What Is the Difference Between Islam and Islamism?

History Q & A

Mr. Matthews is a free-lance writer.

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 tragedy, one commentator noted that the attacks climaxed almost two decades of terrorist acts committed in the name of Islam--a bloody, violent era that began with the suicide bombings against American and French peacekeeping forces in Beirut in 1983. The commentator, Martin Kramer, noted:

Islam is no more inclined to terrorism than any other monotheistic faith. Like its sisters, Christianity and Judaism, it can be both merciful and stern in practice; like them, it also teaches the love of God and the humanity of all mankind, believers and unbelievers alike. In times past, Islam has served as the bedrock of flourishing, tolerant, and peaceful orders.

Having said that, Kramer went on to say:

But sociologists will say that a religion, at any point in time, is whatever its adherents understand it to be. If that is so, then Islam, as understood by too many Muslims, is in danger of deteriorating into a manifesto for terror. The reason: Too many Muslims have been silent in the face of horrific deeds committed by an extremist minority.

The real "War on Terror," says Middle Eastern expert Jonathan Schanzer, is the "War on Militant Islam"--the latter "a minority outgrowth of the faith" bitterly antagonistic to such Western concepts as capitalism, individualism, and consumerism. Spurning the West and much it offers--save for weapons, medicines, and additional "useful technologies"--militant Islam's goal is "to implement a strict interpretation of the Koran (Islam's holy book) and shari'a (Islamic law)." The major hindrance to the realization of this objective, in the radical Muslims' view, is the United States.

Given all this, what is the difference between Islam and Islamism? Fundamentally, it comes down to a pair of concepts: faith (Islam) and ideology (Islamism).

Islam was born in the year A.D. 610, when the prophet Muhammed received both his divine mission and Allah's commands for a new religion which primarily stressed belief in one God. One of the appeals of Islam, say its followers, is its emphasis on inner strength. "Any Westerner who really understands Islam," asserts a leading Iranian figure, "will envy the lives of Muslims." Muslims believe their faith is far superior to Judaism and Christianity; the latter two, to their minds, are merely "defective variants" of God's best religion--Islam. This supreme confidence is bolstered by Islam's glorious early history. Then, Islamic culture was the world's most advanced. Muslims had the best of everything: good health, long life spans, high literacy, scientific and technical achievements After fleeing Mecca as a refugee in A.D. 622, Muhammed returned there a mere eight years later as its ruler. As early as the year 715, Muslim conquerors had erected a vast empire, whose borders reached from Span in the west to India in the east. Naturally, Muslims concluded that all this meant they were God's chosen people, spiritually and materially.

Yet Islam's "golden age" wouldn't last forever. As early as the 13th century, Islam's weakness and the Christian world's successes were already becoming apparent. Nonetheless, for some five hundred years to come, Muslims were mainly unaware of what was happening in the Christian world. The words of the Muslim intellectual Ibn Khaldun regarding Europe, penned roughly the year 1400, summed up Muslim attitudes about that continent: "I hear that many developments are taking place in the land of the Rum, but God only knows what happens there!"

Such an attitude blinded Muslims to changing circumstances. In July 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte landed in the center of the Muslim world, Egypt, easily subduing it. This was merely the beginning of other assaults that ultimately left the majority of Muslims under European domination, and Muslims wondering why God had apparently forsaken them.

In response to modern setbacks, some Muslims empbraced a radical ideology known as Islamism. Islamism, according to critics, is akin to fascism and Marxism-Leninism. Like those systems, Islamism opposes capitalism and liberalism and seeks their overthrow.

Islamists are hostile to numerous countries. They feel that local Muslim rulers in such states as Algeria, Turkey, Egypt, and Malaysia are doing the West's bidding in crushing their movement. In Kashmir, Afghanistan, and Sudan, they see the West "actively suppressing noble Islamist efforts to create a just society." Islamists feel themselves encircled and frustrated by the West. High on their enemies list is the United States, which, Islamists believe, intends to steal Muslims' resources, take advantage of their labor, and subvert their religion. It is widely held that Washington and Hollywood have united to install the "new world order."

Why is Islamism so appealing? "Rather than a reaction against the modernization of Muslim societies," notes a French scholar, "Islamism is a product of it." As anothert author put it: "Islamism is not a medieval program but one that responds to the stress and strains of the twentieth century."

Islamism is not a reaction against poverty. Quite the contrary: its leaders are often quite modern people, and Islamism appeals mainly to modern people. Daniel Pipes noted in 1998 that many Islamist leaders in Turkey and Jordan were engineers.

Pipes further notes that traditional Islam's goal is to show humans how to live in harmony with God's will, whereas Islamism aims to create a new order. Moreover, where traditionalists study Islam at great length, Islamist leaders know more about the sciences than Islam and use the latter as it suits their purposes. In the same way, Islamists embrace the modern world to achieve their goals whereas traditionalists are repelled by the modern world. Traditionalists look with apprehension at the West. Islamists want to challenge it, and take it over. More moderate Islamists intend to convert the non-Islamic countries they live in through non-violence to their cause.

When the term Islamism first appeared in French in the mid-18th century, it served as a synonym for the Muslim religion, then known in French as mahometisme, the religion Muhammed proclaimed and taught. This signified a new willingness, emerging from the Renaissance, to acknowledge Islam as a religious system with a founder, like Christianity. This view, however, was incorrect in viewing Muhammed as occupying the same position in Islam as Christ did in Christianity. Still the usage gained wide acceptance across Europe.

The French philosopher Voltaire was greatly interested in Islam and occasionally compared it favorably to other faiths. Moreover, he appreciated Muhammed's role in Islam. "This religion," he wrote, "is called islamisme." Voltaire decided that islamisme achieved its dominance "over more than half of our hemisphere" through "enthusiasm and persuasion." Like mahometismebefore it, islamismealso received acceptance as a term in Europe.

Still, as Martin Kramer has noted concerning the use of Islamism and islamisme in the 19th century, "First while it reflected a more accurate understanding of Islam's doctrine, it did not exclude critical interpretations of Islam's character. . . . The second point is that Islamism and islamisme did not completely displace Mohammedanism and mahometisme, even in scholarship. . . . Only at mid-century did this usage expire, primarily because Western writers realized that they also had Muslim readers, who resented it." Islamism also began fading from use as the 20th century dawned, as numerous scholars favored the shorter, purely Arabic term, Islam.

The term Islamism was coined to differentiate Islam as modern ideology from Islam as a faith. It became necessary to make this distinction after the Iranian revolution of 1979, which gave rise to the popular use of the term: "Islamic fundamentalism." The use of fundamentalism to describe Islam spread so fast that by 1990, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary defined fundamentalism as "the strict maintenance of traditional Protestant beliefs" and "the strict maintenance of ancient or fundamental doctrines of any religion, especially Islam."

Ironically the more the media embraced Islamic fundamentalism as a term, the more scholars of Islam looked askance at it. Some felt that fundamentalism didn't capture the methodology and style of Iran's revolution and similar Muslim movements. Others, especially those sympathetic to the new Muslin movements, felt the term fundamentalist was unfair to progressive Muslims. Still, there were those academics who defended the use of the term fundamentalism.

France would once again lead in the invention of new terminology. Seeking a word to describe the new Islamic movements emerging in the 1970s, French scholars chose islamisme, first, because it traced its origins to Voltaire, while the American-derived term fundamentalisme, lacked French roots; second, there was some hesitation to using the only French alternative, integrisme, as it retained its initial Catholic framework and was part of continuing controversies concerning authority in the church.

In 1985 islamisme made its English debut. That year Gilles Kepel's 1984 book, subtitled Les Mouvements Islamistes dans I'Egypte Contemporaine, was published in English as Muslim Extremism in Egypt. The English translator had trouble with islamiste, and translated it as "Islamicist." According to a footnote in the translation: "The term 'Islamicist' is used throughout to render the French 'islamiste.' The loan word 'Islamist' did not gain currency until after this translation had been completed."

Islamism received official definition from Robert Pelletreau, Jr., assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in 1994. Cautioning that "Islamic fundamentalism" had to be employed "with requisite caution," and solely in regard to the wide resurgence of Islam, Pelletreau declared there existed subdivisions in the reawakening:

In the foreign affairs community, we often use the term "Political Islam" to refer to the movements and groups within the broader fundamentalist revival with a specific political agenda. "Islamists" are Muslims with political goals. We view these terms as analytical, not normative. They do not refer to phenomena that are necessarily sinister: there are many legitimate, socially responsible Muslim groups with political goals. However, there are also Islamists who operate outside the law. Groups or individuals who operate outside the law--espouse violence to achieve their aims--are properly called extremists.

The violent acts of militant Muslims stigmatized whatever term was applied. Islamism became another dangerous 20th century "ism" that had to be crushed by the liberal West. Like their Western sympathizers, the leaders of the new Islamic movements spurned the use of "fundamentalism." Initially, Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor of Hizbullah, chose the term "Muslim," then opted for "Islamist movement."

Just the same, Muslims' future actions will undoubtedly give rise to new descriptions of themselves. "The pressures," writes Martin Kramer, "will come from two directions": first, "the theory mills of France," where Islamism twice emerged, in the 18th, then the 20th centuries. A new term, postislamisme, also occasionally known as neofondamentalisme, is gaining popularity now. The speculative intent of followers of postislamisme is not the acquisition of power but converting society to Islam. Secondly, other terms--"jihadism," militant Islam and militant Muslims--have emerged since 9/11.

"Debate over terminology has always surrounded the West's relations with Islam," Kramer notes, "and its outcome has been as much a barometer of the West's needs as a description of the actual state of Islam. . . . At various times, Westerners have needed Muslims to be infidels or believers, threatening or peaceable, foreign or familiar. It is impossible to predict which terms will prevail in the West's own struggle to come to terms with change in contemporary Islam. It will depend on what Muslims do--and on what the West desires."


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Edward Gabor - 8/30/2010

Islam is not as much a religion as it is a “religious brainwash”. Unlike Christianity or Judaism and Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., it's a heavily politicized way of life. It's a politico-religious movement with an agenda for conquest over the Infidels. The same "Peaceful Islam" Koran also allows for the violence around the world, as long as it serves their purpose.

Muslims cry foul and threaten death to ANYONE openly criticizing Islam or Mohammad and do not tolerate any other religion in Muslim countries. Just investigate most of their countries and see how Christians, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists, Bahai, and other minorities are treated. Don’t take my word for it, just do a little homework. In Europe, Islam is slowly superseding generally applicable law and positioning itself as a specially endowed religion above all others. It is abusing our rights and values, then hides behind them when they are called out.

Sharia is the law of Allah (God) according to Muslims. Sharia itself deems Western society as sinful and blaspheming because we cherish man-made government and free speech above God. Islam's very core values and ideals are at every corner at odds with those of America and the West. The World is in imminent danger of being overtaken by the hoards of Muslims, unless we wake up and reverse this foul and enslaving system.

Each and every one of the new mosques anywhere in the western world signifies another battle won by Islam! It is as simple as that, and that is what all Muslims see it as, until they win the BIG WAR, i.e. ruling the World! AMERICANS, WAKE UP! Before it’s too late, as it already is in Europe!!!!

hicham - 1/7/2004

David - 11/25/2003


mark safranski - 9/15/2003

You are welcome Josh.

While I can be ideological at times my premise is one I think many ppl across the spectrum might agree.Capitalism requires most of the following to be present to a significant degree - private property rights, sanctity of contract( rule of law), wage labor, price mechanism by supply/demand. Within this range you can have a fairly high degree of government intervention and still be " capitalist " ( Fascist italy and Japan, Social-Democratic Sweden) until most of these attributes are totally or almost totally suppressed. Then the state has become something else requiring a different rubric - " socialist", " statist", "command" etc.

I realize that some scholars will call even Stalin's USSR " state capitalism " but I think that stretches the definition beyond all meaning ( On the obverse, China still calls itself " communist" but it really isn't -it's a lot closer to a corporative state now). In other words, I'd be just as critical if someone defined " socialist" to encompass all state political economies to the left of Hong Kong under the Brits.

I picked some of this up by the way from a noted Marxist historian who jumped on one of his grad students who persisted in calling the antebellum South " capitalist ". He asked " How can you have capitalism without workers ?" which led to a lively debate/socratic discussion, the point of which was, participation in world commodity markets does not by itself make a society capitalist.

Josh Greenland - 9/14/2003

BTW, Mark, I wanted to thank you in my previous message for your eloquent descriptions of the different countries' economic situations in your reply to me.

Josh Greenland - 9/14/2003

I think you're (and Jesse's) definition of capitalism is an ideological rather than a useful technical one. All the countries you described (other than the USSR) are capitalist. That there are restrictions on capitalism doesn't mean that most of the wealth in those societies isn't still being created in capitalist fashion.

Your and Jesse's definition of capitalism is similar to the definition of christianity of fundamentalists protestant christians, in that it radically excludes those forms that they and you don't like from the commonly understood term. Just because you don't like non-"free market" capitalism doesn't mean it therefore isn't capitalism.

Behind the fundamentalists' insistence that the word "Christian" apply only to them is an attempt to delegitimize all other forms of christianity and eventually supplant them. And the agenda behind your and Jesse's restricted definition of capitalism is to delegitimize all other forms of capitalism and eventually supplant them.

As I don't share your economic ideology, I don't accept your definition of capitalism, which is politically self-serving.

mark safranski - 9/14/2003

I have to disagree.

The Nazi Party imposed a " four-year Plan " ( Goering was Reich Plenipotentiary)on industries which were " coordinated " into Reich Chambers ( i.e. state directed cartels), labor unions were crushed, the National Labor Front under Ley established as was the use of conscripted foreign ( Poles, French etc) and slave (Jews,Russian POW's) labor. Wages and prices were state managed. The financial system had to be controlled by the Ministry of Finance ( Hjalmar Schacht)in order to fund Hitler's rearmament program and achieve autarkic goals in trade and foreign exchange. Under the Nazis, agricultural land could not be alienated or sold for debt. Lastly, in addition to central planning impositions on private industry local Gauleiters could and did intervene in factory production and confiscate property or enforced an informal "tax" in the form of requiring extortionate bribes. The anarchic collectivism of Nazi Germany was so far from a free-market that Speer had to introduce " industrial self-responsibility "( i.e. freedom from control) as a Hitler-backed program so the German war-machine would not break down for lack of fuel, spare parts and ammunition. Even this limited nod toward a free market was opposed by Nazi fanatics among the Gauleiters and the SS, including the powerful Otto Ohlendorf and Martin Bormann - both anticapitalist radicals.

Osama bin Laden's father made his billions in construction for the government of Saudi Arabia, trading on kinship networks and personal relationships with members of the House of Saud. Again not exactly the epitome Hayekian economics and competitive bidding.

Weimar Germany was a European capitalist social-democracy. The Third Reich was a statist dictatorship that permitted some private enterprise to exist within the Nazi system. Saudi Arabia is a theocratic oligarchy resting on state-controlled export of a single commodity to world markets.

These nations could only be called " capitalist" if " capitalist " means " anything not Soviet-style Communist".


John Kipper - 9/14/2003

Substitute "fundamentalist Christian" for "Christianism" and you pretty well have the case today. And the result is that the Christian community resents being marginalized and maligned.

J. Merrett - 9/13/2003

"For all we know, "Islamism" is a straw man concocted by these pro-Likudniks to justify American and Israeli aggression against the Arab people."

Good point. I hate how the Israelis aggressively put their children on buses, knowing full well that Arab people need those buses for explosives tests. And America! Sheesh! Putting those damned buildings right there where Arab people were sure to be flying airplanes!

Josh Greenland - 9/13/2003

"There was indeed a significant anti-capitalist element to the National Socialist movement, led by the Strasser brothers, Gregor and Otto. Hitler, who knew he needed the support of the big industrial concerns and the Army to consolidate power in Germany, battled this faction for years. He finally succeeded in purging the Strasserites in June 1934- the famous "Night of the Long Knives"."

He needed his party's anti-capitalist demagogues to build up his party's mass base. He needed a phony socialism, a socialism of the right, to rope in lower income elements. Once he controlled state power, he didn't need them anymore.

"Even after the purge, Germany's economy under Hitler could scarcely be refered to as "capitalist"- it was more of a cartelized corporate system, a partnership between the Nazi government and big companies like Krupp and I.G. Farben."

That sounds like capitalism to me.

And I'll note again that bin Laden came from a capitalist family.

"My problem with the piece is this: where are the Arab commentators? The author quotes Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, and a host of Westerners and vocal partisans of Israel. For all we know, "Islamism" is a straw man concocted by these pro-Likudniks to justify American and Israeli aggression against the Arab people."

Yes, for all we know, that's true. I haven't yet seen a clear definition of "Islamism."

And despite the author's attempt to legitimize the term, it reads like anti-Islamic bigotry. What do you think people in this country would say if an influential minority of intellectuals and media people started talking about "Christianism" in reference to a subgroup of christians they disapproved of?

V ernon Clayson - 9/10/2003

All three of the so-called monontheistic religions, Islamism, Christianity and Judaism, arose in the same general area many generations ago to deal with conditions existing at the time. It is difficult to believe that modern day people and countries are still fighting and dying over what amounted to little more than tribal differences of opinion hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. Each of those religions believe they grew from the teachings of a prophet sent by a god, then they ran with those teachings until they were controlled by them and wanted to control all others on the basis of those teachings. Are we to believe that Moses didn't have it quite right so god sent Jesus but he didn't have it quite right so god sent Muhammed? It's seems quite obvious that Muhammed didn't have it right either so do we wait for the next messenger or do we just stay with this trio and keep killing one another in the name of god? And what ever would we possibly think if the messenger came from that same area? Can you imagine anyone paying attention to any new prophet preaching peace and love from lands that currently know only dynamite and death to get their point across?

Oscar Chamberlain - 9/10/2003

Here is a list of questions the article suggested to me.

1. Does "Islamism" have a corresponding term that these radicals use in referring to themselves?

2. If the latter, do these "Islamicists" see themselves as a single group at all?

3. Do they have any sort of economic vision at all? Islam, like medieval Catholicism, attempts to balance the support of trade and the problem of greed with a variant on tithing, restrictions on providing loans, and perhaps other teachings.
If the Taliban are an example, "Islamicists" tend toward autarchy and subordinate economics to that desire. But I don't know if they are representative.

4. Other than Bin Laden, are there "islamicists" whose writings have been translated into English.

Marie Jacquelyne Clement - 9/9/2003

Excellent article! Well written and informative! I feel though as if there was more but been edited as I am left with still hungry for more.
There is so much more to be said on Islam and Islamisim. I really liked the ending..it will depend what the Muslims will do and what the West desires...sounds like there will be more attempts by the Islamist extremist like O.Ben Laden against the West's desires...
Thank you for the article..hoping to read this writer again!:)

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/9/2003

There was indeed a significant anti-capitalist element to the National Socialist movement, led by the Strasser brothers, Gregor and Otto. Hitler, who knew he needed the support of the big industrial concerns and the Army to consolidate power in Germany, battled this faction for years. He finally succeeded in purging the Strasserites in June 1934- the famous "Night of the Long Knives". Even after the purge, Germany's economy under Hitler could scarcely be refered to as "capitalist"- it was more of a cartelized corporate system, a partnership between the Nazi government and big companies like Krupp and I.G. Farben.

My problem with the piece is this: where are the Arab commentators? The author quotes Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, and a host of Westerners and vocal partisans of Israel. For all we know, "Islamism" is a straw man concocted by these pro-Likudniks to justify American and Israeli aggression against the Arab people.

Josh Greenland - 9/9/2003

All of the links in his essay and apparently all of its supporting material comes from the Middle East Forum.


As you'll see if you use the URL above, Daniel Pipes is the director of the Middle East Forum.

Josh Greenland - 9/9/2003

The author claims, or quotes others in order to claim, that fascism and "Islamism" are anti-capitalist. Some capitalists made out very nicely in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and they supported those governments, so that part of it is a crock. And I thought bin Laden was from a wealthy family that made its money from capitalist activity.