What are the differences between the traditional Muslim and the so-called "Islamist"? As words dealing with Islam continue to morph and multiply, it is important to differentiate, for there are real, if subtle, differences.
A recent Arabic talk show on Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak's trial sheds some light. The question was whether Mubarak, in the sight of Sharia law, should stand trial and be punished for, among other things, selling gas cheaply to Israel—or, as popularly portrayed, traitorously giving away Egypt's precious resources to its mortal enemy.
Two Islam authorities debated. Taking the controversial position—that Mubarak should not be condemned—was Sheikh Mahmoud Amer, leader of Ansar al-Sunna, or, those who imitate prophet Muhammad's way of living, which, of course, is what traditional Muslims—literally, Sunnis—have always done. His opponent, arguing that Mubarak deserves to be tried without mercy, was famous Islamist lawyer Montaser al-Zayyat (who most recently professed his "love" for Osama bin Laden).
Sheikh Amer, representing traditional Islam, stressed two points to exonerate Mubarak: 1) Dealing with the enemy (in this case, Israel) is permissible according to Sharia; Muhammad himself often appeased his infidel enemies, including Jews, when to his advantage, "for"—as the Sheikh quoted Muhammad—"war is deceit"; 2) According to Sharia, the only justification for deposing a ruler is if he becomes an infidel; if he is unjust, violent, and tyrannical to his Muslim subjects, that is not reason enough.
In fact, the Sheikh's position is very much in keeping with Sharia: Muslims—particularly their political leaders—are permitted to deceive and dupe non-Muslims, including by playing the role of appeaser, when circumstances call for it; moreover, even Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri admits that Islam's jurists are "unanimously agreed" that "it is forbidden to overthrow" Muslim rulers, even if they are "cruel and despotic," whereas "it is obligatory to wage jihad against" rulers found to be "apostate infidels" (The Al Qaeda Reader, pgs. 121-122, 129).
It's interesting to note, then, how "Islamists," such as Zayyat, who appear tenacious of upholding Sharia, sometimes advocate positions that actually contradict it. To understand this phenomenon, one must first understand "Islamism"—a hybrid abomination of sorts, whereby the better principles of Western civilization are absorbed and rearticulated within a distinctly Muslim paradigm. For instance, the Western stress on human freedom, human dignity, and universal justice, is, for Islamists, transformed into a stress on Muslim freedom, Muslim dignity, and Muslim justice—all, naturally, at the sake of the infidel.
So while the Islamist maintains traditional hostility for infidels, he may exhibit a Western sense of "humanitarianism" to fellow Muslims, evoking things like their "human worth" and "dignity." Zayyat, for instance, repeatedly accused Mubarak of "robbing the people," "betraying the people," "torturing the nation's sons," "denying sons from their mothers and fathers"—language as alien to the traditional Muslim mentality as it is familiar to the Western. Similarly, Islamists influenced by the Western notion of "nationalism" tend to Westernize Islam's notion of Umma, as when Zayyat talked sentimentally about how "the Umma has a right" over Mubarak.
As Sheikh Amer indicated, however, traditional Islam—born of the deserts of 7th century Arabia, and so, ever pragmatic—makes clear that the authority, the sultan, can be as ruthless as necessary with Muslims—Western concepts of fairness and equality be damned. Moreover, the nationalist element evoked by Zayyat is non-existent in Islam proper: Umma originally meant "community" (and in Koran 6:38 is even used to describe communities of animals).
These discrepancies were summed up towards the end of the show, when the traditional Sheikh exclaimed: "I say to Mr. Montaser al-Zayyat that you will be asked on Judgment Day about these claims you're making—that he [Mubarak] took money and was a Zionist traitor. I am here telling you what the prophet said and what the prophet did [that it is permissible to deceive the enemy and that the ruler is above censure], and here you're talking nonsense?!"
Lest it appear that Islamists are more "humane" than traditionalists, it should be kept in mind that the other—the non-Muslim—is viewed by both groups as the infidel enemy. In fact, whatever subtle differences may exist, the similarities between the Islamist and Muslim are many. Thus, while the traditional Sheikh and the Islamist argued over Mubarak's fate, there was never disagreement over two points—enmity for Israel and Jews, and the permissibility of using deceit to undermine them.
Raymond Ibrahim, an Islam specialist and author of The Al Qaeda Reader, is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.