When it comes to Islam, terminologies can be baffling and hotly disputed. Muslims, Islam, Islamism, and radicalism can all be confusing labels. But with the escalating waves of terror flowing around the globe, it is paramount to demystify the fog of terms and highlight a wide segment of Muslims that nowadays are largely ignored amidst the frenzy of both terrorism and Islamophobia. Who are non-Islamist Muslims?
Islam is a religion that is followed by millions of people from various countries and races who identify as Muslims. Non-Islamists are a diverse grand collection of Muslims, with various sects and beliefs that believe in Islam as a faith, and the Prophet Mohamed as a messenger from God. They can be Orthodox Muslims (Sunni or Shia), or heterodox sects such as Ahmadi or Ismaili. They have lived in areas for generations or in many diaspora communities. What unites them all is their deep desire to fit into their respective societies, regardless of their agreement or disagreement with the ruling political systems. They never resort to violence, and if they do, it would be because of other political beliefs (Communism, anarchism, etc.), and not because of their religion.
Egyptian victim of the Paris attacks (November 2015)
In comparison, Islamists, who are a subsection of Muslims, have a religiously-based political agenda. They believe Islam is not just a religion, but also a system of governance dictated by Islamic laws. There is endless literature and study papers about Islamism, politics and governance. Importantly, however, one must consider how Islamists express themselves and aspire to achieve their goals. While some believe in a peaceful struggle to fulfill their dreams of dominance, others advocate and resort to violence and terrorism. Regardless of their differences, most Islamists congregate in groups, and are active among their communities gathering recruits and expanding their followers. They are usually savvy with social media, and work to develop links with certain outlets in mainstream media. In short, they are louder and more dynamic than non-Islamists.
In their quest for dominance, Islamists deliberately target non-Islamist Muslims by labeling them with an array of labels that have negative connotations. During the Arab awakening, non-Islamists were labeled as “seculars” or “liberals,” and notably had the label “Muslim” left out of a description. Despite the fact that most Brotherhood opponents are practicing Muslims who embrace Islam as a faith, but they reject the heavy-handed involvement of religion within a state. Those having this viewpoint were thus given labels that robbed them of their religious identity and identified them only by their political affiliation.
Furthermore, the title “Muslim,” not “Islamist” is now preferably used among many sophisticated Islamists. In a published piece by The Brookings Institution, one of Washington’s oldest think tanks for part of its new Rethinking Political Islam project, Sayida Ounissi argues that Muslim-Democrat is the most accurate term to describe a group such as Tunisia’s Ennahda. This rebranding is troubling to say the least; as again, it gives the impression that their opponents are somehow less Muslim. It is also ironic to see how Islamists are not happy with the term “Islamism,” even after having proudly embraced it for decades.
In addition, Islamists act aggressively against those who openly challenge any of their ideological projects, or political Islam. In a published piece in Vox, the author Wardah Khalid, self-described as an expert on Islam in America, lumped together ex-Muslims such as Hirsi Ali, with practicing Muslims, such as writers Asra Nomani and Zuhdi Jassar. She labeled all as “Anti-Islam Muslims.” Khalid’s view is not a fringe perspective, and rather it is the prevailing view within the Islamist crowd, who consider themselves as the true representatives of the faith. They are keen to produce devious labels for those who challenge their ideology and advocate reform. Any such action is called “anti-Islam.”
Non-Islamist reformers face rejection, not only by Islamists, but also by traditional Islamic bodies and supposedly non-Islamist regimes. The rise of legal cases of blasphemy in Egypt is part of this glaring reality. For his bold reformist views, preacher and researcher Islam al-Beheiry was imprisoned for “insulting Islam.” The same hazy accusation was used against writer Fatima Naoot for daring to criticize the slaughter of animals at a Muslim festival. A Cairo court sentenced her to three-year jail sentence for contempt of religion. Poet, Ahmed Naji, was jailed for writing what was described as a “sexually explicit novel that “hurts public morals.”
Interestingly, Al-Azhar ___ considered as the highest authority of Sunni Islamic doctrine, is infested by various elements of Islamism within its ranks, which hinder its ability to update or reform Islamic thoughts. While rejecting non-state political Islamist actors such as the Muslim Brotherhood, this hostility is solely based on Al-Azhar’s desire to solidify its authority as “ the guardian of faith,” in the face of any competitive entities. Al-Azhar, however, is not ready to re-visit centuries-old radical interpretation of Islamic thoughts, and equally see reformists as a threat to its authority. Anti-Brotherhood President Sisi seems unwilling or unable to challenge Al-Azhar and press for serious reforms.
While non-Islamists are treated with indifference; even hostility, Islamism, ironically, is handled with much more empathy in some corners of the Western world. In a piece published in U.S. News, Alexander Lederman, citing some pro-Islamism “experts,” argues that radical beliefs alone are not enough to make an organization a terrorist threat. This opinion is valid if those groups with radical beliefs do not provide ideological support to radical terrorist groups. However, terror groups like ISIS use Islamism as an ideology and as a backbone for its terror manifestos. Kathy Gilsinan took a step further and wondered, “Could ISIS exists without Islam?” She was trying, albeit indirectly, to dissociate Islamism as an ideology from terrorism and global Jihadi groups. Non-Islamists, on the other hand, are not getting this sympathetic treatment. Ex-Islamist Maajid Nawaz, Co-Founder and Chairman of Quilliam, wrote about the patronizing character assassination against him, in what he described as the British Left’s hypocritical embrace of Islamism.
The reasons behind this enigmatic relationship between political Islamists and some progressive liberals in the West are two fold. First, the rise of Far-right groups in Europe, together with the increasingly collective anti-Islam rhetoric in America, have provided both camps with a common enemy. Second, there is a misguided desire among Western policymakers to search for community representatives, which ultimately leads them to identify Islamists as more “authentically” Muslims than those “other Muslims.”
This romanticism of political Islam, however, plays into the hand of anti-Islam bigots, and not the opposite. The far right actually believed the progressive liberal left’s portrayal of political Islam as the “authentic version of Islam,” and then spiced it up with more hatred and venom to serve their own agenda.
Muslim shopkeeper stabbed to death by another Muslim after posting on Facebook of love for Christians. ( Glasgow, UK, March 2016)
It is difficult, painful, and anguishing to fathom the endless onslaught against non-Islamist Muslims in an increasingly polarized and divided world. In addition to their ongoing struggling to maintain their freedom and liberty in their native countries, they are terrorized by radical Islamists, while also being attacked by non-radical Islamists. Meanwhile, they are dismissed by progressive liberals of the West, and demonized by the radical right.
There is a great deal of confusion among Muslims about their religious identity, but it is also promising to see many Muslims that have started to openly dissociate themselves from political Islam with all its confusing and often misleading shades and with its radical and less radical forms. Non-Islamists are a promising future for an Islam that can coexist peaceful with the rest of the world. They are the silent majority that can prevail against those who are trying to glorify the bankrupted ideology of Islamism. Non-Islamist Muslims have to believe in themselves and persevere in their quest for tolerance and progression.
“They never resort to violence, and if they do, it would be because of other political beliefs (Communism, anarchism, etc.), and not because of their religion.”
Was the Prophet Muhammad an Islamist, then? What about his companions who conquered the Persian empire and their successors who conquered every Christian land until the eventual fall of the Byzantines at the hands of the Ottomans? That is to say, the distinction between Islam and Islamism is an entirely modern one. The fact is every Muslim in premodern societies was an Islamist, including rationalists like Averroes and mystics like Rumi. That they all affirmed the centrality of shari’a in Islam is an indisputable historical fact, which is why phrases like “non-Islamist Muslims” never existed in premodern Islamic texts.
Many thanks for your comments. It i important to clarify few of your statements.
1- I am writing about the present state of Muslims; not the past. If you insist on bringing the past, then you are no different than ISIS who wants to resurrects the past. Reform Jews did not exist at the time of Moses, Martin Luthor did not exist at the time of Jesus, so why you want to deny the existence of Reform Muslims?
2- No the Prophet was not Islamist, but he was a leader of a community that was trying t survive amid hostility. Separating his political actions from religious teaching is the central belief of reformist Muslims.
3- You are clearly cherry picking Rumi’s words, which is truly sad!
fact: the most violence the “prophet” ever suffered was having intestines put on his back while praying
he later killed these men
he also was grabbed on the shoulder, he killed that man while he was unarmed later
fact: no muslims were killed by the quraysh in mecca
The Muslims were actually the first to resort to physical violence, when Sa’d bin Abu Waqqas picked up a camel’s jawbone and struck a local polytheist who was “rudely interrupting” his group of praying Muslims. “This was the first blood to be shed in Islam” (Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 166).
you can read all the myths disproved
the muslims (this in is the time of muhammad when he was leading them)
were not ‘trying to survive amid hostility’, they were the ones to initiate hostility and violence
that is a historical fact confirmed by authentic islamic sources
The link you supplied is Not *authentic* Islamic sources, but that is not the point. You insist on going to the past with the same mindset as radical Islamists while my pace is about the present and how many Non-Islamist Muslims think.
I am not a Muslim but have known many Muslims over the course of my life, all good, decent, kind people. They need to be defended. They need courage and support to take back their religion and their reputations. Thank you for writing this and educating me on the intricacies of the current situation.
Thank you for reading, and for your valuable feedback. I agree, that we Non-Islamist Muslims should be more vocal and stands for our values of freedom and tolerance.
Fascinating read, thank you.
Appreciate it. Thanks.
Reblogged this on Nick Robson's Blog.
Fantastic article. Please keep writing. Every word counts. Even God started with a blog …
Many thanks Burhan. Appreciate your support.
Perhaps a public march could be organised with non-Islamist Muslims holding signs saying things like “we prefer liberal secular democracy” & “hijab is not compulsory” & “it’s ok to criticise/satirise our religion” & “co-existence not dominance” etc. Just an idea. I support your “silent majority” whenever I hear them speak about the topics suggested above. Sadly too many aren’t. I hope this changes, soon.
Reblogged this on Mark Geoffrey Kirshner.
Your article is, as always, very clearly written and persuasive. I would hope that you are right. There are, however, two problems with it. First, there is big question mark hanging over your reasoning: if non-Islamist Muslims are such a huge majority everywhere, why there is no big political parties/social movements representing them?
The second problem is the actual beliefs of Muslim. According to Pew research http://www.pewforum.org/files/2013/04/worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-full-report.pdf , majorities in almost all Muslim countries believe in sharia as desired basis for laws of their countries. How would that square with modernity, with democratic political systems? Sharia does not allow for such systems, so how can you say that it is only Islamist Muslim who want religion extended into politics?
HI. Many thanks for your insightful feedback. It is the best comment I received so far.
First, regarding why there are no political parties r social movements representing non-Islamists? 1- Because of the lack of freedom and democracy in our part of the world that prevent these kind of movements to flourish. 2-Fear of assassination and attacks by Islamists who have already worked for years on building their power base.
Second, I looked at the methodology of the Pew research, and they did not specify how they pick their candidates in each country. I suspect they did the same as many Western groups, pick Islamists as true representative of Muslims. I cannot imagine the Pew researcher go to a sport club and ask Muslim women in swimming suits what they want, or to non-Hijabis in shopping malls, to men drinking beers in bars, smoke shish in coffee shops, or to artists in their art clubs..
This is the link to the Pew Research methodology http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-appc/ Basically, they interviewed people at home and they had national, more less representative samples. They certainly did not chose Islamists on purpose! You make a very common error of generalizing one’s experience: because lots of your friends think in the way similar to you, you assume that majority of people think also in the same way. That is usually not true – this is something that I had to learn to avoid during my sociological studies. I am afraid you are writing in your article about a group that is maybe 20-30% of Muslim population in Egypt (not in Afganistan!), with some 10-20% Islamists and the rest in-between: do not care about the political Islamist project but believe that sharia would create more “just” or “good” society (political system). Even in Western democracies thera are 20-30% groups (sometimes larger) that believe that “just but stron leader” is better than democracy. Your “just but strong leader” is probably a “just califf”. 🙂
Reblogged this on Ned Hamson's Second Line View of the News and commented:
I have a few simplistic models to understand political islam. let me know if that is right
Iran model (Shia’s) – similar to how communist china works. you can have as much democracy as you want as long as the Communist Party is the only party available & supreme decision making authority
Saudi model (Wahabbism) – similar to latin american revoultionaries such as Cuba/Venezuela where all the courts&laws have to be approved/made/judged by the communists/clergy
Pakistan model (Arab Spring or Theo-democracy) – this is what you have described in your article above where the religion thinks it is a way of life above government . maybe this is similar to how all social democracies such as India work. where you would have thought democracies would be capitalist instead all parties from right-to-left support varying degrees of socialist agenda & everybody is judged by these ideals instead of commitment to markets
did I understand correctly?
Nervana. I do not believe in any religion, too much blood has been spilled and virtually all religions have been twisted to serve people’s greed and craving for power, I believe, if there is a god, they will have the intelligence to see that I lead my life in such a way that ‘humanity’ must transcend belief and my will to do good. All that said, I have really struggled with the, seeming, lack of condemnation of various ‘terror attacks’, I do understand bitterness in the Middle East, regarding the West’s interference there. But people that live in our community have not done enough to separate themselves from these lunatics. However, I have read quite a few of your posts, now, and find them quite enlightening, you have helped me understand some of the issues the Muslim community have and it is refreshing that somebody has been able to put a very balanced light on the situation. Being an English, white, heterosexual male, I understand that it is difficult to speak about things you are passionate about without being stereotyped as a bigot, an imperialist or a racist. Things in our history that the people of today that can’t possibly understand, they don’t realise that there was no information highway and many bad things happened because of fear of the unknown. But, We are not those people and need to concentrate on today, we need to talk, read and listen. We need to strive to understand each other and find a common ground where we can live in harmony, we need to ally ourselves and shun or destroy those that refuse a path of peace and those that only seek to profit from the death and misery these wars cause. Your posts and balanced view have made me smile, they have made me believe that it is possible to find a way forward, but it all depends on everybody talkiing AND listening. Well done Nervana, keep it up!
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On ‘Non-Islamists are a diverse grand collection of Muslims, with various sects and beliefs that believe in Islam as a faith, and the Prophet Mohamed as a messenger from God.’. Am I correct in thinking these are peaceful people, not wanting any wars, violence or FGM?
If so, then this definition of non-Islamists is an oxymoron, because the Prophet Mohamed was known to be extremely violent, particularly against women and Christians, and if the Koran is read correctly by removing the abrogated parts (which most Westerners do not know), then his message is extremely violent.