If anyone on earth is evil, it would be Abubakr Shekau. He's reportedly the leader of the Boko Haram militia in Nigeria, whose latest outrage is the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls on the militia's founding premise, embedded in its name, that "western education is sin." In a new video Shekau allegedly vows to sell the girls into slavery, claiming that God obliges him to do so. Shekau and his gang are the sort of people for whom the word "Islamist" was coined. The word signifies their rejection of any separation of mosque and state; theirs is politicized Islam as distinct from the spiritual or customary Islam practiced peacefully by many Muslims around the world. I'd thought the distinction between Islam and Islamism was clear by now, but here comes Faheem Younus, a Baltimore academic, to say that the National September 11 Memorial Museum should not use the words "Islamism" or "Islamist" in its new documentary about al-Qaeda. To him there's no distinction at all. The problem is that, in theory, "Islamist" could be used to describe someone who admires "the values of an Islamic system of governance." Such a person is not necessarily a terrorist or dedicated to imposing an Islamic system of governance by force, but so long as "Islamist" is the primary adjective used to describe groups like al-Qaeda and Boko Haram, anyone described (or self-described) as an Islamist will be unfairly assumed to be a terrorist. So do we fall back on "jihadist?" No, Younus insists, since many Muslims still understand jihad as an "inner struggle" that doesn't involve violence against others. For Younus, for instance, it's a jihad to get out of bed at night to take his toddler to the bathroom. Such Muslims presumably wish to see themselves as "jihadists" without any pejorative or incriminating connotations. Basically, Younus argues that it's wrong to use any word that has any reference to Islam as a common description for the various groups that have perpetrated atrocities in alleged defense of Islam. Call them by their proper names, he insists, and then use any nasty modifier you please. "Taliban lunatics" is OK, for instance; "Islamists" is not.
Younus still resists the idea that Islam is fundamental to the ideologies and bigotries that drive these various groups. To call them all "Islamist," he contends, is like calling the Ku Klux Klan "Christianist," and equally unfair. The KKK is but one case of a criminal gang "draw[ing] inspiration from twisting Christian texts," Younus writes, implying that "Islamist" groups must be understood the same way relative to their religion. Ultimately it's up to Muslims to judge how much any "Islamist" group has twisted their scripture and tradition, but I can't quite buy Younus's analogy. While the Klan has historically espoused a particular Protestant form of bigotry, aimed often at Catholics as well as blacks, Jews, etc., the KKK, to my knowledge, has never promoted what is known -- it has a label, after all, -- as Christian reconstructionism. I'm not aware of it being high on the Klan agenda to impose Old Testament governance on the United States. That makes the KKK qualitatively different from any Islamist group, though otherwise they are just as odious. Meanwhile, the reconstructionists are "Christianists," for the sake of analogy, and anyone who appreciates the use of the suffix "ism" in western political discourse should also appreciate the difference the "ism" establishes between religion, or other forms of cultural identity, and ideology. People who want to use the term do have an obligation to maintain the distinction between Islamism and Islam, but they also have an obligation to defend the relevance of such distinctions against those who claim to be too sensitive to notice.