No, actually, ‘Islamist’ has a pretty clear meaning

Just got a release from CAIR on this subject:

(WASHINGTON, D.C., 1/3/13) — The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) today distributed a commentary urging media outlets to drop the term “Islamist” because it is “currently used in an almost exclusively pejorative context.”…

In this connection, the group offered an op-ed from Ibrahim Hooper, CAIR’s national communications director. Here are the first few grafs:

As many people make promises to themselves to improve their lives or their societies in the coming year, here is a suggested New Year’s resolution for media outlets in America and worldwide: Drop the term “Islamist.”



The Associated Press (AP) added the term to its influential Stylebook in 2012. That entry reads: “Islamist — Supporter of government in accord with the laws of Islam. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.

The AP says it sought input from Arabic-speaking experts and hoped to provide a neutral perspective by emphasizing the “wide range” of religious views encompassed in the term.

Many Muslims who wish to serve the public good are influenced by the principles of their faith. Islam teaches Muslims to work for the welfare of humanity and to be honest and just. If this inspiration came from the Bible, such a person might well be called a Good Samaritan. But when the source is the Quran, the person is an “Islamist.”

Unfortunately, the term “Islamist” has become shorthand for “Muslims we don’t like.” It is currently used in an almost exclusively pejorative context and is often coupled with the term “extremist,” giving it an even more negative slant…

Look, I sympathize with people who feel like their group is marginalized or misunderstood. But I’m sorry, “Islamist” has a clear meaning in newswriting, one that the AP set out quite well. It most assuredly does not mean “Muslims we don’t like.”

What it does mean, and what professional journalists are careful to use it to refer to, is someone or something based in a worldview that holds “the Quran as a political model.” It’s about theistic government (which is not the same as being influenced by the principles of one’s faith in seeking to serve the public good, although of course the two things can coincide). If that comes across as pejorative, that’s because in the West, we believe in pluralistic government that neither dominates, nor is dominated by, a particular faith. So yeah, even when we’re not talking about an Islamist extremist (another very useful word, which by its employment lets anyone who understands English know that not all Islamists are extremists), we’re talking about someone whose political views are fairly inimical to values we hold as fundamental.

“Islamist” is also useful from an American context (since we do distinguish between the political and the religious) because it allows us to separate the political viewpoint from Islam itself. It’s important to most of us to respect the faith, even as we disagree with the idea of its being used as a basis for government.

Distinctions are important. “Islamist” allows us to make distinctions. I’d be surprised, and disappointed, if any news organizations respond as CAIR asks here.

13 thoughts on “No, actually, ‘Islamist’ has a pretty clear meaning

  1. Juan Caruso

    Shall we (Washington) also drop the term (and $$$$) connected with our “Muslim outreach” because Islamists have conflated its meaning? As I recall correctly, the Islamist attack known as 9-11 was “almost exclusively” a celebratory event around the Islamist world, although it seemed a stigma to all Muslims, including the few Imams who finally mustered apologies.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, there’s that.

      An appeal like this is just self-defeating. Maybe it’s about fund-raising for the organization. Maybe it knows its supporters are just sick of hearing about Islamism, and wants to be seen as taking up the cudgels in that cause, although with no realistic hope of accomplishing anything.

      When you’re trying to advocate for a marginalized group, which appears to be the premise, you shouldn’t make demands that further marginalize you. It makes you seem petulant, and like you don’t have any legitimate issues to address. Which I don’t think is the case, but stuff like this doesn’t help the cause.

  2. David Carlton

    Oh, please. Whatever “professional journalists” mean by “Islamist,” most other people mean “Muslims we don’t like.” That’s probably true of quite a few journalists, though they may not fit your definition of “professional.” CAIR is correct: “Islamist” is a cuss word, and pretending that it isn’t doesn’t change that in the slightest; it simply denies responsibility for the consequences of using it.

    Moreover, where do you get off with that “in the West, we believe in pluralistic government that neither dominates, nor is dominated by, a particular faith” business? You’re living in South Carolina! Haven’t you noticed all those people around you who insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, and should follow biblical principles? Who consider separation of church and state to be a snare and a delusion? Or have you noticed the behavior of the hierarchy of your own church, some of whom rather openly took sides in the last election? Or, for that matter, the theological grounding of some of your own policy positions? [What would a “pluralist” view of the abortion issue look like? I can’t imagine one.]Operationally our government is pluralistic, simply because no one group has the power to dominate it; but there are plenty who wish they could. If I were one of the CAIR guys, I’d find this snotty “We’re tolerant westerners, and you’re not” line both insulting and risible.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      David, I doubt we’re going to have a meeting of the minds, particularly given that, as much as I’ve written about such things, you don’t understand where I’m coming from at all.

      Are you really, truly, unable to imagine a humanist objection to abortion? You leap to a bizarre conclusion in supposing there cannot be a pluralist objection to abortion on demand. In any case, it’s bizarre to me — and not just because I held the same view on abortion that I hold now long, long before I was Catholic or even contemplated becoming Catholic.

  3. Phillip

    I agree with you. The word Islamist is very useful (and distinct from “Islamic”) to describe those who favor a government implemented along Islamic religious principles, just as “Christianist” is useful as a word to describe those who favor instituting a government along Christian religious principles and doctrines.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That sounds as though it would correspond, even though I’ve never seen the word used before.

      “Islamist” is a term we came up with precisely to distinguish political aspirations from a faith — so as not to denigrate the faith. Because so many Americans rightly considered that a very important distinction to make.

      1. Phillip

        I’ve most seen it used by Andrew Sullivan…he frequently has posts labeled “Christianist Watch,” usually when folks like Santorum, Huckabee, Ralph Reed, make some of their more outlandish comments or proposals.

  4. Mab

    ‘Mohammedans’ would suffice and would be more descriptive, enlightening, and … precautionary…

    But to be precise, Mohammed was the founder of Islam and the illiterate ghost ‘writer’ of the Quran , but not the creator/forefather/founder of Muslims. Muslims were created by God via Abraham — and always promised a secure future and a great nationhood — and who, BTW, were quite peaceful before Mohammed came along and got his ‘feelings’ hurt/reached for his sword when neither Jews NOR Christians accepted him as their new Moses/Jesus/God’s Emissary.

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