In a stunning move, the Associated Press (AP) capitulated to pressures by Islamist group CAIR to drop the use of the term “Islamist” when describing self-declared Islamist militants and movements.
The AP’s retreat is indicative of a crumbling of parts of the so-called “mainstream media” in its reporting about the Middle East, the Arab world and the Muslim world. By retreating from describing the Islamists as Islamists, the AP isolates itself from the rest of international media, which uses the term “Islamist” naturally and consistently with its Arabic translation and meaning. More importantly, the AP is isolating itself from Arab media. For while media in the region uses the term Islamy or Islami (Islamist) to identify all movements that aim at the establishment of an “Islamist” state, regardless of these various movements’ strategic agendas, from the more political Muslim Brotherhood to the radical Salafists and the extremist al-Qaeda, The AP will be entering the foggy zone established and encouraged by advisers of the U.S. administration, where definitions are twisted by “Islamist lobbies” backed by petrodollars’ power.
The term “Islamist” is the most accurate translation of “Islami” and “Islamy,” which in the original language mean a militant movement working towards an ideological goal, particularly the establishment of a government based on a strict version of sharia law. The term “Islamist” was created in Arab political culture, precisely to distinguish the militants from regular Muslims whose goals do not necessarily include establishing an Islamist state. All Arab media, in addition to European, Asian, African, Russian, and Latin American presses, use the term on a daily basis. It clarifies to their readers and viewers that not all Muslims are Islamists inasmuch as not all Christians are fundamentalists or all Hindus ultra-nationalists, etc.
By eliminating the term “Islamist” from the media and political dictionary, the public will revert to using more ambiguous terms, such as Muslim radicals or extremists, among others, which would actually have two negative effects. One, it will blur the difference between moderates and extremists in the Muslim world, and two, it will provide the actual extremists or militants a cover within society. In short, by eliminating the term “Islamist” as identification of “militants,” we run the high risk of having the actual Islamists merging with Muslim society and claiming they are simply devout individuals.
In the Arab world and the rest of the international community, a clear distinction has been established between the “Islamist militants” and the rest. Even the Islamists themselves are proud of this terminology. Brotherhood, Salafists, jihadists, and Khomeinists all use this term while disagreeing who among them deserves it. Hence, the concept is as rooted as all well-established categories in Middle East politics.
So why would Islamist lobbies in the United States wage a campaign to ban the use of the term for what it means and force media, particularly the influential news agencies, to refrain from identifying the militants as “Islamists”?
The narrative strategy employed by the Brotherhood-inspired pressure groups, such as CAIR, ISNA and others in Washington, is to deny the public the ability to distinguish between Islamists and Muslims or to understand that there is an ideological movement that is attempting to drive politics within a much wider and diverse community. In short, the lobbies aim at establishing as an accepted reality that all true Muslims are Islamists, and hence criticism against their own brand of Salafism is a criticism against the entire community. In the region, a long-established political narrative has made a difference between Muslims who follow Salafism, and thus are called Islamists, and the rest of the communities who happen to be Muslims but do not subscribe to the Salafi Islamist brand. When the West has identified the former brand or political ideology, it can operate strategically and isolate the extreme from the mainstream.
However, by forcing the media and the government in the U.S. to blur the difference, the Islamists will be wrongly perceived as more religious Muslims than usual, not as an ideological current with a political agenda. This would have significant negative consequences on de-radicalization domestically and clearly affect U.S. foreign policy. Washington will be incapable of distinguishing the radicals from the moderates.
The AP move, according to observers, “is part of a wider push to remove the capacity to identify the Jihadi threat from the public narrative.” We warned about this propaganda warfare waged by the lobbies as early as 2005 in our book Future Jihad, as well as in our 2007 book War of Ideas. Observers in the region, particularly in Egypt, Tunisia, and Lebanon, noted that while an uprising is brewing against the Brotherhood and the Salafists in the Arab world, Western governments, particularly the U.S. bureaucracy, are making concession after concession to the pro-Brotherhood lobbies in America.
Dr. Walid Phares is the author of The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy. He is an adviser to members of Congress
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