The silhouette of a mosque is in front of a yellow sunset and black mountain range. Islam - Islamism - Muslim -Islamophobia

Islam vs. Islamism: Is There a Difference?

Much of my writing so far has centered around some aspect of religion, namely Islam or Islamism. Because the two are frequently conflated, I would like to clarify my approach to Islam, Islamism, and Islamophobia.

[Before I begin: I have great respect for Muslims. I find the dictates of Islam that center a Muslim’s life around God on a daily basis are extraordinary. The tenacity of fasting during the day for an entire month once a year is astounding to me, and I believe the conviction and zeal of Muslims put Christians to shame.]

To start off, what is Islam? Islam is one of the major monotheistic world religions begun by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who was the last in a long line of prophets including Noah, Abraham, David, and Jesus, in the 7th Century AD. In the Quran, the Prophet (PBUH) recorded divine revelations he received about the character of Allah/God, how Muslims should worship him, and how they should live. Spanning many countries and cultures, Islam is extremely diverse and comprised of many sects that differ in their interpretation and application of the Quran, other religious texts, and Islamic jurisprudence, or sharia law.

Islamism is very distinct. I turn to the Britannica dictionary for a definition, the entry for which is worth quoting in length:

“Islamism, also called political Islam, is a broad set of political ideologies that utilize and draw inspiration from Islamic symbols and traditions in pursuit of a sociopolitical objective. The aims and objectives of these movements vary widely, as do their interpretations of Islamic tradition and practice, and, as such, the precise scope and definition of the term remain debated. Among the many disparate groups considered Islamist are reformist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood as well as transnational jihadist movements such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL; also called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]).”

It continues:

“The adjective Islamist, denoting someone or something in pursuit of a sociopolitical objective using the symbols and traditions of Islam, is distinguished from the term Islamic, which refers directly to aspects of Islam as a religion.”

As I understand it, Islamism refers to the ideology and movement that seeks to establish and enforce political Islam or Islamic sharia law as obligatory on all citizens of a nation, regardless of their own religion. Depending on the sect, sharia law harshly punishes or prohibits apostasy or conversion away from Islam, prescribes family laws that allow marriage for children as soon as puberty is reached and for physical punishment of wives, and limits speech regarding Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Quran.

Islamism, again depending on the particular sect’s interpretation of sharia law, can itself restrict and persecute other sects of Islam. One example would be Islamic State — Khorasan targeting Shia mosques in Afghanistan with suicide bombers.

On to the issue of Islamophobia. Typically, Islamophobia refers to racism, discrimination, hate speech, or violent attacks against Muslims and can be used to support or implement discriminatory laws against Muslims.

Along with all forms of racism and targeted hatred of a religion, hate speech, discrimination, violent attacks, discriminatory policies against Muslims are evil and intolerable and must be combatted.

But some explanations of Islamophobia, such as provided by the Bridge Initiative from Georgetown University, also include “traditional and social media and political discourse where Muslims are portrayed as violent, misogynist, and untrustworthy,” which somewhat conflicts with the following, also pulled from their website: “Islamophobia does not include the rational criticism of Islam. However, it is Islamophobic for criticism of Islam to be generated for the sole purpose of advocating social and political measures that discriminate against and violate the rights of Muslims.”

Any ideology that is causing hatred, discrimination, racism, political oppression, or violent attacks against other human beings should be questioned and critiqued. This includes alt-right supremacism, antisemitism, fascism or religious nationalism of any strand, and Islamist groups that target other Muslims and other religions.

But it should not be considered discrimination against Christians to condemn a “Biblical” justification for slavery or to critique theological views of patriarchy that have contributed to a lack of justice for sex abuse survivors in the church.

Likewise, reporting on, investigating, and evaluating religious extremism in the form of Islamism, the funding sources of violent sects, or the treatment of women under Islamists such as the Taliban or the Islamic State should not equate to hatred of or racism against Muslims.

Much smarter thinkers than I have filled volumes about the major topics I have touched on here. However, I hope that any who are curious about my writing will take the time to thoughtfully engage with this summary. 

I welcome all cordial and civil feedback, discussion, and critique but will not tolerate any hate speech against Islam in response.

Photo by Ali Arif Soydaş on Unsplash.