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History of the word ‘Islamism’

This is a cross-post by Saif Rahman

I’ve just read this twitter exchange between 2 prominent Muslims, Maajid Nawaz & Mohammad Amin, about the usage of the word ‘Islamism’, and was prompted to write a little about the background of the word. As I was unable to contribute in under 140 characters there, I decided to reproduce my scribblings here instead.

Did you know: In the 18th century it was actually the French secularist philosopher Voltaire who coined the term Islamism, as another name for Islam. It replaced the name for the religion of Muslims which was then ‘Muhammadism’, and the word was used by many orientalists to describe a positive Islamic movement.

‘Islamism’ began to disappear by the turn of the 20th century, and by 1938, after the completion of ‘Encyclopaedia of Islam‘ an important compendium by orientalists, the word had all but disappeared from usage – many scholars preferring to replace it with the shorter and purely Arabic term, Islam.

Then in the 80s & 90s with the rise of Islamic extremism, the term ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ became widespread in the media. Instead the French began to recycle Voltaire’s ‘Islamisme’ and over the next 20 years, particularly after 9/11, it soon overtook as a popular (and seemingly new) ’ism’ in the West.

It is now largely used to describe, quoting US Department of State, an ideology that ‘draws upon the belief, symbols, and language of Islam to inspire, shape, and animate political activity which may contain moderate, tolerant, peaceful activists, and/or those who preach intolerance and espouse violence’.

Sarah adds: And here’s a bit more of that conversation on Twitter