Asia Program

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Islamism: What Is to Be Said and Done?

November 30, 2009 // 2:30pm4:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Middle East Program
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"Word choice can make or break the success of what we say," according to Donald K. Emmerson of Stanford University, the featured speaker at a November 30 event organized by the Asia Program and co-sponsored by the Middle East Program. The meanings and usages of "Islamism" and its variants, "Islamist" and "Islamists," are the subject of an ongoing intellectual debate. Amending a definition by Australian National University scholar James Piscatori, Emmerson in his lecture identified "Islamists" as Muslims who are "committed to public action to implement what they regard as an Islamic agenda." "Islamism," in turn, is "a commitment to, and the content of, that agenda."

What is to be said about "Islamism"? In the new book, Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam, to which Emmerson contributed, another contributor, Daniel Varisco, an anthropologist at Hofstra University, rejects the popular usage of the term, arguing that it demeans Islam and Muslims as "intrinsically violent" and "innately belligerent." Emmerson admits that "Islamism" has been used in this way. But he believes that, appropriately qualified, "‘Islamism' with adjectives" can also be, and has been, used to convey a diverse "range of [non-violent] outlooks and actions" by Muslims. In his talk Emmerson also stressed the importance of acknowledging the non-violence of the overwhelming majority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims.

What is to be done about "Islamism"? Emmerson noted that Muslim support for Islamist violence has declined, even though the violence itself has not. Islamist attacks have raised Muslim mortality rates, turning Muslim attitudes against the perpetrators. In addition, Islamist political parties have experienced diminished electoral successes in some Muslim-majority countries, including Algeria, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and Pakistan.

Emmerson recommended that Washington "downplay [the terms] ‘Islam' and the ‘Muslim world'" in its foreign policy statements, and welcomed the rhetorical shift by the Obama administration away from these terms. In a recent visit to Marrakech, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made greater allowance for Muslim diversity by referring to "Muslim communities" rather than "the Muslim world." Emmerson also urged more attention to the quality of education in Muslim-majority societies. The emphasis on rote repetition and the unquestioning acceptance of whatever the teacher says should give way, he argued, to a pedagogy that encourages critical thinking and independent analysis.

Emmerson also warned of persisting biases against Muslims in non-Muslim-majority societies, specifically in the United States. He quoted data from two Pew Center polls conducted in 2006 and 2008: In the 2006 survey, 45 percent of respondents viewed Islam as more likely than any other religion to spur violence. According to the 2008 poll, 23 percent of Americans still view Muslims unfavorably. Emmerson worried that anti-Muslim prejudice may rise in response to the recent killings at Fort Hood and the upcoming trials of Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Ultimately, he concluded, scholars, teachers, and policymakers should try to situate Islamism in its diverse contexts, considerately and accurately, to "inhibit prejudice" but "without hiding realities for the sake of niceties."

By Susan L. Levenstein
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program

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