The Problem I Have With the Term ‘Islamism’

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The Arab Spring has morphed into the pundits’ pandering about Islamism. An example, and there are many to choose from in the current political orgy of right-wing rhetoric, is in a New York Times op-ed by John M. Owen IV. It seems that when Muslims elect representatives who are Muslim they must be a new species called “Islamists.” Yes, throughout the Middle East, where the dominant religion happens to be Islam and there happen to be many forms of Islam, there is a strong interest in electing leaders who espouse religious values. In part this is due to decades of dictators who barely gave lip service to Islam and did all in their power to demonize those Muslims who opposed them. But just look at the current GOP field of candidates and tell me that voting on religious values is somehow unique to Muslims. Do read what Owens writes and then my reasons for being critical of this Islamist hunting…

Why Islamism Is Winning
By JOHN M. OWEN IV, The New York Times, January 6, 2012

EGYPT’S final round of parliamentary elections won’t end until next week, but the outcome is becoming clear. The Muslim Brotherhood will most likely win half the lower house of Parliament, and more extreme Islamists will occupy a quarter. Secular parties will be left with just 25 percent of the seats.

Islamism did not cause the Arab Spring. The region’s authoritarian governments had simply failed to deliver on their promises. Though Arab authoritarianism had a good run from the 1950s until the 1980s, economies eventually stagnated, debts mounted and growing, well-educated populations saw the prosperous egalitarian societies they had been promised receding over the horizon, aggrieving virtually everyone, secularists and Islamists alike.

The last few weeks, however, have confirmed that a revolution’s consequences need not follow from its causes. Rather than bringing secular revolutionaries to power, the Arab Spring is producing flowers of a decidedly Islamist hue. More unsettling to many, Islamists are winning fairly: religious parties are placing first in free, open elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. So why are so many Arabs voting for parties that seem politically regressive to Westerners?

The West’s own history furnishes an answer. From 1820 to 1850, Europe resembled today’s Arab world in two ways. Both regions experienced historic and seemingly contagious rebellions that swept from country to country. And in both cases, frustrated people in many nations with relatively little in common rallied around a single ideology — one not of their own making, but inherited from previous generations of radicals.

In 19th-century Europe, that ideology was liberalism. It emerged in the late 18th century from the American, Dutch, Polish and especially French revolutions. Whereas the chief political divide in society had long been between monarchs and aristocrats, the revolutions drew a new line between the “old regime” of monarchy, nobility and church, and the new commercial classes and small landholders. For the latter group, it was the old regime that produced the predatory taxes, bankrupt treasuries, corruption, perpetual wars and other pathologies that dragged down their societies. The liberal solution was to extend rights and liberties beyond the aristocracy, which had inherited them from the Middle Ages.

Suppressing liberalism became the chief aim of absolutist regimes in Austria, Russia and Prussia after they helped defeat France in 1815. Prince Klemens von Metternich, Austria’s powerful chancellor, claimed that “English principles” of liberty were foreign to the Continent. But networks of liberals — Italian carbonari, Freemasons, English Radicals — continued to operate underground, communicating across societies and providing a common language for dissent.

This helped lay the ideological groundwork for Spain’s liberal revolution in 1820. From there, revolts spread to Portugal, the Italian states of Naples and Piedmont, and Greece. News of the Spanish revolution even spurred the adoption of liberal constitutions in the nascent states of Gran Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Mexico. Despite their varied grievances, in each case liberalism served as a rallying point and political program on which the malcontents could agree.

A decade later, in July 1830, a revolution toppled France’s conservative Bourbon monarchy. Insurrection spread to Belgium, Switzerland, a number of German and Italian states and Poland. Once again, a variety of complaints were distilled into the rejection of the old regime and the acceptance of liberalism.

The revolutions of 1848 were more numerous and consequential but remarkably similar to the earlier ones. Rebels with little in common — factory workers in Paris, peasants in Ireland, artisans in Vienna — followed a script written in the 1790s that was rehearsed continuously in the ensuing years across the continent.

Today, rural and urban Arabs with widely varying cultures and histories are showing that they share more than a deep frustration with despots and a demand for dignity. Most, whether moderate or radical, or living in a monarchy or a republic, share a common inherited language of dissent: Islamism.

Political Islam, especially the strict version practiced by Salafists in Egypt, is thriving largely because it is tapping into ideological roots that were laid down long before the revolts began. Invented in the 1920s by the Muslim Brotherhood, kept alive by their many affiliates and offshoots, boosted by the failures of Nasserism and Baathism, allegedly bankrolled by Saudi and Qatari money, and inspired by the defiant example of revolutionary Iran, Islamism has for years provided a coherent narrative about what ails Muslim societies and where the cure lies. Far from rendering Islamism unnecessary, as some experts forecast, the Arab Spring has increased its credibility; Islamists, after all, have long condemned these corrupt regimes as destined to fail.

Liberalism in 19th-century Europe, and Islamism in the Arab world today, are like channels dug by one generation of activists and kept open, sometimes quietly, by future ones. When the storms of revolution arrive, whether in Europe or the Middle East, the waters will find those channels. Islamism is winning out because it is the deepest and widest channel into which today’s Arab discontent can flow.

John M. Owen IV, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, is the author of “The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change, 1510-2010.”

What went wrong, as Bernard Lewis mischievously asked right after the 911 bombing? Owen reduces the problem to two divergent but allegedly deep channels. Liberalism, the right kind of politics because it superseded religion, won out in Europe against the dictators. The heirs of Rousseau and Hume paved the way for Marx and parliamentary law as the idols of the church slowly faded away. Such is the usual scenario of why the West is Best. The West turned from theology to philosophy to sociology: positivism über alles, if one ignores just about everything in the postcolonial critique of neoliberalism. But in the Middle East Islam is seen as stagnating into Muslim Brothers and Salafis, closet fanatics and well-financed extremists who are said to reject the rational trajectory of Western thought in order to revive the golden age of 7th century Mecca. This would be a clash, to be sure, but the channels are not on indifferent continents; they run equally in both the West (Europe and the United States) and the Middle East.

Owen posits deep channels, but his examples flow on the surface. Indeed both Islam and Christianity have deep historical roots, but these show incredible variety rather than central streams. Owen writes as though “Islamism” is like Star Trek’s “Borg,” an overpowering dogma that would rather cover women’s bodies than find jobs for youth. If you listen to the loudmouth ideologues in any religion, it is easy to think like this. But it is disingenuous to assume that the bulk of the population in the countries that have overthrown absolutist dictators would want to replace one kind of absolutism with another, simply because it is labeled “Islam.” As Owen notes, indeed various Islamic movements have provided a coherent narrative about the ills facing their society. Most of these ills were left over from Europe’s (and more recently America’s) colonial and imperialistic interference in the region. The map of the region was largely drawn without the consent of those who live in the region. To the extent a channel for extremist religious views has been dug, the tools were provided by European involvement and support for the dictators who abused their people.

There is a problem with the term “Islamism.” Although many who use it claim that they only mean certain kinds of Muslims (the wrong kind of course), it usually implies that there is something bad about Islam as such. Thus, we are told that Islam can not exist in a democracy, Muslims in the West are intent on implementing shariah law, and we are in for an unending clash of civilizations with terrorism as the fruit of religious fervor. I think Owen is right about one thing: many are indeed upset that Islamists are winning fairly (the dictators we supported never did). So much for the idea that Islam is not compatible with democracy.

13 Responses to The Problem I Have With the Term ‘Islamism’

  1. bigstick1 19/01/2012 at 6:22 AM


    Not sorry to disappoint on both counts. 1) Not going away. 2) No wrath exists.

    Yahweh can’t even defeat an iron chariot. Not too afraid of imaginary boogy man. Science and archeology are on my side. You have a book full of contradictions that 1/5 of it can’t even be properly translated. In addition, no original text exists. A god who can get his story straight, can’t protect against goats from eating sacred text, and the list goes on. Hmmm wrath, I think not.

  2. bigstick1 18/01/2012 at 6:25 AM

    Read how abraham is a myth and how the one god theory was formed. Then you will see it as manmade. Yahweh was a pagan god same as allah. Go back in history and read how Yahweh was brought forth. Then you will see that all Ahrahamic religions are nothing but a myth. Written by ancient people who started with pagan gods then took one of the Gods and formed it into monotheism. Judaism is a lie and the rest are built on a lie. Abraham is a myth, same as Jesus. You know where I am going with this.

    • Uzoozy 19/01/2012 at 6:09 AM

      You are one wacky and crazy person.
      I presume you are Athiest so why do you not keep your ideas in you b…. and stay at home.
      Wait for the wrath to come, you will never know what got you.
      Start praying

  3. jhimmi 14/01/2012 at 12:01 AM

    Classic Liberalism defeated monarchs because it emphasized the individual, not because it superseded or rejected religion (the French revolution is not the extent of Liberalism). Each individual was a unique being that was capable of contemplating their existence and determining their own religious faith. This is antithetical to Islam.

  4. gsw 10/01/2012 at 11:48 AM

    And I suppose that the respected gentleman above could not be persuaded that perhaps both the koran and the bible are fiction?

    You are arguing about whose religious book is the most unreliable, contradictory, violent or just plain wacky?
    It’s ironic!

  5. Joe Catron 08/01/2012 at 10:17 PM

    The misguided commentator who precedes me could stand study both his Bible and Islam more carefully. Islam most certainly does not “den[y] that Jesus is the Christ”; in fact, in, the Quran affirms that he is al-Mas?? (the Messiah, or Christ in Anglicized Greek). This is hardly a secret:

    “Christian” Zionists, on the other hand, seem to have a much more difficult time grasping a core doctrine of their own supposed faith:


    • Uzoozy 19/01/2012 at 6:49 AM

      Koran is here in simple words the correction of the two other man edited books.
      Jesus is the Messiah and an esteemed prophet.
      Joe, wake up

      • bigstick1 19/01/2012 at 7:03 AM

        Don’t think so. Koran corrects nothing. It is just another fairytale superstitious book that believes in witchcraft and make believe. A control doctrine for lambs who are gullible and easily lead by military men who laughed at the easy of men killing themselves for a non-noble cause of thin air to benefit a few in power. Tools of the trade to control the unquestioning masses who are taught how not to question or use critical thinking skills. Books that sanction slavery, prostitution, murder, racism, hatred, the list goes on. The simplicity is how a person’s mind needs something more than reality that they will follow nothing to satisfy a desire or a fear.

        • Uzoozy 20/01/2012 at 6:10 AM

          You live in LaLa land.
          On all counts you are wrong.
          Like I said before start praying hard , you stuff will fall off.
          Usual athiest guy unable to live to the reality of life./

          • bigstick1 20/01/2012 at 8:25 AM

            No, I live in reality just fine. I am pleased to report that flying purple people eaters don’t exist, Santa Claus doesn’t’ exist, Easter bunny doesn’t exist, Allah doesn’t exist, Yahweh doesn’t exist, or any of those make believe children stories.

            Hey, you can believe in your (fairytale) religion all you want. Not stopping you.

            By the way generally stuff doesn’t fall off. The religious do like cutting it off; circumcision or FGM.

  6. ML 08/01/2012 at 3:26 PM

    I have a problem with the term “demonize” when used in relation to Islam or Muslims, since Islam has been demonic from the outset, being based on doctrines of demons. The Koran denies that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and denies His crucifixion for our sins and is thus anti-Christ.

    “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is the antichrist who denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:22)

    • Uzoozy 09/01/2012 at 4:02 AM

      The truth is as written in the Koran, Jesus(peace be upon him) never said he was the son of God .
      The first line of your bibles is not even match.
      Your books written by man one of them alleged to have met Jesus(pbuh) on the road to Damascus and he wrote a gospel.
      on that . What a lot fo horse man…….
      Worst of all you believe all the crap

    • Uzoozy 15/01/2012 at 6:12 AM

      Read the Koran and read the bible and you will know that Koran is the correct text to follow.
      Korans prose ,language style and message are un comparable.
      The Jews are the chosen people.
      The Christains have Jesus(peace upon him) to save everyone who believes in Jesus.
      Only the Muslims are there to earn their way to Heaven.
      I am awe when I read the Koran(Quran) , its is made in heaven.
      I am a practising Muslim and I love it.

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