Define “Islamist;” give three examples

It is hard to read the recent Washington Post story about the rising power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian political life without concluding that the most important word in it is “Islamist.” After all, this term shows up 11 times in the text — including in the lede.

CAIRO – As Egypt’s ruling generals near the end of their formal reign, the country’s main Islamist party is asserting increasing authority over the political system and openly confronting the powerful military.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s growing influence came into sharp focus Sunday as its political wing and other Islamists established a dominant role in the 100-member body chosen by the parliament to write the country’s new, post-revolutionary constitution. Liberals and leftists vowed to boycott the assembly, and at least eight withdrew from it, accusing the Islamist parties of taking over the process.

Note, in particular, that it is one thing to talk about the Brotherhood and its work and something else to talk about this organization’s “political wing.” This implies that the focus of the main body is something other than politics.

I’ve read this story several times and, to me, it seems that it is impossible to make any sense out of it without a working definition of “Islamist.” The problem is that the story does not contain a definition. It is also missing a clear set of facts about what Islamists say they believe or what changes in Egyptian society they are seeking.

Thus, “Islamist” is left as a kind of buzz word that, essentially, means “really religious Muslims who are competing against liberals and leftists.” We also know that they are clashing with the troubled land’s predominately secular (whatever that means in an Islamic nation) military leaders.

Here’s another key passage that, to me, seems a bit religion haunted.

“There’s been a major shift in Egyptian politics,” said Shadi Hamid, an expert on the Brotherhood at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is entering its lame-duck stage. At this point, no one can stop the Brotherhood.”

The aged and increasingly unpopular generals are still in control of Egypt, a longtime U.S. ally considered a linchpin for Middle East peace. But the Brotherhood has been able to leverage its influence using the parliament, which is likely to become a key vehicle for channeling popular concerns, analysts said. Already, the military council has been forced to cave on several key issues amid public discontent.

The phrase “several key issues” is a missed opportunity to give readers information about the kinds of conflicts that are taking place in Egypt today. For me, reading the rest of this article turned into a search for these “key issues.” This would give context for the Islamists references, if I, as a reader, was not given a clear definition.

So, I soon hit this:

The Brotherhood, however, appears emboldened and ready to challenge the military. As the group consolidates power, it is increasingly willing to take up issues popular with its constituents but anathema to the ruling generals, said Marc Lynch, director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at George Washington University.

So, now we have “issues popular with its constituents.” And what might they be?

Well, there is U.S. aid to Egypt, much of which goes to the military. Then there is this:

Brotherhood leaders have portrayed themselves as pragmatists who will maintain the country’s peace treaty with Israel and focus on the country’s unemployment and poverty rather than social issues such as banning alcohol.

So now we have “social issues” and a specific mention of alcohol. But where these Islamists get the logic for banning alcohol?

Finally, near the end, there is a final hint:

Liberals and leftists worry that the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups will leave them marginalized. They point to the Brotherhood’s huge role in the constitutional assembly, which will draft a document that will map out the role of religion, the executive and parliamentary powers and minority rights in the new Egypt.

“We are going to boycott this committee, and we are going to withdraw and let them make an Islamic constitution. We are going to continue struggling for a secular Egypt in the streets,” said Mohammed Abou el-Ghar, head of the Social Democratic Party, who was elected to the assembly but has resigned his post.

He noted that Brotherhood officials had said initially the committee would represent all Egyptians’ views. “But as you can see, there is no representation of secular Egypt,” he said.

So this is a religion story, in the end. Thus, is the term “Islamist” linked to a strict concept of Sharia law, one that would be written into the constitution as normative and shaping the lives of all Egyptians? Where would this put Shia Muslims, Coptic Christians, Muslim feminists and many others. The Copts, after all, are 10 percent of the population.

So what does “Islamist” mean? Are these, in fact, Egyptians who embrace what is ordinarily called “Islamism”? If so, here is one online definition of that term:

1. An Islamic revivalist movement, often characterized by moral conservatism, literalism, and the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of life.

Literalism? This term only raises more questions. Might the Post team have offered its readers some guidance, some help in understanding the issues that loom behind this important religion story?

Just saying. Again.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Will

    Are the religious parties in Israel “Judaists”?

  • Jerry

    Egypt is one example. Given the recent stories about “Islamists” in Tunisia, that nation might be a second example.

    Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, said on Monday that the country’s post-revolution constitution would not mention Islamic law as a source of legislation, signaling a forceful break with ultraconservatives who have been demanding an Islamic state.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/27/world/africa/tunisia-says-constitution-will-not-cite-islamic-law.html

    Salafists might be the third example.

    As far as I can see from examples, “Islamist” is a word meaning “religion (Islam) is very important to me” as well as a word that is much beloved by the media.

  • sari

    It seems that with rapid change comes the need for new vocabulary. We’re making it up as we go along and hoping that a clear definition emerges over time.

  • Dave

    A fresh definition for “Islamist” would be: Calling for a state that formally recognizes Islam as the foundation of society. That leaves plenty of latitude between the otherwise secular and the Sharia literalists.

    A fresh definition for “secular” could be: Noncoercive as regards religious belief and practice. This would cover both the moderate Islamists (per above) and the advocates of a secular state in the Western sense.

  • Paul Carden

    Mary Habeck, Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins, helpfully explained in testimony before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 2006 that “The main characteristic of Islamism is a belief that Islam must have political power and state control in order to be correctly implemented.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    DAVE:

    I am curious. Why do you get to define this?

    What we need is something in the AP Stylebook.


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