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Why We Need to Modify the Term 'Islamist Terrorist'

Why We Need to Modify the Term 'Islamist Terrorist'


By James Hess, Ph.D.
Faculty Director and Associate Professor of Intelligence Studies at American Military University

When extremist Islamic groups such as ISIS conducts a terrorist attack, it is common to hear politicians and the media refer to them as Islamists. But these groups have a specific ideology that separates them from mainstream Islam.

While I applaud public efforts to correctly identify terrorists’ religious ideology, it’s not enough. We need to stop referring to terrorists as “Islamists.”

Jihadi Salafism Is Basic Ideology for Terrorists

Almost every single group of “Islamist” terrorists, outside the Shi’a, adheres to a single belief – Jihadi Salafism. Although there is a peaceful version of Salafism known as Quietist Salafism, it differs from Jihadi Salafism.

Salafism, while it has some roots in Wahhabism, is a fundamentalist movement born in Egypt in the early to mid-20th century. The Muslim Brotherhood was among the first to embrace the Salafist movement.

Jihadi Salafism’s Roots Come from Works by Ibn Taymiyyah and Sayyid Qutb

Salafism is named for its adherence to the first generation of Muslims – the Salaf, which present-day followers believe is the only form of uncorrupted Islam. Salafists’ preference to the Salaf is indicative of their overall rejection of traditional Islam, which is rooted in the traditional jurisprudence (fiqh), defined by the early jurists Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’I and Maliki.

Sunni fiqh has traditionally followed a normative faith established by the Qur’an, Hadiths, Interpretations (of the jurists) and Consensus (of the people). Salafism effectively removes the interpretation and consensus. Salafism gives prominence to a 13th to 14th century Hanbalist scholar named Ibn Taymiyyah because of the creed he published.

Ibn Taymiyyah’s creed, “Al-Aqidah Al-Waasitiyyah,” was based on the Qur-an and reflected his view that most Islamic fiqh was rooted in the works of the jurists rather than the Qur’an. Ibn Taymiyyah was largely disregarded, branded as a heretic and imprisoned for his works.

One of Ibn Taymiyyah’s most famous arguments was that Muslims have a duty to conduct jihad against other Muslims when Muslim lands are threatened. He was referring to the Mongolian invasion of the Middle East in the 13th to 14th century.

Another important figure for the Jihadi-Salafist group is Sayyid Qutb. Qutb, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, published the book “Milestones.” This book denounces the secular governments of Egypt and all secular governments of Muslim countries.

In “Milestones,” Qutb refers to the present situation of Islam as being in a state of jahiliyyah, which means “ignorance.” This accusation has had a tremendous impact on Jihadi Salafist groups.

This argument also allows terrorist groups like al Qae’da and ISIS to systematically kill fellow Muslims, based on both Ibn Taymiyyah’s and Sayyid Qutb’s works. At the same time, these terrorist groups justify these murders by labeling their fellow Muslims as infidels.

By Removing “Islamist” Label, Terrorist Recruitment of New Members Could Become More Difficult

Instead of calling Jihadi Salafists “Islamists,” we should refer to them by the creator of their ideology and remove the direct relationship to Islam. The modern Salafist movement is rooted in the works of individuals who are outside the period of the Salaf, which counters the Salafist belief from the start.

Just as followers of Wahhabism don’t like to be called Wahhabists, but rather believe they are Muslims following traditional Islam, Salafists also believe they are Muslims following traditional Islam. Calling Jihadi Salafists “Islamists” actually supports their argument that they are connected to Islam. That argument proves influential when extremists seek recruits who are willing to conduct lethal attacks for their nontraditional religion.

Qutbism is the ideology of Jihadi Salafists. It has its roots in Ibn Taymiyyah’s publication and was further refined in Qutb’s “Milestones,” which established legitimacy for terrorism.

Calling terrorists Qutbists demonstrates the reality that they are following the words of a man, Sayyid Qutb. Referring to their beliefs as Qutbism reflects that their beliefs are nothing more than an ideology born in hate and ignorance for the traditions of the honorable faith of Islam.

About the Author

Dr. James Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University where he studied improving analytical methodologies in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism environments. He is currently studying the relationship between Islamic jurisprudence and terrorism as an International Relations Research Fellow with the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.