Friday, August 2, 2013

Islamism: the politicization of Islam

Islamism is constantly in the news today. With the rise of several Islamist parties in the aftermath of the Arab spring, this should not surprise anyone. They are now in power in many countries after many decades in opposition. Whenever Arab countries have held free elections, they have often captured majorities, but after the Arab spring they have done much better.

Yet Egypt just evicted President Muhammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. And in Syria many people, both there and elsewhere, are so afraid Islamists will take over the country if President Bashar al-Assad is forced from power that they continue to support his murderous regime.

Islamists have not helped their own cause. They discovered that governing is harder than being in opposition. In several countries they have demonstrated incompetence and fallen victim to same corruption that plagued former regimes.

What is Islamism? you may well ask. Unfortunately, the term is hard to define. The best of the definitions that I have read is (slightly adapted): Islamism is a movement of Muslims who draw upon the belief, symbols, and language of Islam to inspire, shape, and animate political activity. This movement may contain moderate, tolerant, peaceful activists, and/or those who preach intolerance and espouse violence.

This definition covers the gamut: from moderate Islamists who accept and work within the democratic process, as in Tunisia, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey, to groups that do participate in the democratic process but also use violence, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, to radical Islamists who reject democracy entirely, such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Further distinctions can be made: Wahhabism and Salafism, although not identical, reject Western influences and endorse a rather puritan interpretation of Islam. In Nigeria, Boko Haram, as the name indicates, is noted especially for its rejection of Western education, but it also rejects much more that comes from the West. All these groups can be labelled "radical Islamists."

Islamism is thus extremely diverse and should not be equated with terrorism, although several groups do have links with terrorists. The term is of recent vintage, dating back only three decades or so, and is commonly used today instead of "Islamic fundamentalism."

Because of the association of Islamism with terrorism, I would prefer to reserve the term Islamism for those who do use violence, rather than tarring all Islamists with the same broad brush.

Instead, let us call those who are willing to work within a democratic context "Islamic." That way we can avoid their association with terrorism, and governments should not have to fear working together with them. Their people want democracy and they abhor terrorism.

Those who advocate terrorism often try to use the democratic process in order to gain power. "One person, on vote, one time," is a cynical way of describing their position. These are the people we must especially fear, not those who do not pose a real threat. All Islamists need democracy to gain recognition and power, even if they later disown it.

Americans, in particular, tend to use a broad brush when describing people and groups they dislike. Thus even mild socialists become communists from their point of view. They often do the same with Muslims.

Islamists are Muslisms, but not all Muslims are Islamists. Islamism posits a political role for Islam. This is true of every form of Islamism, even those who endorse democracy and reject violence.

While some question a political role for Islam, by its very nature Islam is political. Islam is a way of life, which means that every aspect of the lives of Muslims is touched by their faith, including politics. Muslims do not compartmentalize life the way many Westerners do and thus politics cannot be separated from the rest of life.

This does not mean, however, that faith has become politicized. Those Muslims who want to introduce sharia, or reintroduce it as happened in Nigeria, are not necessarily politicizing their faith any more than some Christians do when they fight abortion by appealing to biblical principles. Additionally it should be mentioned, a few Christians even want the state to legislate according to Old Testament laws, but that does not mean that they are therefore politicizing their faith.

To connect politics and faith does not mean that faith is politicized. Muslims who connect the two, and those Christians who do the same, are not politicizing their faith, but simply expressing their faith also in the area of politics, which is only proper.

The politicization of faith occurs when politics dominates and certain groups, like those who want to eliminate Israel or evict Americans from Afghanistan, want to use violence in order to achieve this political goals. The introduction of sharia does not constitute polarization unless it is accompanied by violence. Violence is the key. That is what must be rejected, not the close connection of faith and politics.

Westerners may not like everything that even democratically elected Islamists do. Examples such as Turkey spring to mind. Since the Arab spring many more such democratically oriented regimes have come to power. These ruling political parties are generally labelled Islamist, but they do not espouse violence to achieve their goals, and thus this term, as I have already said, is not the most appropriate and can be misleading.

Let us therefore be careful not use the label of Islamism too liberally. This term has become so wide in scope that it no longer meaningful. Since it is often used to describe Muslim terrorist groups, other groups that are fully democratic and do not practice terrorism, are also assumed to be terrorists. That is unfair to these other groups, and that is why I prefer to limit the term to groups that endorse violence.

I may not yet enjoy support for my proposal, but I find it helpful. Maybe you will too. I hope that this way the term will become more meaningful and fair to all concerned. Please consider it.

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