The term "Islamism" is often inevitably associated with terrorism. | Photo: Unsplash/Marija Zaric | Free use

Who are these “Islamists” everyone talks about?! Why academic struggles over words matter

Politicians, the media, and social media users alike have framed recent attacks in Europe as instances of “Islamist” violence. The current debate often remains superficial and uses the umbrella term of “Islamism” to describe a diverse spectrum of actors, ideologies, and activities. Notably, conflating Salafi jihadism with other manifestations of Islamism risks consolidating a unified enemy image of “the Islamists” – or, even worse, Islam. This blogpost aims at disentangling these labels, in particular pointing out two discursive pitfalls: the securitisation of Islam and Muslim communities, and the equation of Islamism with terrorism.

The meeting of EU home affairs ministers on 13 November 2020 resulted in a common statement that reaffirms the union’s willingness to counter terrorism. It further specifies that the “fight against terrorism is not directed against any religious or political beliefs, but against fanatical and violent extremism” and, thus, “all forms of terrorism”. And yet, the examples mentioned in the statement are the 5-year anniversary of the attacks against the Bataclan Theatre in Paris, the “Islamist attack on a teacher in France”, as well as, more abstractly, “the horrific terrorist attacks […] in Paris, Dresden, Conflans-Saint-Honorine, Nice, Vienna and other places”. It is not far-fetched to interpret this statement as geared toward what it calls “Islamist” terrorism.

In a speech delivered in early October, French president Emmanuel Macron presented a strategy directed against what he calls “Islamist separatism”, and in the aftermath of the Vienna attacks, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz even advocated listing “political Islam” as a criminal offence. This framing was also mirrored in media reporting on the issue. Various German news outlets, for example, used the term “Islamist” to describe the kind of violence that occurred in different European cities over the last couple of weeks and years. Sometimes, “jihadist” or “Salafist” were added to the list of attributes, suggesting that all of these terms could be used interchangeably. Whether using one term (“Islamism”) to describe very different phenomena or attaching various labels to similar instances of violence – both practices not only lead to conceptual blurring and polemisation, but have actual consequences.

Why we should care: Islam ≠ “Islamism”

The first discursive pitfall in the debate is the equation of Islam with danger and violence. In the laicist French republic, this becomes particularly obvious: While calling Islam a religion “in crisis all over the word”, Macron called for the creation of an “Enlightened Islam” that would be in line with its republican principles. Long-term observers of Islam and Islamism recently diagnosed that European societies no longer have a grasp of religiosity, evoking a decade-old debate that points to the instrumental role of the Muslim “Other” in creating and upholding Western self-representations as secular, democratic, and modern. It is not rare to find that French authorities already perceive religious practices, such as praying five times a day, consuming halal (or Kosher) food, and veiling or clothing in a specific way as a danger to the fundamental bases of its democracy. Muslim communities and their every-day religious practices are perceived as a threat – they become securitised.

The media play its role in this, too. There is a severe bias in media reporting on terrorism, with acts committed by Muslim perpetrators receiving up to five times more coverage than other terrorist attacks. This is contrasted by the trend in actual numbers, with far-right terrorism being on the rise in the West, in some years even outnumbering jihadist terrorism in terms of both occurrence and death toll. These trends are even more worrisome given that, in official statistics, many acts of violence do not appear as far-right terrorism, but as hate crime, and thus do not feed into these numbers. At the same time, catalysed by the attacks of 9/11, Western media regularly link Muslims and Islam with violence and terrorism. In sum, this creates two highly problematic equations: Terrorism is “Islamist” and Muslims are dangerous.

Such patterns in media representations may contribute to the spread and legitimation of Islamophobic attitudes and behaviour; harassment and violent attacks against Muslims are on the rise. This may result in further societal polarisation and increased violence-counter-violence dynamics. In the aftermath of the terrorist events in France, for instance, two veiled women were stabbed, and two Jordanian siblings beaten.

In need of more differentiation: “Islamism” ≠ terrorism

Acknowledging that Islam and “Islamism” should be kept apart is an insight that underlies more critical media interventions and self-reflected statements by politicians – both occur regularly, in spite of the trends and biases described above. But it is rare to find public debates engaging with the distinction of “Islamism’s” many faces. To be sure, the academic debate that revolves around this contested term, as well as its conceptual neighbours (such as “political Islam”) and further specifications (“radical”, “moderate”, “militant”), is controversial and complex. But some basic distinctions should inform a public debate that aims at avoiding stereotypes and forms the basis for reasonable political decisions.

Islamism in the broad sense refers to ideologies and activities that claim a more important role for Islam in social, political, economic and cultural realms. Islamist actors are not necessarily political, but may, for instance, be active as charity organisations. In a narrower understanding, “Islamists” are those groups that emerged from the social movements of the early twentieth century which opposed colonial rule and mobilised Islam as a source of political and social order. While many of these groups used to have a revolutionary agenda, which included the resort to violent means, they later renounced violence, and formed political parties with the aim to become a part of their respective political system. Many gave up the idea of an Islamic state, while others have continued to work for the bottom-up Islamisation of society and the state. Among such Islamists are parties like Tunisian Ennahda or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Most importantly, Salafi-jihadism should be kept apart from other forms of both Islamism and Salafism. The latter’s core claim is to go back to the “fundamentals” of Islam (the Quran, the Sunna, the Prophet and his followers), rejecting modern evolvement within, and the interpretation of Islamic thought. The jihadist strand resorts to violent means and rejects the nation state and the existing international order – which is true only for a small portion of the Salafist spectrum. And it is the Salafi-jihadist ideology which is behind the attacks committed in Europe – at least in those cases where it could be established that religious motives played a part.

The classification of recent terrorist attacks as “Islamist” by politicians and the media is also problematic because it suggests they have a somewhat organised nature – which is precisely not the case. They are “examples of leaderless, autonomous jihad”. This was different before 2015, when friendship and family networks were behind most attacks. However, since the attack in Nice in July 2016, terrorists seem to act as “lone wolves”, without receiving any training in a foreign jihad, nor having any concrete links to organisations such as ISIS.

(Trans-)national labelling – trans- and international consequences

What is labelled “Islamist” in public discourse thus covers an extremely diverse spectrum of ideologies, means and goals, and actors and forms of organisation. The label does not differentiate whether an organisation is violent or not, whether it operates transnationally or not, whether it acts as part of a government, party or not. Apart from some orientation toward Islamic principles – which, on a side note, are highly contested among those actors –, they do not have much in common. Differentiating labels is not merely an academic exercise. What we call a certain phenomenon, group, or activity has consequences for the way we treat them. The umbrella of “Islamism” creates a space for questionable forms of inter- and transnational cooperation, while precluding others.

An example for the former is France’s declaration of a “war against jihadist terrorism that threatens the entire world” after the terrorist attacks in Paris in late 2015 and its subsequent attempts to deepen European counter-terrorism cooperation. Even though other EU countries have not yet adopted the “war on terrorism” rhetoric, their willingness to step up military engagements (in various contexts and world regions) so as to facilitate or directly support French counter-terrorism operations demonstrates the debordering effects that the creation of a unified, yet dispersed, invisible, yet omnipresent terrorist threat can have – both in terms what to name it and, as a consequence, of where and how to fight it. This includes places like Syria and Iraq, but also the Sahel, particularly Mali. In the context of recent attacks in Europe, the French Minister of the Interior further widened and blurred this enemy image, stating that France was at war with an external and internal enemy : “Islamist ideology”.

A lack of differentiation may also preclude cooperation. As the “Islamist” label is, on the one hand, associated with terrorism and violence and, on the other hand, used for very diverse groups, all of them are a priori met with suspicion and distrust. The Tunisian Ennahda, for instance, has struggled to create a new self-image in order to meet European standards of recognition since its re-entrance on the political scene, but was not always successful. The “Islamist” label can thus become a severe obstacle for those who seek to cooperate with Western actors.

The securitisation of “Islamism”, Islam and Muslims is prone to provoking more violence, discrimination, and polarisation, within societies and transnationally. This makes it all the more important to get our vocabulary straight – as academics, journalists, and politicians.

This Article has also been published as part of the GNET Blog series.

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. / Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group „Terrorism“. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region.
Regine Schwab

Regine Schwab

Regine Schwab ist wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin im Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik" und Mitglied der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Zu ihren Forschungsinteressen gehören Syrien und der Nahe Osten, Rebellengruppen und politische Gewalt. / Regine Schwab is postdoc at PRIF’s research department „Transnational Politics“ and member of the research group „Terrorism“. Her research interests are, inter alia, Syria and the Middle East, violent Islamist groups and political violence.
Clara-Auguste Süß

Clara-Auguste Süß

Clara-Auguste Süß ist Doktorandin im Programmbereich „Innerstaatliche Konflikte“ und Mitglied der Forschungsgruppe „Radikalisierung“ an der HSFK. In ihrer Forschung beschäftigt sie sich mit islamistischer Radikalisierung, politischen Transformationsprozessen und Marginalisierung in Tunesien. / Clara-Auguste Süß is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIF‘s research department "Intrastate Conflict" and member of the research group “Radicalization”. Her research focusses on Islamist radicalization processes as well as political transformation and marginalization in Tunisia.

Hanna Pfeifer

Hanna Pfeifer ist Professorin für Politikwissenschaft mit dem Schwerpunkt Radikalisierungs- und Gewaltforschung in Kooperation mit der Goethe-Universität Frankfurt und Leiterin der Forschungsgruppe „Terrorismus“ an der HSFK. Sie forscht u.a. zu staatlichen und nicht-staatlichen Gewaltformen und –akteuren in der MENA-Region. / Hanna Pfeifer is Professor of Political Science with a Focus on Radicalisation and Violence Research at PRIF and Goethe University Frankfurt, as well as head of PRIF’s research group „Terrorism“. Her research interests include, inter alia, state and non-state violence and actors in the MENA region.

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