We Need To Stop Conflating ‘Muslims’ With Islamists

Writing in The Freethinker, the secular activist Maryam Namazie rejects the conflation of Muslims with Islamists.

It’s insidious how the Islamist narrative has become mainstream everywhere – in the media, in social policies, in discussions around minority communities and human rights, in ‘progressive’ politics … it’s also very much part and parcel of how some freethinkers view ‘Muslims’ – homogenised masses whose default is always the Islamist no matter how many refuse and resist – often at great risk to their lives.

Identity politics ignores this dissent and plurality (even vilifies it – to the extent that ex-Muslims, for example, are considered “native informants”).

But Islamic rules and Islamism are so antithetical to 21st century living that you don’t need to draw a cartoon of Mohammad, Islam’s prophet, or be an atheist and blaspheme to be at loggerheads with the theocrats.

Take Valentine’s Day. In 2014 in Saudi Arabia, 5 Saudi men arrested sentenced to 32 years in prison and 4,500 lashes for holding a Valentine’s Day party with “unrelated women, drinking and dancing.” In Islamic schools here in Europe, Valentine’s Day is frowned upon as un-Islamic.
Iranians shop for Valentine’s Day gifts at a shop in Tehran in 2001. Earlier this year Iran said it was cracking down on Valentine’s Day celebrations and shops engaging in them would be guilty of a crime. Photo: Getty Images

Take music. The Islamic State beheaded a 15-year-old boy for listening to Western music on his CD player at his dad’s shop. Confess have been accused of “satanic” metal & rock music; writing “anti-religious, atheist, political and anarchist lyrics” and sentenced to death in Iran. In Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain advises Muslim parents to ensure that their children avoid “harmful” music.

If there were no clashes, Islamic states and movements would not need absurdly named “morality police” and “Commissions for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice”. If it were people’s culture, Islamists would not need to exert such indiscriminate and targeted violence to try and keep the population at large in check.

There are countless examples of this huge fight back against the Islamists by those deemed to be “Muslims” but these contestations are ignored in the West with only Islamism’s narrative given credence.

In Iran, for example, women are fighting hard to enter sports stadiums where they are banned due to gender segregation rules.

In Britain, however, gender segregation is actively promoted. One good example of this is when in December 2013, Universities UK, a regulatory body, endorsed gender segregation in its guidelines on external speakers, saying:

Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.

(The familiar separate but equal arguments we heard during racial apartheid in South Africa.) UUK was eventually forced to withdraw its guidance after women’s rights campaigners and secularists protested the guidelines.

Sharia family codes are another area where women’s rights campaigners have fought hard to oppose discriminatory laws. Under Sharia’s civil code a women’s testimony is half that of a man’s, women have limited right to divorce whereas men have unilateral right to divorce, child custody is given to the father at a pre-set age irrespective of the welfare of the child and marriage contracts are entered into between the man and the woman’s male guardian.

An Islamic Sharia court in Britain explains why a woman’s testimony is half that of a man’s:

If one forgets, the other can remind her.

It’s the difference between a man and a woman’s brains.

A woman’s character is not so good for a case where testimony requires attention and concentration.

It goes on to say it is not “derogatory” but “the secret of women’s nature”.

Despite attempts to portray these courts as people’s rights to religion, including by some humanist organisations, black and minority women are contesting these courts in Britain and elsewhere.

In Algeria, women’s rights activists singing for change label 20 years of Sharia in the family code as 20 years of madness. They sing:

I am telling you a story

Of what the powerful have done

Of rules, a code of despair

A code obsessed with women…

“This law must be undone … !

In Iran, after the establishment of Sharia law there, the Iranian Lawyers’ Association came out in full force against the new religious codes only to be met with arrest and exile; some opponents were even charged with apostasy, which is a “crime” punishable by death … But here, the British government has so far failed to defend women’s rights and one law for all.

Also, despite its discriminatory nature, the Law Society in Britain issued a practice note for solicitors on how to draw up ‘Sharia-compliant’ wills, stating that:
… illegitimate and adopted children are not Sharia heirs … The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir … Non-Muslims may not inherit at all … a divorced spouse is no longer a Sharia heir…

The note was withdrawn only after the protests of women’s rights campaigners and secularists.

It’s the same with regards the veil, burqa and niqab. In Iran, there is an unveiling movement though improper veiling and unveiling is punishable by a fine, arrest, and up to two months in prison. Despite this, “progressives” here in the West often defend the hijab as a “right” and a “choice” when, socially speaking, it is anything but.

Seeing “Muslims” as homogenous aids and abets the Islamist movement and the far-right in general. Only when we stop conflating “Muslims” with Islamists and begin to see the immense dissent will we be able to ally with and show solidarity with progressive social and political movements and see the commonalities in our fight for secularism and against Islamism in Europe and across the globe.

This is key if we are to link up and strengthen the international front against theocrats of all stripes. And not a moment too soon.


  1. Does Islam cause Muslims or do Muslims cause Islam?
    This piece seem implies the latter. People that call themselves Muslim might fight against wearing the veil, but when this behaviour is essentially turning away from any normative sense of Islam, what relevence is it?
    Over 4/5 ths of Koranic/Sira/Hadith texts are about Mohammeds life and practices, not explicitly God type stuff.If you want to know what a Muslim is, why not start there, and ignore everyone (including me!)?

  2. I find it hard to believe that sharia and other forms of repression within Islam are maintained only by fear. I do see a correlation between western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalists but feel we must accept a large number of this religion believe in this lifestyle. I'd love to see an uprising against theocratic rulers in Islamic countries though don't know enough about the grassroots of said countries to know if this is feasible. Muslims complaining about being associated with Islamists is similar with Catholics complaining about being associated with child rapists. If they don't like it do more to eradicate it from their movements.

  3. What is an Islamist? I would think that any Muslim who argues that they follow the strict doctrines of Islam could correctly be called an Islamist -that would include Muslims who correctly or incorrectly believe in only peaceful means are the right interpretation of Islam? I presume the author does not mean 'moderate' or 'peaceful' Muslims who believe in targeting people who have offended Islam for things like drawing, adultery, blasphemy, apostasy or homosexuality? The term captures more than only Muslims involved in terrorism.

  4. Correct Christy. It seems a spurious distinction to me. Islam is more than just a religion, its a legal, economic and politcal framework.Is there any scholars which have dissavowed these aspects? Its a very difficult field to navigate for lay people.
    The media (especially the BBC) is very fond of using soundbites from a (self described Muslims) sect , the Ahmadiyyas, to deliver moderate and freindly (alleged) interpretations of Islam.These are so deviant from any normative sense of Islam, they arent even allowed into Mecca (which only Muslims can do).

  5. Daithi

    I had a conversation with Dublin based Shaykh Dr. Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri about 'moderate extremism' v Daesh extremism. I pointed out to him how moderate Islam tactfully condemns Daesh while at the same time profits from their terror tactics. Moderate Islam accepts into Islam each and every forced conversion and in fact boasts how Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world.

    I told him that I think Moderate Muslim Extremism could pose a more universal danger than the shock and awe extremism of Daesh. I put an example to him: if a young Yazidi girl who has been converted to Islam by 10 Muslims raping her and if ever she escaped to safety and denounced Islam -moderate Muslims would then condemn her as an apostate where she might then be killed by 'moderate' Muslims and not by Daesh. He refused to say that in an extreme case like this that such a girl would be free to leave Islam. Why are there no supposedly moderate Mufti's or Imams saying that conversion to Islam cannot be done by threat of beheading or any other kind coercion?

  6. Christy,

    "Why are there no supposedly moderate Mufti's or Imams saying that conversion to Islam cannot be done by threat of beheading or any other kind coercion?"

    Because that's exactly how Mohammed went about the Middle East spreading his 'religion' in the first place. If they say it is wrong they are saying their 'Prophet' is wrong and that would be anathema to them.

    Next time you talk to them bring this point up, see what they say. (clue: they can lie to kuffars to further Islam)