The news media often speak of Islamists, raising the questions of who they are and what they’re about. To understand current events in the Muslim world and why jihadi Islamists strike as they do, you need to know 3 things about Islamism.
To begin, Islamism is the Muslim rejection of secularism, one of colonialism’s legacies in Muslim societies. Thus, Islamism is a relatively recent phenomenon, but one that’s rooted in Islam’s beginning.
The first Muslims infused both politics and law with religion, making them essentially inseparable. Then after the Islamic civilization’s centuries-long rise and decline, the colonial powers carved the Muslim world up into nation states that they could manage.
That done, the colonial authorities did what they could to set the Muslims they ruled adrift from traditional Islam. They first separated religion and politics under their secular constitutions. Then they sidelined the sharia, or traditional Muslim law, largely replacing it with secular law codes. As traditional Islam’s grip on society loosened, Western culture, ideas and fashion became popular among progressive Muslims. And beginning in the late 19th century, Islamism reacted to all this.
Positively, Islamists have 3 main goals: to reintegrate their politics and faith, reinstitute the sharia, and finally reunite the global Muslim community politically.
Aiming to restore Islam to its former glory, Islamism claims to represent a return to pristine, “original Islam.” But reformist Muslims—often called “moderate Muslims”—argue that Islamism never existed before the 19th century. And they’re right. But it didn’t exist because it was totally unnecessary before secularism’s onslaught.
Secularism still threatens Muslim societies through Western music, movies, science, technology, education and fashion. So Islamism remains thoroughly reactionary. But having always had a love-hate relationship with modernity, Islamism is at once old and new.
The second thing to know is that Islamism isn’t monochromatic, but rather comes in very different hues.
For example, there are major differences between
- The so-called Islamic State (IS)
- The Muslim Brotherhood
- Tunisia’s Renaissance Party (Ennahda)
Representing mainstream Islamism, the Muslim Brotherhood strongly disavows the violence of IS. The Brotherhood seeks to work within the democratic process, though it may have a latent hostility to non-Muslim minorities. More encouraging is Tunisia’s Ennahda. Despite its Brotherhood links, it’s been called “the mildest and most democratic Islamist party in history.”
These are just 3 of Islamism’s many versions. Since Islamism is so varied, we must not paint all Islamists with one brush.
Last but not least, we must realize that the majority of Muslims are not Islamists—especially in the West.
But this is where it gets really complicated. Though most Muslims aren’t Islamists, many traditional Muslims sympathize with some form of Islamism. Of those who do, the vast majority would never want to engage in violence of any kind. However, incendiary rhetoric uttered in God’s name can sometimes turn even the gentlest person violent. Especially when he’s carried along by a mob. (Of course, this is true of Christians, no less than Muslims.)
I wish this picture of Islamism weren’t so complex. (And even more complicated is the Islamist who lives in the West, secularism’s birthplace.) But rest assured, the reality is equally complex. Muslims everywhere struggle to come to terms with Islamism’s many variations and how each relates to formative Islam.
 Robert F. Worth, A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 198.