By Barry Rubin
Political leaders and government officials are paid for trying to avoid, mitigate, or manage damage to their countries. Experts and journalists are supposed to warn about them and explain the dangers. This isn’t happening. Instead, language is being used to define threats down to the minimum by speaking of revolutionary, anti-American, antisemitic forces quite willing to use terrorism when it suits them into moderates.
The latest step toward making it impossible to understand the world is a decision of the Associated Press, the world’s biggest source of news for English-language mass media. AP’s new step, however, does not launder all Islamism nor does it outlaw the word “Islamism.”
We should remember, however, that use of this word–the description of the world’s most important revolutionary movement today–is already outlawed not only for U.S. government officials in public but also in their internal writing.) In AP’s case, you can still use the word Islamism but not in connection with saying that this is intrinsically a bad, extremist or dangerous thing. So it becomes a broad label like liberal, conservative, social democratic, Christian democratic, etc. In other words, Islamism is defined not as a radical threat but as a full-spectrum movement.
What the AP’s decision means is a far more limited step. It is defining Islamism as a not necessarily militant, radical, or threatening movement. This is significant though not as bad as the accusation being made that it has gone much further. What has happened is that the AP has adopted a somewhat more moderate version of Obama policy that there are good Islamists and bad Islamists.
According to the new AP stylebook:
“An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists. Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.”
I guess if you can get elected to office somewhere that means you can’t be a militant, extremist, or radical. Now this does reflect a basic principle of mainstream thinking in the United States: popularity is inversely proportionate to extremism. To win elections you must move to the center. Without getting into how this applies to U.S. politics, that is usually but by no means always true in democratic countries. In the Arabic-speaking Middle East, the truth has been the exact opposite for decades: radicalism wins out. When there are no attractive, real solutions available, demagoguery almost always triumphs.
There are three subtle points about the AP’s decision here that might be easily missed.
First, the AP has taken a political stance of defining the Muslim Brotherhood leadership as “mainstream politicians.” Who else might be a mainstream politician among Islamists? The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia, where the organization has captured political positions through elections? Or perhaps the Brotherhood cadre of Hamas or in Syria? Maybe it refers to Hizballah’s politicians who now run Lebanon? Well, the best job of camouflage has come from Turkey but then that government–precisely because it seems moderate–has rarely been properly branded as Islamist.
Now it is quite true that not all Islamist movements favor violent or terrorist tactics, at least at this moment. Yet that is not what the Stylebook dictates. It would be absolutely reasonable to say that the word Islamist should not be a synonym for terrorist.
Note the wording about,”reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.” No. An Islamist is not someone who wants to do that anymore than a democratic socialist or a liberal is a Communist. If you want to make society a bit more Islamic, you’re not an Islamist. The leaders of Iraq or the Palestinian Authority, for example, are not called Islamists.
The Islamist is a revolutionary who wants to reorder government and society in accordance with the laws—all or almost all of them—prescribed by Islam as they interpret it, that is in a militant, extremist, and radical manner. That might sound like a detail but it is well known in the Muslim-majority world that there is a huge difference between using Islam as a basis for law and as the basis for law. By the AP’s new definition, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Fatah regime in the Palestinian Authority, and the Assad regime in Syria—all considered to be relatively secular—are Islamist.
Second, this dictates the idea of “moderate Islamists” is valid. Would one say “moderate Communists,” or “moderate fascists?”
Consider the four synonyms for which Islamism is being outlawed:
–Fighters. This is the most reasonable idea since it links up to the point that not all Islamists (currently) follow the path of armed struggle. I can accept that.
–Militant. Well, yes of course they are militants. They seek revolutionary transformations of their societies. They believe they are following the word of Allah and thus cannot compromise on any major principles. Of course, they are militant, despite any tactical mirages they spin forth. Notice that militant is confined to al-Qaida, Hizbollah, and the Taliban style groups. Yet a militant can easily be someone who isn’t using violence. They are, however, seeking the fundamental transformation of their societies and nothing less is acceptable.
–Extremist. Is someone who wants to impose their interpretation of Sharia on the entire society, and a very extremist interpretation of Sharia at that, an extremist? In that sentence I am not getting into the argument of whether Sharia must innately be extremist, but that’s certainly true for the Islamists’ version. (If you have any doubt of that ask a genuinely non-Islamist Muslim.)
Remember that getting a lot of votes does not make someone moderate. If you want to say that radical Islamists are within the mainstream of their own societies, that’s fine but the implication then is that the societies themselves are militant, extremist, and radical. AP’s decision, reflecting a mistaken Western view today, is that anyone who is popular cannot be radical.
Third, this stance confuses radicalism/extremism/militancy with actual armed struggle. If you have already seized state power you don’t need to wage armed struggle any more. Such activities are now called state repression.
Fourth, the reclassification of Islamism is integrally related to the misrepresentation of Islamist ideology and goals. For example, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including those in official positions, daily evince bloodthirsty antisemitism including the explicit goal of genocide against Jews in general and wiping Israel off the map. Yet these people are now to be seen as “mainstream politicians” who are not radical, militant, or extremist?
When I used the term “revolutionary Islamism” or “radical Islamism” I sought to emphasize the inherent nature of the movement, not to suggest that there was also a separate moderate Islamism. Otherwise you get into the ridiculous game of speaking about the “armed” wing or “political” wing of Hamas or Hizballah or Fatah. There is no such real distinction, only a division of labor.
What AP is doing is a smokescreen to play the game of a fictional “moderate Islamism” whose “mainstream politicians” constitute just another non-radical, non-militant, non-extremist movement that just happens to believe women are chattel, Christians have no real rights, Jews are to be wiped out, and America is to be destroyed.
Thus, “Islamism” is not really a threat so what does it matter if it takes over more countries?
But okay I accept the AP challenge. When you talk about the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar parties and politicians, will you dare to label them as radical, extremist, or militant Islamists? That is allowed by your new Stylebook. But will you do it?
And when the Muslim Brotherhood destroys all but the thinnest semblance of democratic practices in Egypt or when it presides over ethnic-religious massacres in Syria will AP alter its Stylebook?
In its first test, the Boston terror attack, the AP did a lot better than some, including its competitor Reuters. One of its articles explained:
“Evidence mounted that Tsarnaev had embraced a radical, anti-American strain of Islam. Family members blamed the influence of a Muslim convert, known only to the family as Misha, for steering him toward a strict type of Islam [emphases added].” I have no problem with these formulations, though they used the word Islam (a religion) rather than Islamism (a political doctrine).
Not all Islam is radical and anti-American, though all too much of it is today. But, yes, all of Islamism is radical and anti-American.
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——————– Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His next book, Nazis, Islamists and the Making of the Modern Middle East, written with Wolfgang G. Schwanitz, will be published by Yale University Press in January 2014. His latest book is Israel: An Introduction, also published by Yale. Thirteen of his books can be read and downloaded for free at the website of the GLORIA Center including The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict, The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East and The Truth About Syria. His blog is Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.