Muslim versus Islamist: Why Islamism is Incompatible with Democracy


Muslim versus Islamist: Why Islamism is Incompatible with Democracy
by MM

Someone dear once told me “the people in the government of Iran are Islamic (eslaami) while I am a Muslim (mosalmaan)”. I recently saw a 2002 article by Ladan and Roya Boroumand* (TERROR, ISLAM, AND DEMOCRACY) where the history of militant Islam was examined, and Ladan and Roya Boroumand coined this military faction: “Islamism**”.  The militarization towards Islamism is initiated by conceding political power to Muslim groups.  So, according to this classification, while Muslims in the US can be characterized as “Muslim/mosalmaan”, the governments of Iran / Saudi Arabia and Al Qaeda / Muslim Brotherhood organizations are “Islamists”.  Needless to say, Islamism is incompatible with democracy.

 All together, there were 3 take-home messages for me:

1.      Granting political power to Islamic factions enables militarization via fanatic elements within the Muslim community.

2.      Islamism is achieved via incorporation of Islamic Shari’a into civic laws.

3.      Islamism is incompatible with democracy, therefore keep shari'a out of civic laws.  

Of course, history has shown that granting political power to any religious organization resulted disastrously.  The founding fathers of the USA realized this dichotomy via "separation of church and state" while respecting all religions.  Let's remember these lessons when some folks scream that Islam is part of Iran's history and the civic laws have to reflect it.    Complete separation of Religion and State will send a strong message to any would-be Rabhar to stay in Qum.

* Three Iranian women Ladan Boroumand, Roya Boroumand and Shadi Sadr, received the 2009 Lech Walesa Prize for their promotion of “human rights, freedom of expression and democracy in Iran”.

** I have adapted Islamist/Islamism (versus Islamic) to be consistent with the Boroumand sisters. While there are other movements like Salafi and Wahabism, the term Islamism / Islamist  seems to encompass all of these fanatic groups.


more from MM

On the term Islamist, Islamism, etc.

by Nur-i-Azal on

French intellectuals first coined the term in its current usage and denotation back in the 1970s. With the Khomeinist (counter-)revolution it became the term of choice amongst academics henceforth. See the wikipedia article, which is actually not complete in its information but gives a decent enough summary.

What social scientists have been dealing with since the 1990s, which Seyyed Hossein Nasr first pointed out critically in his Traditional Islam in the Modern World in the '80s, is that Islamism as the ideologization of Islam has more in common with 19th/20th century utopian ideologies (eg. Marxism) than any normative Islamic praxis which existed previously. One aspect of this is the political romaniticization of early Islam under the Prophet Muhammad and a rejection of the variously diverse forms of Islamic praxis that have existed throughout much of the pre-modern Islamic period -- esp. the manner in which hybrid cultures appeared throughout most of the pre-modern period and adopted their own unique understandings and interpretations. This attempt at uniformization of Islam by the Islamists, it is argued, is precisely the same sort of manifestation that one finds in extremist utopian thinking by Marxists and similar.

For example, beginning with Muhammad Iqbal of Lahore (a modernist and Islamic Hegelian) and Siyyid Qutb (the father of modern Sunni fundamentalism), you have a rejection of the mystical approaches to Islam adopted by Sufis, Isma'ilis and similar as being a form of cultural corruption. But what they propose in its stead has been a largely political program that practically rejects or sidelines the primary spiritual message that Sufism and similar have emphasized. In effect, and Nasr points to this, Islamism is a form of total externalization of the world that in all practical terms itself then becomes a form of ideological idolatry that really rejects the inner life of the individual (i.e. the God-within), and ultimately the individual itself in favor of a collective, and so the Islamist thrust is a collectivist approach and thrust in the same way that Marxism-Leninism is. No need to point out that any ideology that by definition rejects the sanctity of the individual (which technically Islamic scripture and legal praxis did not do until in theory quite recently) is by definition a complete negation of any attempt towards democracy, representative or otherwise. The hierarchy building of the Shi'ite 'ulama from the victory of the Usuli faction over the Akhbaris to  the late 19th century imposition of the institution of the marja' taqlid (source of emulation) and then the vilayat-i-faqih  (guardianship of the jurisprudent) are all symptoms of this general malaise and inverted process leading away from freedom and liberty. But these things are not synonymous in all cases with all facets of the greater Islamic discourse, and they can be changed.

Since we are not going to eliminate the religion of Islam altogether, I would suggest that people begin looking at alternative discourses in Islam to the Islamism spawned by the political demagogues  and dyostopian utopians of recent memory. One of these is obviously Sufism and the various writings of the Sufi masters over the centuries. I say this for a number of reason, one of which is this: the metaphysics of Sufism (esp. that of Ibn 'Arabi) holds each thing, and especially each individual, to be an existential manifestation of a Name and Attribute of the Divine. When you extrapolate a political discourse and program from the logical conclusions of such a position, you cannot but be lead straight to a democratic secularist template and program, and one which  ipso facto invalidates the very notion of a unitary ideological theocracy.

Note this as well: during the Constitutional Revolution when the clerical establishment was split down the middle in supporting or rejecting the Constitution and parliament, the majority of the Sufi orders throughout Iran supported it all the way to the end. In fact we have several notable masters of Sufi lineages fighting alongside the revolutionaries against the forces of Muhammad Ali Shah Qajar, one of the most prominent of these being the Ni'matullahi master Munis Ali Shah Z'ul-Riyastayn Kirmanshahi. As well as this, many of these Orders and their masters fully supported the modernization efforts of Reza Shah, although maybe not the heavy handed autocratic rule that came along with it.

As such I believe Sufism and similar can have an immense salutory effect in diffusing the infernal fires of Islamism and fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world. This is the same conclusion reached by Nasr and a few others as well.  It is something to look at 1. for those Muslims who seek a genuine spirituality within their own faith, 2. who wish to work for their own and the common good in a genuine way and 3. who wish to reject forever the destructive and one-dimensional utopian and totalitarian idiocies that fundamentalist Islamism represents. This can be done easily and our Persian Islamicate culture has these remedies already in place to cure the Islamist cancer and disease once and for all.



History and observation are


History and observation are in agreement.