By: Ibrahim Hooper
The Associated Press (AP) added the term "Islamist" to its influential Stylebook in 2012. That entry read:
"Islamist -- Supporter of government in accord with the laws of Islam. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi."
That same year, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) approached AP about modifying the reference, suggesting that AP change its Stylebook to incorporate language similar to that used in the reference to "fundamentalist," which states that the label should not be used unless a group applies the term to itself.
CAIR urged media outlets to drop the term because it has become journalistic shorthand for "Muslims we don't like" and because it is used in an almost exclusively pejorative context and is often coupled with the term "extremist," giving it an even more negative slant.
Islamophobes routinely use the term to disingenuously claim they only hate "political" Islam, not the faith itself. Yet they, and the media, fail to explain how a practicing Muslim can be active in the political or social arena without attracting the label "Islamist."
In a 2013 update emailed to online Stylebook subscribers, AP modified the "Islamist" reference to:
"An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists. Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi."
While CAIR welcomed AP's move as a step in the right direction, concerns about the use of the term remained. In a statement, CAIR said: "The key issue with the term 'Islamist' is not its continued use; the issue is its use almost exclusively as an ill-defined pejorative."
There are few, if any, positive references to "Islamist" by the media and few attempts to actually define the term or outline what criteria are used when applying the label.
The unremitting linkage of the term "Islamist" to violence and denial of religious and human rights harms interfaith relations worldwide, unjustifiably links the entire faith of Islam to the violence of a tiny minority of extremists (and some governments) and serves to alienate the vast majority of Muslims who know their faith does not endorse violence and resent being tarred with the same brush as terrorists.
When the term "Islamist" is used to describe both those engaged in wanton acts of violence and those engaged in peaceful political participation, the line between the two is blurred and peaceful faith-based activism is stigmatized and made the subject of suspicion. And the media's use of "Islamist" is not equivalent to its use in academic circles, in which depth of analysis offers a less subjective definition.
By not dropping use of the term, the media are making a political and religious value judgment each time it is used.
The bottom line: Every journalist must determine whether there is such a thing as a "good" Islamist. If they answer is "no," then the term is clearly a pejorative and should be dropped.
Ibrahim Hooper is national communications director for CAIR. He may be contacted at: [email protected]