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“Islamism” is a meaningless but dangerous misnomer

By in Opinions
Mohamed Morsi (left).
The election of Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s first post-revolution president highlights a glaring problem in Western media coverage of the Middle East. Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group feared and vilified by the West though it has renounced the use of violence and actively supported democracy in Egypt since at least 2005, and leader of its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. Because of this affiliation with Islam, not at all uncommon in that area of the world, he has been referred to as an Islamist in headlines in everything from the Globe and Mail to Reuters.

The adjective “Islamist” is a subtle but incredibly effective form of fear-mongering, and it is distressing to see reputable news sources repeat it without question. On its face, the designation simply means that a given person or group is Muslim and that they take their religion into consideration when making decisions. But here is where the problems start: Since Sept. 11, 2001, Islam has become a murky, poorly-understood but ominous thing synonymous in many minds with senseless violence, often directed at the Western world.

Newspapers rarely devote space to worrying that David Cameron or Stephen Harper’s religions will affect their decisions, just as no one is troubled by the fact that the Christian Democratic Union is the governing party of Germany. It would be treated as a laughable, ridiculous designation if someone tried to call CDU leader and German Chancellor Angela Merkel a “Christianist,” because it is an inherently meaningless term, and we recognize it as such. Yet this is precisely what happens when we invoke the idea of an “Islamist” leader.

Likewise, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney is a Mormon with strong ties to the leadership of his religion, but his deep involvement in a fringe Christian movement is more often the cause of quiet ridicule than serious consternation. And when discussing religion in politics it would be remiss to leave out that George W. Bush claimed he was called by God himself to run for the American presidency.

In the face of these many Christian politicians whose abilities to rationally lead a nation are rarely, if ever, called into question on a religious basis, the difference is stark. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood say they want Egypt to become a free and open democracy, and have held this position for years.

In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it is only fair to take these men at their word, and to allow that Morsi is just as capable of leading a democratic nation as Romney, Merkel or Harper.

Egypt’s democracy is in its infancy, as everyone who watched the revolution in Tahrir Square well knows, and fledgling democracies the world over have had heavy religious influences. This does not stop them from becoming free nations. America was essentially founded by Puritans, a radical religious group that refused to live under the rule of an English king.

Religion is often a strong institution in nations that have not yet built up a sturdy, functional democratic government, and religious influence is not necessarily something to abhor or fear. The fact that “Islamism” is considered inherently dangerous or at best suspect by Western media speaks to a base level of ignorance among many Westerners regarding Muslims and people in the Middle East.

Morsi himself publicly advocates creating in Egypt a “democratic, civil and modern state,” which hardly sounds like the beginnings of the theocratic nightmare regime that an “Islamist leader” seems to portend. He attempted to reconvene parliament after it was ordered to disband by the military, and he has pledged to uphold all of Egypt’s existing international treaties, a promise that should put Israeli worries to rest.

By far the most important thing standing in the way of a truly democratic Egypt is the military rule that was a large part of the previous regime and that has continued to control the country since the 2011 revolution forced then-president Mubarak out of power. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood seem, so far, intent on trying to break the military’s grasp on power.

While the military retains near-total control of the political process, media assessments of Egypt should be far more concerned with the military’s role in government than with the religious leanings of the democratically elected president who has vowed to be a “president for all Egyptians.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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