"Islamists" (whatever that means) win in Egypt

As regular GetReligion readers will know, I have -- for quite some time now -- curious about what the word "Islamist" means when it is used in mainstream news coverage of the Islam, either in lands that are majority Muslim or those that are not. In other words, does "Islamist" mean one thing in Cairo and another thing in Detroit? Alas, once you know what "Islamist" means, you then have to discern the meaning of other popular journalistic terms such as "moderate Islamist," "conservative Islamist" and the ever popular "fundamentalist Islamist."

It's pretty easy to figure out that this is a very broad, vague term and that many people are struggling to define it. Check out the mixed signals in this typical online dictionary reference:

Islamist ... -- adj

1. supporting or advocating Islamic fundamentalism

-- n 2. a supporter or advocate of Islamic fundamentalism

The same page, however, also refers readers to a completely different, non-political take on the same term:

Islamist -- noun

1. a scholar who knowledgeable in Islamic studies

2. an orthodox Muslim

So are we talking about "orthodox" or "fundamentalist" Muslims? Can anyone share with me a few of the practical differences between these two groups of believers?

All of this is rather important, in light of recent events in the Middle East and Egypt, in particular. Clearly, most journalists are using this term in a political context when applying it to the results of an election. However, as one reads the following New York Times lede, it's important to remember that the last thing an Islamist would endorse is the separation of mosque and state. Other definitions of the term, after all, stress that the ultimate goal for Islamists is to see Islamic law and doctrine embodied in all aspects of life in a given national or culture. How does that mesh with democracy?

CAIRO -- Egypt’s military rulers on Sunday officially recognized Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as the winner of Egypt’s first competitive presidential election, handing the Islamists both a symbolic triumph and a potent weapon in their struggle for power against the country’s top generals.

Mr. Morsi, 60, an American-trained engineer and former lawmaker, is the first Islamist elected as head of an Arab state. He becomes Egypt’s fifth president and the first from outside the military. But his victory, 16 months after the military took over on the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, is an ambiguous milestone in Egypt’s promised transition to democracy.

Now, what readers need to know -- as they attempt, from context, to define "Islamist" -- are some practical examples of what "Islamists" believe and, in particular, what changes they would want to see in Egyptian life and culture. Do all Islamists agree on these doctrinal points? What are the changes that lie ahead that frighten voters, especially those in religious minorities, who opposed the Brotherhood in this election?

Later in the story, the Times introduces another undefined variation on the key term -- again without any specific facts to help provide context for readers.

After 84 years as a secret society struggling in the prisons and shadows of monarchs and dictators, the Brotherhood is now closer than ever to its stated goal of building an Islamist democracy in Egypt.

The story does make it clear -- with one exceptionally good live quote -- that one critical issue facing the new government is the degree to which religious liberty (without quotation marks) will be a reality for religious minorities in Egypt. This implies that the rise of the "Islamists" has negative implications for minority groups. Why is that? What are the doctrines and policies that are linked to those concerns? Strict blasphemy laws?

State television, long a wellspring of propaganda against the Brotherhood, broadcast Mr. Morsi’s victory speech on Sunday. In it, he pledged repeatedly to be “a president for all Egyptians.” He quoted the first Muslim caliph to describe his authority in Islamic terms, but he also extended a hand to Egypt’s large Coptic Christian minority, many of whom remain dubious of him. “We as Egyptians, Muslims and Christians, are preachers of civilization and building; so we were, and so we will remain, God willing,” he said. “We will face together the strife and conspiracies that target our national unity.

“We are all equal in rights, and we all have duties towards this homeland,” he added. “But for me, I have no rights, I have only duties.” He also repeated his pledge to uphold all international agreements, an apparent reference to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

Then there is the other side of the coin:

Five years ago, when the Brotherhood adopted a draft party platform that called for barring women and non-Muslims from the presidency, Mr. Morsi was a chief defender of the controversial planks, inside and outside the group. He argued that Islam required the president to be a male Muslim, in part because the head of state should promote the faith.

Let me stress that, all in all, this is a solid story. It's clear that the term "Islamist" has something to do with the degree to which Sharia law will be written into Egypt's constitution and then enforced in daily life -- as a majority of the nation's citizens desire. It's clear that the "secular" and "liberal" minorities fear the rise of the Brotherhood, as did the Coptic Christians.

The story is solid, yet -- for the life of me -- I can't understand why it's so hard to include one or two sentences somewhere that provide essential facts for readers as context. Why is it so important not to define this term, to leave that crucial point vague?

The Times is not alone, of course. Check out the top of this Washington Post report:

CAIRO -- Egyptians picked a conservative Islamist as their first freely elected president, officials announced Sunday, giving the Muslim Brotherhood a platform to challenge entrenched military authority and electrifying the Arab world’s most populous nation with one of the most concrete signs of democratic change since the revolution last year.

Mohamed Morsi’s victory represented a watershed moment for Egyptian Islamists, who were tortured and repressed during decades of autocratic regimes, and it sparked jubilant celebrations in Tahrir Square, the heart of the revolution. But the result raised as many questions as it answered. Morsi will assume a position that was recently weakened by Egypt’s ruling generals through a constitutional decree. And he will not have the backing of the country’s Islamist-dominated parliament, which was dissolved by a court order.

So what we have here is a "conservative" Muslim fundamentalist, as opposed to a "moderate" one. Also note that the victorious Islamist does not have the full backing of Egypt's "Islamist-dominated parliament" -- which points to the fact that there are political and doctrinal issues that divide these various "Islamist" camps.

What might those fault lines be? This story only offers vague hints:

It also remains uncertain whether the low-key, little-known Morsi can serve as a unifying figure in a nation that has splintered politically since the revolution, with many Egyptians fearful that Islamic leadership will impose strict moral codes or try to dominate politics. And though his win will serve as an inspiration for Islamist movements across the region, it is likely to be seen as a potential threat by Israel, which has regarded Egypt as a linchpin of Middle East peace through their 35-year-old treaty. ...

Morsi comes from the Brotherhood’s conservative wing, and during the campaign he vowed that he would make the Koran the bedrock of the new constitution.

What, precisely, are the elements of daily life that might be controlled by these potential "moral codes"? Are we talking about foreign tourists attempting to sip martinis, Egyptian women trying to escape forced marriages or Coptic Christians trying to build churches or educate their children without government interference?

Just asking. I cannot tell if reporters lack answers to these questions, even though the stories imply that these questions really matter. Perhaps the reporters know the answers, but do not want to put them into print.

PHOTO: From Lawsonry.com

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