Islam or Islamist?
Is our trouble with a religion or an ideology?


Andrew C. McCarthy

Islam or Islamist? That is the question. Is the term “Islamist” a politically correct fabrication to dodge the inconvenient truth that Islam itself is inherently and inevitably chauvinistic and totalitarian? Or is it a necessary distinction to draw: denominating supremacist Muslims striving to impose on societies a classical, rigid construction of Islamic law, distinguishing them from authentic Muslim moderates who elevate reason, embrace pluralism, and take sharia as spiritual guidance rather than the mandatory law for civil society?

I think we have to separate Islamists from Islam. My friend Robert Spencer disagrees. As NRO readers may know from my reviews of some of Robert’s books and my frequent references to his invaluable work at Jihad Watch, I hold him in high esteem. On this question, however, he is mistaken. And because how we answer the “Islam or Islamist?” question critically affects how we respond to the profound threat posed by supremacist Muslims, we must answer it correctly.

A little background is in order. My column last weekend was a defense of Robert, and of David Horowitz, against the “Islamophobia” charges recently leveled at them by the Center for American Progress. There, I pointed out that “I regularly use the term ‘Islamist’ rather than ‘Islam’ to draw a distinction between the ideology of the enemy and Islam as it is practiced by most American Muslims, and by millions of Muslims throughout the world.” I added that Messrs. Spencer and Horowitz do likewise — an assertion I made because, among other reasons, I was sure I’d seen the term “Islamist” or “Islamism” in the September 30 essay they jointly published here on NRO. In fact, it is in the title of that essay, “Rational Fear of Islamism” — but titles are often the work of editors, not authors.

As recounted in the Corner earlier this week, Robert e-mailed me after the column appeared to offer this correction: He does not use the term “Islamist.” In his view, the “Islam/Islamism distinction is an artificial one imposed by the West, with no grounding in Islamic history, theology, or law.” Coincidentally, it turned out that while I was busy writing my column for that weekend, Robert was penning “Islam and Islamists.” In it, he expanded on this very argument. To use the term “Islamist,” he asserts, is to incorrectly imply “that Islam itself, in its authentic form, has no requisite political aspect, and no incompatibility with Western values or democratic government.”

My seminal disagreement is with Robert’s premise that there is and can be but a single authentic form of Islam. As readers of The Grand Jihad know, I struggled mightily with the “Islam or Islamist” question. It is the subject of my book’s second chapter, which asks whether our challenge is appropriately labeled “Islamism” or whether that label is a cop out, side-stepping the grim reality that Islam itself is and will always be the West’s problem.

Obviously, the West will never arrive at a successful defensive strategy unless we correctly identify the threat. So, should we focus our attention on those Muslims for whom imposition of sharia — Islam’s supremacist politico-legal system — is an inseparable part of their ideology? Or, in the alternative, should we come to the reluctant conclusion that this mandate to impose classical sharia, with its laws governing all aspects of life, simply is Islam? As I concluded in the book, there are too many non-supremacist Muslims to write off Islam; our target must be the supremacists. “Islamist” is a label suitable to the essential task of distinguishing our Muslim enemies from our Muslim allies — declared and potential.