A range of observers keep telling us that Australia and other western countries face a terrorist threat from “Islamists”. No doubt the threat is real, but I’ve been saying for years that this term for it is unhelpful and offensive.

It’s true that “Islamist”, unlike the apparently parallel cases of “Christianist” and “Jewist” (the latter, not coincidentally, much favored by anti-Semitic hate groups on the internet), has a respectable academic usage. But it should be confined to that, and not allowed to infect popular discourse about terrorism.

To see why, look at Turkey.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – apparently headed for re-election in this weekend’s elections – is Islamist in origins: that is, it was founded as a political expression of the Islamic religion.

It shares the same intellectual heritage as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. But as The Australian reports this morning, it has also provided “one of the most reformist governments modern Turkey has lived under.”

In Turkey, political Islam is on the side of democracy, human rights and modernisation. The threat to the AKP government has come from the country’s secular military elite, which has resorted to extra-legal means against the Islamists in the past and may well do so again. One thing that particularly enrages them is Erdogan’s willingness to make concessions to the long-persecuted Kurdish minority.

I yield to no-one in my support for secularism. But if the price of secularism is military coups, repression of minorities, and opposition to democracy, the market and European integration, that I think it’s fair to conclude that price is too high.

If the west was serious about democracy in the Middle East, it would be looking to Turkey as an example, and trying to encourage movements like Hamas to develop along the same lines as the AKP. But the US has isolated and therefore radicalised those movements, supporting instead the corrupt and anti-democratic Arab establishments.

Even in cases where a secular opposition is present, such as Pakistan, the west continues to prop up a dictatorship. Little wonder that Islamist movements conclude that the democratic path holds no prospect of success, and turn more towards the terrorist fringe.

But a term that embraces everything from the terrorists on one hand to the impeccably pro-western AKP on the other is a very broad brush indeed.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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