Breaking Down the Meaning of 'Islamist'

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Madeleine Brand talks with Fawaz Gerges about the terms Islamist and Islamism. Gerges is a visiting professor at the American University in Cairo and the author of The Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.


The Islamic militants in Somalia have been called Islamists. Joining us to discuss that word, Islamists, and what it means, is Fawaz Gerges. He's a Carnegie scholar and a visiting professor at the American University in Cairo. And welcome back to DAY TO DAY.

Professor FAWAZ GERGES (American University in Cairo): My pleasure.

BRAND: Well, in these reports we keep hearing Islamist forces and not necessarily Islamic forces. Can you tell us what the difference is?

Prof. GERGES: Yes. Islamic refers to Muslim civilization. It does not have a political connotation. Islamist has, they say, is political connotation. An Islamist is a political activist who would like to create God's kingdom on Earth. A political Islamist would like to apply the Shariah, the Islamic law; that is, an Islamist is a political activist who believes that Islam is an all-encompassing religion. It encompasses the social, the economic, the political, all aspects of life.

BRAND: Does it have a pejorative connotation?

Prof. GERGES: No, not at all. I mean I think the majority is Islamists, those political activists who would like to create Islamic states, basically have renounced the use of force. They have accepted the rules of the political game. The overwhelming majority of Islamists in the Muslim world would like to create Islamic states by peaceful means, yet there are a sizable number of Islamists whom I called militant Islamists, or jihadists, who basically would like to create Islamic states using all means at their disposal, including violence and terrorism in order to create Allah's kingdom on Earth.

BRAND: So could the Taliban, when they ran Afghanistan, could they have been called Islamists?

Prof. GERGES: Absolutely, and in many ways the Islamists in Somalia now share the views of the Taliban militants in the sense that the Somalian Islamists are using violence and military means in order to destroy their opponents and create an authentic Islamic state.

BRAND: Let's look at other religions. In Judaism there's Zionists, but nothing else; no Christianists that I know of.

Prof. GERGES: Well, we call them fundamentalists. In fact, we have one of the largest fundamentalist movements in the world in the United States, yet American Christian fundamentalist do not believe in the use of violence in order to establish God's kingdom on Earth. Basically in the same way the overwhelming majority of Islamists who are mainstream Islamists also do not believe in the use of force to apply the Islamic law or the Islamic Shariah.

BRAND: Fawaz Gerges, the author of the book "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy." Fawaz, thank you again for joining us on DAY TO DAY.

Prof. GERGES: It's my pleasure always.

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