Islamic vs. Islamist

In using the word “Islamist” and/or the phrases “Islamist terrorist(s)/Islamist extremist(s),” I’m in no way seeking to disparage the religion of Islam or mainstream/moderate Muslims. I’m seeking, in fact, to do the very opposite.

Use of the term “Islamist” is my attempt to indicate the religion with which these criminals identify themselves, while at the same time distancing them from the actual ideals, beliefs, doctrines, and behaviors compatible with Islam. In other words, they are “Islamist” (i.e., in some way connected to Islam), but they are not “Islamic” (i.e., part of the mainstream/moderate Islam community).

Many Muslims might disagree with such a use of the term “Islamist,” believing that it still identifies terrorists too closely with Islam. But it cannot be denied that these terrorists/extremists/radicals associated with groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS do indeed justify their atrocities using the religion of Islam. At the same time, however, they don’t accurately represent the religion of Islam in word or deed. So, while we must point out where/how such terrorists do not represent Islam, I don’t think we can totally divorce ISIS/Al-Qaeda-like terrorists from the faith they claim possess. To do so would weaken our understanding of them. Consequently, a good balance to me is to simply call them “Islamist,” rather than “Islamic.”

The same is done with so-called “Christian” terrorists. They are usually referred to as Christian extremists or Christian radicals. An entire movement of racists, white supremacists, KKK-members, and other assorted hate-mongers responsible for terrorism in America have actually been given the title “Christian Identity.” Why? Because they appeal to their “Christian” Identity as God’s people, use the Bible to justify their atrocities/racism, and profess to follow Jesus Christ, the central figure of Christianity. This certainly makes me cringe as a true Christian, but I must accept that such people have indeed, for whatever reason, chosen to use my Christian faith to justify their evil/hate. And I do believe it’s important to understand in what kind of religious framework any terrorist group is operating.

There is also precedent for referring to ISIS/Al-Qaeda (and similar extremists) “islamists” or “Islamist terrorists.” In a Jan. 27, 2010 article for the Hurriyet Daily News, Soner Cagaptay — senior fellow & director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute — referred to radical Muslim terrorists as “Islamists” who practiced what he called “Islamism” (as opposed to Islam). Soner stated: “So if Islam is a faith, then what is Islamism? It can be best described as an “anti-” ideology, in the sense that it defines itself only in opposition to things. That is, Islamism stands not for but against. . . . Islamism is therefore not about the Islamic faith. Rather, it is a dystopian ideology that distorts religion and reality to fit its “anti-” platform. . . . worst of all, Islamists distort their very own religious texts so as to befit this ‘anti-‘ platform.”

Also, in a 2010 Newsweek article — senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the foreign affairs committee of the Egyptian Wafd Party — referred not only to ISlamism to describe radical/extremist groups, but called their members “Islamists,” speaking also of “jihadist Islamist groups.”

For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I have followed this example, when possible, adding the pre-fix “radical” (ie., “radical Islamists”) in order to even further distance the likes of ISIS from Muslims in organizations that might be so politically active that they are considered by some to be “Islamist,” but not as extreme a ISIS / Al-Qaeda or others (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood).

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