Some of the terminology regarding Muslim-Western relations has been widely misused or misunderstood, confusing key issues and clouding constructive opportunities. In an attempt to improve ongoing communication, we have developed the following Terminology in Muslim-Western Relations guide. A downloadable PDF version is also available.
In academia, the term Islamist (noun/adj.) denotes a Muslim who seeks a formal
role for certain Islamic ideas in a political system, and/or to describe those
institutions or principles which uphold this end; in such circles, the term
denotes "political Islam" and has neutral implications.
Why a Problem:
In mass media, the term is often used to describe a wide spectrum of players
without distinction between them, from non-controversial and non-violent
groups and individuals who believe that governance of their state should be
based on certain Islamic principles, to Islamic political parties (AK in Turkey,
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), to Islamic political parties-cum-armed-wing
(Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine), to would-be Islamic political
parties operating in states of relative political anarchy (Taliban), to terrorist or
vigilante groups (Al Qaeda and its spawns). There are significant and very
serious differences between these groups, e.g., some are advocating democratic
states based on certain Islamic values or principles.
Alternatively put, the term is often used to describe any one of the following:
Islamic activist, extremist, radical, fundamentalist, militant, as well as vigilante
or terrorist acting in the name of Islam.
Note : The adjective "Islamist" doesn’t exist in Arabic, despite its having been
around in English for a while – it is translated as "Islamic".
Makes mainstream Muslims feel disrespected given its often negative
use/association, even resentful when applied to radical movements; angers
some Islamic political parties as they are placed in same category as vigilantes
and terrorists; makes it difficult for mainstream Muslims to argue or disagree
with radical elements because the term is so tightly associated with the religion
that they fear appearing to denounce Islam and not only the actions of a specific
Islamist/Islamism (when the intended use is specifically defined)
Name of group whenever possible
Islamic Politicians/ Islamic Political Activists
Supporters or Proponents of Political Islam
Political Islam/Politicized Islam
When not being used to denote a Muslim who seeks a formal role for Islamic
ideas in a political system, use the appropriate alternative:
Islamic activist, extremist, radical, fundamentalist, militant, or vigilante or
terrorist acting in the name of Islam, as appropriate.