4 Things That Make Debating Islamism Impossible

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Protester yells
Protester yells (Photo: John Moore / Getty Images)

A lot of people are talking about Islamism, terrorism and related issues. However a lot of that debate is shallow and does not lead towards constructive solutions.

Here are four things holding back the debate:



Many people in the West are very ignorant about Islam as a religion and Islamism as a political ideology. They are also ignorant about their own history, including many of the grievances which some Muslims bring up when they criticize Western governments, in particular the American government. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, everyone is ignorant about everything until they learn about it, and most people have had no reason to learn about religions they don’t follow.

The ignorance has seeped into our political discourse however, which is a problem. Policy makers and lawmakers often do not know the difference between various sects of Islam or between Islamism as a political ideology and the religion as a whole. This leads to shallow debates about whether Islam in general is good or bad, which is not what this conversation is about at all.

As part of our commitment to honesty and education, Clarion launched a New Year’s pledge, calling on our subscribers to read the Quran this year.



The political divide in America between Republicans and Democrats has swallowed up almost all political issues, with each party claiming a stance on pretty much everything. Part of that has to do with the fact that there are genuine differences on each issue that map onto the broader philosophical stances taken by each party. But part of it has to do with politicians seeking to gain advantage over one another by taking up a cause they feel is popular.

This has resulted in a situation where Republicans are perceived as anti-Muslim because they want to talk about the dangers posed by radical Islam, while Democrats are perceived as naive and foolish because they feel anti-Muslim bigotry is the real issue.

Clarion’s position, shared by many counter-Islamists from many different organizations around the world, is that both radical Islam and anti-Muslim bigotry are problems, that they feed into each other and that we ought to oppose both for the same reason: a commitment to freedom and the First Amendment.

Yet that simple message gets lost in the partisan screaming.


3.’Click Bait’ Culture

To a certain extent “click bait” is a misleading term, since people click on things they want to read and that’s good. But dumbing things down to the lowest common denominator in an effort to win traffic does not improve the quality of the debate. Neither does reducing nuanced and complicated situations to 30 second sound-bites in search of a viral video clip.

The 24-hour news cycle and the media’s need for short, shareable content easily that is understandable by someone with no prior knowledge is preventing a deeper understanding of this issue.

When coupled with partisanship and ignorance, it makes for a toxic combination.


4.Race and Racism

Any conversation about Islamism is incomplete without mentioning racism. For over 200 years, European countries (and then the United States) have colonized, bullied, controlled and invaded Muslim majority countries, inhabited by people primarily who are black and brown. Those policies were carried out in the service of a pseudo-scientific notion of racial superiority which was only seriously challenged in the aftermath of World War Two.

The civil rights struggle in America was within living memory. The after effects of the structural racism which that movement sought to deconstruct still impacts black and brown people today. Since the overwhelming majority of Muslims are black or brown, Islam — although it is not a race — has become racialized issue.

Therefore, calls for religious rights for Muslims are interwoven with demands for racial equality. And criticism of Islamism at times comes from the same people who are hanging onto the vestiges of white supremacy.

There are definitely people who are using the current problem with Islamism to advance the same racist platforms they have always espoused. Black and brown Muslims know this, which is perhaps partly why people look at critiques of Islam as racist — since sometimes it actually is motivated by racism. These fears are exacerbated when, for example, the president of the United States retweets videos from a far-right group like Britain First.

Unless race is acknowledged as a part of the puzzle, we will continue to struggle to have an honest and open conversation.



The Six Levels of Countering Islamism

The Vital Importance of ‘Radical Empathy’

Things You Can Do to Fight Radical Islam


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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.