What Is the Difference Between Islam and Islamism?

Linked with our presentation of Mehdi Mozaffari – Iran & Denmark, and How to go on with radical Islam, and Democracy or Islamocracy.

By Melvin E. Matthews, Jr., Mr. Matthews is a free-lance writer. (see on History News Network, on Sept. 8, 2003).

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, one commentator noted that the attacks climaxed almost two decades of terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam–a bloody, violent era that began with the suicide bombings against American and French peacekeeping forces in Beirut in 1983. The commentator, Martin Kramer, noted:

Islam is no more inclined to terrorism than any other monotheistic faith. Like its sisters, Christianity and Judaism, it can be both merciful and stern in practice; like them, it also teaches the love of God and the humanity of all mankind, believers and unbelievers alike. In times past, Islam has served as the bedrock of flourishing, tolerant, and peaceful orders.

Having said that, Kramer went on to say:

But sociologists will say that a religion, at any point in time, is whatever its adherents understand it to be. If that is so, then Islam, as understood by too many Muslims, is in danger of deteriorating into a manifesto for terror. The reason: Too many Muslims have been silent in the face of horrific deeds committed by an extremist minority.

The real “War on Terror,” says Middle Eastern expert Jonathan Schanzer, is the “War on Militant Islam”–the latter “a minority outgrowth of the faith” bitterly antagonistic to such Western concepts as capitalism, individualism, and consumerism. Spurning the West and much it offers–save for weapons, medicines, and additional “useful technologies”–militant Islam’s goal is “to implement a strict interpretation of the Koran (Islam’s holy book) and shari’a (Islamic law).” The major hindrance to the realization of this objective, in the radical Muslims’ view, is the United States.

Given all this, what is the difference between Islam and Islamism? Fundamentally, it comes down to a pair of concepts: faith (Islam) and ideology (Islamism).

Islam was born in the year A.D. 610, when the prophet Muhammed received both his divine mission and Allah’s commands for a new religion which primarily stressed belief in one God. One of the appeals of Islam, say its followers, is its emphasis on inner strength. “Any Westerner who really understands Islam,” asserts a leading Iranian figure, “will envy the lives of Muslims.” Muslims believe their faith is far superior to Judaism and Christianity; the latter two, to their minds, are merely “defective variants” of God’s best religion–Islam. This supreme confidence is bolstered by Islam’s glorious early history. Then, Islamic culture was the world’s most advanced. Muslims had the best of everything: good health, long life spans, high literacy, scientific and technical achievements After fleeing Mecca as a refugee in A.D. 622, Muhammed returned there a mere eight years later as its ruler. As early as the year 715, Muslim conquerors had erected a vast empire, whose borders reached from Span in the west to India in the east. Naturally, Muslims concluded that all this meant they were God’s chosen people, spiritually and materially.

Yet Islam’s “golden age” wouldn’t last forever. As early as the 13th century, Islam’s weakness and the Christian world’s successes were already becoming apparent. Nonetheless, for some five hundred years to come, Muslims were mainly unaware of what was happening in the Christian world. The words of the Muslim intellectual Ibn Khaldun regarding Europe, penned roughly the year 1400, summed up Muslim attitudes about that continent: “I hear that many developments are taking place in the land of the Rum, but God only knows what happens there!”

Such an attitude blinded Muslims to changing circumstances. In July 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte landed in the center of the Muslim world, Egypt, easily subduing it. This was merely the beginning of other assaults that ultimately left the majority of Muslims under European domination, and Muslims wondering why God had apparently forsaken them.

In response to modern setbacks, some Muslims empbraced a radical ideology known as Islamism. Islamism, according to critics, is akin to fascism and Marxism-Leninism. Like those systems, Islamism opposes capitalism and liberalism and seeks their overthrow.

Islamists are hostile to numerous countries. They feel that local Muslim rulers in such states as Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, and Malaysia are doing the West’s bidding in crushing their movement. In Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Sudan, they see the West “actively suppressing noble Islamist efforts to create a just society.” Islamists feel themselves encircled and frustrated by the West. High on their enemies list is the United States, which, Islamists believe, intends to steal Muslims’ resources, take advantage of their labor, and subvert their religion. It is widely held that Washington and Hollywood have united to install the “new world order.”

Why is Islamism so appealing? “Rather than a reaction against the modernization of Muslim societies,” notes a French scholar, “Islamism is a product of it.” As anothert author put it: “Islamism is not a medieval program but one that responds to the stress and strains of the twentieth century.”

Islamism is not a reaction against poverty. Quite the contrary: its leaders are often quite modern people, and Islamism appeals mainly to modern people. Daniel Pipes noted in 1998 that many Islamist leaders in Turkey and Jordan were engineers.

Pipes further notes that traditional Islam’s goal is to show humans how to live in harmony with God’s will, whereas Islamism aims to create a new order. Moreover, where traditionalists study Islam at great length, Islamist leaders know more about the sciences than Islam and use the latter as it suits their purposes. In the same way, Islamists embrace the modern world to achieve their goals whereas traditionalists are repelled by the modern world. Traditionalists look with apprehension at the West. Islamists want to challenge it, and take it over. More moderate Islamists intend to convert the non-Islamic countries they live in through non-violence to their cause.

When the term Islamism first appeared in French in the mid-18th century, it served as a synonym for the Muslim religion, then known in French as mahometisme, the religion Muhammed proclaimed and taught. This signified a new willingness, emerging from the Renaissance, to acknowledge Islam as a religious system with a founder, like Christianity. This view, however, was incorrect in viewing Muhammed as occupying the same position in Islam as Christ did in Christianity. Still the usage gained wide acceptance across Europe.

The French philosopher Voltaire was greatly interested in Islam and occasionally compared it favorably to other faiths. Moreover, he appreciated Muhammed’s role in Islam. “This religion,” he wrote, “is called islamisme.” Voltaire decided that islamisme achieved its dominance “over more than half of our hemisphere” through “enthusiasm and persuasion.” Like mahometisme before it, islamisme also received acceptance as a term in Europe.

Still, as Martin Kramer has noted concerning the use of Islamism and islamisme in the 19th century, “First while it reflected a more accurate understanding of Islam’s doctrine, it did not exclude critical interpretations of Islam’s character. . . . The second point is that Islamism and islamisme did not completely displace Mohammedanism and mahometisme, even in scholarship. . . . Only at mid-century did this usage expire, primarily because Western writers realized that they also had Muslim readers, who resented it.” Islamism also began fading from use as the 20th century dawned, as numerous scholars favored the shorter, purely Arabic term, Islam.

The term Islamism was coined to differentiate Islam as modern ideology from Islam as a faith. It became necessary to make this distinction after the Iranian revolution of 1979, which gave rise to the popular use of the term: “Islamic fundamentalism.” The use of fundamentalism to describe Islam spread so fast that by 1990, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defined fundamentalism as “the strict maintenance of traditional Protestant beliefs” and “the strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion, especially Islam.”

Ironically the more the media embraced Islamic fundamentalism as a term, the more scholars of Islam looked askance at it. Some felt that fundamentalism didn’t capture the methodology and style of Iran’s revolution and similar Muslim movements. Others, especially those sympathetic to the new Muslin movements, felt the term fundamentalist was unfair to progressive Muslims. Still, there were those academics who defended the use of the term fundamentalism.

France would once again lead in the invention of new terminology. Seeking a word to describe the new Islamic movements emerging in the 1970s, French scholars chose islamisme, first, because it traced its origins to Voltaire, while the American-derived term fundamentalisme, lacked French roots; second, there was some hesitation to using the only French alternative, integrisme, as it retained its initial Catholic framework and was part of continuing controversies concerning authority in the church.

In 1985 islamisme made its English debut. That year Gilles Kepel’s 1984 book, subtitled Les Mouvements Islamistes dans I’Egypte Contemporaine, was published in English as Muslim Extremism in Egypt. The English translator had trouble with islamiste, and translated it as “Islamicist.” According to a footnote in the translation: “The term ‘Islamicist’ is used throughout to render the French ‘islamiste.’ The loan word ‘Islamist’ did not gain currency until after this translation had been completed.”

Islamism received official definition from Robert Pelletreau, Jr., assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in 1994. Cautioning that “Islamic fundamentalism” had to be employed “with requisite caution,” and solely in regard to the wide resurgence of Islam, Pelletreau declared there existed subdivisions in the reawakening:

In the foreign affairs community, we often use the term “Political Islam” to refer to the movements and groups within the broader fundamentalist revival with a specific political agenda. “Islamists” are Muslims with political goals. We view these terms as analytical, not normative. They do not refer to phenomena that are necessarily sinister: there are many legitimate, socially responsible Muslim groups with political goals. However, there are also Islamists who operate outside the law. Groups or individuals who operate outside the law–espouse violence to achieve their aims–are properly called extremists.

The violent acts of militant Muslims stigmatized whatever term was applied. Islamism became another dangerous 20th century “ism” that had to be crushed by the liberal West. Like their Western sympathizers, the leaders of the new Islamic movements spurned the use of “fundamentalism.” Initially, Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor of Hizbullah, chose the term “Muslim,” then opted for “Islamist movement.”

Just the same, Muslims’ future actions will undoubtedly give rise to new descriptions of themselves. “The pressures,” writes Martin Kramer, “will come from two directions”: first, “the theory mills of France,” where Islamism twice emerged, in the 18th, then the 20th centuries. A new term, postislamisme, also occasionally known as neofondamentalisme, is gaining popularity now. The speculative intent of followers of postislamisme is not the acquisition of power but converting society to Islam. Secondly, other terms–”jihadism,” militant Islam and militant Muslims–have emerged since 9/11.

“Debate over terminology has always surrounded the West’s relations with Islam,” Kramer notes, “and its outcome has been as much a barometer of the West’s needs as a description of the actual state of Islam. . . . At various times, Westerners have needed Muslims to be infidels or believers, threatening or peaceable, foreign or familiar. It is impossible to predict which terms will prevail in the West’s own struggle to come to terms with change in contemporary Islam. It will depend on what Muslims do–and on what the West desires.” (see comments on this link).

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