“Islamists” (whatever that means) win in Egypt

As regular GetReligion readers will know, I have — for quite some time now — curious about what the word “Islamist” means when it is used in mainstream news coverage of the Islam, either in lands that are majority Muslim or those that are not. In other words, does “Islamist” mean one thing in Cairo and another thing in Detroit?

Alas, once you know what “Islamist” means, you then have to discern the meaning of other popular journalistic terms such as “moderate Islamist,” “conservative Islamist” and the ever popular “fundamentalist Islamist.”

It’s pretty easy to figure out that this is a very broad, vague term and that many people are struggling to define it. Check out the mixed signals in this typical online dictionary reference:

– adj

1. supporting or advocating Islamic fundamentalism

– n
2. a supporter or advocate of Islamic fundamentalism

The same page, however, also refers readers to a completely different, non-political take on the same term:

– noun

1. a scholar who knowledgeable in Islamic studies

2. an orthodox Muslim

So are we talking about “orthodox” or “fundamentalist” Muslims? Can anyone share with me a few of the practical differences between these two groups of believers?

All of this is rather important, in light of recent events in the Middle East and Egypt, in particular. Clearly, most journalists are using this term in a political context when applying it to the results of an election. However, as one reads the following New York Times lede, it’s important to remember that the last thing an Islamist would endorse is the separation of mosque and state. Other definitions of the term, after all, stress that the ultimate goal for Islamists is to see Islamic law and doctrine embodied in all aspects of life in a given national or culture. How does that mesh with democracy?

CAIRO – Egypt’s military rulers on Sunday officially recognized Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as the winner of Egypt’s first competitive presidential election, handing the Islamists both a symbolic triumph and a potent weapon in their struggle for power against the country’s top generals.

Mr. Morsi, 60, an American-trained engineer and former lawmaker, is the first Islamist elected as head of an Arab state. He becomes Egypt’s fifth president and the first from outside the military. But his victory, 16 months after the military took over on the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, is an ambiguous milestone in Egypt’s promised transition to democracy.

Now, what readers need to know — as they attempt, from context, to define “Islamist” — are some practical examples of what “Islamists” believe and, in particular, what changes they would want to see in Egyptian life and culture. Do all Islamists agree on these doctrinal points? What are the changes that lie ahead that frighten voters, especially those in religious minorities, who opposed the Brotherhood in this election?

Later in the story, the Times introduces another undefined variation on the key term — again without any specific facts to help provide context for readers.

After 84 years as a secret society struggling in the prisons and shadows of monarchs and dictators, the Brotherhood is now closer than ever to its stated goal of building an Islamist democracy in Egypt.

The story does make it clear — with one exceptionally good live quote — that one critical issue facing the new government is the degree to which religious liberty (without quotation marks) will be a reality for religious minorities in Egypt. This implies that the rise of the “Islamists” has negative implications for minority groups. Why is that? What are the doctrines and policies that are linked to those concerns? Strict blasphemy laws?

State television, long a wellspring of propaganda against the Brotherhood, broadcast Mr. Morsi’s victory speech on Sunday. In it, he pledged repeatedly to be “a president for all Egyptians.” He quoted the first Muslim caliph to describe his authority in Islamic terms, but he also extended a hand to Egypt’s large Coptic Christian minority, many of whom remain dubious of him. “We as Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, are preachers of civilization and building; so we were, and so we will remain, God willing,” he said. “We will face together the strife and conspiracies that target our national unity.

“We are all equal in rights, and we all have duties towards this homeland,” he added. “But for me, I have no rights, I have only duties.” He also repeated his pledge to uphold all international agreements, an apparent reference to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Then there is the other side of the coin:

Five years ago, when the Brotherhood adopted a draft party platform that called for barring women and non-Muslims from the presidency, Mr. Morsi was a chief defender of the controversial planks, inside and outside the group. He argued that Islam required the president to be a male Muslim, in part because the head of state should promote the faith.

Let me stress that, all in all, this is a solid story. It’s clear that the term “Islamist” has something to do with the degree to which Sharia law will be written into Egypt’s constitution and then enforced in daily life — as a majority of the nation’s citizens desire. It’s clear that the “secular” and “liberal” minorities fear the rise of the Brotherhood, as did the Coptic Christians.

The story is solid, yet — for the life of me — I can’t understand why it’s so hard to include one or two sentences somewhere that provide essential facts for readers as context. Why is it so important not to define this term, to leave that crucial point vague?

The Times is not alone, of course. Check out the top of this Washington Post report:

CAIRO – Egyptians picked a conservative Islamist as their first freely elected president, officials announced Sunday, giving the Muslim Brotherhood a platform to challenge entrenched military authority and electrifying the Arab world’s most populous nation with one of the most concrete signs of democratic change since the revolution last year.

Mohamed Morsi’s victory represented a watershed moment for Egyptian Islamists, who were tortured and repressed during decades of autocratic regimes, and it sparked jubilant celebrations in Tahrir Square, the heart of the revolution. But the result raised as many questions as it answered. Morsi will assume a position that was recently weakened by Egypt’s ruling generals through a constitutional decree. And he will not have the backing of the country’s Islamist-dominated parliament, which was dissolved by a court order.

So what we have here is a “conservative” Muslim fundamentalist, as opposed to a “moderate” one. Also note that the victorious Islamist does not have the full backing of Egypt’s “Islamist-dominated parliament” — which points to the fact that there are political and doctrinal issues that divide these various “Islamist” camps.

What might those fault lines be? This story only offers vague hints:

It also remains uncertain whether the low-key, little-known Morsi can serve as a unifying figure in a nation that has splintered politically since the revolution, with many Egyptians fearful that Islamic leadership will impose strict moral codes or try to dominate politics. And though his win will serve as an inspiration for Islamist movements across the region, it is likely to be seen as a potential threat by Israel, which has regarded Egypt as a linchpin of Middle East peace through their 35-year-old treaty. …

Morsi comes from the Brotherhood’s conservative wing, and during the campaign he vowed that he would make the Koran the bedrock of the new constitution.

What, precisely, are the elements of daily life that might be controlled by these potential “moral codes”? Are we talking about foreign tourists attempting to sip martinis, Egyptian women trying to escape forced marriages or Coptic Christians trying to build churches or educate their children without government interference?

Just asking. I cannot tell if reporters lack answers to these questions, even though the stories imply that these questions really matter. Perhaps the reporters know the answers, but do not want to put them into print.

PHOTO: From Lawsonry.com

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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.

  • Jerry

    Let me stress that, all in all, this is a solid story. It’s clear that the term “Islamist” has something to do with the degree to which Sharia law will be written into Egypt’s constitution and then enforced in daily life — as a majority of the nation’s citizens desire

    First, Egypt already is considered to be influenced by Sharia law (blended) per http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharia#Spectrum_of_Muslim_legal_systems

    But beyond this, we also have the announcement today that the new President will appoint a woman and a Copt vice-President. It looks a bit like what we’re very familiar with here in the USA – what a politician promises before election might have very little to do with what he does afterwards.

    It’s also vital to understand that “sharia” is subject to vastly different interpretations. My favorite right now relating to Egypt is this discussion about what sharia law is and how it might apply to Egypt in the future. I consider it a must read for anyone who is reporting on sharia and Egypt or anyone who is evaluating what was written. http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/05/15/egypt-and-islamic-sharia-guide-for-perplexed/argb

    Specifically these are some important points to keep in mind:

    … observers who have the opportunity to ask questions focus instead on concrete and institutional questions. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, more thinking on:

    What elements of Egypt’s current personal status code should be amended and what should they say?

    What should be the structure of the SCC as it will likely have the authority to interpret any constitutional language on Islam?

    How should al-Azhar be governed? What should be the nature of its role in the Egyptian state and degree of its social influence?

    What should be the structure of other state religious institutions, such as Dar al-Ifta (the state’s mufti, responsible for delivering interpretations of Islamic law)?

    What priority should be given to criminal law reform (on this issue, the sharia provisions tend to be hard to avoid and highly polarized)?

    What should be the status of various international human rights instruments to which Egypt is a signatory? And who should be responsible for interpreting the existing reservations to those documents? (For example, Egypt’s ratification of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women includes the following reservation regarding the document’s second article: “The Arab Republic of Egypt is willing to comply with the content of this article, provided that such compliance does not run counter to the Islamic Sharia.”)

    Note the last point because it illustrates that the existing Egyptian system already has Sharia elements.

  • http://costlygrace.blogspot.com The_Archer_of_the_Forest

    Right on. I despise news reports that keep using the phrase “Islamist” or “Islamicist.” I mean, what the heck does that mean? We don’t use the term Christian-ists or Judaists.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    It has been repeatedly noted that Andrew Sullivan writes about “Christianists” and “Christianism”, apparently precisely to equate people he dislikes with “Islamists”.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    In a less recent example:

    I heard a young man, with thin, pale hair, speak some time ago at some Ethical Society; and words cannot convey the degree to which he drooped his eyelids whenever he said “Christianism,” instead of Christianity. I was tempted to get up and tell him that what was the matter with him was Tomfoolerism, called by some Tomfoolerity, and that I felt an impulsion to bash his physiognomics out of all semblity of humanitude.

    I have run into people resorting to such barbarisms as “christianistic” to convey, uh, something or other.

  • Daniel

    “Egyptians picked a conservative Islamist as their first freely elected president, officials announced Sunday,” This lead is misleading. Officials did not announce that the winner is “a conservative Islamist.” Officials did announce the name of the winner of the election. What people generally are trained to look for is the connotative meaning of a headline, not its denotative meaning. We did know that this candidate was a Muslim, and surmise his policies from his stated goals and his associations. And yet truly what a politician promises before election might have very little to do with what he does afterwards.
    And if linguistically the construct of the narrative reported by the papers can’t even accurately state what happened, why should we give any credence to their interpretation of what happened? Advocacy journalism has degenerated to the art of mumbo jumbo.

  • GhaleonQ

    Right on. Transposing mainstream Christian theology onto Islam and countries with wholly different political experiences makes for lazy characterization.

    It’s not even clear if Islamism is determined by demographics (ratio of Muslims to non-Muslims) or theory (believing that it’s right for Islam to encompass all of society rather than bits of it).