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Is There a Difference Between “Moderate” and “Radical” Islamism?

Labels are always dangerous things. In the context of the U.S. policy debate, pundits attach labels to opponents in order to avoid debating issues or in order to construct straw man arguments. Seldom do people use labels with the precision they deserve. This is certainly the case when it comes to religion.

I use the term Islamism to depict the use of Islam as a political ideology and studiously avoid the term “Islamo-Fascism,” which is not accurate except, in very limited cases, to Hezbollah. (Several years ago, Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol falsely accused me of using the term; when I later saw him in Prague, he acknowledged his error, but neither he nor David Judson, his editor at the Turkish [now Hürriyet] Daily News, saw fit to correct their fabrication. To use labels precisely, it would be fair to call Akyol sloppy and, for failing to correct his error, lacking integrity).

The debate about Islamism (or Islamic fundamentalism, or jihadism) and labels is complex, and few people who engage in it choose their words with care. Martin Kramer did an admirable job explaining the evolution of terms, here, and others have since followed suit.

If newspapers and wire services are going to discuss Islamism and then modify it with terms such as “moderate” and “radical,” it would behoove them to define in advance what is “moderate” and what is not. Take this story, regarding Egyptian presidential hopeful Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, which described Abul Fotouh as follows:

A moderate Islamist with support from both hardline fundamentalists and liberals, Abul Fotouh refused to describe bin Laden as a terrorist, saying the term was used by the United States to “hit Muslim interests.”

I know many moderate Muslims – who put their lives on the line every day to preserve liberty and freedom of religious interpretation—and I am also friends with many moderate Islamists. I know not a single moderate, however, who defends bin Laden. Does Agence France Presse (and Yahoo) really believe moderates embrace bin Laden’s legacy? Wouldn’t it be more likely that a man who praises and defends bin Laden is actually somewhat radical? Other outlets which define Abul Fotouh as “moderate” include the BBC, Tablet Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and the Financial Times, among others. These outlets would do themselves and their readers a service if they would be so kind as to articulate the difference between “moderate” and “radical” Islamism. For that matter, it is never too early for the White House and the State Department to do likewise.



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