Why Max Hill is wrong about the term “Islamist terrorism”

Max Hill QC complained this week that religion should  not be associated with terrorism – and called for commentators to stop using the term “Islamist terrorism”.

It is fundamentally wrong to attach the word terrorism to any of the world religions. Put that another way round: those who adhere to any of the great religions or none can be terrorists within the definition.

Any number of Muslim commentators could immediately point out the flaw in his argument – and one has to wonder why it’s not obvious to him. And that this – Islamism is not a religion. Islam is a religion. But not Islamism.

So what is Islamism – as distinct from Islam? In a nutshell, Islamism is a relatively modern construct. It’s an ideology that arose out of the experience of colonialism calling for the creation of a society governed by its usually harsh and decontextualised version of Islamic law.

Islamism is supremacist in outlook and dismissive of western notions of democracy, the rule of law and the nation state. Man-made constructs and therefore to be viewed with disdain. The legal code most Islamists privately favour would erode the equal rights of women and LGBT people can forget having any rights at all.  Gays and lesbians could even face the death penalty in the Islamist dystopia.

To put it plainly, Islamism is calling for a privileged position for Islam and a secondary status for other faiths and those who practise them. It does not support human rights as we understand the concept in liberal democracies. Toleration would mean submission and some Islamists even call for the payment by Christians and Jews of a special tax, the “jizya” as a price for being legally unmolested.

Islamism is not necessarily violent or supportive of terrorism. In the Muslim world, groups like Ennahda in Tunisia have participated in the parliamentary process. But there are always underlying tensions as was revealed in the experience of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt under President Morsi and his movement’s attitude to Coptic Christians and Muslims unsupportive of his Muslim Brotherhood party.

Initially, liberals and left wingers supporting Morsi but peeled off as the real aims of the Brotherhood became increasingly apparent. Shia Muslims, who are viewed as heretical by Islamists, breathed a huge sigh of relief when Morsi was finally ousted by the Egyptian military. They had fallen victim under Muslim Brotherhood rule to growing sectarian violence.

In its most extreme form, Islamism embraces violence as a means to an end.  Daesh and Al Qaeda can fairly be called the ultra-violent end of the Islamist spectrum. Their underlying beliefs don’t differ in many respects to Islamists who operate in the democratic process. But their methods are clearly very distinct. However, it is not incorrect to call Daesh and Al Qaeda –  Islamist extremist groups. Or extremist Islamist groups if you prefer.

What would be incorrect is to call Daesh a “Muslim” or “Islamic” terrorist group as still happens in the mainstream and social media. Normative Islam – the Islam adhered to by most Muslims – is not the same thing as the ideology of Islamism, especially not its violent iteration. It is a minority ideological position – though one that has grown hugely in recent decades.

Extremist Islamists are delighted when their terrorism is described as “Islamic” because they want Islamism to be regarded as synonymous with mainstream Islam. It is not. We do a huge disservice to millions of Muslims when we confuse the two. So, yes, it is wrong to use the term “Islamic terrorism”. But it’s certainly not incorrect to talk about Islamist inspired or extremist Islamist terrorism. That is factually correct and Max Hill is wrong.


Categories: Islamist extremism

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