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.