Introduction – Islam vs. Islamism: Three Important Letters

Welcome to iAffairs’ Middle East portal! I’m Michael Kravshik, the associate editor for Middle East related postings. The Middle East is a region that has always been particularly prevalent in the news, and since the beginning of the Arab Spring that has only been amplified. Given the nature of the region, the postings here will cover extremely controversial subjects and likely elicit highly emotional responses. This is something that I don’t cower from, and instead like to embrace. That being said, I hope the readers of iAffairs will find these postings informative, thought provoking, and respectable. By that same token, I expect any comments to be the same. Let’s keep things classy. I hope that iAffairs will be a place that you frequent for up-to-date news and opinion on the region.

I wanted to make the inaugural blog post about an important topic for anyone hoping to unravel the mix of fact and opinion people are commonly inundated with regarding the Middle East. What I’m referring to is the difference between Islam and Islamism, three letters that really do make all the difference. Though the difference in meaning is not subtle, the two words are frequently used incorrectly, and even interchangeably. It is also often reacted to incorrectly, spiking peoples’ sensitivities for reasons that are purely definitional.

Islam is a religion, the same way Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. are. Islamism is a political ideology, in the same way communism, classic liberalism, fascism, etc. are. The difference should be self-evident, but the sensitivity surrounding the topic, in combination with the fact that they do sound very similar, leads to much discord. Therefore, this post’s objective is to set the record straight, at least for the purposes of iAffairs.

Every Middle Eastern country with the exception of Israel is a Muslim-majority country, making something around 20 Islamic countries in the region (depending on what you include). On this there is no debate. But how many Islamist countries are there in the Middle East? Well that’s quite a different story. To answer that question you first need to differentiate between the government and the people. Countries like Egypt and Iran have indisputably Islamist governments, the views of the people however are much more difficult to discern. This is especially true considering there is no agreed upon definition of what exactly the political ideology of Islamism entails.

For this reason, I will not be providing a full definition of the tenets of Islamism here. However, I would like to leave the reader with the most basic understanding, derived from its characteristics as a political ideology. That is that Islamism espouses the religion of Islam as, you guessed it, a political ideology. This is why we often here the chant “Islam is the solution.” To what problem you may ask? Well from the Islamist point of view, every problem.

In this way Islamism is not reconcilable with liberal democracy. Liberal democracies have a different political ideology that does not rely on any one source for its ‘solution.’ That’s how Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, etc. have contributed to the development and progress of western society regardless of its foundation in Christian society. Conversely, Islam is entirely reconcilable with liberal democracy, just as any other religion.

The objective of this post is merely to bring to light the important difference between the religion and the political ideology. Criticising one does not mean criticising both, and believing in one does not mean believing in both. It behoves anyone interested in meaningful debate on either subject to be specific about which you use, and to react accordingly to others’ use of each.

Written by: Michael Kravshik

See his blog at www.kraxinlogic.com

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