Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam

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As America struggles to understand Islam and Muslims on the world stage, one concept in particular dominates public discourse: Islamism. References to Islamism and Islamists abound in the media, in think tanks, and in the general study of Islam, but opinions vary on the differences of degree and kind among those labeled Islamists. This book debates what exactly is said when we use this contentious term in discussing Muslim religion, tradition, and social conflict.

Two lead essays offer differing viewpoints: Donald K. Emmerson argues that Islamism is a useful term for a range of Muslim reform movements—very few of which advocate violence—while Daniel M. Varisco counters that the public specter of violence and terrorism by Islamists too often infects the public perceptions of Islam more generally. Twelve commentaries, written by Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals, enrich the debate with differing insights and perspectives.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[Islamism] is an important book and a valuable contribution to the literature on political Islam . . . Daniel Varisco has done the field a service by launching the debate, and so have the editors by recording it."—Thomas Hegghammer, Journal of Islamic Studies

"For the present collection, editors Martin and Barzegar engaged the premier adversaries in that debate, Donald Emmerson of Stanford and Daniel Varisco of Hofstra, to offer their arguments, along with a variety of other scholars to give critical response."—P. S. Spalding Choice

"With its multi-vocal debates, this book has an edge and perspective that is fresh and necessary. No other book focuses so precisely, or so helpfully, on the use of the term 'Islamism' and its relationship to the analysis of violence linked with Islam." —Brannon Wheeler, United States Naval Academy

"This lively work will be a great help for anyone concerned with current debates between Islamic nations and the West. The book's active discussion of the terms 'Islamism' and 'Islamist' brings much needed attention to the degree that we rely on irresponsible rhetoric to discuss the Islamic world today."—William O. Beeman, University of Minnesota

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804768863
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 11/23/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 200
  • Sales rank: 1,198,894
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard C. Martin is Professor of Religion at Emory University. He co-authored Defenders of Reason In Islam: Mu'tazilism and Rational Theology from Medieval School to Modern Symbol (1997) and is editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (2004). Abbas Barzegar is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University.

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Read an Excerpt



Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6886-3

Chapter One


The most beautiful names belong to Allah: invoke Him by them. Qur'an 7:180 - Seen on a poster at the Jamil Mosque, California Avenue, Palo Alto, CA, November 20, 2004 Islam is the most hated word in the country at this point. - Edwin Bakker, a terrorism expert at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, quoted a week after the 2 November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, apparently by a Muslim extremist I acted purely in the name of Islam. - Mohammed Bouyeri, speaking to the Dutch court that sentenced him in July 2005 to life in prison for killing van Gogh Islamists are Muslims who are committed to public action to implement what they regard as an Islamic agenda. Islamism is a commitment to, and the content of, that agenda. - James Piscatori, a scholar of Islam, as slightly amended and extended for use in this essay (below)

IN THESE POST-9/11 TIMES, how should we-English-speaking students, scholars, journalists, policy makers, and interested citizens-talk about Islam, about Muslims, and about violence in relation to Islam and Muslims? What words should we use? Why? Why not?


Language tells us and others what we are talking about. But as they travel around the world through usage, words acquire baggage-connotations, implications, valuations. When we choose to use a word or phrase, its luggage comes along.

Such accompaniments are mostly unheard or unseen. Consider the phrase the global war on terror. It is about what it does not name. Its five words include neither Muslims nor Islam. Yet the global war on terror would not have existed, in discourse or in practice, had certain self-described Muslims not engaged in violence justified (by them) with reference to Islam. To the extent that the phrase calls to mind what it omits, the effect is like hearing someone say, "Don't think of an elephant!" One can hardly think of anything else.

In Don't Think of an Elephant! George Lakoff tells his readers that they can oppose "right-wing ideologues" more effectively by choosing words and phrases that favor a "progressive" agenda. Lakoff's words are also luggage-laden, but to him that is not only unavoidable; it is also desirable. He wants to replace conservative language with words that carry liberal baggage-to defeat one built-in bias by popularizing another. The book ends by advising those who would take up his cause to do four things: to "show respect" toward opponents; to "respond by reframing" subjects in "progressive" terms; to "think and talk at the level of values"; and to "say what you believe."

Transposed into a discussion of Islam, Muslims, and violence, Lakoff's recipe could be perverse. Just how, in such a conversation, would a secular or Christian speaker show respect for his or her Muslim listeners by reframing the topic in secular or Christian terms, talking about secular or Christian values, and saying exactly what she or he really thinks? Depending on what the speaker's Muslim audience believes, Lakoff's fourth counsel, far from winning hearts and minds, could harden them instead-as President George W. Bush did when he called the war on terrorism a "crusade." Conversely, obeying Lakoff's first rule-showing respect-could tempt the speaker to violate the other three: by framing the subject along "Muslim" lines; by thinking and talking about "Islamist" values; and by shunning candor for the sake of rapport.

What price respect? What price not giving offense? What about respect for the facts, however elusive and open to interpretation these may be? A heart or a mind won over on false pretenses may be a false victory-based on deception, unlikely to last.

This book is not a prescription for replacing one set of partisan word- baggage with an opposing set that is no less partisan than the first. It is a discussion in search of language whose semantic weight-denotations and connotations-can balance two potentially contrary objectives: veracity and regard. Central to the search, in my view, is how poorly or well two increasingly common words, Islamism and Islamist, facilitate a discourse on Islam, Muslims, and violence that is both critical and constructive.

In this chapter I define and recommend Islamism and Islamist as helpful terms in such discourse. But words alone cannot protect their users from making errors or giving offense. In contrast to Lakoff's purpose, mine is less to endorse a particular vocabulary than to illuminate the larger contexts in which word choices take place. Awareness of these wider implications and repercussions can, I hope, serve the goal of free but fair discussion beyond the choice of any single word. I save the terms Islamism and Islamist for last so that, in reviewing them, I can refer back to these larger themes.


I do not know whether, in 2004, Islam really was the most hated word in the Netherlands, as Edwin Bakker claims in this essay's second epigraph. But we would probably have to ransack history back to the Crusades to find a time when Muslims, and therefore Islam, were in Western eyes more closely identified with violence than they are now.

As the Crusades remind us, juxtapositions of Islam and violence long predate Al Qaeda's attacks on America in 2001. But even an incomplete map of the phenomenon, dating only from the Twin Towers' fall, yields dozens of sites of carnage in a swath running from North America to Western Europe, down through North, West, and East Africa, up through the Middle East, and on through South and Southeast Asia.

For an analyst who empathizes with the plight of many Muslims, this is painful cartography. It comes uncomfortably close to illustrating Samuel Huntington's (in)famous remark that "Islam has bloody borders." It risks suggesting that all this violence is the fault of Islam, or at any rate of Muslims-a monolithic accusation belied by the great diversity of causes and reasons underlying all these incidents.

Apples and oranges are being lumped together: terrorist suicides blowing themselves up to kill non-Muslims but oft en killing Muslims as well; Muslims attacking non-Muslims who may or may not have attacked them "first" (a term that means less and less the longer the chain of reprisals goes on); violence between Muslims, as in the Iran-Iraq war, the massacres in Darfur (Sudan), or the Sunni-Shii bloodshed in Pakistan and Iraq; and the burning of cars by Muslims or people of Muslim origin in the riots that swept the gritty, ghetto- like outskirts of French cities in November 2005. It makes no sense to impute a religious motivation to any act of violence that anyone who happens to be a Muslim might commit. Disconcerting in Islam- focused views of violence committed by Muslims is the typical omission of arguably secular concerns-oppression, injustice, invasion, occupation, displacement, alienation, and Israeli-American complicity in or indifference toward these conditions, whether real or alleged.

Unfairly or not, Islam has been and continues to be linked to violence in Western media. On November 6, 2004, for example, the New York Times ran an item entitled "Dutch Charge 7 Muslim Men in Killing of Critic of Islam." Reading it led me to wonder how many other stories about violence in that same issue involved Muslims. Of the twenty-two news items under the page-heading "International," fourteen mentioned violence or the threat of violence. In eleven of these fourteen reports-78.6 percent-the violence involved Muslims. Muslims were the sole (actual or feared) perpetrators in two of these eleven items; in the other nine they were both perpetrators and victims.

In a poll conducted a month earlier, Americans were asked what came to their minds when they heard the word Muslim. Most-67 percent-responded neutrally. But 32 percent made negative remarks, and a mere 2 percent responded favorably. More than a fourth of the respondents agreed with statements such as "the Muslim religion teaches violence and hatred," "Muslims teach their children to hate," and "Muslims value life less than other people." Further research would probably yield comparable or even more disturbing evidence from at least some other Western societies. And if a perceived "clash of civilizations" really is under way and has a long way to go, these figures could in future seem small.

How might a more careful use of language slow the growth of false stereotypes and attendant prejudice?


Routinely in life people sacrifice accuracy for consideration. In a delicate conversation between two parties, one may choose to be tactful rather than factual to avoid triggering the other's anger and thus possibly ending the conversation. Other things being equal, however, the higher the ratio of tact to fact, the greater the risk that the parties engaged in such a conversation will debase even its diplomatic value by ignoring real differences between them. Conversely, in such an exchange, if one side insists from the outset on comprehensive accuracy-no euphemisms, no omissions-the conversation may be broken off soon after it begins.

Such dilemmas are routine in diplomacy. Negotiation lies at the heart of that occupation. But that is hardly true of scholarship. Professionally inclined to notice the negotiability of truth in the discourses of others, academics rarely admit to practicing such selectivity in what they themselves write and say. From the viewpoint of a scholar who prizes accuracy, diplomacy resembles self-censorship.

That said, most diplomats and scholars could probably agree that language meant to slow-ideally to reverse-the growth of false stereotypes and attendant prejudice should both rest on facts and not give offense. In Diagram 1, this combination is called contextualization.

A persisting caricature of Muslims occurs when they are depicted as violent, that is, when a propensity toward violence is imputed, in effect, to all of them. Opposing that stereo type means placing the small number of Muslims who do engage in violence in the context of the overwhelming majority who do not. A further distortion occurs when violence by Muslims is said to be motivated solely by their religion. Countering that assertion, too, calls for contextualization: accurately explaining violence by Muslims with reference to non-religious as well as religious conditions, concerns, and motivations. The point in both instances is factually to refute the fallacy of composition whereby only one part or one aspect of something is made to represent or explain the whole.

This strategy will not persuade everyone. Distinctions can appear invidious. The case for differentiating Muslims who are violent from those who are not may be seen as an effort to split and weaken the ranks of the faithful. Some Muslims may wish to defend the unity of their religious community (umma in Arabic) against any separation of "good" from "bad" believers, even if the distinction is drawn only to show how few the latter are. Some Muslims may justify violence by co-believers against the "enemies of Islam" as self-defense, not just in religious terms, but historically, socioeconomically, and ethically as well. Arguably, in their eyes, the statements in the upper-left box in Diagram 1, by omitting the reasons for violence, do not contextualize it enough. Some of these critics may even feel insulted by the idea that the violent vanguard is so small a minority of all Muslims, as if their laudable struggle were being dismissed.

Yet no analysis is possible without distinctions of some sort. Divide-and-rule imperialists may invent, broadcast, and manipulate a dichotomy to nefarious ends, but that does not prove the dichotomy itself to be intrinsically deadly. As for suppressing a distinction-ruling it out of acceptable discourse-that may indeed increase the chance of its being misused.

The presumption that nonviolent Muslims are "good" and violent ones are "bad" may be challenged by contextual explanations of violence by Muslims that make the phenomenon more understandable. Yet there is nothing about merely noticing the proportional scarcity of violence in the umma that rules out such larger accounts. Acknowledging the nonviolence of the majority does, however, help thwart the polarization associated with the demonization of one's perceived enemy across the board ("Muslims are violent") and the comparable overgeneralization of one's own position ("Westerners are peaceful").

In this sense, diversification-recognizing nonviolence in the Other and violence in the Self-is a requisite to what Mahmood Mamdani has called "the third response":

Both the American establishment led by President [George W.] Bush and militants of political Islam ... are determined to distinguish between "good Muslims" and "bad Muslims," so as to cultivate the former and target the latter [even as the administration and the militants reverse each other's application of these labels].... Both Bush and bin Laden employ a religious language, the language of good and evil, the language of no compromise: you are either with us or against us. Both deny the possibility of a third response.

If stereotyping and prejudice toward Muslims are to be reduced, we need to make more not fewer distinctions. The upper-left-hand statements in Diagram 1 are compatible with accurate accounts of Muslim violence that locate it in different contexts and explain it with reference to colonial and other settings that implicate Western actors. However unconvincing or annoying it might seem to a Muslim who endorses violence in Islam's name, contextualization as recommended here is constructive in its aim to discourage the exaggeration of Muslim violence by non-Muslims-and to do so with factual statements that should appeal to the nonviolent but sensitive (if not downright defensive) Muslim majority.


If contextualization desirably combines veracity with regard, and if these are lamentably absent in stigmatization, diplomats and scholars are likely to disagree on the relative (de)merits of the two intermediate, mirror- image responses in the diagram, namely, denial and candor. They are mirror images in that, in relation to Muslims, denial is more considerate than accurate, whereas candor is more accurate than considerate. It is not noteworthy in this context that the Bush administration, however undiplomatic some of its actions may have been, should have opted for denial by assuring audiences again and again that "Islam is a religion of peace"-or, in the president's shorthand, "Islam is peace"-implicitly denying that it could be "a religion of war."

The semantic domain of the sentence "Islam is a religion of peace" runs between two polar possibilities: closed and open. The closed or flatly exclusive reading of the statement is that Islam disavows war-full stop. Islam is essentialized as nonviolent. The open and potentially inclusive reading is more strenuous. It requires some creative intervention on the part of the reader to interpret "a religion of peace" as "a religion of peace and war"- a religion whose texts include statements that abjure violence but also statements that recommend it (under various more or less specified conditions). By comparison, the closed or exclusive understanding is both more obvious and more likely. It requires less interpretation. "Islam is a religion of peace" is taken at face value, as a full description not an incomplete claim.

The two understandings differ in another way as well. Excluding war is not accurate. Including it is. In the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet, both kinds of statements-peaceable and belligerent-can be found. It is the combination of flattery and fallacy that causes "Islam is a religion of peace" to illustrate denial in Diagram 1, whereas the statement "Islam is a religion of peace and war" would illustrate candor.

Note also the rest of the illustration of denial in Diagram 1. From the assertion that "Islam is a religion of peace" an inference is drawn: that anyone who claims to be a Muslim but commits violence must therefore not be a Muslim at all. This logic sets up a cognitive-ethical firewall-an insulation of being Muslim from being violent that can be used to fend off personal and collective responsibility. A self-defined Muslim who thinks that Muslim terrorist is an oxymoron thereby sequesters his or her religious identity from violence done by other self-styled Muslims in the name of Islam. If Islam is a religion of peace and peace alone, such violence is quarantined-sealed off from the faith itself and from its community of necessarily peaceful believers.


Excerpted from Islamism Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Debate About Islamism in the Public Sphere Richard C. Martin and Abbas Barzegar....................1
Inclusive Islamism: The Utility of Diversity Donald K. Emmerson....................17
Inventing Islamism: The Violence of Rhetoric Daniel M. Varisco....................33
The Spectrum of Islamic Politics Graham E. Fuller....................51
Terminological Problems for Muslim Lives Amir Hussain....................57
Islamism: Whose Debate Is It? Hassan Hanafi....................63
Between Etymology and Realpolitik Nadia Yassine....................67
Academic Word Games Hillel Fradkin....................74
Islamism: ism or wasm? Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Richard Tapper....................81
Rejecting Islamism and the Need for Concepts from Within the Islamic Tradition Syed Farid Alatas....................87
Islam at Risk: The Discourse on Islam and Violence Bruce Lawrence....................93
Naming Terror Anouar Majid....................99
Political Islam, Liberalism, and the Diagnosis of a Problem M. Zuhdi Jasser....................104
Ideology, Not Religion Angel Rabasa....................110
Why Islamism Should Be Renamed Feisal Abdul Rauf....................116
Mitigating Misrepresentation Daniel M. Varisco....................125
Broadening Representation Donald K. Emmerson....................133
Suggestions for Further Reading....................179
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