Islamism and Christianism

I'm struck by how my neologism still offends so many. The term "Islamist" was coined to describe political regimes or political movements that have the source of their legitimacy in the Muslim God. It wa coined in part to exclude secularized Muslims from their politicized counterparts. Wikipedia is clear enough about the accepted use of the term:

Islamism is a set of political ideologies that hold that Islam is not only a religion, but also a political system that governs the legal, economic and social imperatives of the state according to its interpretation of Islamic Law. For Islamists, the sharia has absolute priority over democracy and universal human rights: "The Islamic Shari'ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification of any of the articles of this [Cairo] Declaration [on Human Rights in Islam]."

This usage is controversial. People who are labeled Islamists oppose the term because it suggests their philosophy to be a political extrapolation from Islam rather than a straightforward expression of Islam as a way of life. Some Muslims find it troublesome that a word derived from 'Islam' is applied to organizations they consider radical and extreme. The terms "Islamist" and "Islamism" are used often in several publications within some Muslim countries to describe domestic and trans-national organizations seeking to implement Islamic law. The English website for Al Jazeera, for example, uses these terms frequently.

You will notice no mention of terrorism or violence. My use of the term Christianist similarly and simply describes those who believe that the source of any political system should be Christian revelation, rather than the secular principles of the Enlightenment and the American constitution. A reader recently described my use of "Christianist" as a

"misguided term for people who believe in universal justice and standards that come from a universal source."

Well, yes, that is my definition. In the reader's case, the universal source is the Bible. For Muslims, however, it is the Koran. And, of course, since both insist on the universal quality of their revelation, they are mutually incompatible, and democratic politics becomes impossible. Furthermore, since revelation of this kind is indeed the source of politics for Islamists and Christianists, I see no essential political difference between the two. The counterpoint to both is secular constitutional democracy, premised on a non-denominational achievement of individual freedom. When that freedom collides with religious truth, an Islamist or a Christianist has few qualms in squelching freedom. I differ. That's the core of our "culture war". There is no freedom I would not grant a Christianist or Islamist in the exercize of his religious faith; but there are plenty of freedoms that he would seek to deny me in the simple living of my life.

I realize, after reading countless emails on the matter, that the real source of offense is my equating Islam and Christianity as interchangeable religious beliefs, for the purposes of politics. I see them as potentially equally threatening to freedom. History suggests that both have been deployed in the service of terrifying dictatorships, mass murder and religious war. In some ways, Christianity's record in this is actually worse than Islam's. This is not a reflection on the utterly peaceful intent of Jesus of Nazareth, but, then, he was also adamant on separating religion from politics. It is a reflection on the profound danger of fusing faith and power. If I'm right, the offense is mainly taken by Christians who simply refuse to see their faith as equally valid as Islam. They are offended that a Christian could even be equated with a Muslim. Which means, I believe, that they have not begun to understand the meaning of toleration at the core of Christianity, let alone the central insight of liberal constitutionalism. Hence our political and religious crisis.

2006-2011 archives for The Daily Dish, featuring Andrew Sullivan

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