims came to be pathologised as seditious to British political interests, with ‘Islamism’ and ‘pan-Islamism’ being presented as a perversion of ‘true Islam’. These colonial narratives have come to be almost verbatim repeated in the post 9/11 context, as Muslim belief is problematised by policymakers. Just one example of this comes in a discussion on Muslim faith schools in 2006 from British Parliamentarian Paul Goodman, expressing his views on the difference between Islam and the ideology of ‘Islamism’:
“As I see it, there are three features of Islamism. One is the extreme distinction that it draws between what it calls the “house of Islam” and the “house of war”. I understand that it is not a feature of mainstream Muslim thought. Secondly, the Islamists argue that the loyalty of Muslims is primarily, politically, to the umma—the body of Muslims worldwide—and not to the country in which they happen to be living. Thirdly, there is the question of the application of the sharia.”1
Almost in an act of necromancy, Goodman’s remarks are eerily reminiscent of WW Hunter’s, but 130 years apart. What are the common features of the concerns being expressed around ‘Islamism’? To understand the etymology of this word, it is important to study the way it was used in the colonial period, and how it came to occupy such a central role in the way that the dissident and subversive Muslim was constructed. There are some who might point to the Arabic word islamiyyun as an equivalent to Islamist in its common use, but I would argue that the two terms bear little in relation to one another, primarily due to the history and intention that is foundational to the popular use of the word. The conservative journalist Peter Oborne summarises my key concern on the use of ‘Islamism’ well in The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam:
“…terms can be used in various combinations as in ‘Islamist extremist’, ‘extreme Islamist’, ‘Islamist terrorist’, etc. Sometimes they are treated as if they were synonyms (i.e. Islamist and extremist). On other occasions, the terms are used as opposites. Thus moderation is opposed to extremism, radical to moderate. I will show how they have been designed to separate ‘good’ Muslims from ‘bad’ Muslims. The effect is to encourage prejudice against all Muslims, along with the belief that Islam itself is an enemy of British and Western society.” [my own emphasis added]2
My goal here is not to provide a theological or historical case for the caliphate or the political unity of the ummah, rather, it is to think through the implications of the term ‘Islamism’ by tracing its use through the colonial period (in the full paper), and thinking through its continued use as ‘Islamism’ in the contemporary one.
The case against ‘Islamism’
To set out my case against used the word ‘Islamism’, I rest my argument on four main contentions:
- The colonial history of the words ‘pan-Islamism’ and ‘Islamism’ are inextricably tied to the notion of a threat that requires a security response.
- The contemporary popular use of the word ‘Islamism’ is nearly always tied to militancy, extremism and violence, and so cannot be rescued from within academia.
- That within the framing of the global War on Terror, the accusation of ‘Islamism’ in itself draws heightened suspicion and surveillance, leading to many forms of violence enacted by the state.
- It presupposes that only certain forms of faith-based political expression are ‘Islamist’.
1. The colonial root of ‘Islamism’
As mentioned in the introduction to this paper, the accusation of ‘Islamism’ or ‘pan-Islamism’ ultimately amounts to a loyalty test. This was most explicitly done in WW Hunter’s 1873 report on Muslims in India, where the framing of his question indicated the direction of his conclusions: The Indian Musalmans: are they bound to rebel against the Queen? This same question has been asked in different ways by politicians in the West. For instance, the former UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to an Ahmadiyya Association in 20133 took no umbrage with their spiritual leader Mirza Masroor Ahmad describing himself as the Caliph of Islam – for the issue is not with the title, but rather where the loyalties of any community lie. This is particularly noticeable due to the narrative that has come from security circles around belief in a Caliph being a sign of extremism.
2. The contemporary popular understanding of ‘Islamism’
The way words are used by experts and academics does not always result in the same meaning being understood by those who do not occupy the same space. Words that are charged around issues that have come to be known only within certain media portrayals and discourses, take on a cultural meaning that goes well beyond any technical one. Often, when Muslims speak of ghuluu or ‘extremism’, they mean something very different to the images that are conjured up in the minds of other communities. Similarly with words such as ‘terrorism’ and indeed ‘Islamism’ – these carry a meaning beyond how they are legally or academically understood.
In 2013, the Associated Press revised their Stylebook to issue guidance that the word ‘Islamist’ should no longer be used as a synonym, “for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists,”4 a reminder that until 2013, they had no trouble in using that word as a synonym.
Data driven work is finally being conducted in the way that words have come to have popular meanings beyond the technical ones. In a paper published in 2020 by Younes, Hassan and Azmi, they seek to understand how ‘Islam-related terminologies’ have a positive or negative connotation in the media both in the East and West. Their work shows how the use of the word ‘Islamist’ in its total frequency, is almost double in its use than all other Islam-related words combined, even more so than ‘jihadist’, ‘extremist’ etc.5
Usaama al-Azami’s Why Words Matter: The Problem with the Term Islamist highlights many of the central conundrums in the continued use of the word. He begins his paper by recognising that the word ‘Islamist’ means different things to different people, but is also quick to recognise that the word, “usually conjures up terrifying images of masked gunmen on the streets of European capitals killing innocent civilians in the name of Islam,”6 as evidenced by the work of the scholars cited above. Al-Azami’s paper focuses on the importance of the way the word is instrumentalised, particularly by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, in order to inhibit any form of democratic movement by making ‘Islamism’ synonymous with ‘terrorism’. Al-Azami’s call is for such a link to be rebranded as hate speech and incitement to violence 7, a position I have a great deal of sympathy for. Whereas al-Azami sees Islamiyyun as a direct synonym for ‘Islamists’ or ‘Islamism’, I would argue that we are well beyond the point of rescuing a word like ‘Islamism’ and that its western formulation bears almost no popular resemblance to the Arabic. It exists only as a spectre of Muslim violence.
3. The accusation of ‘Islamism’ encourages increased surveillance and securitisation
Usaama al-Azami makes a point in his paper on why words matter that is worth thinking through in more detail. He reminds us that Europeans are very clear about making a distinction between Nazism and Liberalism despite the fact that both are products of the secular values that the Enlightenment produced.8Within the constellation of groups and ideas that Islam has produced, the view of ‘Islamism’ is very much one that is a pathology of seditious beliefs and behaviours. In the context of the global War on Terror, this has taken on a significance for Muslim populations – particularly those living in the West – due to the presentation of them being outsiders and potentially disloyal.
In keeping with a Hunterian approach to assessing the loyalties of Muslim subjects, in April 2014 the UK Prime Minister ordered a review of the Muslim Brotherhood in the UK. The review was primarily run by former diplomat John Jenkins and – more significantly – Charles Farr, the former Director General of the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism located within the Home Office. The appointment of Farr, one of the most senior figures within the counter-terrorism world as part of an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than an expert on social movements within the Islamic world, indicated from the very beginning the direction of travel for the review.9
While it could be argued that the UK political response to ‘Islamism’ has been confined predominantly to the space of ideas, and usually added to the words ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’, the reality on the European continent is far more indicative of the eventual direction of travel through uncritical continued uses of the word ‘Islamism’. Despite a global pandemic, with tens of thousands of the people dying in their country, the two leading parties in the race for the French presidential election faced off in a televised debate. France’s Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin met with the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, only to accuse the known Islamophobe of going “soft” of Islamism.10
The moment was indicative of how those in the Centre and Centre-Left of politics in France, have shifted their discourse towards the position on the Right as they seek to ride on a populist wave of Islamophobia.
Most recently, the French Parliament have ratified the Anti-Separatism Bill which for all intents and purposes, is targeted at the Muslim community. Of particular concern is the ‘Charter of Principles’ that all imams will be required to sign up to in order to be able to continue acting in an official capacity. This Charter, would require the imams to explicitly state their allegiance to the French state over their religion, refuse to engage in any form of politics (that do not lend support to political parties), and finally demands a vow:
“…not to use nor to allow use of Islam or the concept of oumma (community of believers) in a local or national political perspective…”11
The explicit terms of the Imam’s Charter, that religious convictions can never override the principles of the Republic place the concern the French government has for ‘Islamism’ at a completely unprecedented level of social control. In very much a tactic that was instrumentalised during the colonial period, by targeting new colonised elites, the French government seeks to subdue the entire Muslim population of France – ostensibly through the control of the minbar (the place sermons are delivered).
While France’s heavy-handed approach at assimilation is currently attempting to neutralise ‘Islamism’ and expressions of ‘political Islam’, in Austria events have already taken a much more violent turn. In November 2020, the well-regarded academic Farid Hafez had his home raided along with 60 other Muslim families in Operation Luxor, with Austria’s Interior Minister Nehammer stating that the action was, “taken against political Islam.”12 Despite the violent raids carried out by the Austrian police, no arrests were made. This all took place in an environment where the Austrian government proposed a total ban on ‘political Islam’.13
Taken alongside the second case for ‘Islamism’ being considered a pejorative in its popular meaning, the direction of travel within Europe in particular is of great concern. The work of Usaama al-Azami in the section above further highlights how repressive governments in the Middle East have used the term in order to kill and detain political opponents, but what we increasingly find in Europe, is a shift that mimics that repression. Within the context of the global War on Terror, ‘Islamism’ sits squarely within the constellation of terms that are securitised beyond any hope of redeeming its understanding at a political and popular level.
4. ‘Islamism’ constructs the ‘political’ as a very specific set of political acts
My final argument is one that I made previously in my 2019 book A Virtue of Disobedience. The very notion of there being a political version of Islam obscures how Islam is constantly instrumentalised in both the East and West in order to ensure the exigencies of the nation state. In the post-colonial world, Mustapha Kemal was not beneath using religious groups to ensure his position even as he worked towards abolishing the Caliphate. In a similar form, Gamal Abdel Nasser was willing to utilise Islamic discourses in shoring up his popularity among Egyptians seeking independence. Even at the start of the communist period of rule in Afghanistan, images of garlanded Afghan leaders having returned from pilgrimage to Makkah sanctified the leadership.
As evidenced in the previous sections, when ‘Islamism’ is evoked, it is usually problematised as seditious to the liberal nation state, as a form of governance that centres Islam as a faith, or as individual acts of violent non-state actors. This moniker is not applied to those who use religion in the interests of the prevailing (or desired) political order. Perhaps the clearest example of this came in the counter-revolution coup of General Abdelfatah el-Sisi, where the Egyptian scholar Ali Gomaa provided religious cover to Sisi’s troops to fire on protestors.14
A liberal discourse on ‘Islamism’ and ‘secularism’ is bound to fail when it posits religion’s role in political life as a unique phenomenon to ‘Islamists’. Talal Asad picks apart the way in which liberal states deploy secularism as a form of modern religiosity, all the while deploying religion to the maintenance of the liberal order. Islam, as a din is thus fully able to be instrumentalised by the secular state because the state recognises the potential for Islam to play a powerful role in the sphere of politics. As we saw with the British and French using the power of the Caliphal seat for their purposes, the contemporary state is willing to use the authority of imams as part of their suppression of Muslim populations.15
This paper has sought to make a case against using the word ‘Islamism’ based on the view that not only is it based on a colonial history of surveillance and securitisation of Muslims, but that it has replicated that view entirely within contemporary times. There are many scholars and academics that have produced a wealth of literature that try and provide accurate and nuanced understandings of different Muslim groups, Muslims among them. I would argue that such research and academic work largely exists in a vacuum where the real-world consequences of the word are not seen.
My four contentions in the case against the word ‘Islamism’ ultimately rest on the belief and evidence that because of the way it is viewed and seen, it cannot be rescued in popular political discourse. For that reason, I would argue instead that the word should be rejected in its entirety, and that a series of descriptive words should be used as a replacement instead. Rather than use this paper as a place to suggest alternatives, I argue that using more words to describe varying social movements in Islam would suit Muslim short and long term needs much better than the continued use of a term that is not only problematic, but has resulted in the killing, imprisonment and repression of Muslims in both the East and the West. There is a problem with translation across contexts, but the real issue is the translation from the position of state security, and while they hold power over the use of a term, its violence remains ever-present.
- Hansard (2006) Faith Schools, House of Commons, vol 451, 1 November 2006, https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2006-11-01/debates/06110150000003/FaithSchoolshighlight=islamism#contribution-06110150000293
- Oborne P. (2022) The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, Simon & Schuster, p.16
- UK Government (2013) Extremism has no place in ‘open and tolerant’ Britain, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/extremism-has-no-place-in-open-and-tolerant-britain
- Byers D. (2013) AP Stylebook revises ‘Islamist’ use, Politico, https://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2013/04/ap-stylebook-revises-islamist-use-160943
- Younes, Z.B., Hassan, I., & Azmi, M.N.L. (2020) A Pragmatic Analysis of Islam-related Terminologies in Selected Eastern and Western Mass Media. Arab World English Journal, 11 (2) 70-84. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.24093/awej/vol11no2.6
- Al-Azami U. (2020) Why Words Matter: The Problem with the Term Islamist, Sadeq Institute, p.1, https://www.sadeqinstitute.org/short-reads/why-words-matter-the-problem-with-the-term-islamist
- Ibid, p.5
- Ibid p.1
- Jenkins J. and Farr C. (2015) Muslim Brotherhood Review: Main Findings, House of Commons, p.9
- Lichfield J. (2021) Why Macron had to take on Islamism, Unherd, https://unherd.com/2021/03/macron-stuck-between-left-and-right-on-islamism/
- International Coalition Against Islamophobia (2021) Letter to President Von der Leyen, European Commission – Regarding: French Islamophobic Laws, Sabir’s Legal Services
- Al-Izzedin N. (2021) Police brutality against Muslim children under the pretext of counter-terrorism in Austria, CAGE, https://www.cage.ngo/police-brutality-against-muslim-children-under-the-pretext-of-counter-terrorism-in-austria
- MEE Staff (2021) Austria: Outrage after authorities target academic as part of ‘terrorism’ crackdown, Middle East Eye, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/austria-farid-hafez-academic-targeted-terrorism-crackdown-outrage
- Qureshi A. (2019) A Virtue of Disobedience, Unbound
- Asad T. (2018) Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self and Calculative Reason, Columbia University Press, p.18