Looking Beyond Islamism and Islamists

Much has changed in the decade since the first U.S.-Islamic World Forum was convened in Doha in 2004, not long after the devastating 9/11 attacks in the United States. Since then, wars were waged in two Muslim countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, by one U.S. president and ended by another—the effects of which are still with us today. Moreover, the extraordinary transformations and upheavals that have raged across the Middle East and North Africa since late 2010 have both deepened America’s engagement with Muslim-majority societies and raised new challenges.

One important outcome of the still-unfolding Arab uprisings has been to challenge long-held assumptions about the Middle East, Arabs, and Islam—from outmoded notions of “stability” to the redefining of terms like “moderate” and “extremist.” In particular, the unspoken boycott of “political Islam” by U.S. officials and most of the Washington policy establishment is now a thing of the past. Leaders and movements once shunned by the United States now receive glowing receptions in Washington, and private audiences with the Secretary of State and even the President.

But as change and upheaval continue to transform the Arab Middle East, there is a real risk that old dogmas will merely be replaced by new ones. For much of the U.S. policy establishment, the broad spectrum of sociopolitical movements associated with political Islam – from nonviolent movements like the Muslim Brotherhood to the death-cults of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates – seem to be the only Muslims that matter.  In this, the worldview of many western observers of the Muslim world is eerily similar to that of Islamists themselves – one in which Islam is seen as both all-encompassing and inherently political.

While it is true that Islam remains a powerful force in the spiritual, social, legal, and political life of Muslim majority countries, its myriad expressions are not limited to those of self-proclaimed Islamists. And while Islamist groups are often the most organized and motivated forces on the political scene, they are frequently also the most polarizing and destabilizing—as events in Egypt, Tunisia, and most recently, Turkey, clearly demonstrate.

That large swaths, perhaps even a majority, of Muslims are not ideological or even politicized in their understanding or practice of Islam, including many pious individuals and those whose social and political activism is derived from their Islamic faith, is often overlooked. As is the fact that many non-religious and even non-Islamic voices are part and parcel of the “Muslim world.” Genuine engagement between the United States and the Muslim world must be more than just a conversation about, with, or among Islamists. This year’s participants at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha will no doubt have an opportunity to do just that.

See a preview of this year’s forum here: