Monday, 4 February 2013

Islamism and Propaganda

In the middle of the last decade I heard the term 'Islamism' for the first time, and this sparked an abiding interest in the discourses that have helped define the so-called War on Terror. There is a huge literature on this subject, and almost all observe how language has justified both the terrorist attacks themselves and the response to them. Most famous is President George W. Bush's reference to a 'Crusade' in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 which not only brought to the surface particular belligerent and anti-Muslim images of the US's response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, but also played into Al-Qaeda's hands by using the very narratives which the terrorist organisation exploits throughout its propaganda.

One of the issues I have been thinking about for a long time - and I post my thoughts and questions here in the wake of the intensive coverage of current events in Mali in the hope of getting feedback and clarification - is the insistence by western media and politicians to use the term 'Islamist' instead of 'Islamic' or 'Muslim' to refer to specific groups of Muslims seeking a non-peaceful way of imposing their beliefs. As a student of propaganda I am aware of the emotional and intellectual reaction to 'isms', and one cannot help but wonder whether the ubiquitous and rather arbitrary use of the label 'Islamist' after 9/11 is justified. One did not hear this term used so widely before 2001.

Labels are the easiest form of propaganda: they provide a shorthand, the basis for a simple and emotional reaction to often complex ideas, and therefore help reinforce stereotypes. By describing fundamentalist Muslim groups as Islamist, are audiences persuaded by the very label in a headline to view them in a particular way even before they have heard or read the rest of the story? The natural equation of Islamism with Communism and Fascism provokes the perception of an ideology determined to refashion on totalitarian grounds not only the state and political institutions, but culture, society and man. 

As far as I understand the difference, Islam refers to a faith whereas Islamism refers to a specific political ideology which advocates the sovereignty of divine law and the creation of an Islamic state. It privileges Islamic law within national boundaries, and does not confine law to the personal realm or as a matter of faith and personal responsibility. This means the extension of Islamic law to all people living within a particular national territory, regardless of whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish. It offers no policy-making agenda as Islamism is not future-oriented; rather, it is embedded in the past glories of Islam and the historical mistreatment of Muslims. The past justifies the present.

Islamism is in essence the politicisation of Islam, and the word is often used in conjunction with 'militant' or 'fundamentalist' to emphasise its distance from law abiding paths to power. However, such terms also help reinforce the beliefs of  those who, like Samuel Huntington, foresee an inevitable 'Clash of Civilizations'. They help to make Muslims the 'other'  and suggest that 'we' respect legal and democratic paths to government, unlike 'them' who use 'militant' or 'fundemantalist' ways of achieving and exercising power; and when successful they govern in a way that is completely incompatible with western secular understandings of, and approaches to, politics. Islamists become dangerous entities, exercising power in 'rogue states', responsible for human rights abuses and ultimately for the global terrorist threat. So in Mali 'we' support Muslims; 'we'
fight against Islamists. The power of the Egyptian Brotherhood in Egypt has raised concerns about Islamism there and has forced 'the West' to question, as does Foreign Policy magazine, whether 'we' made a mistake in letting the Brotherhood win (in democratic elections that were demanded by the international community. You can't advocate the sovereignty of the people and then criticise the very same people if they elect someone to power you don't like). 

Casual use of the term 'Islamism' or 'Islamist' is a useful propaganda device, and like all propaganda devices, the more we hear it, see it and use it in a cavalier fashion, the more value it acquires as propaganda. The complexity and the precision of the meaning is lost. It also serves as a way of reducing the divisions within Islam to easily-packaged and digestible soundbites. Islam becomes an homogeneous unit, and the very real theological and geographical differences between Muslims or Islamists are conveniently overlooked. You are either a 'good' Muslim or a 'bad' Muslim.

My intention here is not to judge the accuracy or otherwise of the perceptions of Islamists; nor do I wish to defend Muslims or Islamic states which engage in human rights abuses or are compliant with terrorists, just in the same way I do not wish to defend any government, religion or secular movement which threatens, cajoles or is intolerant of any other people or creed. Rather, I wish to bring to the table my own thoughts on the use of the term Islamism and the way its imprecise application by the media can be a valuable tool of propaganda and helps demonise groups and individuals. I know very little about Islamism, and so I hope that some of the readers for this blog will respond and help me understand better this interesting and important issue. I look forward to your comments.                                


  1. "Islamism" and "Islamist" are legitimate terms of political debate and scholarship. Distinctions about the "authenticity" of Islamist credentials and piety are often charges used in intra-Islamist political debates by different currents, factions and sects.

    Some of the best academic authorities on this subject would include Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy.

  2. Many thanks for your comments, Zenpundit. I will certainly check out the links you mention. I am currently reading Ed Husain's The Islamist, a personal discussion of Islamic fundamentalism.