For Post-Soviet States, ‘Islamism’ is the ‘Zionism’ of Today

by Paul A. Goble  |  May 4, 2005  |  ARTICLES

Moscow, following the lead of Tashkent, is now using the term “Islamism” against Muslims in much the same way that the Soviet regime used the term “Zionism” against Jews  – as a justification for official actions of whatever kind against Muslims it does not like, according to a leading Russian specialist on Islam.

Writing in “Trud” on June 2, Dmitriy Furman, who is a senior scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Europe, says that it is easy to understand why Uzbek President Islam Karimov has invoked this term but impossible to justify either his actions or those of Russian officials who are now doing the same.

Having bloodily suppressed the popular rising against him at Andijan, Karimov used the word “Islamism” in order to silence his opponents.  By employing it, he suggested that all of his opponents were somehow linked to international terrorism and thus implied that his actions against them were entirely justified.

For many in Moscow, Furman continues, Karimov’s clever use of this term helped to put everything in its proper place.  “To kill one’s fellow citizens is not a good thing,” he writes. “But to kill Islamists is something else” because Islamism is connected with “terrorism and jihad.” Indeed, for many “a good Islamist is a dead Islamist.”

And the term has yet another advantage for those in power, Furman notes: “it can be applied to almost any Muslim.”  And that sad fact, he says, helps to explain what is going on by highlighting the parallels between attacks on Islamism now and attacks on Zionism in Soviet times.

“The Soviet government strived to use anti-Semitism without speaking about ‘a struggle with the Jews,” Furman argues, “and thus said ‘Zionism’ just as now those who have not resolved to speak about ‘a struggle with Muslims’ use the euphemism ‘Islamism.’”

Zionism, as Furman points out, is the idea of Jewish state in Palestine, and “to find Jews who speak out against the idea of Israel is difficult. Thus almost all Jews are Zionists,” and consequently, Soviet officials were able to apply it to any Jew they selected regardless of his actions or ideas.

In much the same way, Furman says, Islamism is about the institutionalization of the Islamic norms in public life.  “To find a Muslim who asserts that Islamic norms should not be introduced is just as difficult [as to find a Jew who opposes the state of Israel]. And consequently, the terrible word ‘Islamist’ can be applied” in the same way.

And there is yet another way in which these two terms play a similar role.  Both among Jews and among Muslims, there are a wide variety of views about what kind of actions are appropriate to bring their goals into life. Some in both groups support the use of force, while others do not.

But those who talked about Zionism in Soviet times or use the term Islamism now often seek to obscure this diversity and to blame all Jews or all Muslims for the actions of tiny minorities of each.

In Soviet times, Furman notes, officials often made the following “pseudo-logical” argument: Jews should not be admitted to universities since practically all of them are Zionists” and Zionists by definition either have contacts with undesirable groups or act in undesirable ways. The absurdity and immorality of that argument, of coruse, did not stop Soviet officials from using it. And there is a very real danger that officials in the Russian Federation and elsewhere will begin to invoke the word Islamist in much the same way and for many of the same purposes.

That term, Furman concludes, must not be used as a synonym for horror and as a justification for any cruelties [as Karimov has done]. If there is a religion of Islam, then there must be Islamism, the striving to bring to life the norms of this religion.  Just as if there is a Jewish people, then there must be Zionism, the nationalism of this people.”