Islam vs. Islamism: A Distinction With a Difference

The easy conflation of Islam (a religion) and Islamism (a political project nominally based in Islam) is a veritable cottage industry lately. This post is intended to be a quick reference that I can provide to those who make the argument that Islam and Islamism are inseparable.

I highly recommend reading the Pipes pieces in their entirety. Even if you don’t agree with his argument, at least you’ll know what the argument is.

Daniel Pipes, “Distinguishing between Islam and Islamism”:

Islamism is an ideology that demands man’s complete adherence to the sacred law of Islam and rejects as much as possible outside influence, with some exceptions (such as access to military and medical technology). It is imbued with a deep antagonism towards non-Muslims and has a particular hostility towards the West. It amounts to an effort to turn Islam, a religion and civilization, into an ideology….

Islamism is, in other words, yet another twentieth-century radical utopian scheme. Like Marxism-Leninism or fascism, it offers a way to control the state, run society, and remake the human being. It is an Islamic-flavored version of totalitarianism. The details, of course, are very different from the preceding versions, but the ultimate purpose is very similar….

In this, Islamism is a huge change from traditional Islam. One illustration: Whereas traditional Islam’s sacred law is a personal law, a law a Muslim must follow wherever he is, Islamism tries to apply a Western-style geographic law that depends on where one lives. Take the case of Sudan, where traditionally a Christian was perfectly entitled to drink alcohol, for he is a Christian, and Islamic law applies only to Muslims. But the current regime has banned alcohol for every Sudanese. It assumes Islamic law is territorial because that is the way a Western society is run.

Daniel Pipes, “Islam vs. Islamism”:

Those who make all Islam their enemy not only succumb to a simplistic and essentialist illusion but they lack any mechanism to defeat it. We who focus on Islamism see World War II and the Cold War as models for subduing the third totalitarianism. We understand that radical Islam is the problem and moderate Islam is the solution. We work with anti-Islamist Muslims to vanquish a common scourge. We will triumph over this new variant of barbarism so that a modern form of Islam can emerge.

Daniel Pipes, “Can Islam Be Reformed? History and human nature say yes”:

For anti-Islamist Muslims, the great burden is to develop not just an alternative vision to the Islamist one but an alternative movement to Islamism. The Islamists reached their position of power and influence through dedication and hard work, through generosity and selflessness. Anti-Islamists must also labor, probably for decades, to develop an ideology as coherent and compelling as that of the Islamists, and then spread it. Scholars interpreting sacred scriptures and leaders mobilizing followers have central roles in this process.

Non-Muslims can help a modern Islam move forward in two ways: first, by resisting all forms of Islamism—not just the brutal extremism of an Osama bin Laden, but also the stealthy, lawful, political movements such as Turkey’s AKP. Erdoğan is less ferocious than Bin Laden, but he is more effective and no less dangerous. Whoever values free speech, equality before the law, and other human rights denied or diminished by Sharia must consistently oppose any hint of Islamism.

Second, non-Muslims should support moderate and Westernizing anti-Islamists. Such figures are weak and fractured today and face a daunting task, but they do exist, and they represent the only hope for defeating the menace of global jihad and Islamic supremacism, then replacing it with an Islam that does not threaten civilization.

There is no shortage of contra-Pipes arguments out there. One is “The blurry line between Islam and Islamism,” by Rod Liddle–although at least he admits that there is any line at all:

We have attempted to placate ourselves…by deploying a dichotomy: Islam (and ordinary Muslims) versus this thing ‘Islamism’. Islam is a noble and peaceable faith which we must all respect, whereas Islamism is a corrosive and aggressive political ideology, and the two — weirdly — have nothing to do with one another. This is a patent nonsense, a delusion, and while it may work as a form of crowd control, it will not help us win this battle….The problem is that so-called ‘Islamism’ is already half-formed within the tenets, the texts, the ideas of Islam; within the ideology of how it sees other people, those who are not Muslims, and what one should do with them.

Of course it’s patent nonsense, because it’s largely a straw-man argument. The “Religion Of Peace” trope is an easy bit of bumper sticker twaddle to slap down–and only the most pedestrian argument for conflating Islam and Islamism would employ it with such sarcastic enthusiasm.

Interestingly, Liddle’s comments were posted a month after the second Pipes piece listed above was published. But Liddle does not address Pipes’ argument directly, although he must have had it in mind; if he had addressed it, he would have been forced to deal with at least some of the historical specifics Pipes wrote about.

Again, I highly recommend reading the Pipes essays in their entirety.

In short, if we choose to view the Long War with Islamism as a war against all Muslims, we are falling into the most hackneyed Islamist “Crusader” claptrap; we will ensure that Islamism will completely absorb the Islamic world; we will tragically betray the very Muslims who are fighting the totalitarian evil of Islamism; and we will show ourselves to be, essentially, anti-intellectual bigots.

And if you ask me if I think CAIR are moderates, don’t expect a polite response.


Update, 8/30/14:

Read from the bottom up:



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