The term “Islamism” and its watered-down equivalent, “political Islam,” sprang into widespread use after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and soon became permanent fixtures of contemporary political discourse. They were coined to describe an allegedly new phenomenon: political movements headed by educated Muslim laymen who advocated the “re-Islamization” of Muslim-majority countries (and Muslim communities elsewhere) that had, in their eyes, ceased to be sufficiently Islamic. These movements promoted sharia through modern forms of popular mobilization—for example, creating branches specifically for young people, women, and workers. They adopted a hybrid organizational structure, a cross between a traditional Sufi brotherhood, in which members pass through different steps of initiation, and a modern political party, where an advisory council appoints a leader who oversees technical committees devoted to particular policy areas. Islamists worked on two tracks: fostering a social movement that would partner with community organizations and charities and establishing a political movement that would compete in elections while pushing its members into the state bureaucracy.
By the 1970s, such organizations were hardly novel. The first and most famous Islamist group was the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in 1928 and later established branches throughout the Arab world. Over time, similar organizations cropped up elsewhere in the Sunni Muslim world. But the Shiite Iranian clergy and militants who took part in the overthrow of the shah of Iran in 1979 helped define political Islam in the public imagination—possibly because they were the first Islamists to control a modern state. Their rise helped popularize the term “Islamist” in the media, academia, and government.
Today, unfortunately, journalists, scholars, and politicians apply the phrase liberally, attaching it to a broad range of figures and groups—from Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda Party of “Muslim democrats” in Tunisia, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS). This is akin to using the term “socialist” to describe both U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
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