Pin the label on the "Islamist"

Anyone who has read GetReligion through the years knows that I am, as a rule, an admirer of the work of David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times. I know, from experience, how hard he works to make sure that he handles religious language in a way that is accurate and balanced.

That said, I want to go on the record -- once again -- saying that I have no idea what the word "Islamist" means these days in mainstream media coverage of events in Egypt. Yes, that includes the following Kirkpatrick story from the Times.

In this case, Kirkpatrick opens the story with an obvious attempt -- which I applaud -- to describe a key Egyptian leader in terms of his beliefs and convictions, rather than a mere label. Read this carefully:

CAIRO -- He has argued for barring women and non-Muslims from Egypt’s presidency on the basis of Islamic law, or Shariah. He has called for a council of Muslim scholars to advise Parliament. He has a track record of inflammatory statements about Israel, including repeatedly calling its citizens “killers and vampires.”

Mohamed Morsi is also a leading candidate to become the country’s next president.

Mr. Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s dominant Islamist group, declared last week that his party platform amounted to a distillation of Islam itself.

“This is the old ‘Islam is the solution’ platform,” he said, recalling the group’s traditional slogan in his first television interview as a candidate. “It has been developed and crystallized so that God could bless society with it.” At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: “The Koran is our constitution, and Shariah is our guide!”

Whatever "Islamist" means, the Muslim Brotherhood is a group that has fit under that umbrella for decades. That isn't really the issue. The problem journalists have faced in the past year or so is this: How does one describe the fact that, in some sense of the word, the Brotherhood is now a "moderate" Islamist group in comparison with others?

If the Brotherhood has become the centrist Islamist norm, then it is even more important to note the issues that now separate this group from Islamist bodies. For example, what are the doctrinal and policy clashes between the Brotherhood and the growing ranks of Salafist groups in Egypt?

The need for this kind of clarity emerges a few lines later -- in a discussion of what is called the liberal wing of the Islamists. This leads to the thesis statement for this news feature:

Mr. Morsi, who claims to be the only true Islamist in the race, faces his fiercest competition from a more liberal Islamist, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a pioneering leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled from the group in June for arguing for a more pluralistic approach to both Islam and Egypt. He is campaigning now as the leading champion of liberal values in the race.

Both face a third front-runner, the former foreign minister Amr Moussa, who argued this week that Egypt cannot afford an “experiment” in Islamic democracy.

The winner could set the course for Egypt’s future, overseeing the drafting of a new constitution, settling the status of its current military rulers, and shaping its relations with the West, Israel and its own Christian minority. But as the Islamists step toward power across the region, the most important debate may be the one occurring within their own ranks over the proper agenda and goals.

Once again, I want to praise Kirkpatrick for attempting to give this still vague label some content. Thus, readers are immediately told:

Mr. Morsi’s conservative record and early campaign statements have sharpened the contrast between competing Islamist visions. The Brotherhood, the 84-year-old religious revival group known here for its preaching and charity as well as for its moderate Islamist politics, took a much softer approach in the official platform it released last year. It dropped the “Islam is the solution” slogan, omitted controversial proposals about a religious council or a Muslim president and promised to respect the Camp David accords with Israel. Its parliamentary leaders distanced themselves from the Salafis, ultraconservative Islamists who won a quarter of the seats in Parliament.

Apparently, a "liberal" Islamist is one who rarely talks about the role of Islamic law in the governance of the nation.

This is precisely where I am confused. What does "Islamist" mean, if it does not mean supporting the use of Islamic law -- to one degree or another -- as the backbone of the nation's governance?

Meanwhile, it's clear that Morsi is looking to his right for support, much more than to the tolerant, secular left. The problem, again, is that these maneuvers are described in political terms alone, while the differences between these groups are clearly linked to doctrinal issues in public life.

... Mr. Morsi is also courting the ultraconservative Salafis, whose popular candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, was also disqualified. Mr. Morsi may be tacking to the right to court the Salafis as a swing vote in the contest with Mr. Aboul Fotouh, or he may merely be expressing more conservative, older impulses within the Brotherhood.

“Some want to stop our march to an Islamic future, where the grace of God’s laws will be implemented and provide an honest life to all,” he proclaimed Saturday night at his first rally, in a Nile delta town. “Our Salafi brothers, the Islamic group, we are united in our aims and Islamic vision. The Islamic front must unite so we can fulfill this vision.”

And the details of this vision? Readers learn about Morsi's role leading a boycott of a "major Egyptian cellphone company because its founder, Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic Christian, had circulated on Twitter a cartoon of Mickey Mouse in a long beard with Minnie in a full-face veil -- a joke Mr. Morsi said insulted Islam." So is toleration of the Copts the key? Kirkpatrick also notes that early attempts to form a Brotherhood party including a platform that "called for restricting the presidency to Muslim men" and to Muslims. The goal was the creation of a tolerant "Islamic state." Tolerate what, precisely?

In short, the article does a good job of describing -- in practical terms -- the views of the Brotherhood and Morsi. I salute Kirkpatrick for that. The problem is defining how the other "Islamists" differ on these same practical issues. What makes someone an "Islamist" and also an "ultraconservative"? What makes someone both an "Islamist" and a "liberal" or a "moderate"?

In other words, I am still asking: What is the core definition, at the Times, for the crucial word "Islamist"? What does that mean? It might help to let readers know.

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