Thursday, September 06, 2012

No Islam In 'Islamist'

Hossein Askari writes the following,

Politicians, rulers, pundits and the media have coined the catch-all word "Islamist" to represent a whole bunch of different Muslims. The "Islamist" label has been internationally adopted and carries an increasingly divisive and confrontational message. Just look at when and how it is used. 

The United States feared the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt because "Islamists" would come to power. Egyptian generals who hijacked the revolution vowed to prevent Egypt falling into the hands of "Islamists". Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to fight "Islamists" who threatened the stability of the region. The AK (Justice and Development) Party in Turkey is acceptable to a whole host of people because it is only mildly "Islamist". Today, Bashar Al-Assad justifies murdering those that oppose his tyrannical rule in Syria by the tens of thousands because they are "Islamists" and terrorists, and Russia says that it is supporting Assad for the fear of "Islamists". 

Essentially, the religion - Islam - is used by all manner of people (including Muslims) as a blanket term for anyone opposing those in power. Be they peaceful protestors demanding their simple human rights and economic justice from their government, or terrorists who kill innocent people in an effort to overthrow a ruling regime, they are all labeled "Islamist". Yet, those most often tagged as "Islamist" don't represent the core values of this religious label. They don't adhere to the most important teachings of Islam as represented in its holy book, the Koran, and interpreted by the Messenger of the religion, the Prophet Mohammad. 

In fact, Islam's foundational principles stipulate the sanctity of all life, freedom of choice including religious freedom, the popular selection of rulers, social and economic justice with equality before the law, education, strong institutions,and the equitable sharing of national wealth (such as oil and gas in the ground) with every generation; and admonition against poverty, hoarding, opulence, large wealth and income disparity, corruption and oppressive leaders. 

Are these the characteristics of all those labeled "Islamists?" No. 

But it is specifically because of these fundamental teachings that parties and groups lobbying under any kind of an Islamic banner attract so many followers. They afford the known umbrella of Islam, a religion that emphasizes justice, equity and charity. The vast popularity of the Islamic umbrella is also invariably the only one somewhat tolerated by secular autocratic rulers, for fear of unrest in the streets. 

This false labeling of so many groups, most often terrorists, as "Islamists" is offensive to devout Muslims and is harmful to better international relations, because the word "Islamist" conveys a false impression of Islam and Islamic teachings, and portrays Islam as the enemy of the non-Muslim world. 

Indeed, no religion in the world except Islam is used as a catchword for anyone considered a threat. 

On the basis of these objective measures of Islamic teachings, the governments in the Middle East who use the threat of "Islamists" to justify their oppressive rule are not Islamic either. Indeed, they have little interest in building good institutions and supporting the rule of law to promote human and economic development. If they did, better institutions would afford the basis for their peaceful removal in favor of elected governments and rulers. 

They are compromising the lives of millions of people who deserve a better chance. Consequently, these societies have been held back in every way - socially, politically and economically. As long as they rule and are supported by the West, Russia and China, progress will be limited and anti-Western sentiments and conflicts will thrive. 

In short, the word "Islamist" is popularly linked in the minds of most readers to the presumed teachings of Islam as embodied in the Koran. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is a misrepresentation that must be broken and dispelled. 

Just this one simple step would improve relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim world and ameliorate the conduct of US foreign policy. Non-Muslims would not see Islam and its teachings as the enemy. Autocratic Middle East rulers would find it more difficult to use the threat of "Islamists" or "fundamentalists" as a justification for harsh dictatorial rule. The identification of the West as a supporter of corrupt rulers would be reduced in Middle Eastern eyes. 

In the West itself, citizens would begin to see that the real threat to their national interests is support for illegitimate and corrupt rulers who rule for personal financial gain, take from their national treasuries and evade the International Criminal Court. 

In the wake of popular democratic movements burgeoning across the Middle East, the Muslim citizenry in the Middle East will see many of those "Islamists" waiting in the wings to take over for what they are - opportunists of a different shade. Once these so-called "Islamists" assume power, they are likely to follow in the footsteps of the overthrown tyrants - consolidating absolute power and imposing constitutions that support their autocratic rule to amass fortunes with different cronies and foreign partners. The cycle would continue. 

Muslims have little need for opportunist leaders to interpret their religion, denying them elected leaders and governments, robbing them of their national wealth, refusing them the right to justice and precluding even the hope of human, political, social and economic progress in the future. 

The world can help by dropping the "Islamist" label to describe any and all groups opposing tyrants, whether they are made up of peaceful Muslims or al-Qaeda. For some of these groups tagged under the "Islamist" banner, "Mislamist" may be a more accurate term. 

Hossein Askari is Professor of Business and International Affairs at the George Washington University. 

(Copyright 2012 Hossein Askari.) 

No comments: