The Many Faces of the Islamist

This is an extract from an essay that is published in the October issue of Critical Muslimpublished by Hurst

Noting the ironies of etymology in his 1940 essay on the description of a fascist, Jorge Luis Borges notes that a crystal is not made of ice, but is a more complex composite of atoms or ions; that a leopard is not a cross between a lion and a panther, but a creature more untameable than either; and that a pontiff is no builder of bridges. Today the Islamist is the man everyone is trying to describe. Borges might have noted the following.

An Islamist is not made of Islam. He is a more complex composite of ideas and influences. An Islamist is not a cross between Islam and – as Graham Greene would say – some “ism or ocracy”, but a creature that escapes taming by either. Increasingly, the Islamist is called a salafist, an acolyte of the salaf, Islam’s first generation. In truth, the salafist is the most novel of Muslims, his infamous aversion to bida, “innovation”, in fact precipitating the most extraordinary intellectual innovation. He is less a spiritual fundamentalist – like the muftis, the marjas and the marabous of Deoband, of Qom, of Timbuktu, self-effacing in ethereal expectation of the afterlife – than a materialist, motivated by that worldly amour-propre behoving only an inhabitant of the present-day. The Islamist stands not in the tradition of Islam’s flat-earth cosmologists, Islam’s iconoclastic photography-forbidders, who know only the Koran; he stands instead in the cosmopolitan tradition of the first to call themselves “Salafists”, like the itinerant, whisky-swilling, polyglot Jamal al-Deen al-Afghani or the respectful correspondent of Tolstoy, Muhammad Abduh, both canonical figures in the Islamist tradition, yet whose examined lives barely correspond to the vision both Westerners and Muslims now have of fanatics and philistines.