Islam and Islamism

The following is a review of an excellent article which pretty-well describes  my approach to the  core problem in the Middle East. It is not the Palestinian problem. It is the struggle between Muslim anti-islamists and Muslim Islamists. The review should appear in the next edition of the on-line periodical American Diplomacy

Islam and Islamism

By Salim Mansur. Associate professor of Political Science at Western University at Ontario, Canada.

Reviewed by Norvell DeAtkine


 “Islam, a religion, cannot be turned into a handmaiden of politics; when this occurs, Islam is turned into Islamism. Its defining characteristic is its intolerance of others, including Muslims, and glorification of violence against all who disagree. The conflict inside the Muslim world might be characterized as one between tyranny and freedom, even if that tyranny is packaged in God’s name. The strategically right thing to do is provide moral and material assistance to Muslims struggling against Islamists.”


This particularly illuminating and informative paragraph is the thrust of one of the most useful of the volumes of recent articles and tomes written on the subject of Islam and Islamism.

He engages the delicate subject of Islam versus Islamism forthrightly and in non –academic language.  Unfortunately it is often a subject buried in political affectation and posturing. On one side there are those, unfortunately many well placed in academia and government, who write blithely of the “war on Islam” as the core of our problems in the Middle East, believing that terrorism is simply a reaction to U.S. intervention in the Middle East.  On the other side are those who cannot, or do not try to, distinguish between Islam the religion and Islamism, a political ideology, which Mansur described as “fascistic and totalitarian in impulse and language.”

 As the author notes much of the confusion arises from the fact that Islamists insist that Islamism is Islam.  The original prototype of this combination was Saudi Arabia, a country created by a marriage of a Bedouin tribe and the Wahhabi sect. Mansur termed

 it as a “marginal, extremist, sectarian, even vulgar movement…” A more modern example of this extremist theocracy, the author asserted, is Iran.

The author sees the current conflict as a contest between Islamists and anti-Islamists, between theocrats and anti-theocrats. He views the Islamic struggle as analogous to the struggle within Christendom’s bloody transition from the inquisition to the era of the cold war.  He posits that this historical struggle should be recalled in analyzing the present day conflict within Islam.  It promises to be as long as the 500 year old conflict within the Christian world and just as violent.

Much of the article focuses on the West’s reaction to the threat of Islamism and he points out that if, as some claim, that the threat is Islam, and that Islamism and Islam are interchangeable, then it would mean that a monolithic Islam and the West are indeed at war, and that the Islamic world and the Western world are immutably hostile entities.  Midst this conflict, there is no room for anti-Islamist Muslims, who can only be termed apostates and heretics, and Jihadism is the only face of Islam that the West should see and confront.

As the author points out, if Islam and Islamism are interchangeable, then why are so many Muslims in a conservative society like Egypt so opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood rule?  He could have added Syria as an example of this as well.   Despite the unpopularity of the Assad’s regime, it is apparent that the population has not been won over to the idea of a Syrian Islamist Emirate.  It is an extension of the struggle within Islam.

A question here is why so many Western academics continue to promote the Muslim Brotherhood, the primary origin of modern Islamism, as “moderates” when so many Muslims who live with them, reject them and their ideology?

 In examining the general Western view of Islam, Mansur surfaces a sore point that contributes to many of the misconceptions of the religion.  The Sharia is often viewed as immutable and inalterably regressive within the Western and largely secular world. Many see it as the primary obstacle to Islamic integration into a more modern society.  Mansur reminds his readers that the Sharia is a “human construct, “ based not just the Qu’ran, but also many other sources of Islamic doctrine. There is no universal Sharia that applies to all Muslims. As Mansur wrote, “Islam, a religion, cannot therefore be tuned into a handmaiden of politics, or squeezed into a political ideology, or reduced to the restrictions of the Sharia; when this occurs, Islam is turned into Islamism.”

In characterizing the intra-Islam struggle as one between tyranny and freedom, he maintains that the West must keep faith with Muslim anti-Islamists by providing support and encouragement.  First and foremost in this requirement of the West is to understand who their enemies and friends are, and in so doing distinguish between Islamism and Islam.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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