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A discussion on the conflict between the Islamist political ideology (Islamism) and Western Civilization

The following is a revised excerpt from my Master’s dissertation from 2015, entitled, ‘Terrorism or treason? A comparative case analysis of the Canadian and Australian response to the Islamist ideology’.

The distinction between Islamism as a political totalitarian ideology, and the Religion of Islam, is essential for understanding the West’s contemporary confrontation with Islamist terrorist groups. The significance of this distinction is supported by Ismail (2004) who describes that a ‘Muslim’ – one who adheres to the Religion of Islam – cannot be defined or boxed into a specific identity. Ismail (2004) distinguishes between political ‘Islamism’ and religious ‘Islam’ and argues that there are a multitude of Muslim political and religious ‘identities’ (p. 631). Recognizing the diversity of Muslims worldwide, ‘Islamism’ can refer to any number of political systems in predominantly Muslims nations such as, but not limited to, Indonesia (Merlyna 2011), Pakistan (Marsden 2008 & Vali 2004), and Turkey (Toprak 2005, Tugal 2002). However, taken more broadly, ‘Islamism’ and the Islamist political ideology can also refer to a totalitarian ideology in the same way as fascism and communism. According to Crowder et al. (2014), “The least contentious definition of Islamism is that of a ‘contemporary movement that conceives Islam as a political ideology’ – and thus the people who subscribe to this ideology are ‘Islamists’” (p. 120). Whereas Crowder et al. (2014) trace the roots of contemporary Islamists to events in the 1970s such as the oil crisis and the Iranian Revolution (p. 120), Tibi (2009) supports this by describing how the roots of contemporary Islamism begin with the Six Day War in 1967 (p. 136). Moreover, Tibi (2009) also recognizes the diversity within Islamism by defining it as a “general movement” where, “… Islamists are not always in agreement among themselves” (p. 137). According to Tibi (2009), “Islamism is a general movement that is characterised both by unity and by diversity. All varieties of this Islamist movement pursue the same religionised political agenda for establishing al-nizam all Islami, i.e. a shari’a-based Islamic order” (p. 120). Moreover, Tibi (2009) describes the underlying premise of Islamism whereby, “All Islamists also share the same worldview of a belief in the siyadat al-Islam (supremacy of Islam), based on a universal rabbaniyya (theocentrism) that has been politicised to the point where it has become a religionised modern internationalism” (p. 137). In other words, the objective of contemporary Islamists, in a general sense, is the establishment of their worldview for global world order.

Following a thorough review of Islamist doctrine, Mozaffari (2007) states that, “To Islamists, the existing world is both wrong and repressive. It is wrong because the existing world does not correspond to Islamic principles” (p. 23). Mozaffari (2007) explains that the natural conclusion for Islamists according to their ideology is the subjection of the world to their totalitarian ideology whereby terrorism becomes the Islamist’s preferred means to achieve their goal. According to Mozaffari (2007), “Terrorism, and diffusion of fear in the civil population, is therefore the instrument of choice in the hands of Islamist groups” (p. 24). Notably, the Islamist group ISIS is determined to spread their ideology through fear in order to intimidate Western governments into ceasing their military actions in the Middle East (MEMRI 2015). While Islamists may promote terrorist activities, their ideology is one which evidently means to subject their opponents to their doctrine. Mozafarri (2005) offers caution on the greater implications of this ideological struggle, “… the world today has no other choice but to continue to combat Islamism, just as the world of 1939 combated Nazism and Fascism” (p. 42). Therefore the Islamist political ideology, or Islamism, is something entirely different than ‘terrorism’ itself. Accordingly, Islamism is defined as a totalitarian political ideology akin to Nazism. Most importantly, however, in the context of this discussion, Islamism is defined as a totalitarian political ideology specific to its adherents and by no means applicable to all Muslims or to all of the adherents of the religions of Islam.

In a study of the relationship between ‘political religions’ and the global ‘terrorist threat’ following the events of 9/11, Cooper (2004) begins by making a distinction between “…the religion practiced by Muslims” and terrorist groups motivated by “… ‘militant Islam’ or ‘Islamism’” (p. 2). This view is supported by Tibi (2007) who argues that, “In contemporary Islamism – to be distinguished from Islam – one finds two features united: a totalitarian movement combined with a political religion” (p. 35). For the purpose of this discussion, the use of Islamism refers generally to a totalitarian political ideology separate from the Religion of Islam. This point is made clear by Mozaffari (2009) who outlines Islamism as a totalitarian political movement based on the work of Hannah Arendt’s (1979) description of the ‘pan-Germanic’ and ‘pan-Slavic’ movements which led to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, respectively (Mozaffari 2009 p. 3; Arendt 1979 pp. 222-266). According to Mozaffari, Islamism is a form of political totalitarianism akin to the European totalitarian movements of fascism and communism (Mozaffari 2009). Whereby totalitarianism has historically been a political ideology studied in the Western context, Mozaffari (2007 & 2009) argues Islamism is a unique totalitarian ideology because it combines non-Western religious and political traditions (2007 p. 21). Mozaffari (2009) makes a point to relate Islamism with the events of 9/11 and argues that while the 9/11 terrorist attacks brought attention to the ideology, the Islamist ideology shares similar roots with the ideologies of European totalitarianism. According to Mozafffari (2009), “… the rise of Islamism is to be located within the historical context that saw the rise of European totalitarian and extremist ideologies which emerged under directly parallel societal conditions” (p. 1). In this context the Islamist totalitarian ideology is similar to the totalitarian ideologies of fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism.

Specifically, Mozaffari (2005) claims that Islamism is an ideology born in the twentieth century and is distinct from the religion of Islam, whereby, “Islamists define themselves as ‘Islamiyyaoun/Islamists,’ precisely to differentiate themselves from ‘Muslimun/Muslims’” (p. 34). According to Mozaffari (2005), “Islamism is here defined as an Islamic militant, anti-democratic movement, bearing a holistic vision of Islam, whose final aim is the restoration of a world-wide caliphate” (p. 34). Moreover, Mozaffari (2007) argues that, “The concept of ‘Islamism’ is comprised of two elements: ‘Islam’ and ’ism’. The former stands for a religion and a civilization with its specific history, and the latter indicates a non-Islamic suffix. The composition of these two elements refer to a bi-pillar construction, composed by religion and ideology” (p. 21). Mozaffari’s reference to Islamism is not isolated to the religious ideological element in itself. Explicitly, Mozaffari describes Islamism as, “a religious ideology with a holistic interpretation of Islam whose final aim is the conquest of the world by all means” (Mozaffari 2007 p. 21). Mozaffari proceeds to analyse this definition in its four characteristics: “religious ideology”; “holistic interpretation of Islam”; “conquest of the world”, and; “the use of all means” in conquering the world (Mozaffari 2007 p. 21). Mozaffari also explores the various Islamist organizations and persons supporting and promoting this ideology. Significantly, many of the organizations described as proponents of the Islamist ideology are listed by Western governments as ‘terrorist’ organizations. Therefore, since Islamist organizations have chosen to use ‘terrorism’ as their preferred means of promoting their worldview, one begins to see how and why it is essential for Western governments to clearly identify ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islamism’ as separate and distinct from the various religions teachings generally associated with the faith of Islam. Until such a distinction is made by Western governments, the West will invariably be caught within a messy conflict against ‘Islamic terrorism’, and this conflict is having disastrous consequences within numerous ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse Western societies.

Governments have a role to play in defining policy issues and the manner through which a government defines a policy can have a serious effect on how that issue is interpreted through political-social discourse. Examples of such effects can be seen through Western government discourse during World War Two and subsequently the Cold War. During The Second World War, the conflict between the Allies and their Axis counterparts was routinely defined as an ideological struggle. The problems and the threats were clearly defined. Similarly, during the Cold War it was typical for Western governments to identify with the ideological conflict. The struggle between the Western bloc of nation-states and the Comintern was a struggle between the ideologies of liberal capitalist democracies and communist totalitarian states. Although the USSR was predominantly comprised of Eastern Europeans, Western governments defined the conflict along ideological terms. In this context, Western policymakers can benefit by defining the issue in the contemporary era as one of an ideological struggle – even though the belligerents may share a similar religion. Islamism, according to Mozaffari (2007), “… is understood as an equivalent to totalitarian ideologies like Nazism and communism” (p. 30). The repercussion for failing to address this issue along ideological terms invariably fulfills the scenario of culture clash described by Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’. It is quite possible, therefore, that a cultural rift within Western nations, between Muslims and non-Muslims, may grow until this distinction between culture (in this case, religious culture) and ideology is made clear. The Islamist political ideology is the problem, and not ‘Islamic religious terrorism’. Although Islamists may define themselves as ‘Muslims’ and conduct terrorist acts, governments have a responsibility to define a problem for what it is, regardless of whether or not such a problem is controversial. A problem can only be adequately addressed once it is reasonably defined: the West is at war with the Islamist ideology, and we must not be afraid, nor offended, to have this discussion.


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