Terminology and characterization of Islamic movements: between misunderstanding and labeling (Part I: Islamism)

An "expert" on the Middle East in a typical Western media outlet is a person who knows basic differences like those between Sunnis and Shias, or Turks, Arabs and Iranians. This, of course, represents some progress comparing to the average citizen who sees the whole region or the Muslim world as a monolithic block, in the classical Orientalist manner. When it comes to more complex religious, political and social movements that appeared during past few decades or centuries, e.g. Salafism, Wahhabism in Arabia, Deobandism in India, the Muslim Brotherhood and Qutbism in Egypt, or Khomeinism in Iran, most media analysts eventually fall into the endless depths of misunderstanding and ridiculous errors. In the late 20th century, two terms were coined in the Western world - Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism - and commonly used, even interchangeably, for labeling mentioned movements. Despite their widespread usage in the media and even is some scholarly literature, in many cases its confusing, misleading and even downright wrong. This article will examine primary problems related to it, namely unfounded analogies with Christian religious movements, constructed political discourses and reproduction of outdated stereotypes, theological and semantic contradictions, and Muslim self-identifications.

Starting with Islamism, it can be understood as a socio-political movement, demanding society should be reconstructed in line with the ideals of Islam and secular state should be replaced by an Islamic state. A vast majority of historical states of the Muslim world fell under this category, but in modern sense Islamism is a 20th-century reaction against secularism, widespead in the Arab countries, Turkey, Pahlavi Iran and elsewhere. As an ideology it has no single creed or political manifestation, and many contemporary Muslim countries who incorporated Islamic law are called as Islamic states. It includes Islamic monarchies like Morocco, Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman and Brunei, as well as Islamic republics like Mauritania, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of them are Shia and theocratic republics (Iran), and some of them combine Islamic law with common law (Brunei, Pakistan) or civil law (Mauritania, Oman, Iran). There are also countries with Islam as a state religion and elements of Islamic law, like Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Malaysia. Perception that every single Islamist dreams of pan-Islamic concept of a global Caliphate with an Islamic law in its strictest form (i.e. Saudi Hanbali), is a mere fantasy and a Islamophobic conspiracy theory. The Islamist spectrum covers many different kinds of Islamists, ranging from extremist radical minority to major progressive movements.

Hostility and misconceptions about Islamic political movements in the West can be traced back to the 19th century, and have both ideological and political basis. Secularism was a core ideological imperative of modernity, and in the same time imperial powers produced Orientalist images of Islam as a static system whose adherents will be saved by their colonization. Thus, Modernist Salafists from today's Egypt, Turkey and India, who argued the Muslim world is able to restore its glory and keep up with the West, were seen as a threat. This Western perspective was kept even during the Cold War, when both superpowers uncritically praised their allies as progressive - pro-American secular regimes in Turkey and Iran on the one hand, and pro-Soviet socialist regime in Egypt on the other. Islamic revivalist movements of al-Banna or Khomeini were far from being anti-modernist, as often falsely represented, but rather challenging serious political, economic and social injustices. Dissidents looked at their corrupt rulers in the same way as French revolutionaries once did at corrupt Catholic clergy. Finally, soon after the 9/11 attacks, US-neoconservatives set up a new discourse of a monolithic Islam and clash of civilizations, describing Islam as a throwback to Medieval times and in desperate need of reform, which will enter Muslim countries behind American tanks. Islamism emerged as a kind of politically correct label, a compromise between the generalization of Muslims and keeping the outlined agenda, and it proved useful to group various different governments and organizations, from Wahhabi Takfiri al-Qaida and Deobandi Talibans to Shia Iran, under the same umbrella term.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Khomeini's revolutionaries definitely qualify as Islamist movements, the former as the most prominent in the Sunni and the latter in the Shia context, but both are neither violent nor regressive. Following the successful Iranian Revolution, Orientalist tendency was reinforced and two arguments have dominated the Western scholarly perspective during the 1980s and 1990s: the first assumes Islam has an authentic problem with politics, and second contends that Islam as a faith system is incompatibile with modernity. Later, many scholars find these arguments as unconvincing, stating that original sources of Islam have very little to say about politics, that Islam does not determine a specific form for the state or government, and that political Islam is a new phenomen that does not represent a going back to any situation that existed in the past. Historians emphasise the whole constitutional structure of the Islamic Republic was modeled less on the early caliphate than on de Gaulle's Fifth Republic. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Khomeini's closest disciples, once stated: "Where in Islamic history do you find Parliament, President, Prime Minister, and Cabinet of Ministers? In fact, 80% of what we now do has no precedent in Islamic history". As in the case of Iran's revolutionaries, the Muslim Brotherhood's rejection of "modernity" actually implied rejecting the naive emulation of imported Western way of life.

Regarding Saudi Arabia, where the ruling House of Saud is historically closely tied to orthodox Salafi movement, question of Islamism is far more complex. The Saudi monarchy claimed that the Quran was their only constitution and their local Salafist promulgator al-Wahhab called for a return to the purity of early Islam, however, this is inconsistent because the concept of the monarchy does not exist in the Quran or the Sunna. Al-Wahhab thus represents a reformer in both scriptural and technical sense, but Saudis tend to deny it because its contradictory to the essence of their doctrine. This alliance was further consolidated in the 1980s with the emergence of a new thought called apolitical Salafism or Madkhalism, and can be regarded as a partly secular, perhaps not in the Western sense of the "separation of church and state" but rather of the separation of mosque and executive power. To call this syncretism between Hanbali theonomy and secular monarchy as a "Saudi theocracy", as journalists often do, represents an oxymoron.

Ivan Kesic

Ivan Kesić is a Croatia-based freelance contributor and independent geopolitical, military and socio-economic writer. As an open-source data analyst he contributed to various regional outlets and collaborated with several government agencies in previous years. He occasionally writes articles and helps to maintain a neutral point of view in other authors' articles.

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