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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Society, Politics, and Economy >
What is Islamism?

Since the 1970s, Islam, both mainstream and extremist, has emerged as a powerful force in politics. Governments and Islamic (Islamist) movements, reform or opposition movements as well as terrorists, have appealed to religion as a source of identity, legitimacy, and mobilization.

Islamism and Islamist are among many terms (such as Islamic activism, revivalism, extremism, fundamentalism, or political Islam) that are used to describe a political or social movement, organization, or person that believes Islam or God's will applies to all areas of life, private and public, individual and social. For Islamists, Islam is not only a religion but an ideology promoting the creation of an “Islamic state” or an Islamically informed social order. Islamists include both individuals who are mainstream/moderate and others who are militant. Mainstream Islamists, who represent a spectrum of beliefs ranging from very conservative to reformist, participate in the political system, and seek gradual change from within their societies. Militant Islamists are extremists who advocate armed struggle and who employ violence and terrorism to overthrow the established order and impose their own political agendas, threatening the freedom and security of their societies.

Islamist political parties and social institutions have become an integral part of Muslim politics and societies. Since the late twentieth century, Islamically oriented candidates and political parties in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia have opted for reform through ballots, not bullets. They have successfully contested and won municipal and parliamentary seats, held cabinet positions, and served in senior positions including prime minister in Turkey and Iraq and president in Indonesia. They have been elected to the leadership of professional associations (physicians, lawyers, engineers) as well as journalists' guilds and trade unions. Many Islamist NGOs and groups provide schools, clinics, hospitals, day care, legal aid, youth centers, and other social services. Private (not government-controlled) mosques and financial institutions such as Islamic banks and insurance companies have also proliferated.

Religious extremist and terrorist movements today are both global and local. Militant Islamists have been responsible for attacks in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world and in the West: they range from Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda-led attacks in New York and Washington on 9/11 to those in London, Glasgow, and Madrid on 7/7 to Sunni and Shii militias and death squads in Iraq and Pakistan that have slaughtered innocent men, women, and children.

How to distinguish between mainstream and extremist groups is the subject of heated debate. More often than not, Western governments have looked the other way when autocratic rulers in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere have intimidated and suppressed mainstream Islamist groups or attempted to reverse their electoral successes. The challenge has been particularly complex in connection with resistance movements like Hamas and Hizbollah. Both are elected political parties with a popular base. At the same time, they are resistance movements whose militias have fought Israeli occupation and whom Israel, the United States, and Europe have labeled as terrorist organizations.

Established precedents already exist for dealing with such groups, such as the ANC in South Africa and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA in Ireland, groups with which the United States has had to come to terms. The United States and Europe need to deal with democratically elected officials, from whatever political party, while also strongly condemning acts of terrorism by their militias and clearly distinguishing legitimate resistance from terrorist attacks upon civilians. At the same time, the United States must condemn Israeli attacks that kill hundreds of civilians like the 2008 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the 2006 assault upon Lebanon.

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