What’s in a Name?

by Clifford D. May

Three Muslim reformers have written a piece, “Please call us Islamic,” that I think deserves attention. Hayri Abaza, who is with my Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and Soner Çağaptay and Kayvan Chinichian, both with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argue that too many people and publications are using the terms “Islamic and Islamist interchangeably, not realizing that Islam is a religion and Islamism is an ideology. . . . In the name of political sanity, we ask you, please call us Islamic because Islamism is an ideology we do not share.” They add that Islamism is “a modern anti-Western political ideology rooted in Islam.”

I agree. One point on which I differ with the authors: I’m not convinced that most of those using the terms interchangeably are  “confused,” and are doing so “unwittingly.”

For example, a

recent report published by the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, entitled “500 Most Influential Muslims” is the most recent publication that conflates Islamic and Islamist. Contrary to what its name suggests, the report lists not the 500 most influential Muslims, but rather the 500 most influential Islamists.

Right. But this Center has received millions of dollars from Saudi royals. It is in the interest of Saudi royals to mainstream Islamism, to confuse the public about the differences between Islamism and Islam, lest the public come to understand that Wahhabism — the state religion/ideology of Saudi Arabia — is a form of Islamism and, indeed, the soil from which al-Qaedism has grown.

This, however, strikes me as a very strong point:

The relationship between Islam and Islamism is akin to the relationship between the working class and communism in the Cold War. Just as communist ideology stood for and hoped to derive its legitimacy from the working class, the Islamist ideology hopes to derive its legitimacy from Muslims.

Yet, just as communism did not represent the working class since millions of working-class men and women did not identify themselves with communists, Islamism does not represent Muslims. A majority of Muslims are not Islamists and the violent crimes of Islamists would be enough for them to be considered un-Islamic.

Imagine what would have happened during the Cold War if pundits and policymakers suggested that all working-class people were communist. We can encounter al-Qaeda’s rhetoric of Muslims versus the West only by splitting Muslims from al-Qaeda’s Islamist Weltanschauung. This is why we have to differentiate Islamism from Islam.

The full piece is worth reading and worth further discussion, as well.

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