Moderate Islamists?

Shiites in Iraq Back Islamist to Be Premier (NYT rss)

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite doctor with an Islamist bent, was chosen Tuesday by the victorious Shiite alliance as its candidate to become Iraq’s new prime minister. The decision may well open a period of protracted and rancorous negotiations with a coalition of secular leaders intent on sharply curtailing Dr. Jaafari’s powers or blocking him and his clerical-backed coalition.

Ayad Allawi, the current prime minister, and Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician and deputy prime minister, said in separate interviews on Tuesday that without guarantees renouncing sectarianism and embracing Western democratic ideals they were poised to block Dr. Jaafari’s nomination and possibly peel off enough members from the Shiite’s United Iraqi Alliance to form a government of their own.

Cori Dauber chides the NYT for casual use of the word “Islamist” here.

If you think about it you’ll note that I rarely, if ever, use the words “fundamentalist” or “extremist.” I just don’t think that they add to our understanding at all — they throw far more heat than light. I prefer the word Islamist, which you’ll find in the literature has a very narrow and very specific meaning. It refers to those who see Islam as not just a relgion but a political ideology — the root and branch and basis for all politics and all law in other words. If you believe Islam is compatible with democracy, but that Islam must somehow be a critical source for law, giving democracy an Islamic cultural tone or flavor, you ain’t no Islamist. If you believe the only legitimate form of law is the Shari’a, you are an Islamist.

I, too, prefer the word “Islamist,” as noted previously. Dauber explains, in convincing detail, why Jaafari doesn’t qualify as an Islamist. She also notes, correctly, “You can be an Islamist and not be a terrorist, but you can’t be an Islamist and still be a moderate.”

Athena has some problems with Dauber’s analysis, arguing that it applies to the Arab world rather than the Islamic community writ large. She concludes,

Because of the political nature of Islam as dictated by the Quran and Shariah, and its interpretation, advocates of Islamic influence within the political processes of Muslim countries will always exist. Rather than elminate Islamist opposition [which is more extreme infusion of Islamic influence into the government], a democracy must be strong enough to co-opt its presence and provide enough transparency to prevent it from taking on more extreme forms [violence].

I tend to side with Dauber in this one. It is possible to achieve democratic consensus with devout believers in Islam; it is, by definition, impossible with an Islamist. If Sharia is the only acceptable form of governance, then nothing worthy of the name “democracy” can arise.

Update (1547): Reihan Salam, addressing the issue from a different angle, apparently disagrees.

Update (2-25): Dean Esmay concurs in part and dissents in part. Athena responds to my post.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.