Islamism (fl. 1979- ) is Islam seen as an -ism, a set of ideas suitable for a democratic, revolutionary or ruling political party. Islamists think that Islam should inform government policy. (Before the 1990s, the word “Islamism” was mainly just Voltaire’s old word for what we now call “Islam”.)
Islamism is not a monolith. Some Islamists are extreme and violent, like Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and the Islamic State. Others are mainstream and democratic, like in Tunisia, Egypt and Turkey. Some push sharia (Muslim law), some do not. Some fight holy wars (jihadists). Some fight for the freedom of their people (nationalists). Some provide education and health care that the government does not.
Most older leaders of the Muslim world, like Yasser Arafat, Saddam Hussein and the Shah of Iran, were secularists, not Islamists.
Secularism – keeping religion out of government – is a Western idea, one that grew out of Protestantism. It has been tried in the Muslim world and found wanting. Instead of bringing freedom and democracy, as advertised, it brought banana republicanism: police states led by men who turned their backs on God while they licked the boot of the US. Many people argued for a return to Islam, sometimes to a “pure” form of it: fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism arose in the 1900s in all the world’s main religions. It arose not among the poor or people “stuck in the past”, but among those with university educations. It is an understanding of religion that was rare before 1900, a reaction to secularism.
From 1958 to 1991 the US backed Islamism as a counterweight to communism and socialism. In the 1980s in Afghanistan, for example, the CIA trained Islamist “freedom fighters” to fight communist rule. Some of those same people are now seen as “terrorists” in the West, people like Osama bin Laden, founder of Al Qaeda.
By 1996, just five years after the fall of world communism, Samuel Huntington saw “Islamism” as a new threat to the West in his book “Clash of Civilizations”.
In 2002 Margaret Thatcher wrote that “Islamism is the new bolshevism”:
It is an aggressive ideology promoted by fanatical, well-armed devotees. And, like communism, it requires an all-embracing long-term strategy to defeat it.
– and then she argued for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was not an Islamist!
Bernard Lewis saw no need for the word in his history, “The Middle East” (1995), but eight years later used it in “The Crisis of Islam” (2003).
It seems to function as a marketing term used by Western imperialists that means little more than “Muslims we don’t like”.
In the 2000s the word caught on in English, especially among Islamophobes and Western reporters. It was often used with words like “radical”, “extremist”, “militant” and “terrorist”. In the 2010s, some news outlets, like the Associated Press and The Economist, had moved away from that and applied it to democratic Islamists as well. Al Jazeera English went a step further and dropped the term since it seemed simplistic to apply the same word to both Boko Haram and the leader of Turkey.
– Abagond, 2015.