In the wake of the Brussels attacks, political pundits around the world have engaged in yet another round of discussion about the compatibility of Islam and the Western world. One of the new terms out of this latest process is “Reform Muslim,” which, like the term “moderate Muslim,” is an invention, offensive to the vast majority of Muslims who are neither reactionary, conservative, nor incapable of living among others.
“Reform Muslim” emerged in a column by Maajid Nawaz, head of the counter-extremism think tank Quilliam and a self-styled Muslim Liberal who defines Reformists as the opposites of “the ideology of Islamism.”
“Islamism,” or the use of Islam as a means of political mobilization, means many things to many people. Tunisia’s Islamists, who readily share power in a progressive, democratic society, certainly don’t have very much in common with the thugs in ISIS. And to pin Islamism as the root of religiously-inspired terrorism or violence misses the point entirely.
The ideology of Islamism originally emerged as a response to Western imperialism, not as a call to start a holy war or return to literalist interpretations of the Quran. As Nikki Keddie, biographer of Islamism’s founder, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, wrote:
“First of all, it exalted reason above literalist revelation and had always been used to attack the pretensions of the religious classes to the truest knowledge. Second, it argued for a nonliteral interpretation of those parts of revelation and tradition that seemed least rational. This system of interpretation, used by Muslim philosophers to advocate Aristotelian rationalism, could equally be used to try to show that the Koran and Muslim Traditions actually enjoined modern parliaments, and powerful armies; and Afghani and many of his followers did argue this way.”
Al-Afghani, having spent most of his productive years in Egypt as the British and French consolidated their control over the country, was popular among Egyptian intellectuals. Today, there’s a noted split between mostly-secular intellectuals and religious Islamists in the Middle East.
Like many of the differences between East and West, Islamism does not fit into the typical right-left, conservative-liberal divide that informs Western political ideology. Some elements of classic Islamism could be categorized as liberal, such as its appeals to reason in religious study. In other ways it’s more conservative: it relies on religion as a source of political legitimacy, for example. But as an early anti-colonial political movement, the Islamism of the late 19th century was far more progressive than the mischaracterized “Islamism” of today.
Meanwhile, the violent Quranic fetishization of ISIS and others, who rely upon a literalist interpretation of holy texts to brainwash their followers into committing acts of terrorism, was specifically disavowed by Islamism’s founder.
So when pundits tell Muslims that they “must reject the ideology of Islamism” and that every Muslim who denounces Islamism is necessarily then a “Reform” — or “reformed” — Muslim, our terms have lost all meaning. If Islamism is a millenarian belief that violence and murdering innocents will bring about the end times (it’s not), there are many names for it, courtesy of a burgeoning Islamophobia industry: Islamic fundamentalism, religious extremism, “radical Islamic terrorism.” The list goes on.
Using the word Islamism because it’s a catch all, like the word “terrorism,” is intellectually lazy. As The New Republic’s Nathan Lean wrote in his profile of Nawaz, “He has found in [his readers] an opportunity to expand his platform, and they, in him, a veneer that deflects accusations of Islamophobia and Western triumphalism by fixating not on Islam per se but on the alleged threat posed by its foreign ‘ism’ affix: Islamism.”
Nawaz should know that Islam has been the subject of reform and intense theological debate for centuries. Al-Afghani was just one in a long line of reformers. Nor does Nawaz have the authority to proclaim the existence of a single “Reformist Islam.” First, because there is no centralized Islamic religious authority that could create “Reformists” out of thin air, but also because Islam has changed over time without splintering into stratified sects of reformists, orthodoxes, and conservatives — labels borrowed from other religions in an attempt to relativize the intellectual and theological debates taking place within the Muslim world.
Again, none of this is new: Theological debates raged in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age, when Mu’tazilites and Ash’arites clashed over the same ideas many Muslims wrestle with today. Mu’tazilites believed that the era on new interpretation of the Quran was over, while Ash’arites believed that the Quran needed constant reinterpretation to meet the needs of the current age. And while Mu’tazilites appear to have won that debate, given the increasing prominence of literalist interpretations of Islamic texts, even they valued human reason, which they believed was central to comprehending monotheism and morality in Islam.
Islamism was just one of many reformist movements in the Muslim world. Depicting Islamism, and all of the theological and political diversity found on the Islamist spectrum, as one monolithic, reactionary movement is intellectually dishonest and historically false.