As our politics in the United States get more radicalized and divided, there is a corresponding rise in use of ist labels that people use to point fingers at each other.
When I first heard the term “Islamist”, I didn’t like it. For one thing, the people who seemed to delight in using the term the most were usually the most racist people, who were interested in simply condemning all of Islam and making no fine distinctions between a religion and the acts of a few terrorists. To me, the term “Islamist” seemed like a slur: a way that people could otherize believers in Islam and make them seem more cultish, and perhaps even less human.
But the term caught on, despite my personal misgivings. And as its use was picked up in the popular press, I noticed that at least some people used it in a more functional denotative way: it was a way to distinguish between believers in Islam, most of whom are peaceful and anti-violence, and radical terrorists who use the cloak of Islamic belief as an excuse to do terrible deeds.
When used in this way, the term seems useful and even very positive: it provides a way of talking about “terrorists who use Islam as an excuse for their actions” without conflating those people with the broader category of believers in the Islamic faith. There are Muslims, and there are Islamists, and these are different things. “Don’t blame the Muslims for the things that Islamists do.” I can approve of this way of using the term.
Yet, there still a whiff of bigotry. Why?
Because if we coin the term “Islamist” for radical criminals who break the law in the name of Islam, then should we not also use corresponding terms for other religions? Should we not see the corporate media using the term “Christianist Terrorist” for devout Christian who publicly shot himself in protest against gay marriage? Should we not see the corporate media using the term “Jewist Terrorist” when an Israeli civilian takes the law into his own hands and attacks a Palestinian mosque?
Yet we do not see those terms. We only see “Islamist”. No Christianist, despite the fact that these radicals do exist. No Jewist, despite the fact that these radicals do exist.
Why do you think that is?
If we are really going to be fair, we need to just do this with everything. No?
So when Sharron Angle suggests that people use “second amendment remedies” to change government if Republicans lost at the ballot box, she was essentially being a “Conservativist”. This would be consistent in the etymology of the term: She is suggesting extreme, illegal actions, and even violence, and trying to excuse it (in this case) by invoking conservative ideals. Instead of being a Islamist or a Christianist or a Jewist, she is being a Conservativist.
If some radical environmental group suggests committing some violence or crime in order to save animals or take down oil companies (…I’ve actually not heard of such a thing happening recently, but on conservative talk shows they love to talk about this hypothetical example as instances of “liberal terrorism”), then they could correctly be called Liberalist.
Is this useful? Would it help to clarify our thoughts, our news, or out policies, if we embraced a lexicon that explicitly differentiated between “broad adherents of a belief system” (e.g. Muslims, Christians, Conservatives) and “radical criminals who use a belief system as an excuse” (e.g. Islamists, Christianists, Conservativists)?
I’m not sure that I know the answer to that question.
But I do know this: occupying this “in-between” position of coining the term “Islamist” without coining making use (when appropriate) of the corresponding terms Christianist, Jewist, Conservativist, and Liberalist, is clearly symptomatic of anti-Muslim prejudice in this country… no matter how innocent the intentions of the people using the term.