Islamism in Popular Western Discourse


Islamism in Popular Western Discourse

An American intellectual analyses how the West sees Islam and Islamism.

Policy Perspectives , Volume6 , Number2, July – December 2009


[The 9/11 attacks gave birth to a popular discourse on “Islamism”-both signifier and the signified-in the Western world that predictably returned data showing accentuated potential threats and anti-Western attitudes known as resistance. The present Western discourse produced popular securitization of Islamism, the development of popular expertise, and the construction of Islamism’s identity that has occurred in a highly contested field of power, resulting in dominant narratives and narratives of resistance, or counternarratives. The dominant constructed identity of “Islamism” is becoming less stable and even schizophrenic; the challenging narratives are not so much broadening and deepening that identity as they are providing an alternative identity, or weak antithesis. Western popular discourse generally uses “Islamism” when discussing the negative or “that-which-is-bad” in Muslim communities. The signifier, “Islam,” on the other hand, is reserved for the positive or neutral.The result is a banal discursive practice and binary framing schema of “good Muslim/bad Islamist” which is the product of the “clash of Islam with Islamism” narrative. The dominant narratives are the product of the larger grand narratives, such as the “clash of civilizations” and the counternarratives in such broad and popular genre demonstrate that narrative diversity exists with respect to Islamism, and that the dominant narrative is far from hegemony. – Editors]



“Islamism”-both signifier and the signified-literally exploded in popular Western discourse in the aftermath of the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on America, widely known as “9/11.” The rupture of meaning and the ensuing global gaze on Islam that followed the attacks predictably returned data that accentuated potential threats, for example, the desecularization of Islamic communities, known as pan-Islamism, and an apparent attending increase in violence and anti-Western attitudes, known as resistance. The consequent popular securitization of Islamism, development of popular expertise, and construction of Islamism’s identity in popular Western discourse have occurred in a highly contested field of power, resulting in dominant narratives and narratives of resistance, or “counternarratives.”


This paper is a survey of current and “everyday” representations of Islamism in popular Western textual discourse in the few months in 2009 leading up to publication. Having studied global contestation over Islamism’s identity for five years, I contend that the dominant constructed identity of “Islamism” is becoming less stable and even schizophrenic; the challenging narratives are not so much broadening and deepening that identity as they are providing an alternative identity, or weak antithesis. The brevity required here prevents a defense of this thesis, so I will present a survey of the data-the representative dominant narratives and the challenger counternarratives from the different genres in which they typically appear in popular Western discourse. Since the readership will be familiar with many of these narratives, the humble value of this endeavor is to help us see the constructed and contested nature of political identity.

A review of the literature is not possible, but we can acknowledge that many theorists have attempted to explain this phenomenon of the contestation and construction of Islamism’s identity. And this, too, is a site of contestation and social construction. Writing from the dissident side of the counternarratives in the tradition of the late Orientalism theorist Edward Said, Cultures of Resistance contends that “the Western hostile use of language,” such as the standard “Islamist violence,” is “intended to restrict debate related to mainstream Islamist movements and currents.”[1] Speaking more broadly from the view of critical theory, the journal further argues that “In the present political sphere, language is less about explaining or comprehending, but rather is about using power to impose an interpretation of meaning and philosophical concepts which are being used to underpin an ideology with which to pursue war and conflict.” Under this lens, a particular identity of Islamism serves as a useful prop-“to strengthen the Western identity” and “to undercut any potential rival centres of politics from emerging.”[2]


Bolstering this thesis within the critical constructivist lens, University of Copenhagen political scientist Lene Hansen states that “representations of the other simultaneously construct our identity,” and thus identity is “always a relational concept, and it is also constructed within discourses, not given by the thing itself.”[3] Thus, any representation of the other is performative not only in positioning that subject, but in positioning self. Under this lens, “Islamism” in Western popular discourse has utility; it helps us do something and be something.


This secondary thesis similarly cannot be tested in the short space that follows, but the data presentation of Islamism, the signifier and signified, reveals a heterogeneous popular field mobilized around the identification of “Islamism.”


Binary Framing Schema: “Good Muslim/Bad Islamist”


At this juncture in 2009, Western popular discourse generally, except in the case of “Islamophobia,” uses “Islamism” when discussing the negative, or “that-which-is-bad,” in Muslim communities. The signifier, “Islam,” on the other hand, is reserved for the positive or neutral. The result is a banal, everyday, “common sense” discursive practice and binary framing schema of “good Muslim/bad Islamist”.


Examples of this binary framing schema abound in all media genres of everyday popular discourse, both in the US and in Europe.[4] In March 2009, for example, the popular commercial intelligence analysis organization StratFor described the “Islamist uprising” that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as if “uprisings,” or intifadas, against invading armies on behalf of fellow Muslims are Islamist, not Islamic.[5] And in April 2009, Adnkronos International ran the headline: “Italian authorities carry out raids against ‘Islamist radicals’ across country,” shying away from the obvious alternative of radicalized “Muslims.”


The framing schema was in place though not yet as pervasive in popular discourse as early as The 9/11 Commission Report, which deployed it in 2004 to name the enemy which was not “Islam” but “Islamist terrorism”:

“In the post-9/11 world, threats are defined more by the fault lines within societies than by the territorial boundaries between them. The catastrophic threat…is the threat posed by Islamist terrorism-especially the Al-Qaeda network, its affiliates, and ideology. Islam is not the enemy. It is not synonymous with terror. Nor does Islam teach terror. America and its friends oppose a perversion of Islam, not the great world faith itself … Other religions have experienced violent internal struggles. With so many diverse adherents, every major religion will spawn violent zealots….The present transnational danger is Islamist terrorism.[6]


The same year, in an article titled “Reform vs. Islamism” featured in the Israeli Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), the organization’s academic advisor, Professor Menahem Milson, contends that “The terms ‘Islamic extremist,’ ‘militant Islam,’ ‘radical Islam,’ and ‘Islamism’ are synonymous in worldwide writing today when referring to the extremists.”[7]

Under this binary framing schema of good Muslim/bad Islamist, it is not Islam the religion of peace that produces violence; it is that-which-is-not-Islam, or Islamism the political ideology, that produces violence.


Muslim Americans immediately resisted the imposition of this binary framing schema at the time of The 9/11 Commission Report. Maliha Balala contended that “Assuming uniformity within this definition of ‘Islamist terrorism’ draws large fault lines between ‘good Muslims’ and ‘bad Muslims.’ In reality, there is a great diversity in the expression and understanding of Islam among the world’s more than one billion Muslims. Even ‘Islamist’ ideas and methodologies range across a large spectrum-not all of which are negative or violent.”[8] A few years later, in 2007, Mohja Khaf declares in a more frustrated tone on the front page of the “Outlook” section of the Washington Post, “I grew up Islamist. That’s right, not only conservative Muslim, but full-blown caliphate-loving Islamist.”[9] And in the most recent American Journal for Islamic Social Sciences, the journal’s editor Katherine Bullock complains of what she also calls the “good Muslim/bad Muslim” binary framing schema. She writes, “The secular or ‘moderate’ Muslims receive the accolade of the ‘good Muslims,’ while traditional and conservative Muslims are the ‘bad Muslims.'”[10]


Dominant Narratives


The popular discourse’s binary framing schema “good Muslim/bad Islamist” has its equivalent in the dominant narratives constructing Islamism’s identity. The following is a survey of what I consider the dominant narratives constructing Islamism’s identity in Western popular and textual discourse in the first half of 2009. I present what I consider the typical genre and typical set of narratives by typical popular experts. As a general convention for data presentation, I usually present my interpretation of the individual narratives in italics at the beginning of each new paragraph, followed by text which features the actual words of the popular expert writing the piece.


Genre: Washington “Think Tanks”


In a February 26, 2009 testimony before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Zeyno Baran, a popular Islamism expert and Senior Fellow at the Washington think-tank Hudson Institute, presented the following narratives about Islamism and Muslims more broadly:[11]

Islamism is not a religion; it exploits religion. “I have written extensively about the difference between Islam (the religion) and Islamism (the political ideology) and how we need to expose the extremists’ cynical exploitation of the religion as a means of convincing the moderate majority of their fellow Muslims that the current conflict is religious in nature-and that the only solution is for Muslims to come together as part of a single nation (Umma) following its own legal system (sharia) in pursuit of a new and anti-democratic world order.”[12]


Islamism (under shari’a) is totalitarianism; it cannot be democratic. “Why is Islamism a threat to democracy? Because according to its interpretations, shari‘a regulates every aspect of an individual’s life; moreover, since it is considered to be God’s law, no compromises are possible. The holistic nature of Islamist ideology makes it fundamentally incompatible with the self-criticism and exercise of free will necessary for human beings to form truly liberal and democratic societies.”


Islamism is a rising threat; the US is losing ground. “The Islamist movement is much stronger today than it was in 2001. And it will continue to get stronger over the next decade unless we realize we are faced with a long-term social transformation project designed to make Muslims angry and fearful people who can then be easily controlled…Whether we like it or not, we are engaged in an ideological struggle-and the US is losing ground…Yes, liberal democrats in most parts of the so-called Muslim world are but a small minority today-but they will never grow in support unless backed by the US.”


Islamism’s destructive ideology is now a cancer in the American body. “Despite our denials, this destructive ideology is increasingly taking hold in America as well. Consider Islamization like smoking: one cigarette may not cause that much harm, but continued smoking will do terrible damage to one’s health. Some people die from it. Just recently we were shocked about a beheading of a woman by her husband who, reportedly, cited sharia as grounds for denying her a divorce.”


Islamism is weak; it can be defeated by rebuilding material infrastructure. “Death and destruction leads to further death and destruction; we need to rebuild-above all people’s imagination, and thereby freeing their creative powers to live with joy and passion.”


Islamism is weak; most Muslims would happily align with the US and true democrats if given the opportunity. “Don’t expect the silent majority to speak up until and unless they see a clear sign that the US has decided to win, which means empowering the true democrats and ending existing unholy alliances.”


Islamists are deceptive. “In choosing partners to engage, listen to what they say and look at what they do when they are with their own people, not what they say to you in private meetings, behind closed doors.”


Even moderate Islamists are deceptive-wolves in sheep’s clothing. “Don’t assume an individual or group that sounds moderate in fact is moderate.”


Islamism can’t compete with liberalism; when Muslims understand the real Islamism, they will want to be liberals like us. “It is therefore critically important to shine a light on what is truly going on under the so-called Islamic regimes-so Muslims can see for themselves that life under a sharia-based legal system is not, in fact, better than under liberal democracy.”


Islamism is irrational and rigid in its application of sharia. “When asked why they want sharia, most people explain that they want an end to crime and corruption and want to live with safety, security and dignity; most believe it is possible to take only “good aspects” of sharia, and leave out “bad aspects.” Maybe one day this will be possible, but today, the implementers of sharia do not allow such choices. Because, as I mentioned earlier, since it is considered to be God’s law, no compromises are possible.”


Islamism is a rising threat; US and liberalism are losing ground: “Whether we like it or not, we are engaged in an ideological struggle-and the US is losing ground.” … “Yes, liberal democrats in most parts of the so-called Muslim world are but a small minority today-but they will never grow in support unless backed by the US.”


Islamism cannot have common interests in justice and prosperity with the US Further spread of Islamism will leave America isolated and powerless to achieve its goals in security and foreign policy.”


Islamists are deceptive and can’t be trusted; Islamists can’t be moderate; Islamist democracy can not exist. “The prevailing view-that Islamists should be co-opted into existing political systems-simply will not work. Often, Islamists are willing to make superficial concessions while continuing to hold an uncompromising worldview.”


Islamism is misunderstood in the US; only a few realists understand. “The US simply does not understand Islamism, even though it has been an active and increasingly powerful counter-ideology over at least three decades.”


Islamist groups cannot change; they uniquely are determined by past actions and statements. “The academics, analysts and policy makers who argue that a movement like the Muslim Brotherhood today is ‘moderate’ seem to disregard its ideology, history, and long-term strategy. They even seem to disregard the Brotherhood’s own statements.”


Islamists can not be considered “moderate” even if non-violent, democratic, and seeking open dialogue with the West. “It is true that most affiliates of this movement do not directly call for terrorist acts, are open to dialogue with the West, and participate in democratic elections. Yet this is not sufficient for them to qualify as “moderate,” especially when their ideology is so extreme.”


Genre: Popular E-Magazines


A May 11, 2009 commentary in the popular American e-magazine Huffington Post by Muslim activist Dr. Zuhdi Jasser outlined several anti-Islamist narratives:[13]


Even non-violent Islamism is an enemy because it refuses to embrace Western secular liberal democracy. “The current conflict can also be defined against an ideology. It is certainly not about random acts of violence. There are some obvious and definable common ideologies and goals of the perpetrators of radical Islamism…They are ‘Islamist’ because their ultimate goal is the establishment of various forms of ‘Islamic states.’ Thus we can no longer ignore the fact that non-radical (non-violent) Islamists who seek a peaceful means of establishing an Islamic state are also part of a global movement which stands against western secular liberal democracies.”


Islamism is homogeneous; insignificant difference exists between global and local, or violent and non-violent groups. “Their primary unifying cause is the overriding ideology and dream of Islamism – the goal of establishing the Islamic state. Whether it is the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbullah, HAMAS, the Taliban, Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda, Lashkar e-Taiba, Jamaat Islamiya, Muhajiroon or the Wahhabis of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to name a few, these groups all have common core ideologies driving their radical movements. The commonality of these groups is simply put – radicalized Islamism.”


Islamist governmentality is inherently unjust and inferior. “Comparing the universality of our American system based in one secular law to a legal system based in the interpretations of clerics like Rauf is either uninformed or intentionally deceptive. Not only is Shariah centuries behind such checks and balances, but no matter how ‘balanced,’ it is still theocratic where American law is secular …The vast majority of books on Shariah and fiqh which I have are riddled with laws and opinions incompatible with American law or any western law including rulings regarding women’s rights to name one area …Just review the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights of 1991 and try to explain why all the so-called ‘Islamic’ countries of the OIC insisted on signing that document instead of the truly universal United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights. The differences between the two documents are an affront to human rights of all citizens and especially the individuals living in the 57 nations of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference).”


…Yet Islamism is still theologically unassailable within Islam. “While many Muslims may practice a ‘modernized Islam,’ we have very little intellectual material to counter the current state of Shariah.”


Shari‘a is non-reformable; don’t believe Islamism’s apologists. …Reform away from governmental Shariah will take generations regardless of the denials and apologetics of imams like Rauf …Mr. Rauf, please point us to your fatwas (religious legal opinions) and sources of Shariah which contradict the laws of Shariah, which guide schools in Saudi Arabia, Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Syria, and Pakistan to name some of the most common sources of imams (teachers who are experts in Shariah law) globally. These schools teach Ibn-Taymiyyah, Ibn-Kathir, Mawdudi, and other well known Islamic scholars of the primary legal schools of thought in Islam. There are four major schools of legal thought in Islamic fiqh (Hanafi, Shafii, Hanbali, and Maliki) with very little significant difference between them. Many of the rulings of these schools of thought vary on some specifics of religious rituals in forms of practice but agree on most other issues. Rauf, neglects telling us which of these schools of thought he is discussing; I believe that is because it does not exist. His concept of Shariah is still in the imagination and whims of Western imams sitting in the comfort of homes in the United States pretending that Islamic law has reformed without any evidence or body of rulings to the contrary.


“…None of the legal schools of thought in Islam have abandoned laws which criminalize blasphemy, apostasy, or womens’ liberation to name a few. None of these schools of thought or classic Islamic jurists have well known established texts which contradict the political system of Shariah which identifies Christians and Jews as ‘dhimmis’ (protected peoples) who are ‘given’ rights by a dominating Muslim majority and pay a separately identified tax (the jizya) at the behest of the Muslim majority in control. None of these schools of thought have given women equality in inheritance or in the value of their vote in legal proceedings. None of these schools of thought have abandoned the concept of the Islamic nation state and the association of citizenship with faith identity (the ummah). A common Muslim legal text sold at large Muslim bookstores and conventions – The Reliance of the Traveler – is a widely held treatise on Islamic law which contains a plethora of legal rulings at odds with all principles of Western morality and equality.


There is no modern text of Islamic law to counter this. Even if these laws were modernized globally by some heretofore unseen movement of imams, that again would not abrogate the slippery slope of Islamic supremacy which is present when Shariah involves itself in governmental and public rulings which apply to an entire citizenry.”


Moderate Islamists are deceptive, and moderate Islamism is also a deception. “Tariq Ramadan, a rather deceptive European ‘reformist’ and grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, in a widely televised debate with now President Nicolas Sarkozy could not even get himself to definitively rebuke corporal punishment as still called for in Shariah law rulings rather calling for a moratorium. He instead cited a process of change which has to be approached methodically. This consensus process (ijmaa) in rulings of Islamic law, while it may ultimately begrudgingly evolve towards modernity is not ever going to be as egalitarian as western liberal democracies since it is based on one faith regardless of the utopian principles which any Muslim may paint for western audiences. Until Muslims are able to separate mosque and state, the slippery slope of Islamic supremacy will be a constant regardless of how deceptively modern the version of Shariah being presented is.”


In another article in the same Huffington Post in February 2009, Jasser added to other narratives:[14]


Islamism is inherently supremacist, cannot be democratic. “[Islamism] is a system which can feign democracy vis-à-vis elections but operates in a supremacist position of Islamic law over all other faith systems and empowers oligarchs (clerics) to write and interpret law.”


Islamism is antithetical to the basic human right of liberty. “At the crux of the ‘contest of ideas’ between the West and the ‘Muslim world’ lie the competing roles of liberty and Islamism.”

Extremism is Islamism is the refusal to embrace secular liberalism. “The ‘moderate Muslim’ to those of us who believe in the wisdom of secular liberal democracies is the one who condemns Islamism.”


Islamism is the real enemy; but the government is too politically correct to name it. “[Obama] ignores the central need for Muslims to defeat Wahhabism, salafism and other pre-modern draconian manifestations of the faith which dominate so much of the power structure of the ‘Muslim World.’ This reform-the only real counterterrorism-will never happen if the leader of the free world cannot even get himself to identify and openly name the ideological challenges we face against Islamists.”


Islamists don’t share our (universal) values. “[The President] must distinguish between Islamists and the non-Islamists who are far more likely to work productively with the US due to our shared values.”


Islamism is an ever-growing global danger that must be forcefully countered by the US “Political Islam is a growing phenomenon hatched from a pre-modern theology and fertilized by Arab fascism. It continues to spawn militant and non-militant offshoots across the globe.”


Genre: Major Newspapers


The Wall Street Journal Europe in March 2009 ran a short piece titled “Britain Fights Home-Grown Islamists,” announcing a change in British policy concerning which Muslim groups it would consider moderate and which to consider radical.[15] In this article, the Journal often quoted as its popular expert the British think tank Policy Exchange, and together they present the following narratives concerning Islamism:


Islamism is violence. “Islamist splinter groups will continue Osama bin Laden’s work.” Britain’s “new objective is to address the real root cause of Islamist terrorism – its ideology.”

Islamism cannot be non-violent. Policy Exchange noted that “the link between non-violent and violent extremism is habitually underplayed,” and also found that the government spent almost £90 million over the past three years on non-violent radical Islamic groups, “underwriting the very Islamist ideology[16] which spawns an illiberal, intolerant and anti-Western world view.”


Moderate Islamists are probably not moderate. “Hazel Blears, secretary of state for communities and local government …suspended ties with the Muslim Council of Britain – once the Labour government’s favorite Muslim organization – because its deputy secretary general, Daud Abdullah, signed a declaration in Istanbul last month that calls for jihad against Israel and any country supporting it, which could include Britain.”


Islamists are a clear and present danger within. “Most of Britain’s 2,000 terror suspects are home-grown and US officials have warned that British Islamists entering the U.S. under the visa-waiver program pose a severe threat to homeland security …The threat of a terror attack against Britain, including during next week’s G-20 financial summit in London, is ‘severe,’ Home Secretary Smith said this week – meaning ‘it’s highly likely’ and ‘could happen without warning.’


Genre: Islamic and Arab Reform Journals


The popular journal Arab Reform Bulletin in March 2009 featured the article “Egypt: Salafism Making Inroads.”[17] The authors are a journalist based in Washington D.C. and an Egyptian graduate student, and the article’s five narratives are what I would call typical of this genre, which is aligned with reform in Muslim Arab communities:


Islamists, salafists and takfiris are of a piece. “Such a perception only reinforces the takfiri tendencies inside Salafism and the appeal of such thinking to other Islamists.”


Islamism cannot remain apolitical: “While passive and apolitical now, Salafists may not always remain preoccupied with converting the individual. As an Islamist reform movement, they can ban politics for a time, but not forever.”


Islamism cannot remain peaceful after it gains strength. “…In the independent newspaper al-Masri al-Youm, one writer warned that Salafists are only peaceful now while they gather strength, but that eventually they will produce terrorist cells of unprecedented fanaticism. Habib predicts that Egyptian Salafists will eventually split: one group will move towards the Islamic centralism of al-Qaradawi and the political activism of the Ikhwan, while a second will embrace Salafi jihad.”


Other Narratives in Other Popular Genres


“Moderate Islamists” are not Muslims. After Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan exploded during a public discussion with the Israeli Prime Minister, StratFor, in February 2009, explained how, given Turkey’s alliance with Israel, the recent events in Gaza put Erdogan in a difficult position, needing to show his opposition to Israel’s policies to his followers in Turkey’s “moderate Islamist” community.[18] StratFor noted that Islam in the Turkish public runs the gamut from “ultrasecularists to radical Islamists.” Moderate Islamists seem to split the difference between the two, but note that these moderate Islamists are not “Muslims.”


Islamism is Al-Qaedaism. Many of the United States’ popular security experts make no distinction between Islamism and Al-Qaedaism. In his 2009 book, Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam After Iraq, Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst in the bin Laden unit and notorious critic of US terrorism policies (especially in his book Imperial Hubris), consistently uses the term “Islamists” without the usual “radical” qualifiers when speaking of Al-Qaeda.[19]

Islamism flourishes among the wretched of the earth …and reconstructs wretchedness. Michael Slackman, writing for the New York Times concerning Islamism in Algeria, constructs a narrative that years of Islamist-controlled schools have produced more Islamist youth and more unemployable youth.[20] He writes that “for decades Islamists controlled what children learned, and how they learned,” and “now the government is urgently trying to re-engineer Algerian identity, changing the curriculum to wrest momentum from the Islamists, provide its youth with more employable skills, and combat the terrorism it fears schools have inadvertently encouraged.” Slackman quotes an Algerian professor: “‘We say that Algeria’s schools have trained monsters,’ said Khaoula Taleb Ibrahim, a professor of education at the University of Algiers.'” Slackman also quotes a French-supporting father: “‘Now they are at a crossroads,’ Mr. Bou Bekeur said of his children and their generation. ‘Either they go to the West, or stay with this and become extremists.'”


Islamism ultimately leads to state failure and even societal failure. In a February 2009 article titled “Sex, drugs and Islam” in Asia Times, the popular anonymous writer Spengler (later revealed to be David Goldman) writes that, “Contrary to conventional wisdom, it appears that Islamic theocracy promotes rather than represses social decay …Iran is dying. The collapse of Iran’s birth rate during the past 20 years is the fastest recorded in any country, ever.


Demographers have sought in vain to explain Iran’s population implosion through family planning policies, or through social factors such as the rise of female literacy. But quantifiable factors do not explain the sudden collapse of fertility. It seems that a spiritual decay has overcome Iran, despite best efforts of a totalitarian theocracy. Popular morale has deteriorated much faster than in the ‘decadent’ West against which the Khomeini revolution was directed.”[21]


Islamism cannot harmonize with modernity. In the same article, Goldman writes: “A better explanation of Iran’s population implosion is that the country has undergone an existential crisis comparable to encounters of Amazon or Inuit tribes with modernity. Traditional society demands submission to the collective. Once the external constraints are removed, its members can shift from the most extreme forms of modesty to the other extreme of sexual license. Khomeini’s revolution attempted to retard the disintegration of Persian society, but it appears to have accelerated the process ….Modernity implies choice, and the efforts of the Iranian mullahs to prolong the strictures of traditional society appear to have backfired.”


Islamism is Islam is barbarism. Another narrative that emerges daily across various unofficial popular blogs in the US is the “clash of civilization with barbarism.” Termed by its detractors as “Islamophobia,” this discourse merges a discourse of danger with a discourse of extreme alterity. Advanced by activists such as Robert Spencer and a broader trans-Atlantic advocacy network, this narrative constructs Islamism as true Islam, and represents it as perennially barbaric, structurally antithetical to Western concepts of human rights, and unrelentingly supremacist, commanding its adherents to pursue jihad to global dominance, and subverting Western civilization via a range of overt to covert and violent to non-violent means. These themes were captured in the June 1, 2009 issue of JihadWatch, which featured an interview with Pamela Geller of the popular anti-Islamist blog Atlas Shrugs: “Atlas: The oppression of non-believers exists in every Islamic country. Shari‘a law is oppressive. All those terrible acts committed in the name of Islam-honor killings, clitorectomies, death for apostasy, death to hypocrites-all happen under shari‘a law.”[22]


Islamism is Islam is violent danger within. From the same Islamophobia media as JihadWatch and Atlas Shrugs, a May 2009 posting in Islamist Watch similarly constructs an Islamism inherently dangerous to citizens of Western civilization:[23]


In While Europe Slept, American Bruce Bawer describes how he moved to the Netherlands because of its vaunted tolerance for alternative lifestyles, only to find Islamist gangs attacking gays on Amsterdam streets. Three years after the book’s publication, new evidence illuminates European Muslims’ attitudes toward homosexuality and the challenges they pose. A survey by Dalia Mogahed’s Gallup Center for Muslim Studies asked Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain, France, and Germany about their views on a number of issues, including whether they believe that homosexual acts are “morally acceptable or morally wrong”


The French public is more likely than any other population polled to view homosexuality (78%) as morally acceptable. As points of comparison, 68% of Germans and 58% of Britons believe homosexuality is morally acceptable. Among European Muslim populations surveyed, the acceptability of homosexuality is highest among French Muslims (35%) and lowest among British Muslims (0%).




The binary framing schema “good Muslim/bad Islamist” and its driving assumptions are increasingly problematized in mainstream popular discourse. One example of a piece from a different genre in popular discourse is given, followed by other dissident narratives.


Genre: Popular Weekly News Magazines


In March 2009, Fareed Zakaria, editor-in-chief of the popular magazine Newsweek, wrote “Learning to Live with Radical Islam,” in which he advanced several counternarratives.

Most Islamists are not part of the global jihad movement. “We don’t have to accept the stoning of criminals. But it’s time to stop treating all Islamists as potential terrorists.”[24] In light of the Taliban’s advances, Zakaria argued that “It’s also worth stepping back and trying to understand the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism,” and notes that “It is not just in the Swat valley that Islamists are on the rise”:


In Afghanistan the Taliban have been gaining ground for the past two years as well. In Somalia last week, Al-Shabab, a local group of Islamic militants, captured yet another town from government forces. Reports from Nigeria to Bosnia to Indonesia show that Islamic fundamentalists are finding support within their communities for their agenda, which usually involves the introduction of some form of Sharia-Islamic law-reflecting a puritanical interpretation of Islam. No music, no liquor, no smoking, no female emancipation.


The groups that advocate these policies are ugly, reactionary forces that will stunt their countries and bring dishonor to their religion. But not all these Islamists advocate global jihad, host terrorists or launch operations against the outside world-in fact, most do not.


Islamism is a Muslim’s rational response to regime failure. Zakaria cites the example of one of Afghanistan’s judges whose views offended many American human rights advocates and contends realistically that “Were he to hold Western, liberal views, Shinwari would have little credibility within his country. The reality-for the worse, in my view-is that radical Islam has gained a powerful foothold in the Muslim imagination. It has done so for a variety of complex reasons that I have written about before. But the chief reason is the failure of Muslim countries to develop, politically or economically.”


Islamism’s identity in the West ultimately depends on the particular administration in power. “Over the past eight years such distinctions have been regarded as naive. In the Bush administration’s original view, all Islamist groups were one and the same; any distinctions or nuances were regarded as a form of appeasement. If they weren’t terrorists themselves, they were probably harboring terrorists.”


Islamismophobia is the real cause for the violent clash of civilizations. “We have placed ourselves in armed opposition to Muslim fundamentalists stretching from North Africa to Indonesia, which has made this whole enterprise feel very much like a clash of civilizations, and a violent one at that.”


Islamism is not the bogeyman we imagined. Speaking of the fears of Talibanization of West Africa, Zakaria notes that “when The New York Times sent a reporter to Kano state in late 2007, she found an entirely different picture from the one that had been fretted over by State Department policy analysts. The reporter concluded ‘The Islamic revolution that seemed so destined to transform northern Nigeria in recent years appears to have come and gone.'”


Islamists are the lesser of two evils and can be defense-in-depth against Al-Qaedaists. “Many Islamists are bigots, reactionaries and extremists (others are charlatans and opportunists). But this can sometimes blind us to the ways they might prove useful in the broader struggle against Islamic terror.” Zakaria notes that the Bush administration “came to recognize that 30 years of Saddam-a secular, failed tyrant-had left only hard-core Islamists as the opposition. It partnered with these groups, most of which were Shiite parties founded on the model of Iran’s ultra-religious organizations, and acquiesced as they took over most of southern Iraq.” The US swallowed its pride as the version of shari‘a they implemented had predictable results. “Christians were persecuted; religious affiliations became the only way to get a government job, including college professorships.” Zakaria cites Gerecht in opposition to the dominant anti-Islamist advocacy movement: “It’s hard to hand over authority to people who are illiberal ….What you have to realize is that the objective is to defeat bin Ladenism, and you have to start the evolution. Moderate Muslims are not the answer. Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists are our salvation from future 9/11s.”


Islamists are heterogeneous, most with non-religious agendas. Further advancing the counternarrative for support of the Obama administration’s policy in Afghanistan, Newsweek’s editor-in-chief quotes David Kilcullen, a government counterinsurgency expert: “I’ve had tribal leaders and Afghan government officials at the province and district level tell me that 90 percent of the people we call the Taliban are actually tribal fighters or Pashtun nationalists or people pursuing their own agendas. Less than 10 percent are ideologically aligned with the Quetta Shura [Mullah Omar’s leadership group] or Al Qaeda.”


Other Popular Counternarratives

Islamism is heterogeneous, rational and mostly non-violent. Writing in March 2009 for Harvard University’s Belfer Center, Rami Khouri argues against the Islam/Islamism binary framing scheme.[25] Khouri seeks commitment to a more complex understanding that involves “six different forms of Islamist identity and expression” that “evolve constantly, reflecting changing realities at the local level in most cases.” Intellectually honest, Khouri admits “it is also worrying that the core grievances of both the militants and the non-violent majority are virtually identical.” He argues that “if we disaggregate Islamic societies or Muslim-majority countries into my suggested six categories of individuals, community, political, transnational and nationalist groups, core religious values, and a handful of extremists, we would appreciate that most Muslims and Islamist groups have responded to their individual and national predicaments with patience, rationality and non-violence.”


Islamist democracy is the solution to Islamic quest for assurance of salvation, extremism, and state failure. Popular counternarratives reflect deep understanding, even empathy, and they often come from the most unlikely organizations. Reuel Marc Gerecht-a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, former resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and former CIA Middle East specialist-writes in the American Magazine of the “increasingly vibrant marriage of Islamism and democracy.”[26] The reason for this marriage, Gerecht contends, is a religious one: “More and more Middle Eastern Muslims-not just holy warriors like bin Laden-feel it is increasingly difficult to live as good Muslims under today’s regimes. What we are seeing now is the ‘routinization’ of this search for Islamic inspiration through the embrace of democracy. Any legitimate form of government in the Muslim Middle East must be viewed as complementary to the Prophet Muhammad[PBUH]’s legacy and the Holy Law.” Contrary to the dominant narratives constructed by the anti-Islamist advocates, Gerecht argues that “any secular political system that makes a frontal assault on the clergy, the guardians of Islamic traditions, has virtually no chance of gaining sufficient popular support to be deemed legitimate.”


Islamism is the agent of change in a region in the crisis of stasis; the agent of social justice and moral cohesion. There is a growing understanding that corrupt authoritarian regimes create a culture of extremist resistance in the mosque as the only source of resistance to those regimes. Conflicts Forum, in late 2008, writes, “The overwhelming majority of Islamists are striving to create just societies and bring about political reform in a region entrenched with inequity, that has long suffered the overbearing influence of foreign powers.”[27]


Islamist democracy is the lesser of two evils. Writing about Islamist democracy, Ottaway and Hamzawy from the reformist-aligned Washington think tank Carnegie Endowment outline the logic for their dissident position:


While participation is not invariably a process of further democratization and moderation, it is also clear that non-participation-either enforced by governments or chosen by the leadership of Islamist parties and movements-is a guarantee that a process of moderation will not take place. This is a sobering thought for those governments and their international backers that would like to set the bar for participation by Islamists extremely high. The choice is not between allowing the somewhat risky participation by Islamists in politics and their disappearance from the political scene. It is between allowing their participation despite the existence of gray zones with the possibility that a moderating process will unfold, and excluding them from the legal political process-thus ensuring the growing influence of hard-liners inside those movements and the continued existence of gray zones.[28]


The authors conclude: “While participation is not invariably a process of further democratization and moderation, it is also clear that non-participation ….is a guarantee that a process of moderation will not take place.”


Concluding Analysis


This simple presentation of the discursive formation surrounding Islamism’s constructed identity in Western popular discourse needs little explanation, therefore, in conclusion, I will not summarize but analyze with a few observations related to each section.


Binary Framing Schema


The good Muslim/bad Islamist schema is the product of the “clash of Islam with Islamism” narrative and has a broad utilitarian function for all antagonists competing to construct Islamism’s identity. The schema allows Muslim liberal reformers in Muslim majority countries to distinguish between a reformed, liberalized “Islam” and what they contend is a backward and antiquated “Islamism” under shari‘a. In an April 2009 column titled “Terrorism: A Cultural Phenomenon,” in the London daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Saudi author and reformist Turki Al-Hamad stated that the Saudi schools’ continued “dissemination of extremist ideology” is the reason for the failure to eliminate Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, and adds, “We Are Muslims ….but we are not by necessity Islamists – and there is a difference between Islam and Islamism.”[29]


But in classic resistance, Muslim illiberals also use the term Islamism to discredit the liberals who advocate the secularization of Muslim communities. Al-Qaeda strategist Abu Mus’ab as-Suri, in his long strategy treatise, The Call for Global Islamic Resistance, uses the term Islamism to denote true Muslims who “rule according to what God sent down,” as opposed to the “faithlessness” of the “infidel ruler” who is “ruling by other than what God sent down.”[30]

Additionally, the binary schema creates space for Islam in the West, and Islam and the West. It creates space or a safe haven, preserving Islam and Muslims as equals among the world’s civilizations and citizens. Under the “good Muslim/bad Islamist” schema, Muslims can distance themselves and their families from the dominant identification of Islamism in the popular discourse, and to save face-personally and collectively-in the face of embarrassing and increasing violence in the name of Islam. Finally, it allows non-Muslims making statements in the popular discourse to discuss the illiberal and dangerous trends and movements within Islam without naming that segment “Muslims” or “Islam,” and thereby erroneously implicating the entire umma.


With advocates from such diverse political goals finding the binary schema useful, we could justifiably predict that it will persist for quite some time.


Dominant Narratives


The dominant narratives are the product of the larger grand narratives, such as the “clash of civilizations,” and especially the “clash of Islam with Islamism.” Three features of this discursive formation can be mentioned here.


First, there is omission of any meaningful intellectual engagement of the wasatiyya, or “new Islamist trend.” These moderate Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere are not distinguished from the near-violent and violent, and not identified as Muslims.


Second, the dominant narratives, as we saw, posit things like “Islam is the religion of one fifth of the world, while Islamism is the radical ideology of a tiny minority of extremists.” Yet the dominant narratives omit any further discussion or substantiating data for the level of support for Islamist belief-strands across the world’s Muslim communities. For example, none of the anti-Islamist activists noted the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll published in late February 2009, which revealed, “large majorities support allowing Islamist groups to organize parties and participate in democratic elections.”[31]


Other Islamist scholars portray a completely different level of support for Islamist belief-strands. Sherifa Zuhur-the embattled Islamism scholar then at the US Army’s Institute for Strategic Studies-observed in late 2008 that Islamism represents “the most salient and enduring socio-religious movement in the Middle East in the wake of Arab nationalism.”[32] The popular experts note that the US is losing ground, but they omit the fact that liberalism’s metanarrative has been losing ground more broadly in what could be described as a general megatrend; it is clear that the desecularization of the world has been under way for several decades.[33] Such popular narratives advocating that Islamic states such as Pakistan be secularized by separating the Islamic system from its state suffer a “serious fallacy”-in the words of Qazi Hussain Ahmad, former emir of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami:


What they conveniently ignore in their bias against Islamic codes is that Islamization of the country is not just the demand of what they call some extremists but is the strong desire of an overwhelming majority of the people, millions of whom are ready to sacrifice their lives to achieve this objective, like those who laid down their lives in the Pakistan Movement.[34]

Third, the identification of Islamism in Western unofficial, popular discourse is not so easily dismissed as an “imaginative geography and history” as the post-colonial theorists argue.[35]The mere rhetoric of Islamist leaders and ideologues is easily securitized. On April 19, 2009, in defiance of Pakistan’s democratic institutions, cleric Sufi Mohammed-the founder of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM)-reminded Pakistanis that “The Qu’ran says that supporting an infidel system is a great sin,” and then laid out an ambitious plan to bring a “complete Islamic system” to the entire country.[36] One day later, in apparent solidarity with TNSM’s goal of an Islamic system, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, former emir of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami, announced that “the dawn of an Islamic revolution is around the corner” and that “the enemies of Islam are on the retreat.” These ideas of a Pakistani theocracy positioned alongside an Iranian theocracy signal a homogenized region that harbors Al-Qaeda and has nuclear weapons. Islamism is essentialized, homogenized and securitized in Western popular discourse because of its demonstrated links to terrorism.


In late March 2009, for example, a new British think tank dedicated to extremism reported the raid on a Bangladesh orphanage that uncovered not only a large cache of weapons and explosives and jihad booklets from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, but also books by Jamaat-e-Islami founder and ideologue Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi.[37]



The presence of counternarratives in a broad range of popular genres demonstrates that narrative diversity exists with respect to Islamism, and that the dominant narrative is far from hegemony. The dichotomous grand narrative of “clash of Islam with Islamism,” and its binary schema “good Muslim/bad Islamist” cannot be dismissed as imaginative geography and history, but it can be problematized. There is a growing realization that-in the words of Newsweek’s editor-in-chief, Zakaria-“the veil is not the same as the suicide belt” and that “we can better pursue our values if we recognize the local and cultural context, and appreciate that people want to find their own balance between freedom and order, liberty and license.”


But, the existence and momentum of the counternarratives of the dissidents does not warrant predicting that this represents an irreversible trend in Western popular discourse. Power is knowledge is identity, and, as Islamist strategists know well, those with the power most often determine the identity.[38]




Balala, Maliha. “What’s in a Name?” American Muslim Perspectives-The American Muslim Task Force on the 9/11 Commission Report. Herndon, VA: IIIT, 2004.

Berger, Peter L., ed. The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1999.

Bullock, Katherine. “Editorial.” AJISS 25, no. 4 (Fall 2008).

Conflicts Forum. “Editorial.” Cultures of Resistance 1: 1 (July 2008).

Constable, Pamela. “Islamist Leader in Pakistan Reveals Troubling Plans.” Washington Post, April 19, 2009.

Field, Nathan and Ahmed Hamem. “Egypt: Salafism Making Inroads.” Arab Reform Bulletin, March 2009.

Friedman, George. “Erdogan’s Outburst and the Future of the Turkish State.” StratFor, February 2, 2009.

Gerecht, Reuel Marc. “God, Man, and the Ballot Box.” American Magazine, November 24, 2008.

al-Hamad, Turki. “Terrorism: A Cultural Phenomenon.” Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, April 27, 2009. Translated in MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2367 (May 21, 2009). MEMRI.

Hansen, Lene. “Understanding Foreign Policy Debates: Towards a Critical Constructivist Methodology.” Paper presented at Center for International Studies, University of Southern California, February 25, 2004.

Hossain, Maneeza. Bangladesh 2007: The New Order and Islamism: Hudson Institute, June 2007.

Jasser, Zuhdi M. “Getting Real on Sharia.” Huffington Post, May 11, 2009.

Jasser, Zuhdi M. “A Post-‘Muslim World’ Muslim World.” Huffington Post, February 17, 2009.

Khaf, Mohja. “As American as You Are.” Washington Post, July 22, 2007.

Khouri, Rami. “Six Strands of Contemporary Islam.” Agence Global, March 30, 2009.

Milson, Menahem. “Reform vs. Islamism in the Arab World Today.” Special Report No. 34 (September 15, 2004). MEMRI.

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Ottaway, Marina and Amr Hamzawy. “Islamists in Politics: The Dynamics of Participation.” Carnegie Paper, Middle East Program, No. 98. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2008.

Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). “Muslim Publics Oppose Al Qaeda’s Terrorism, But Agree with Its Goal of Driving US Forces Out.” Program on International Policy Attitudes, February 24, 2009.

Quilliam Foundation. “Quilliam Alert: British links to Bangladesh terror raid.” Quilliam, March 25, 2009.

Rusin, David J. “Can Muslims and Gays Coexist in Europe?” IslamistWatch, May 20, 2009.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London: 1985.

Scheur, Michael. Marching Toward Hell: America and Islam after Iraq. Reprint, Free Press, 2009.

Stewart, Scott and Kamran Bokhari. “Al Qaeda and the Tale of Two Battlespaces.” StratFor, March 11, 2009. .

As-Suri, Abu Mus‘ab. The Call for Global Islamic Resistance. (Trans. July 2006 anonymous.)

US Congress. Senate. Committee on Foreign Relations. Engaging with Muslim Communities around the World, testimony presented by Zeyno Baran, 111th Cong., 1st sess., February 26, 2009. .

Wall Street Journal Europe. “Britain Fights Home-Grown Islamists.” March 26, 2009.

Zakaria, Fareed. “Learning to Live With Radical Islam.” Newsweek, March 9, 2009.

Zuhur, Sherifa. HAMAS and Israel: Conflicting Strategies of Group-Based Politics. Strategic Studies Institute, December 2008.



[1] Conflicts Forum, Cultures of Resistance. Conflicts Forum emerged under the leadership of Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer, to provide a critique of the demonization and manipulation of Islamism.

[2] Ibid. The Forum contends that “Western policy-makers have framed the debate in the language of ‘terrorism’, ‘hostility towards modernity’, ‘cultural backwardness’ and ‘hatred of Western values’.”

[3] Hansen, “Understanding Foreign Policy Debates.”

[4] Rarely in official discourse will the signifier “Islamist” or “Islamism” be used; for example, President Obama’s speech to Muslims from Cairo and Riyadh on June 04 2009, did not use these terms at all.

[5] Stewart and Bokhari, “Al Qaeda and the Tale of Two Battlespaces.”

[6] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, The 9/11 Commission Report, 361-363.

[7] Milson, “Reform vs. Islamism.” Yet, Milson notes, “the extremists don’t call themselves such names; they simply refer to themselves as ‘Muslims,’ or mujahidin. They call their movement ‘the Islamic Awakening’ (as-Sahwa al-Islamiyya), ‘the Jihad Movement,’ or simply ad-Da’wa, a term that can be translated as ‘the call’ [to Islam] or ‘the propagation of Islam.'”

[8] Balala, American Muslim Perspectives, 20.

[9] Khaf, “As American as You Are.”

[10]Bullock, AJISS. Interestingly, Bullock does not blame the government for constructing this “good Muslim/bad Islamist” binary framing schema; rather, she says, “Efforts by Daniel Pipes and other neo-conservative writers to ensure that the general public and policy makers do not distinguish between moderate conservatives and those who endorse violence to achieve their goals have, unfortunately, been very successful.”

[11] Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Engaging with Muslim Communities.

[12] This position was expressed by another Hudson Institute fellow, Maneeza Hossain, who noted, “A distinction is made by many Muslim thinkers, and others, between Islamism, as a political ideology, and Islam, the religious and faith framework for one fifth of the world population.” Hossain, Bangladesch 2007.

[13] Jasser, “Getting Real on Sharia.”

[14] Jasser, “A Post-‘Muslim World’ Muslim World.”

[15] Wall Street Journal, “Britain Fights Home-Grown Islamists.”

[16] Note the interchangeability of the signifiers “Islamist ideology,” “radical Islamic groups,” and “violent extremism.”

[17] Field and Hamem, “Egypt: Salafism Making Inroads.”

[18] Friedman, “Erdogan’s Outburst.”

[19] Scheur, Marching Toward Hell.

[20] Slackman, “Generation Faithful.”

[21] Spengler, “Sex, drugs and Islam.”


[23] Rusin, “Can Muslims and Gays Coexist in Europe?”

[24] Zakaria, “Learning to Live With Radical Islam.”

[25] Khouri, “Six Strands of Contemporary Islam.”

[26] Gerecht, “God, Man, and the Ballot Box.”

[27] Conflicts Forum, “Summary of Salafist web sites.”

[28] Ottaway and Hamzawy, “Islamists in Politics.”

[29] Al-Hamad, “Terrorism.”

[30] Al-Suri, The Call for Global Islamic Resistance, 163-171. The fact is, as-Suri contends, “the Islamism of a leader or his faithlessness is completely tied to the rule of law by which he rules.”

[31] PIPA, “Muslim Publics Oppose Al Qaeda’s Terrorism.”

[32] Zuhur, HAMAS and Israel.

[33] Berger, Desecularization of the World.

[34] Qazi Hussain Ahmad, Islamization: Cure of all evils” The News (Pakistan) April 20, 2009.

[35] Said, Orientalism, 55.

[36] Constable, “Islamist Leader in Pakistan Reveals Troubling Plans.”

[37] Quilliam Foundation, “Quilliam Alert: British links to Bangladesh terror raid.”

[38] I didn’t realize until the day I submitted this article that Zakaria, Baran and Jasser are all three Muslim Americans. While the selection of Muslim American narratives was unintended, it reveals that Muslim Americans are very much out in front as popular experts on Islamism, and that such expertise in America is irrespective of creed, gender, or race.

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