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Oct 28, 2005 | 23:42 GMT

5 mins read

Making Sense of the Post-Sept. 11 'Islamist' Terminology

The contradictory and often-erroneous terminology used in the media, in popular discourse and occasionally by informed experts regarding the phenomenon known as militant Islamism has made it difficult to understand the concept — and to distinguish between the various types of Muslim militant actors. We see the actors called terrorists, fighters, militants, radicals, rebels, insurgents, extremists and fundamentalists, while the ideology itself is called Islamic, Islamist, Wahhabi or jihadist. The use of these and other such terms interchangeably not only leads to hyper-confusion, but also creates problems from a counterterrorism perspective. Moreover, the use of the al Qaeda label as a generic term for any and all types of Muslim militants has created the perception of a global monolith, despite efforts to nuance the term with phrases such as "al Qaeda-linked," "al Qaeda-inspired," "affiliated with the al Qaeda network" and such. But what does all of this mean? For starters, it is important to understand that "Islamist" — not "Islamic" — is the accurate term to refer to the militants' ideology, which seeks the establishment of a government that implements Islamic law. Calling them "Islamic" is problematic because it fails to underscore that these Muslim militants — individuals and groups — are a small subset of the Muslim world. Using the term "Islamic" confers legitimacy upon these actors, implying that they are indeed representing the religion of Islam and the vast majority of Muslims. Furthermore, even the term Islamist cannot be used generically to identify all types of Muslim militant actors. There are two reasons for this. The first is that some Muslim militants — such as the Palestinian nationalist groups al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Iraqi Sunni nationalist insurgents such as the Baathists — are all ideologically secular groups. Second, the vast majority of Islamist groups are moderates. This category includes the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab Middle East, the Jamiat-i-Islami in South Asia and their counterparts in Central and Southeast Asia. What is even more telling in this regard is that many Islamists are close allies of the United States, such as the two main Iraqi Shiite groups, Hizb al-Dawah and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Beyond the moderate mainstream of Islamism are two types of actors — radical and militant. The former espouse a radical agenda, but do not use violent means. Hizb al-Tahrir, the transnational group calling for the re-establishment of the supranational caliphate, is one such example. The latter group, comprising the militants, does espouse violence — which is why it is important to use the term "militant Islamist" when defining such groups. However — and this is where things get most confusing — the militant group itself includes a diverse set of actors. Some, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, are ideologically Islamist (meaning they seek the establishment of a government that implements Islamic law) and they have nationalistic goals. These groups maintain armed wings to fight what they perceive as foreign occupation, but when it comes to achieving their goals of establishing an Islamic polity, they engage in mainstream electoral politics. On the other hand, there are "jihadists" who they seek to establish an Islamic state by waging a jihad (armed struggle) against the current regime. Al Qaeda, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, and the Islamic Movement of Turkestan in Central Asia are such groups. In other words, while all jihadists can be referred to as Islamist militants, not all Islamist militants are jihadists. Even among jihadists, there are those who operate within a given state, such as the Taliban, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, and Jamaat al Mujahideen in Bangladesh. These are different from groups with a regional agenda — including Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia and the Chechen group led by Shamil Basayev — that want one Islamic state to encompass a region. Finally, we have the global al Qaeda movement that operates across continents, with branches, affiliate entities and ties to independent Islamist militant operators whose goal is to fight the U.S. presence in the Arab/Muslim world and establish an Islamic polity encompassing as many parts of that world as possible. To note the intense complexity of the situation, the Chechen militants exhibit jihadist tendencies, in that they seek to establish a regional Islamic state in the North Caucasus, and at the same time are fighting Russia. The same can be said of some of the militant groups in Kashmir; they are separatists and have the establishment of Islamic rule as their objective. Then there is the issue of the Wahhabi ideology. Although not all Wahhabis are jihadists, it would be safe to say that most jihadists are Wahhabi. For example, Chechen militants led by Basayev and Saudi jihadist commanders are all extremist Wahhabis. That said, the first jihadist groups — such as Tandheem al-Jihad, Gamaa al-Islamiyah, and Takfir wa al-Hijrah — were all born in Egypt as militant offshoots of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. Nowadays, jihadism has morphed into an extreme brand of the Wahhabi ideology — although even to this there are exceptions. The Taliban movement is one example. The Taliban are not Wahhabi (also called Salafi) in their creed, as they follow the Maturidi School of Islamic theology. Deputy al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri noted this in his letter to the network's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in an effort to moderate al-Zarqawi's extreme Wahhabist views. Although the Arab footprint is quite obvious in almost all Islamist militant groups, ethnicity is a huge determining factor as well, which would explain why infighting was reported between Arab and Central Asian militants among the al Qaeda ranks hiding out in northwestern Pakistan. In other words, jihadists are also a sub-category within the wider Islamist militant universe.

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