Use of Language: Faith Alleged Terrorism & Extremism 

I was approached by the National Association of Muslim Police (NAMP) who asked for my thoughts regarding use of the term ‘Islamism’ to describe acts of militancy and terrorism.  The reasons behind the approach were concerns raised by Muslim personnel who work in Counter Terrorism Policing (CTP).  Muslim colleagues expressed unease at use of the term Islamism which they felt, by virtue of linguistic association, depicted Islam as brutal and violent.  They described feeling almost compelled to distance themselves and their faith/Islam from the murderous terrorists who purport to act in the name of Islam.  

As a point of reflection, I would have considered the sentiments raised by Muslim CTP staff sufficient a catalyst for CTP to adopt less abrasive terms.  However, from my discussions with Muslim personnel the matter is often thrown back at them; if not ‘these’ terms then which ones?  The question appears to be a valid one.  After all, the term ‘Islamism’ is widespread and firmly embedded in public, policy making and academic discourses.  Thus the purpose of this piece is to share my thoughts on the question posed by NAMP and propose a suitable alternative to the current offerings.    

The term ‘Islamism’ was introduced to the English language in the 17th century by European enlightenment scholars.  It was preferred over the term ‘Mohammedanism’ as a descriptor for what is now commonly understood as the religion of Islam (Kramer: 2003; Mozaffari; 2007).  The term ‘Islam’ itself, which is found in the Qur’an as a label of self-description (Quran 5:3), replaced both Mohammedanism and Islamism in popular discourse and has continued to do so until today (Kramer: 2003). 

However, the re-emergence of ‘Islamism’ in public discourse occurred in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  French academics investigating the rise of fundamentalist religious activism used the term as a descriptor for ‘political Islam’ (ibid).  Subsequently, Islamism became widely accepted and found its way to prominence; ubiquitous in academic, practitioner and policy making arenas.  Yet despite this seeming, unilateral and cross fora, acceptability of the term as a descriptor for militancy and terrorism, many have argued that it conflates violence and militancy with the religion of Islam (Gilbert, 1988, pp 153-154; Roussilon, 2001, pp 93-115; Kramer, 2003, pp 65-77; Marranci, 2006, pp 139-155).  As a point of reflection, my dealings with CTP staff across the country (who arguably should have a better understanding of the term in comparison to the general public) supports this assertion.  There is an evident lack of understanding regarding ‘Islamism’ as a movement of political intent that is layered in ‘religious’ superlatives which creates ambiguity in its distinction from mainstream and normative Islam.  This is an issue confined not only to CT field practitioners but also academic researchers who position bonafide faith practice as the suspect characteristics of (militant) Islamism (Berman: 2006).  Conflation in this manner is primarily the result of non-theological examinations of a faith-claimed phenomenon (Colas: 2016; Droogan & Peattie: 2016).  Areligious, hard science and outsider methodologies have reduced the broader theological imperative of faith to its most marginal components; an issue that my research in to Da’esh highlights (Mustafa: 2020).  The (un)intended consequence(s) of doing so has been the prima facie acceptance in CT arenas of claims made by militant organisations regarding their theological legitimacy; the Islamic State being a prime example.  Jurgensmeyer (2018) has contested the unchallenged acceptance of self-attributed labels and Jacoby’s (2019) research support his position, as does my own.  A detailed theological examination of Da’esh’s former flagship publication Dabiq, reveals discernible theological differences between ‘mainstream’ and ‘Islamist’ Islam (Mustafa: 2020).  But these differences have only been highlighted by better embracing the theological dimension of this phenomenon and listening to the voices of ‘mainstream’ Muslims; adopting a socio-theological approach (Shakman-Hurd: 2015).  Most importantly, doing so establishes agency for Muslim communities who are no less affected by nor less invested in the fight against radical militancy than their ‘non Muslim’ counterparts.  As previously cited, the term Islamism as a movement of (violent) political intent was ascribed on to Muslim communities by European researchers over 40 years ago.  Its continued use, despite contentions raised against it by Muslim communities, is evidence of an unabated lack of agency and space for self determination.  These contentions feed directly in to social constructivist theories of identity and belonging (Marranci: 2006).  That irrespective of how hard mainstream Muslim communities endeavour to distance themselves from terrorism and militancy, be that through working with/for CTP, repeated public condemnation of terror attacks, fundraising for victims of terrorism, championing government CT programmes or themselves becoming the victims of retaliatory attacks following a terror incident; that they will always be associated to terrorism for no other reason but their faith.   At a community level, these polarising sentiments support the narratives of identity politics espoused by militant criminal groups such as Da’esh.  Their publications are littered with messages of ‘brotherhood’, acceptance and unity; stating that their cause indiscriminately welcomes Muslims from all across the world; Muslims who allegedly don’t belong and aren’t accepted anywhere else. 

Yet despite these considerations, the question posed to Muslim CT personnel by CTP remains; if not Islamism then which term should be used?  An alternative proposition for this phenomenon, which offers greater balance and is less abrasive, is ‘Faith Alleged Terrorism & Extremism (FATE)’.  FATE encompasses the plethora of militant individuals, groups, organisations and ideologies (Muslim or otherwise) who commit, support and advocate acts of terrorism in the name of religion, faith or belief.  Critically it better safeguards members of our faith and religious communities from stigma and adversity.  FATE, as a descriptor, creates space to interrogate, in fine detail and none offensive terms, the theological claims of militant groups like Da’esh who purport to act in the name of religion and belief.  More importantly it refuses criminal actors the religious legitimacy they seek, want and need.  It empowers (in this specific case Muslim) communities with the right to self determination; to push back at not only criminals who ‘hijack’ the sanctity of religion but to also challenge prescriptive researchers, academics and policy makers who do not understand nor appreciate the intricacies and depths of faith.  With reference to the reason why this paper was penned, adopting an alternative term like FATE will also address the concerns raised by Muslim CT staff who, as stated at the opening of this piece, take offence to the association of their faith and faith practice with militancy, criminality and terrorism. 

In brief I am supportive of the calls to revise the use of ‘Islamism’ in counter Terrorism and public policy circles.  An alternative term has been proposed for CT practitioners to adopt that is non-offensive, more inclusive and holds the potential to yield better research outcomes.  

 

Dr Rizwan Mustafa (MA, PhD, HEA).

Director & Head of Research. 

Khal Marina.

www.KhalMarina.com

 

 

Bibliography

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