What I talk about when I talk about Islamists

By Ahmed Khanani, Indiana University

* This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” conference, January 23, 2015. 

First, words are our tools, and, as a minimum, we should use clean tools: we should know what we mean and what we do not, and we must forearm ourselves against the traps that language sets us. Secondly, words are not (except in their own little corner) facts or things: we need therefore to prise them off the world, to hold them apart from and against it, so that we can realize their inadequacies and arbitrariness, and can re-look at the world without blinkers. Thirdly, and more hopefully, our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connexions they have found worth making, in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon—the most favoured alternative method. –JL Austin[1]

In 2011 analysts quickly hailed the Arab uprisings as a series of events that would usher in democratic governments across the region – even as many of pundits expressed concern about the rise of politically savvy, electorally successful islamiyun, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Justice and Development Party (PJD) in Morocco. The years since the uprisings have witnessed marked retrenchments of pre-existing regimes and the emergence of new, violent actors in the politics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), particularly the Islamic State (IS). Just as analysts were too quick to identify the uprisings as the progenitor of Arab democracies, analysts have brazenly rushed to conclusions about the post-2012 retrenchments and continued violence. Rather than focusing on specific instances of democratization, repression, or conflict, scholars and pundits ought to, instead, expend more energy exploring broader, slower-moving structural trends that allow us to better apprehend and anticipate trajectories and perhaps even specific events.

In this essay I focus on one such factor: language. By language I mean both the ordinary language of islamiyun and also the words that analysts employ to describe their subjects. The vast majority of analyses that explore the politics of the MENA attend to the actions and contexts of various groups (e.g., the violence enacted by IS in the context of the Syrian civil war or the electoral and military strategies of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1990s Algeria). While this is often productive, it can obfuscate the influence of broader, slower-moving factors, particularly the ways in which language can operate as something like a structural variable. Similarly, although the term “Islamist” presents as a neutral, reasonable concept, closer scrutiny of the word reveals troubling undertones and assumptions. Both of these issues are identifiable through the lens of ordinary language philosophy.

Ordinary language philosophy is grounded in an anti-essentialist orientation toward language: words are things to be used; they have functions in specific contexts and become nonsensical, or, at least, misused in others.[2] In short, ordinary language philosophers hold that a word means what it is used to mean; differently put: words meanings’ accrue through patterns of use. By attending to ordinary language, analysts can move beyond right and wrong conceptualizations of words – the post-metaphystical, if you will – and, instead, into charting the ways words are used, thereby accounting for the meanings that words have in everyday conversations to users of specific languages.

Ordinary language provides a rich, if underutilized, site for political analysis. Ordinary language is simultaneously the material from which all agendas are shaped and, also, sets boundaries on said agendas—we cannot think what we cannot say; we cannot aspire to the, literally, unspeakable. That words’ meanings accrue by way of use not only suggests that words’ meanings exceed those found in formal measures (e.g., dictionaries), it also allows for analysts to treat concepts as dependent variables and to explore patterns in how specific concepts are articulated and enacted as evidence of the range of meanings associated with a given word – roughly, a word’s grammar.[3] This stands in contrast with much work in the social sciences and most mass media analyses, which typically begin with an understanding of, say, democracy and, having fixed the scope of the concepts, then explore how democracy influences outcomes or how particular variables impact democracy. In contrast, analyses inspired by ordinary language philosophy explore what words have come to mean. The task of the analyst is to chart the grammar of a word – to unpack the multiple, at times contradictory, uses of a word among users of a shared language. For example, a common mode of critiquing IS is to trouble the group’s “Islamic” credentials;[4] an ordinary language approach would instead explore how the individuals in IS and the group as a whole use the word “Islam” to better apprehend what “Islam” means to them, and then put this in conversation with how critics use the word “Islam,” thereby rendering “Islam” the object of analysis, rather than a static entity that undergirds an ethical critique. When scholars and pundits contribute to ostensibly secular publications in order to question a group’s “Islamic” credentials, these analysts contribute to the reification of the Muslim tradition into a static thing called “Islam” and also undertake (even if only implicitly) theological inquiry and critique, thereby resembling and putting themselves in conversation with religious clergy.

Thus, in moving to the anti-essentialist, post-metaphysical method of ordinary language philosophy, analysts can chart the ways that different groups of islamiyun embody and articulate their shared tradition, thereby identifying critical differences amongst so-called Islamists. While we need not conduct discourse analysis to conclude that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb embody radically different political projects, we can identify important distinctions between, say Hamas and the Moroccan PJD through attending to how they use the word dimuqraṭiyya and identifying overlap and difference. Moreover, by better understanding what salient words mean to people in the MENA (e.g., deen, dimuqraṭiyya, kufr, or khilafa), analysts can identify the range of reasonable practices at a given moment. For instance, as I have argued elsewhere, because dimuqraṭiyya is associated with shura in the language of Moroccan islamiyun, we should anticipate that Moroccan islamiyun will attempt to embody what they mean by dimuqraṭiyya.[5] Ordinary language philosophy not only gestures toward fresh sites for research for analysts of the contemporary MENA, it can also be employed as a self-reflexive tool to better appreciate how the terms we, analysts, use inform our work.

Indeed, the terms used to label the subjects of our inquiries are deeply contested. Specifically, in spite of its popularity, the term “Islamist” presents three broad issues. First, it conceals important heterogeneity among its referents (i.e. encouraging a comparison between IS and the Moroccan PJD rather than IS and, say, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or Gush Emunim). Second, as discussed below, “Islamist” locates “Islam” and Muslims within a broadly Christian rubric (of “religion”) while simultaneously concealing important similitude between, e.g., Christian and Muslim political actors. Finally, “Islamist” harkens upon classical Orientalist tropes and normative commitments.[6]

Perhaps motivated by the analytic paucity of “Islamist,” analyses of socially conservative, Islamically inspired, politically active Muslims have used two alternative terms: fundamentalist and radical.[7] Yet, as Bernard Lewis convincingly argues, since the term “fundamentalist” derives from an extremely specific meaning in an American Protestant group from the early 20th century, the “use of the term to designate Muslim movements is at best a loose analogy and can be very misleading” (1993: 91). The term “radical,” too, hampers analytic clarity because it implies a “good Muslim/ bad Muslim” binary, thereby harboring thinly concealed normative prejudices.[8] Hence, I borrow from everyday Arabic idioms in dubbing our interlocutors “islamiyun.”

There are several reasons to use islamiyun when describing socially conservative, Islamically inspired, politically active Muslims. Perhaps the primary advantage to islamiyun is that it is used in everyday conversations and writings to describe this set of actors across the Arabic-speaking Muslim world, forging a linguistic bridge between Western analysts and their Arab counterparts. Analytically, islamiyun constitutes a tentative step toward decolonizing Western knowledge claims insofar as the term affords “native” activists and analysts, including those interpellated by the term, the opportunity to name themselves.[9] Further, islamiyun avoids several of the pitfalls associated with the term “Islamist.” For instance, unlike Islamist, islamiyun avoids many of the trappings of Orientalism insofar as it is an Arabic neologism, and decidedly not a Western invention. Moreover, unlike the English neologism “Islamist,” islamiyun avoids the derogatory connotations associated with words that end with –ist.[10] Additionally, insofar as those who islamiyun describes choose to employ the term, presumably the term reflects neither an inherently anti- islamiyun agenda nor Western aggression.

Perhaps more importantly, in addition to avoiding the Orientalist tropes of “Islamist,” islamiyun allows for analysts to study politically-active, Islamically-inspired Muslims without locating them in relation to Christianity. Thus, whereas the terminology of Islamism resembles the language of grouping (including “non-denominational”) in Christianity, Arabic speakers employ islamiyun to identify a religio-political phenomenon, not the emergence of denominations in the Muslim tradition. In other words, islamiyun highlights important differences between Islam and Christianity that ordinary and academic uses of “religion” elide – including the absence of (Christian) denominations amongst Muslims.[11] In short, then, many of the issues associated with “Islamism” are avoided by using the Arabic neologism islamiyun.

Of course, “islamiyun” is no panacea. Practically, the single biggest drawback is that islamiyun has yet to gain traction in Western media and academic texts.[12] Indeed, the lack of awareness of the word islamiyun in the Western academy may well be indicative of Orientalist attitudes underpinning Western analyses insofar as the term has broad currency in the Arab world.[13] Fortunately, this issue comes with a substantial silver lining: Unlike other salient terms, such as “democracy,” “Islamist,” or “terrorist,” for those of us in the Western academy, islamiyun has yet to be empirically overloaded precisely because the term has not yet been consistently employed with a particular range of referents. This referential openness, in the West, allows for the term to be aligned with patterns of use by Arabic speakers, thereby alleviating the imposition of categories by outside analysts and also reducing routinized epistemic violence in analyses of the politics of socially conservative, Islamically-inspired Muslim political actors.

Perhaps the most troubling issue with “islamiyun” is that, in Arabic writings, it us used to refer to the same breadth of actors as Islamist and thereby also brings together people and groups with important differences (e.g., the Yemen’s Islah and al-Qaeda and the Islamic Mahgreb). In many ways this difficulty stems at least partially from the reality that there are dozens of claims about how Islam can and should inform what is typically apprehended as political (or economic, or social, etc.) and, therefore, there is also tremendous diversity amongst people who self-identify as islamiyun: islamiyun can be peaceful or violent, focused on transnational and/or national goals, salafī or Sufi-oriented, and so on. This suggests that, even as islamiyun avoids several of the pitfalls of “Islamist,” uses of islamiyun ought to, at minimum, require adjectives to be analytically useful (e.g. “peaceful islamiyun,” democratic islamiyun, etc.). More provocatively, whereas earlier I argued that we ought to expend more energy studying the ordinary language our subjects employ, I want to conclude by suggesting that perhaps we should, first, develop useful words to describe the diverse peoples we hope to better understand.

Ahmed Khanani is a postdoctoral fellow and visiting assistant professor in the department of international studies at Indiana University.




[1] Austin (1961, 129-130).

[2] Ryle explains the analogy thusly: “If I know the meaning of a word or phrase I know something like a body of unwritten rules, or something like an unwritten code or general recipe. I have learned to use the word correctly in an unlimited variety of different settings. What I know is, in this respect, somewhat like what I know when I know how to use a knight or a pawn at chess. I have learned to put it to its work any-when and anywhere, if there is work for it to do” (1953, 179).

[3] As discussed below, Frederic Schaffer’s work is an outstanding example of taking a word as an item to be explained—a “dependent variable” (1997; 1998); see also, e.g., Scotton, who preface his analysis of “a strongly charged Swahili political vocabulary” with the ordinary language insight, “a word acquires meaning because it is commonly used in certain situations and commonly stimulates certain responses belonging to the same linguistic community” (1965, 527).

[4] There are countless examples to this effect; see, e.g., Nihad Awad, “ISIS Is Not Just Un-Islamic, It Is Anti-Islamic.” Time 5 September 2014 or see also Bashar Ja’afari’s contribution to the Security Council of the UN adopting Resolution 2170 condemning ISIS wherein Ja’afari “stressed that ISIS and other groups had no connection with Islam” (available at: http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11520.doc.htm).

[5] Khanani (2014).

[6] See, e.g., several of the contributions to the volume Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam edited by Martin and Barzegar (2009) for fuller critiques.

[7] For studies that use the term fundamentalist see, e.g., Monroe and Kreidie (1997); for largely polemical works that deploy the term radical see, e.g., Horowitz (2004). Munson, for instance, deploys the terms radical and fundamentalist in one text, offering a “rather crude typology [that is], useful nonetheless” wherein he distinguishes between “traditionalist… mainstream… and radical” fundamentalists (1991: 331).

[8] Please see, for example, Mamdani for a discussion of the difficulties associated with this binary (2005).

[9] My use of the term ‘interpellate’ is informed by Althusser’s work, and especially his famous example of the police officer who calls out: “hey you” to a person walking down the street. The person hearing this turns around, and in so doing is brought into a new subject position and, indeed, forms as a subject. Needless to say, the person exists, discretely and fully, without being hailed by the police officer, just as the people and groups identified as Islamist exist without being called Islamist. The point is that in calling this set of people and groups Islamist, the empowered observer is as much producing a group as identifying one.

[10] See, e.g., Varisco, who observes, “for the past several decades the coinage of new –ists has shifted from signifying group labels (as in Calvinist) or a sense of expertise or a skill (as in dentist) to negative characterization (as in sexist)” (2009, 42; emphasis in original). As such, the connotations of Islamist are immediately located in a normatively negative domain.

[11] To clarify: in likening the idea of Islamism to a denomination in the Christian tradition, and especially to Fundamentalist Christianity, scholars have produced fantastic claims that implicitly center a model of “religion” grounded in Christianity. For example, Lauzière writes “[W]hat truly distinguishes him [sheikh Yasin [sic]] is his religious discourse, which remained permeated with mystical elements, despite his conversion to Islamism” (2005, 245; emphasis mine). See, e.g., Asad (1993) for a rethinking of the category “religion” and its relationship to “Islam.”

[12] For example, to the best of my knowledge no political science texts have used this term.

[13] Said, in his masterful Covering Islam, argues that one mode of orientalism in the Western academy (and specifically of “orientalist attitudes”) is the lack of engaging texts in the Arab world (1997).

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