The open politics spawned by the Arab Spring have stretched the term “Islamist” to its limits, covering everyone from hip moderate young Muslims to long-bearded hardliners bent on imposing a divine dictatorship. The rainbow of varieties of political Islam has forced world media to start using unfamiliar terms such as Salafi — an ultraconservative champion of an Islamic state — to bring out some of the diversity in the emerging Muslim democracies.
Even local analysts and journalists in the Middle East find themselves fumbling for nouns and adjectives to describe exactly where a party stands in the spectrum of political options that find inspiration in the region’s main religion. Khaled Salah, editor-in-chief of the Cairo daily Al-Youm Al-Sabe, said the lines separating different Islamists were often so unclear that no agreed terms have emerged. “It’s very difficult even for Egyptians to understand the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis and the other groups,” he said.
Ibrahim Negm, senior adviser to Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, said the Islamist parties agreed on a role for religion but little else. “It’s wrong to put them all into one basket,” he said. “Their interpretations and tools are radically different.”
Islamist, originally a French academic neologism for advocates of a political role for the religion, seemed to fit the bill while the region was ruled only by military dictators or monarchs who jailed faith-based challengers. Iran’s Islamic Republic seemed to be the model, even though it was a theocracy run by a Shi’ite hierarchy that has no equivalent among the Sunni Muslims who make up the majority in the Arab states of the Middle East.