How does one define Islamism?

After the events of September 11, 2001, Islam has been, on the one hand, frequently called a ‘violent’ and ‘terrorist’ religion and, on the other, there has been an overwhelming demand for information about Islam. In the post-9/11 era, an issue that has been highlighted is the discourse on “Islamism”, which is a new term in many senses, used for “Islamic fundamentalism”, “Islamic extremism”, “Islamic conservatism”, “radicalism”, “political Islam”, “jihadism”, etc.

Demarcated differently and debated variedly, defining “Islamism” is a loaded and difficult task. Frequently invoked with caution and caveats, vigilance and warning, Islamism, for instance, as defined by Professor(s) Rozzane L. Euben and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, refers to the “contemporary movements that attempt to return to the scriptural foundations of the Muslim community, excavating and interpreting them for application to the present-day social and political world”. It is defined as “the belief that Islam should guide social and political as well as personal life” (Sheri Berman); or “the building of an Islamic state” (Oliver Roy); as “a religious ideology that insists on the application of sharia law by the state” (Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon); and even as an “anti-modernist ideology of reform in Muslim countries” (Carl Ernest); or simply, as “a form of instrumentalisation of Islam by individuals, groups and organisations that pursue political objectives”, providing, in many ways, “political responses for today’s societal challenges by imagining a future, the foundations for which rest on reappropriated, reinvented concepts borrowed from Islamic tradition” (Guilain Denoeux). “Islamism” is regarded, by Michael Laskier, as “A virus that affects Islam and is a destabilising phenomenon”. Islamism, in simpler terms, describes a political or social movement, organisation, or person that believes Islam or God’s will applies to all areas of life.
In Bassam Tibi’s terminology, Islamism is “a concept of order in the global phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, aimed at remaking the world” based on God’s sovereignty. A “political ideology”, it is an outcome of the current form of political Islam—a process which leads to the “shariatisation and jihadisation of faith pronounced as a return to tradition”. Although the ideology of Islamism is different than the religion of Islam, but it is Islamism which forms “the ideological foundation of political Islam, an aspect of the overall phenomenon of religious fundamentalism”. In a summary fashion, for Tibi, it can be stated that “Islamism is not a delinquency, but stands as a political phenomenon within Islam as a social reality”. But, at the same time, he cautions, “Islamism is an Islamic variety of religious fundamentalism. Its emergence relates to a structural phenomenon in world politics and is not simply terrorism.”
Although the interchangeable use of terms like political Islam, Islamism, and Islamic fundamentalism is seen in most writings on the subject, but Islamism’s description as “fundamentalism” is still the most commonly used English term that refers to “religio-political movements of the Muslims or otherwise”. Although coined back in the 1920s “Islamism” and “Islamic fundamentalism” are mostly used interchangeably, and are defined by Mahmud A. Faksh as referring to “Islamic movements or groups that want to use Islam as a political force to mobilise the public, gain control, and reform society and state in accordance with their doctrinal religious agenda.” Not only this, but Islamism is equated with “terrorism” as well. Especially in the post-9/11 era, “Islamism” has been more closely identified with “terrorism” so much so that the two “terms and the phenomena they name are often depicted as synonymous”.
Having said all this, it is worthy to quote Bassam Tibi again, regarding the interchangeable use of terms like political Islam, Islamism, and Islamic fundamentalism, as: “This use is debated,… [because] Fundamentalism is an analytical term and the rejection of it is misleading. … Scholars who use the term “Islamism” as an alternative to fundamentalism are unknowingly contributing to the stereotyping of Islam by implicitly restricting the general phenomenon of the politicisation of religion to it. In contrast “Islamism” is an element of the phenomenon of political religion known as a variety of religious fundamentalism. This phenomenon is not limited to Islam; it is also present in other religions. However, jihadism as the military dimension of this phenomenon is specific to Islamism as an interpretation of Islam. This compels the inquiry of Islamism to be included in the field of security studies”.
Furthermore, what also becomes clear in Anders Strindberg and Mats Wärn’s terminology, is that Islamism is a “multidimensional paradox”, and is, in the end, both “identity and ideology”, because: “It is simultaneously process and objective, tactic and strategy, reality and ideal. It is a totalising ambition grounded in the diffusion between the public and private spheres, between the present and the transcendent. At the same time, the multitude of local contexts out of which Islamism has emerged have forced each individual group and movement to socially construct its own distinct emphases, its own focus and priorities, its own level of socio-political grounded-ness or abstraction. The modalities by which that new reality is sought, however, are diverse and divided”.
Thus, “Islamism” has been defined differently and debated variedly, and, hence has been burdened with controversy.
—The author holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from AMU.