Islamism: What’s in a name?

The Times today reports that Counter Terrorism Policing have been asked by advocacy group the National Association of Muslim Police (NAMP) to use alternative terminology when describing Islamist terrorism, in order that it does not “have a direct link to Islam and jihad”.

Some context: this type of extremism continues to be the largest terrorist threat to the UK. Currently, Counter Terrorism Policing is working on 800 live investigations and attempting to monitor up to 43,000 current and historic ‘subjects of interest’ – the vast majority inspired by Islamism (approximately 80%).

Yet this is not the first time that the notion that Islamism is offensive, stigmatises Muslims, and associates Islam with terrorism has been voiced.

For example, in 2008, the Home Secretary at the time Jacqui Smith attempted to rebrand Islamist terrorism as “anti-Islamic activity”. In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron declared he would only refer to the Islamic State terrorist group using its Arabic acronym, “Daesh”. In 2018, the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation Max Hill QC claimed that using the phrase “Islamist terrorism” was “fundamentally wrong”, and “Daesh-inspired terrorism” should be used instead so as not to tarnish a world religion.

Yet these arguments just demonstrate a misunderstand regarding what Islamism actually is: a descriptor, not a value judgement, that is used by academics and practitioners alike to refer to a specific worldview in order further to understand and measure its impact.

Islamism has been described by subject experts Rashad Ali and Hannah Stuart as a political ideology that views Islam as a complete socio-political system and, as such, pursues an expansionist sharia-governed Islamic society. It is a doctrine that, scholar Damon L Perry argues, hopes for a “transformation in the institutions that structure everyday life, be they educational, economic, political or otherwise.” Followers of most Islamist movements use legal and political means to advocate societal change, such as the revolutionary activists of Hizb ut-Tahrir and the entry-level (“gradualist”) Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ideology’s most extreme adherents, however, are characterised by their enthusiasm for bringing about this societal change through brutality – most notoriously al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

There are also examples of Islamist actors who self-define their agenda as “Islamist”, separating themselves from other, often secularist, Muslim sects or factions. For example, US public policy institute Brookings conducted an interview series in 2016 entitled ‘Islamists on Islamism Today’, featuring leaders from prominent mainstream Islamist movements: Tunisia’s Ennahda Party; Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami; and various Arab branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. The project allowed Islamists to offer “their own perspectives” on their political strategy, conceived in the spirit of open discussion and “constructive” dialogue.

One interviewee, Omar Mushaweh of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, stressed the need for an “Islamist alternative” to address the “extremists” of ISIS. Another, Jamaat-e-Islami leader Asif Luqman Qazi, said that “a reversion to an Islamic ethos” can serve as an antidote to the ills of contemporary society, and a path to “salvation in the hereafter”.  That is why Islamists of all stripes are resolute that their socio-political outlook sits in accordance with normative, authentic Islam and criticism is viewed or framed as an assault on private faith, and personal identity.

The allegation made in The Times by NAMP, that it fails to “help community relations and public confidence” is – at best –  unproven. Worse still, changing terminology on these grounds may in fact cause further damage, obstructing long-standing counter-Islamism work within global Muslim communities (by Muslim practitioners) and reinforcing the false narrative sometimes pushed by ‘gatekeeper’ groups that Muslims are a monolithic bloc with the same notion of offence, and providing an impression that Muslims care more about semantics than tackling extremism. This is evidently untrue: in reality, Muslims are the most frequent victims of violent Islamism on a global scale and are also targeted by non-violent Islamists’ authoritarian and sectarian agenda in Muslim-majority countries.

To win the war against militant Islamism, American professor of history and warfare Mary Habeck writes that Governments must “understand the enemy”. Failure to do so leads to a succession of inconsistent policies that contradict one another, undoing any advances previously achieved. Habeck states that Islamist terrorists purposely use exclusively Islamic language, target Muslims for recruitment, and have set religious goals as their objectives which must be acknowledged. Without such open discussion, she argued, the public have been “making up their own minds” about the relationship between Islam and extremism, generally either over-stating or underestimating its connection.

So although the relationship between Islam and Islamism, let alone Islamism’s political, authoritarian, and militant manifestations is complex, the solution is not to amend our lexicon. Governments must be given the freedom accurately to describe the problems they are facing – not least because challenging extremist narratives will become that much harder if accurate definitions become taboo.