Is there really any difference between Islam and “Islamism”?

Islam and IslamismBy LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian *

I recently spoke to the London Atheist Activist Group and the Central London Humanists, and I devoted large chunks of both talks to questioning the term “Islamism”. My points were in the main well-received.

I’m finding this term Islamism increasingly problematic. I’m setting out here some of the points I made in my talks, plus a few more.

The accepted definitions seem to be something like this:

Islam is a religion

Islamism is the desire or attempt to impose (violently or non-violently) any interpretation of Islam on to others; it is the political manifestation (formally or informally) of Islam

I’ve detected an almost fanatical zeal with which people are patrolling the purported border between Islam and Islamism. Dissent ist verboten. Use the “wrong” term and you’re summarily convicted of high treason, bigotry, racism, “conflation”, “homogenizing Muslims”, or that old chestnut “Islamophobia” – even by your fellow secularists.

That the distinction between Islam and Islamism has become such a huge debating point is a touch baffling, and disheartening. After all this time and after so many real-life horror shows perpetrated explicitly in the name of this religion, we still don’t even know what to call it. We’re not at square one yet. How can we ever expect to solve a problem we can’t identify?

I’ve set out below a number of arguments against the term Islamism and why it concerns me, but before I get to my individual points I will say that I do at least acknowledge what the term Islamism attempts to achieve. It attempts to separate the private practice of a religion from the enforcement of that religion on to others. Fair enough. But although I recognize the term Islamism has this aim, I just don’t think we need a separate word to achieve that aim. I think it can even lead to some serious problems, which I outline below.

Also, by refusing to acknowledge the term Islamism, or at the very least merely questioning it, I’m not for one moment saying Muslims are a homogenous mass or that all Muslims are [insert negative characteristic here]. I wholeheartedly acknowledge that all Muslims are individuals. Nor am I saying there’s only one form of Islam. The existence of different sects and traditions within Islam is a fact. I just think we can make all these points without inventing a new word. We can make all these points with normal, everyday language and normal, everyday reasoning.

1. “Islamists” call themselves Muslims

A fairly elementary point, but a fundamental one. Islamists call themselves Muslims – they don’t call themselves “Islamists”. And they call their ideology Islam – they don’t call it “Islamism”.

I submit that it’s reasonable to describe these people and their ideology with the same words they use.

2. Many Muslims and ex-Muslims reject the term “Islamism”

I acknowledge that this doesn’t win the argument for me, but it does show I’m not alone in having these concerns. The views of Muslims and ex-Muslims are important, and we shouldn’t dismiss them lightly.

3. What other religions do we do this for?

When other religions become “political” do we issue them a new name by adding the letters ism to the end?

Do we talk of Christianityism, Judaismism, Mormonismism, Hinduismism? No. (And before you pipe up with the word Zionism, that is not the political manifestation of Judaism or the enforcement of Judaism on to others.)

The essence of secularism is that religions aren’t per se a problem, but rather only to the extent they seek privileges or infringe rights. Attempting to separate into two crisp piles of laundry the “religious” and “political” aspects of a religion is a tricky and perhaps futile endeavour because the major theistic religions have doctrines which are intrinsically political, seeking as they do to regulate to one extent or another how people should live their lives – even people who aren’t of that faith.

Arguably, Islam is intrinsically even more political in nature than the other religions. The ridiculously brave ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali has described her former religion with these words:

“Islam is not a religion of peace, it’s a political theory of conquest that seeks domination by any means it can.”

Her words, not mine. But before you dismiss Ayaan’s statement from the comfort of your smartphone screen, perhaps read a little about her life for some understanding of what she has had to endure.

We don’t have separate words for a private religion and its political manifestation. Why are so many people creating an exception for Islam?

By using the word Islamism we insulate Islam from sorely-needed scrutiny. We generously move the spotlight away from Islam when we should be doing the opposite. We give Islam a free pass. Islam does not deserve this free pass. No religion deserves a free pass. If anything, based on the eye-watering amount of harm that Islam is causing throughout the world as I write these words, Islam deserves a far greater scrutiny than the other religions.

4. It’s confusing and intimidating

One of the key problems in tackling Islam’s many troubling effects is that people are too intimidated even to enter the debate. They’re too scared to speak up. I’ve diagnosed three broad reasons for this. Let’s call them Islam’s three killer apps.

Firstly, Islam is a religion and so it immediately starts on +10 points, because today it’s generally still socially taboo to criticize any religion.

Secondly, when you criticize Islam or sharia you can set your watch to being called some variation of the word “racist” in a matter of seconds.

And thirdly, as recent events in Paris and Copenhagen have reminded us (as though we needed reminding), there are deadly – yes, literally deadly – consequences for those who refuse to follow Islam’s rules.

If you “incorrectly” use the term Islam instead of Islamism, the Islam vs. Islamism Police will find you guilty of “racism” or “bigotry”. These accusations make no logical sense whatsoever but they’re enough to make people think twice about opening their mouth. These accusations, no matter how baseless, are enough to obliterate a person’s career and credibility.

We want people to join this debate. We don’t want further barriers to entry. But the term Islamism does precisely that: it creates an additional hurdle for people to clear.

The fanatical enforcement of the supposed Islam/Islamism distinction has led to exactly what we don’t need: ever greater self-censorship. So congratulations to everyone who has ever called someone “racist” or “bigoted” for using the word Islam instead of Islamism. You know who you are.

5. It creates a sideshow

Attaching so much importance to the apparent distinction between Islam and Islamism makes for a stale, technical, snobby and bone-dry academic discussion about terminology. It becomes a discussion about –isms, –isations and –ologies. It creates a sideshow debate. (I’m sure some people will object fiercely to the definition of Islamism I have used above and completely ignore all my other arguments, thereby proving my point.)

I’m not saying people are stupid and incapable of understanding the term Islamism, but what this term does is introduce an exhausting and unnecessary dimension to the debate. All the time that people are debating the difference between Islam and Islamism in a sterile think-tank environment is time they aren’t discussing real harms and real solutions. Ask yourself: which is the better use of your time?

6. Secularism 1.01: people have rights, ideas don’t

Secularists love to disagree with each other but one thing they tend to agree on is that ideas are separate to people. Secularists agree that ideas don’t have rights because ideas aren’t capable of having rights. They agree that rights are for people only.

Islam is a separate thing to Muslims, and so even if we use the term Islam instead of Islamism there is still no question of infringing anyone’s rights or painting everyone with the same brush because Islam is just a set of ideas, nothing more.

I have heard secularists argue that using the term Islamism is important to demonstrate they’re not “attacking” Islam. But hang on, stop there. You can’t “attack” a set of ideas anyway. Why are secularists talking in such terms? Secularists have spent enormous energy educating people that ideas don’t have rights, but here they are suggesting that one religion and one religion alone does have rights because apparently we must not “attack” it.

Secularists have no hesitation “attacking” other religions, and nor should they. So why do they worry about “attacking” Islam?

The distinction between ideas and people is fundamental to secularism and we must never merge the two by worrying about “attacking” a set of ideas. We must refuse to create anything resembling an exception for Islam here.

7. Using the term Islam instead of Islamism does not “homogenize” Muslims

Some people seem concerned that a failure to use the term Islamism risks “homognenizing” Muslims. This is rubbish. As I have already said, ideas are separate to people. And I have already said I acknowledge all Muslims are individuals. Some Muslims are good people and some are bad.

If we say X about Islam it doesn’t follow we’re saying X about Muslims. We don’t have this nervousness when scrutinising other religions. For example, we can quite comfortably assert that the book of Leviticus is clearly homophobic without for a moment inferring all Christians are homophobic.

8. We lose some right to get angry when we hear the phrase “nothing to do with Islam”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve lost my temper with coarse language when a politician, a “community leader” or a commentator has taken to the airwaves in the immediate aftermath of a savage attack explicitly inspired by Islam to reassure us that the savage attack explicitly inspired by Islam was in fact nothing to do with Islam.

We lose some of that right to get angry when we deploy the term Islamism because by using that term we’re also saying, effectively, that it isn’t Islam at work but Islamism.

9. Playing with language is dangerous: four case studies

It’s important we identify the source of problems and that we use language honestly. You might think the addition of the three letters –ism to Islam isn’t significant, but it is.

Who’s to say one day we won’t do away even with the term Islamism and replace it with a limp and generic alternative like “extremism”? Sound far-fetched? Read on.

Case Study 1

Have a look at this Guardian piece about the genocidal Islamic terror group Boko Haram enslaving 200 young girls. Do a word search (Ctrl-F) for the terms Islam, Islamist, Islamism and Muslim and see how many times they crop up. (If you can’t be bothered, let me save you a task: it’s zero in each case.)

Instead, the Guardian used the banal vanilla terms “militants” and “insurgents”. I don’t know about you, but I find that spooky.

The Guardian further covered itself in glory in this piece by using the term “mass marriage”, evoking images of an open-air party attended by pot-bellied naturists in the Kent countryside, rather than the less palatable but more accurate “mass enslavement” or “mass rape of children”.

Case Study 2

Similarly, do a word search of this report which Ofsted sent to the then-Education Secretary Michael Gove in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair.

Again, the words Islam, Islamist, Islamism and Muslim do not appear once. But there are 5 x “extremism”, 1 x “extremist” and 5 x “radicalisation”.

Radical and extreme what? Vegans? Does Ofsted expect readers of its reports to be telepathic?

Case Study 3

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently made some unexpected but welcome noises in defence of secularism when he spoke out against the privileged position of bishops in the House of Lords. With uncompromising and prosaic BoJo bluntness he even called them “clerical fossils”.

Sadly, this refreshing robustness on religion from a high-profile politician evaporates when the religion changes from Christianity to Islam.

For the elected Mayor of London, even the word Islamism is unacceptable. He believes we need a new word to describe extremists who act in the name of Islam. His suggestion? We should call them “criminals”, “bandits” or “Mafia”.

Johnson also said:

“When anybody says Islamism, Muslim fundamentalist or terrorist or something like that, the wider public hear the word Muslim – you see what I’m saying? So you need to find an alternative word.”

Why must we “find an alternative word”, Mr Mayor? You are clearly an exceptionally brave man because you have the courage to call 26 unwelcome (but peaceful and law-abiding) bishops in our legislature “clerical fossils”. Could you also find the courage to call Muslim terrorists, “Muslim terrorists”?

Case Study 4

Using the term Islamism can have undesirable consequences. It can lead to absurd sub-categories: increasingly we are hearing facepalm-inducing phrases such as “moderate Islamism”.

In time will we also hear the phrase “extreme Islamism”? Or perhaps we could just call that Islamismism instead (“the desire to impose any interpretation of Islamism…”)

This is all very dangerous. Swerving a problem by playing with language might seem clever but it isn’t. It is cowardice of the first order. It doesn’t solve the problem. It conceals the problem.

Our unthinking indulgence of the term Islamism makes it more likely we’ll drift ever further from identifying the central ideology at work.

This is what happens when you play with language. This is what happens when you lack a spine.

10. We can’t pretend the teachings of Islam are benign

My guess is that the term Islamism isn’t generally used with the deliberate intention of misleading. I think it’s often used more out of nervousness. People are too scared to use the word Islam so they use the word Islamism. They’re too scared to use the word Muslim so they use the word Islamist.

But the enormous problems Islam presents to us, not only in terms of ideology but also in terms of real, actual harm carried out today – such as the brutal enforcement of blasphemy and apostasy codes; the mediaeval treatment of women, gays and non-Muslims; the implementation of a Caliphate; high-octane anti-Semitism; and not to mention all those grisly beheadings – these come directly and indisputably from the teachings of Islam. This is a fact. You can use the word Islamism to skirt around this, but you can’t stop it being a fact.

And for goodness sake, just think about it for a second. If there was no problem with any of Islam’s teachings there wouldn’t be a problem with Islamism either, would there? Because imposing on to others a positive or benign ideology wouldn’t have such horrendous consequences.

It’s precisely because there is so much within the teachings of Islam that is inhumane that enforcing it on to others is – surprise, surprise – enormously inhumane too. Is this rocket science?

11. It forces you to categorise

Any half-competent lawyer will tell you there’s no point creating definitions unless you use them, and you use them consistently.

Take as an example the increasingly widespread occurrence of halal food and specifically how it’s imposed on people who don’t want to eat it, often without their knowledge. According to the definition we have used in this piece, this would constitute Islamism. But refer to a KFC chicken bucket as an example of Islamism and people will laugh at you and call you “racist”.

Do you see the irony here? Usually you will be called racist for “incorrectly” using the word Islam instead of Islamism. Here, though, play your tormenters at their own silly word game and use the term Islamism “correctly” and you will still be called racist anyway. At this point, nothing makes sense.

Our definition also compels us to categorise halal slaughterhouses who peddle their wares to an unwilling or unknowing public as Islamists. And you know who else are Islamists in this example? Our supermarkets and fast food outlets.

12. Don’t compromise your own honesty through a bigotry of low expectations of Muslims

One argument I hear in favour of the term Islamism is that if we focus on the failings of Islam we’re effectively asking a couple of billion people to de facto apostatize.

This ignores the problem by creating a new word. It also reinforces the “bigotry of low expectations”: it cements the toxic and patronising idea that Muslims aren’t intellectual adults and that they’re incapable of changing any of their views; that if you merely suggest to them that some of the ideas deeply ingrained within their religion might not be entirely positive you will unleash within them a hair-trigger and savage temper.

Some say we “can’t expect Muslims to speak out because it’s difficult for them”. Well yes, I acknowledge it’s difficult for Muslims to speak out. But here’s the thing. You can’t refuse to acknowledge the problems deeply embedded within Islam’s DNA whilst also arguing it’s difficult for Muslims to speak out, because if there weren’t any problems within Islam’s teachings then surely it shouldn’t be difficult for Muslims to speak out?

And while we’re on the subject of it being difficult for Muslims, what makes you think it’s easy for non-Muslims like me to speak out? Do you think I enjoy being called “racist” in the public domain, and probably having future career paths cordoned off? Do you think I enjoy pondering my own safety? And just because some Muslims might, through a fear of de facto apostatising, prefer to focus on the problems of “Islamism” rather than Islam, it doesn’t mean that all Muslims, or non-Muslims, must compromise their integrity by replicating this behaviour out of a sense of solidarity.

Those of us with the confidence to be ruthlessly honest have the right to be ruthlessly honest.

13. We don’t need the word “Islamism” to acknowledge there are different types of Islam

It doesn’t follow from a refusal to use the term Islamism that there’s only one type of Islam. We can still use normal, everyday language to make distinctions between the different sects and traditions within Islam, and between different Muslims. We can use language without abusing it.

It’s vital we identify the overall ideology at work here, and the overall ideology is Islam. Yes, there are different traditions and sects within Islam but it’s an awkward fact that the most blood-stained jihadi shares a religion with the most liberal, secular and peace-loving Muslim. The extremists’ interpretation of Islam is not, contrary to widespread wishful thinking, a “twisted”, “perverted” or even necessarily an “extreme” interpretation of Islam. It is a completely straightforward, logical and literal interpretation of Islam, and it’s a very, very plausible one.

In closing

Whether or not I’ve convinced you that the term Islamism is unhelpful and even dangerous, allow me to close with two requests.

Firstly, if you still think that making a distinction between Islam and “Islamism” is important, and that it’s a productive use of your time and intellect to grapple with the “correct” term every time (remember those KFC and supermarket examples), fine. Go ahead and do that. But do it for the right reason. What I mean by that is do it because you honestly think there’s a significant difference. Don’t do it to shield yourself from (baseless) accusations of racism and bigotry. Don’t do it out of fear. Don’t do it because everyone around you is doing it. Don’t do it because you’re scared of falling out with the In Crowd. Don’t do it because you’re worried about losing Twitter followers.

And secondly, how about we just agree to disagree? If someone is not prepared to use those different terms then how about you don’t use it as a basis to call that person racist or bigoted? Is that too much to ask? Because one thing we’re definitely not short of is baseless, intimidating accusations of racism and bigotry.

We will never solve a problem we refuse to identify. We will never get Islam to the position where the other religions generally are today if we don’t treat Islam like those other religions. An essential component of that process will be searing honesty and total moral courage.

The former extremist Maajid Nawaz – someone I have enormous respect and affection for and someone the LSS stood shoulder to shoulder with when he was in the eye of a particularly unpleasant blasphemy storm – has said that Islamism suffers from the “Voldemort effect”: it is the ideology which shall not be named. Well on that basis, Islam suffers from an extreme Voldemort effect.

It is entirely reasonable to call this set of ideas and its followers by their proper names.

This set of ideas is called Islam.

The followers of Islam – the good ones and the bad ones – are called Muslims.

If those two previous statements of mine are in any way controversial, then boy do we have a problem on our hands.

* Charlie Klendjian was LSS Secretary and an LSS member from Oct 2012 to Aug 2015


Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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