‘Islamist militants’

September 05, 2019


RECENTLY, a Dawn reader reacted strongly to the words “Islamist militants” appearing in the caption of a picture about Sri Lanka. The reader said it was “painful” to see “the word ‘Muslim’ or ‘Islam’ with any terror group”.

Before we dwell on ‘Islamist’ and ‘Islamic’, let us note that the conscientious objector is factually wrong, because the caption spoke of ‘militants’ and not ‘terrorists’. While the latter is an abhorrent phenomenon, the word ‘militant’ under given circumstances could be an objective term, because a militant could be fighting for a cause which he may believe to be just. Civilians may fall victim to what is called collateral damage, but a paladin doesn’t believe in targeting civilians as a matter of policy, as terrorists do — 9/11, 7/7, APS Peshawar, Eid prayers, taraweeh congregations, Shia mosques, churches, concerts and nightclubs.

Mustafa Akyol, one of Turkey’s leading intellectuals, responded to my request to throw light on the word ‘Islamist’. Author of the path-breaking book Islam without Extremism, Akyol says ‘Islamist’ is “an accurate and also helpful term, because it helps distinguish between Muslims who see Islam only as a religion in the universal sense, and those who see it also as a political ideology.

“For example, in Turkey, my country, probably more than 90 per cent of all citizens would identify themselves as Muslim. But, as polls show, only 10-15pc of Turks want an ‘Islamic state’ instead of the existing secular state. They are often called — and they call themselves — ‘Islamists’ (in Turkish, “Islamçı”) [pronounced ‘Islamchi’].

Without our morning conference, Dawn would be nowhere.

“Are Islamists violent? Most of them aren’t. They want to come to power by non-violent political means. But some are violent. That is why it is fair to speak of ‘Islamist violence’ or ‘Islamist terrorism’. But that would not be ‘Islamic terrorism’, because it is wrong to say Islam as a religion justifies or encourages terrorism.” (Akyol, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Cato Institute, focusing on Islam and modernity, asks me to give his “salaam to beautiful Pakistan”.)

Another reader raises a question that I find rather baffling. He wants “transparency” in Dawn’s editorial writing. How come? He says he has looked into the working of some international newspapers where a discussion “within an editorial desk takes place”. Also, their websites show “the names and backgrounds” of their leader writers, and he regretted he didn’t find “the same transparency” in Dawn. He hoped this paper too would one day have “a structured and methodological approach towards editorial writing”.

Dear reader, the newspapers you refer to give not only the academic and professional backgrounds of their leader writers, their websites even display their photographs, which are, of course, good to look at. But should Dawn go for this blatant projection of its leader writers? If quality were synonymous with pix and bios, our TV talk shows would stand on a high intellectual pedestal. Dawn speaks for itself.

Traditionally, Dawn editors and leader writers have chosen to remain unseen. What matters is their competence, diligence and, more important, courage. If a discussion were not to go into the contents of an editorial, what else would — pesky government ‘advice’? A chilling threat from terrorists? A narrow commercial outlook? Or an editorial anarchy in which every leader writer would be on his or her own? Ultimately, it is the editor who is ethically and morally responsible for the editorial, for his name is there on the print line.

The editor is not a polymath, could go wrong and needs his colleagues’ input at the brainstorming session that consumes 60 to 90 minutes of our time daily. Without this confab, no editorial could be conceptualised. Even on issues where no two opinions exist, you are sometimes confounded. Yes, we are categorically for a sovereign Palestinian state, but what happens when Palestinians themselves fall out — as Fatah and Hamas do? Or what do we write on the complex Yemen conflict? Emotive issues like these can only be decided by discussions where it is not unusual for adrenaline to shoot. To recap: without the morning conference tea, we would be nowhere. As they say, when several minds meet, a master mind comes into being. Statecraft or editorialising becomes a rudderless ship without a master mind.

Now here is a reader objecting to the Gambols cartoon. She finds it “totally out of sync with the times. It is sexist, and horribly demeaning to women. I am surprised that no one has brought this up as yet.”

Dear reader: I too have been seeing this cartoon, as you say, “as long as I can remember” both as a reader and staff member, but I have never come across any criticism of this innocuous strip. It is true it shows British culture, but its jokes have a universal appeal. Nevertheless, you have made us think.

The writer is Dawn’s readers’ editor and an author.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2019