For more than a decade now, “Islam” has been a contentious word, associated alternately with terrorism, political regimes, and a widely misunderstood religious faith. Since September 11, 2001, American political commentators have been split between those who call the acts of terrorism typified by the destruction of the World Trade Center the inevitable byproduct of Islam, and those who claim there is only a tenuous relationship between terrorists and their religion.
In a 2005 opinion piece in the New York Times, Bassam Tibi argued that neither of these perspectives truly grasps the relationship between Islam and its political effects. Thus, in his new book Islamism and Islam, Tibi argues for a rigorous distinction between Islam, the religion, and Islamism, the “religionized politics” that constitutes “a powerful instance of the global phenomenon of religious fundamentalism.”
Tibi, a distinguished social scientist who is himself a Muslim, draws on research undertaken in twenty Muslim countries over the course of the last thirty years to elucidate this distinction, which he lays out in illuminating detail. Among the specific issues Tibi addresses are the differences between classical Muslim notions of jihad and terrorist jihadism; the incompatibility of Islamism and democracy; and the anti-Semitism of Islamism, whose uniquely international point of view considers Jews rivals in the world order. Finally, Tibi draws upon the work of Hannah Arendt in order to demonstrate the ways in which Islamism is “a new totalitarianism,” which undermines the possibility of cooperative dialogue with the West.
In so doing, Tibi combines a “respect for the faith of Islam with a staunch critique of Islamism,” arguing for a “civil Islam” that could peacefully contribute to the diversity of religion traditions that characterizes modern society.