Since 9/11 the West has been confounded with the question whether Islam and Islamism are one and same, or if there is a critical distinction to be drawn between the two. How this question is answered has profound implications for understanding and explaining the immense convulsion seizing the Muslim world, and on how best to frame a proper response without undermining or eroding the secular and liberal democratic culture of the West.
Islamism is -- from the perspective of someone born and raised within the mainstream majority Sunni Islam -- an ideology fascistic and totalitarian in impulse and action, masquerading as religion. The proponents, advocates, activists and apologists of Islamism, irrespective of whatever guise these Islamists assume in public, are engaged in the sort of radical politics the West became acquainted with in the early decades of the twentieth century with the rise of Communism, Fascism and Nazism.
Islamism is about power: Islamists are obsessed with power to the extent that such obsession becomes pathology. The political mission of Islamists is to establish a Shari-based state, idealized as the only true and genuine expression of Islam. Abul A'la Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia, was blunt about his Islamism. Maududi insisted that Islam was a fully formed and coherent political system best described as "kingdom of God" or "theo-democracy" -- entirely unrelated to the idea of democracy as understood in the West. The plain-spoken purpose of the Jamaat is to train and prepare a cadre of Islamist Muslims to acquire or seize political power and establish a totalitarian state. "In such a state," Maududi writes, "no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this aspect the Islamic State bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states."
The Arab counterpart to the Jamaat is the Muslim Brotherhood; its founder, Hasan al-Banna, and its leading theorist, Syed Qutb, similarly described the mission of their movement as jihad, or the struggle to establish by force a Sharia-based state. Such a state, in being consistent with their ideological presuppositions, would be by necessity totalitarian. For Maududi, al-Banna, Syed Qutb and their followers, political sovereignty belongs to God, the Quran is their constitution, and political authority is legitimated by religious scholars, the ulema. In the streets of the Muslim world, the popular motto of the Muslim Brothers (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) ― "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Quran is our law. Jihad is our way." -- expresses the program, the activism and the goal of political mobilization, which are uniformly directed towards securing control of total power.
Abul A'la Maududi (left), Hasan al-Bana (center), and Syed Qutb (right), the ideologues who laid down the basis for modern Islamism.
Hence Islamism, loosely defined, is the politics of theocracy, and Islamists are theocrats. Here we might note Albert Camus's warning: "Politics is not religion, or if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition." Maududi, al-Banna and Qutb were ideologues influenced by the radical and revolutionary politics of their time: the emergence of fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union; similarly, Khomeini of Iran, as their contemporary, was influenced by the same developments in Europe.
Islam is a faith-tradition. The central message or foundational principle, as revealed in the opening chapter of the Quran, is the appeal to man, made by Muhammad, to worship One God, the God of Abraham, and to live truthfully in awareness of the Day of Reckoning, when his life will be measured and he will be answerable for his deeds. In other words, Islam is essentially about man's relationship with God, and how it ideally informs him about his place in the world. Islam in history is multi-dimensional; while politics is one of the dimensions, it cannot usurp entirely other dimensions of man's non-political and spiritual existence in this world. Sharia, or the Islamic legal code derived from the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet, is a human construct, limited and fallible as is any human endeavour stamped by the limitations of the epoch in which it was worked out. Islam, a religion, cannot, therefore, be turned into a handmaiden of politics, or squeezed into a political ideology, or reduced to the restrictions of the Sharia; when this occurs, Islam is turned into Islamism.
Islamists insist Islamism is Islam. Anti-Islamist or non-Islamist Muslims reject such reductionism. The Islamist version of the Islamic order on display, established in the early decades of the twentieth century -- ironically with the assistance of Western powers -- is the Saudi Kingdom. It was a political marriage between a Bedouin tribe and the Wahhabi sect that was, since its inception in the eighteenth century until it emerged triumphant in the twentieth, a marginal, extremist, sectarian, even vulgar, movement regularly beaten down and kept in check by the mainstream Sunni Muslim rulers of the Ottoman Empire. The other more recent example is the Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran, founded by Ayatollah Khomeini.
At the center of the current convulsion in the Muslim world, or Islamdom, as in Turkey and Egypt, is the contest between Islamists and anti-Islamists, between theocrats and anti-theocrats. This contest is hugely complicated by the turmoil that inevitably accompanies the transition of societies and cultures from pre-modern to modern. Here, the relevant analogy to understanding this convulsion within Islamdom is to recall Christendom's long, tortuous, immensely bloody and violent transition in the making of the modern world. This is the history of the past 500 years, from the Inquisition through to the end of the Cold War -- and to be forgotten at our peril.
Islamism is an aberrant strain of Muslim thinking that can be traced back in the Arab-Muslim history to the earliest years of Islam. Its defining characteristic is intolerance of others, including Muslims, and glorification of violence against all who disagree with the Islamist rendition of Islam. It might be said that the earliest expression of Islamism in Arab-Muslim history is embedded in the horrific crimes of murder of the members of the Prophet's family: his cousin and son-in-law Ali, the fourth Caliph; and then the massacre of the Prophet's grandson, Husayn, with his male companions and family members in Karbala in modern Iraq. But it was only in the past century, when Muslim societies emerged as independent states, that Islamism came to be formulated as a political ideology of counter-revolution against the liberal and secular values that first emerged in Europe in the making of the modern world.
For the West, the imperative in distinguishing between Islam and Islamism, at least since 9/11, is about working out the appropriate and relevant response to the political-military threats of Islamism and the ambitions of Islamists. This would be a response for containing Islamism and assisting over the long haul anti-Islamist Muslims in the effort to modernize their societies; it would be akin to the response conceived by George Kennan, the American diplomat and State Department official, soon after the Second World War ended, to contain Soviet Communism.
If Islamism is Islam, as some in the West insist, then it logically follows that the West is at odds with all Muslims without there being any need to make distinctions among them, and Islam itself is the threat to the West as a civilization. This would mean that the West and the Muslim world are at war; that Islam is monolithic and the notion of anti-Islamist Muslims is absurd as none exists; and that any sort of engagement with the Muslim world, consisting of some 1.7 billion people, with expectations of coexistence in peace and mutual respect is foolish, as Muslims without exception, openly or through dissembling, seek the destruction of the West. It is not surprising that such a view is the flip side of the deadly insistence by Islamists that non-Muslims, without exception, are infidels; that Muslims opposed to Islamism are heretics and apostates, and that their struggle, the global jihad, is the genuine face of Islam in carrying out God's work of establishing His rule everywhere.
If Islamism genuinely is Islam, the question follows, Why is it that so many Muslims repudiate the assertion of Islamists and, despite immense risks, continue to resist the theocrats in their midst? Why is it that in huge numbers – for instance, the many millions as we have seen recently in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities; or in Tunisia; or in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey; or in Dhaka and towns across Bangladesh in support of guilty verdicts handed down in trials of members of Jamaat-i-Islami indicted for crimes against humanity during the nation's liberation war of 1971; or the near total rejection of Islamist religious parties during the recently held national election in May in Pakistan; or the vast support of Iranians, especially the young voters, for anti-establishment politicians during the recent and past elections -- Muslims reject Islamism as authoritarian, supremacist and a violent perversion of Islam?
Any objective and impartial analysis of the convulsion in the Muslim world, as the one taken hold of Egypt, will find that in the midst of all the difficulties of poverty, corruption, underdevelopment, cultural backwardness, economic stagnation, military misrule, ethnic and sectarian divisions, gender inequality and misogyny, there is the deep division among Muslims on how they understand Islam and their place in the world as Muslims. It is this almost irreconcilable divide between Islamist Muslims and anti-Islamist Muslims that exacerbates all other divisions of class, sect, and ethnicity across Islamdom.
The simple fact is that Islam and Islamism are not one and the same. Islamism as a totalitarian ideology is a perversion of Islam: Muslims are engaged in a historic struggle, just as once Christians were, in striving to reconcile revelation and reason; in separating religion from politics; in acknowledging the place of philosophy and science in the making of the modern world; in coming to terms with the imperatives of democracy and individual rights, and protecting freedom of religion and freedom of conscience equally for everyone irrespective of their belief, ethnicity, or gender. What is at play is the not-so-pleasant, complex reality of reform: of the historic transition of Muslim societies and cultures, from pre-modern into the modern world. It is a reminder for those who have forgotten, or never learned, how bitterly fought was Christendom's transition, stretched out over several centuries.
The conflict inside the Muslim world might ultimately be characterized as one between tyranny and freedom, even if that tyranny is packaged in God's name by those claiming to be His representatives, whether they are imams, sheikhs and ayatollahs, or political parties and movements such as the Jamaat, the Brotherhood, the Taliban or the Hezbollah. In this conflict the West cannot afford to be neutral, and in supporting freedom, even when it is driven by self-interest, the choice for the West is not overly difficult or complicated. The strategically right thing to do is provide moral and material assistance to Muslims struggling against Islamists. It requires, therefore, making the distinction between Islam and Islamism, of recognizing anti-Islamist Muslims as allies, and acknowledging that the West together with anti-Islamist Muslims are at war with Islamism, and against Islamists waging their global jihad against freedom loving people everywhere. It also requires the West to remain true to its own ideals and values, acquired through much sacrifice in blood and treasure, and to be guided by them in order to assist anti-Islamist Muslims wisely, and to maintain moral authority with anti-Islamist Muslims during the course of the long and arduous struggle, to ensure that they also remain true to the ideals of freedom and democracy in their effort to reconcile Islam with modernity.
Salim Mansur is Associate Professor in the department of Political Science at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada.