Searching for Common Ground: Are Muslim Terrorists Islamic or Islamist?

Huff Post: Islamic. Islamist. Muslim. People use these words to modify the nouns “terror” or “terrorism.” Media describe Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Nigerian girls by using “Islamic” and “Islamist.” There is controversy over the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s use of the term “Islamist” to describe Al Qaeda. Some may reduce these differences to semantics, but in actuality, Muslims distinguish these terms.

One disconnect is that journalists, policy makers, and academics are using English and European terms to describe people who understand their religion through Arabic. The vast majority of Muslims around the world, including me, are not native Arabic speakers. But because I recite Arabic in my prayers and read the Arabic Quran, my own understanding of Islam and its rituals is partly shaped by Arabic words. In the Arabic of the Quran, Islam is the word used for the religion. Muslim is the word used to describe a person who follows the religion. It can also be used as an adjective to describe objects, actions and groups.

On the other hand, “Islamic” is an English word. Placing the suffix “-ic” at the end of a noun forms an adjective meaning “of or pertaining to,” in this case, the religion.“Islamisme,” originally Voltaire’s word to refer to the religion, stopped being used when people learned the Arabic word “Islam.” It came back into vogue in the 20th century. “Islamist” is now used by some to mean an academic expert on Islam, and by others to refer to Muslim political movements that emphasize Islam as central tosocial and political as well as personal life. Academic and journalist academic usage of “Islamist” spans widely, describing violent extremists as well as changing centrist movements in countries such as Egypt. But while the word “Islamic” has a similar word in modern Arabic or similar languages such as Urdu, it does not appear in the Quran. “Islamist” has no exact Arabic counterpart, either in modern Arabic or the Quran. In addition, the majority of Muslims around the world are not educated in American and European universities and therefore unfamiliar with the term “Islamist.”


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