Sunday, November 22, 2009

A rose by any other name: Semantic framing and the discourse on Islam

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

A few days ago I read an article by journalist Johann Hari called "Meet the Ex-Jihadis". It profiles a colorful group of Muslims that Mr. Hari met and spoke with in Britain:

Seventeen former radical Islamists have "come out" in the past 12 months and have begun to fight back. Would they be able to tell me the reasons that pulled them into jihadism, and out again?

The article is worth reading, I think, mostly because of the window it provides into the thoughts of many prominent "former radical Islamists". The piece is at its strongest when Hari does the least editorializing and lets the interviewees speak for themselves. There are some major problems with it which might easily go overlooked, though.

The first issue I have is with the journalism/counter-terrorism speak Hari uses. (I was going to do a whole post on this fraught lexicon, but I might as well just write about it here.) We will start with Islamism.

"Islamist" is one of those words that theoretically can have a neutral meaning but is used so pejoratively that its negative connotations overshadow any sort of technical definition and render it useless (similar to "mullah"). Among its various given definitions are:

a movement of "Muslims who draw upon the belief, symbols, and language of Islam to inspire, shape, and animate political activity." May contain moderate, tolerant, peaceful Islamists or those who "preach intolerance and espouse violence"


“the whole body of thought which seeks to invest society with Islam which may be integrationist, but may also be traditionalist, reform-minded or even revolutionary”


“the active assertion and promotion of beliefs, prescriptions, laws or policies that are held to be Islamic in character.” (see link above)

In Johann Hari's article - and indeed the media in general - the term is almost exclusively used to imply a sort of oppressive, aggressive 'Muslim' political ideology. I take serious issue with this. Why should the term "Islamist" be reserved for only the most regressive forces in the global Muslim community?

This may seem like petty semantics, but really 'petty semantics' is what frames our whole discussion on subjects like this and determines the type of questions we can ask. We now have, in fact, an entire 'expertise' industry and news genre built predominantly on wrong questions. So don't talk to me about "tomato, tomahto."


This article called "Is Morocco a model for the Muslim world?" is a classic example of the tragic misuse of the word "Islamism". It discusses family law reforms initiated in Morocco by women's groups who have been demanding more legal rights using an Islamic platform. In the article, these women - who use the traditional foundation of Islamic doctrine to draw support for their position - are called "feminists", while those opposing their struggle for civil rights are called "Islamists". Both groups draw on equally "Islamic" sources for their arguments, yet the progressives are stripped of their religious credentials by the term "feminist" while the 'Islamicness' of the reactionaries is re-affirmed by the title "Islamist". Why? Why do we not, for example, call the women's movement "Islamist" and the men opposing them "misogynists"?

The answer, I personally think, is that that sort of nuanced and objective treatment of Muslims could well make our collective head explode. The definition of Islam as something inherently problematic is something that a lot of peoples' professional careers and political appointments depend on.

A screenshot from "Is Morocco a Model for the Muslim World". (Read the caption.)

The same objection applies to the terms "jihadist" or "jihadi". The first point to make is that by Islamic standards, Johann Hari's qualification of the former actions of his interviewees as "jihad" is suspect. The Qur'an, which is the unquestioned first source of Islamic doctrine, gives clear guidelines for what constitutes jihad. The first condition is that it is strictly defensive and never aggressive:

AND FIGHT in God's cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression - for, verily, God does not love aggressors. (2:190)

Muhammad Asad writes in his footnote to this verse:

This and the following verses lay down unequivocally that only self-defense (in the widest sense of the word) makes war permissible for Muslims. Most of the commentators agree in that the expression la ta'tadu signifies, in this context, "do not commit aggression"; while by al-mu'tadin "those who commit aggression" are meant. The defensive character of a fight "in God's cause" - that is, in the cause of the ethical principles ordained by God - is, moreover, self-evident in the reference to "those who wage war against you", and has been still further clarified in 22:39 - "permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged" - which, according to all available Traditions, constitutes the earliest (and therefore fundamental) Qur'anic reference to the question of jihad, or holy war (see Tabari and Ibn Kathir in their commentaries on 22:39). That this early, fundamental principle of self-defence as the only possible justification of war has been maintained throughout the Qur'an is evident from 60:8, as well as from the concluding sentence of 4:91, both of which belong to a later period than the above verse.

Secondly, jihad is not confined to military defense:

SUCH of the believers as remain passive121 - other than the disabled - cannot be deemed equal to those who strive hard in God's cause with their possessions and their lives:122 God has exalted those who strive hard with their possessions and their lives far above those who remain passive. Although God has promised the ultimate good unto all [believers], yet has God exalted those who strive hard above those who remain passive by [promising them] a mighty reward (4:95)

The footnotes to this verse:

121 Lit., "who sit [at home]"- i.e., who do not participate in the struggle in God's cause, be it physical or moral.

122 The term mujahid is derived from the verb jahada, which means "he struggled" or "strove hard" or "exerted himself", namely, in a good cause and against evil. Consequently, jihad denotes "striving in the cause of God" in the widest sense of this expression: that is to say, it applies not merely to physical warfare (qital) but to any righteous struggle in the moral sense as well; thus, for instance, the Prophet described man's struggle against his own passions and weaknesses (jihad an-nafs) as the "greatest jihad" (Bayhaqi, on the authority of Jabir ibn 'Abd Allah).

I appreciate that Mr. Hari has no responsibility to make theological pronouncements about what "real" jihad is and what it is not. I as a Muslim may give my opinion on the matter (as I did above using evidence from the Qur'an), but he, in the context of "reporting" news, is not in a position to do this. Yet this is exactly what he does, however unwittingly. His terminology speaks for itself.

As one of Hari's own informants, Usama Hassan, explains to him:

"Jihad has many levels in Islam – you have the internal struggle to be the best person you can be. But all we had been taught is military jihad. Today I regard any kind of campaigning for truth, for justice, as a type of Jihad."

Yet he is still called an "ex-jihadi". To be fair, he might agree with this description. But why should he, and why should anybody? Is his current struggle less authentically Islamic than the former?

I am so tired of people giving these type of titles away to the loudest and angriest Muslims they happen across. Johann Hari isn't the root cause of this problem; these terms have already been lobbed around enough times to become standardized jargon. Nevertheless, they still need to be called out and challenged constantly.

This normative labeling has a number of effects. Firstly, it precludes any true objectivity (all things "Islamist" are automatically predefined as being the most anti-reform, patriarchal, violent and so on). Secondly, it undermines the very people who western commentators would (presumably) like to see succeed in the 'Muslim world' (Muslims, for example, have a long historical experience of colonial feminism, and so the term "feminist" is often more of a liability than a boon for female Muslim activists). Conceding "jihad"(-ism) or "Islam"(-ism) to the most reactionary parties at the table instantly delegitimizes any voices advocating different approaches and interpretations of Islam.

Here's a simple exercise: ask yourself if it would be reasonable to start describing George W. Bush as a "democratist", or to call the invasion of Iraq an act of "freedomism". Bush and his administration (and indeed millions of Americans) drew heavily from this kind of rhetoric to justify their military decisions - and may well have actually believed what they were saying - yet did we start speaking of the danger of "radical freedomism", or interviewing constitutional historians on CNN to find out "why they did it"? I can imagine this happening nowhere other than the Colbert Report.

Yet Muslims are treated exactly this way by the media. They are taken at their word when describing global political violence as "jihad" or the suppression of women's rights as "Islamic", but when they call a struggle for peace or civil liberties by the same name, their voices are silenced by the journalist's pen and they become refashioned as "feminists" or "ex-jihadis".


So what should we call globalized violence done in the name of Islam, since "Islamism" and "jihadism" have been debased beyond repair? The correct term, it seems to me, would simply be "political extremism", or more specifically: "Islamicized political extremism". This may be the most accurate, theologically neutral way of naming the phenomenon. The word "Islamicized" implies the external, cosmetic application of Islamic symbols but does not characterize the political extremism as Islamic or non-Islamic. This is the only appropriate approach for a truly "objective" news media to take. Interestingly, according to google this term does not yet exist.

Relevant to all this is a very interesting book by John E. Richardson called (Mis)Representing Islam: The racism and rhetoric of British Broadsheet Newspapers. You can read its introduction and first chapter online.

Anyway, I didn't even talk about a whole host of other problematic terms. (For example, what is "fundamentally Islamic", "extremely Islamic" or "radically Muslim" about what we call "Islamic fundamentalism", "Islamic extremism" and "radical Islam"?) And there are also some other problems I have with Johann Hari's article. Maybe I'll write on them another time.

For now, peace out ~

... And do not call me a "moderate Muslim".

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