My guess is: it will effectively apply to no one. Although “Islamist” has been redefined to make it sound as if sharia advocates are moderates, the easily-unearthed associations of political sharia advocates with violent or Bolshevik-pattern radicals will tar all Islamists with the same brush – which, frankly, is ground truth anyway. But since it is inconvenient truth, A.P. writers won’t be able to find a use for “Islamist.”
Why we need the term “Islamist”
And that is a real problem. It’s not a problem because the distinction between political sharia advocates and violent cadre is strategically important; it’s a problem because distinguishing between radicalized/politicized advocacy groups and the non-radicalized/politicized mass of Muslims is important.
There are still millions of Muslims throughout the world who are not political advocates of sharia. This doesn’t mean that such people don’t have a hazy vision of there someday being a sharia caliphate; many of them probably have that vision. But they are no more energized to go out with heat-seeking missiles (or lawyers) and “immanentize the eschaton” than are Christians who foresee the day when Jesus will come again, or Jews who believe that they are still waiting for the Messiah.
There must remain a political space in which the non-radicalized can continue to be non-radicalized. The West is uniquely equipped to provide it, and it is in both our interests – the West’s and the non-radicalized Muslim world’s – that we do so. Modern Muslims have lived peacefully in the West for decades, because most of them have not been “Islamists”: advocates of reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Islamist leaders do not acknowledge the distinction between themselves and the non-radicalized Muslim citizens of Western nations – but the Western nations must. It is in our best interest not only to acknowledge it but to ensure that it is a basis for policy.
The broader basis for a winning Western approach
In my view, the use of the “Islamist” distinction, while it is important, should not be the main focus of Western dialogue on this matter. What must be most important to us is to enforce traditional Western beliefs about freedom, tolerance, the rule of law and the underpinnings of civilization. This doesn’t mean forcing them on others; it means protecting them within our borders, advocating them in international and cross-cultural discourse, and privileging them, alongside other considerations, in our decisions about foreign relations and trade.
Western freedom, including freedom of intellectual inquiry, freedom of speech, and freedom of public advocacy, has never been the norm around the world. It always requires commitment and positive protection, because it is always under attack. Remembering that fact is essential in considering our relations with the Islamic world, so that we will not get our feelings hurt or give in to fearful, unwary surprise when there is push-back against our level of freedom.
America’s Founders and our British forebears, believed that men have a natural right to these freedoms. They also believed that when this right is honored and protected, the freedom that results brings an unparalleled payoff in social goods. People are at their best when their freedoms are protected. They live in peace with their neighbors; they have a hopeful view of the future; they produce, trade, invent, enjoy, and give with unequaled fervor and success; and they exercise more tolerance than they do under more restrictive social and governmental organizations. The Founders did not prize rights and freedoms merely as negative injunctions against the overuse of state power. They prized them because of their unique positive results.
If we do not find in ourselves the same belief, we will lose our freedoms. We must believe in them, to such an extent that we advocate, enforce, and defend them even when some claim that they are offensive or racist.
We must have the confidence to affirm – and act as if – our freedoms are not offensive or racist. We must do this without caveat or exception. This means, for example, that it is not offensive or racist for the prevailing society to enforce safety for women walking the city streets unveiled, regardless of who is a majority in the neighborhood; nor to enforce safety for gays coming out of bars at night; or for Jews attending school (see here for a general summary of increasing attacks on Jews in Europe); or for Christians mounting a public protest; or for cartoonists who depict Mohammed in print.