A search for the word “Islamist” yields headlines about Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt of rising tides and steamrollers, wins and loses, prohibitions and riots, worry and concern. While headlines are not meant to convey nuance, they are evidence of the ambivalence, fear, and confusion surrounding the legitimate participation of political groups inspired by Islam in North Africa’s mainstream politics. The problem is that the term “Islamist” is used to encompass such a range of actors in a variety of contexts that it barely contains any meaning. All it definitively does is convey a threat to human rights and hint at an illegitimate mixing of religion with politics.
The definition of Islamism is elusive. Are Islamists religious charities, organizations, or missionary (da’wa) groups that have entered politics? Is an Islamist a politician who is Muslim? This is obviously much too broad. Must an Islamist, then, also ascribe to policies that are designed to comply with Islamic law in some form or another?
In an article from 2010, Anthony Shadid implies that Islamists are defined by the three “no’s,” “‘no’ to peace with Israel, ‘no’ to negotiations with it, and ‘no’ to recognition of it.” While this definition is probably incomplete, it captures something important, namely, that Islamists have historically opposed the prevailing status quo in the Middle East.
Now that the region has changed so dramatically, it might be time to abandon the term “Islamist” as well. Since the fall of largely secular, authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it has become ever more apparent that lumping all “Islamists” together masks the intense, public discussions taking place about what it means to be Muslim and how a contemporary Islamic society should function.
What can replace this catch-all term? Issander Amrani of “The Arabist” blog in his post, “Of Liberals, Secularist, Islamists, and Other Labels,” proposes some alternatives to the “Islamist” label that distinguish between different trends and movements. He also makes the important point that alternatives to Islamism are not limited to secularism and liberalism. The secular-Islamist binary fails to capture both the diversity of political actors in regional countries and their motivations.
A useful paper from POMED, “Strategies for Engaging Political Islam,” emphasizes that political parties respond pragmatically to appease their constituents and pursue influence regardless of their religious affiliations. In fact, we have already seen the willingness of political parties in Egypt to compromise on policy for the sake of power. The ultra-conservative Al Nour party threw its support behind the more liberal presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, instead of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, in order to counter the Brotherhood’s influence.
I take issue with the use of the term Islamist, then, not to be politically correct, but rather because I believe it genuinely obscures the contours of the evolving political situation in regional countries. To move beyond this term and the approach to U.S. foreign policy that it implies – “are you with us or against us?” – we must be more precise and more willing to see overlapping interests within the emerging political leadership of the Middle East and North Africa.
*Thalia Beaty is editor of Muftah’s Egypt and North Africa pages.