How does an "Islamist" differ from a "Muslim"?

In 2003, I asked Merriam-Webster the following question. Assistant Editor, Jennifer N. Cislo, replied as follows.

Q: My reading tells me that Islamism means a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, and that an Islamist is a practitioner of Islamism. Is this accurate? If not, how do Islam and Islamism differ?

A: No, an Islamist is not necessarily a Muslim fundamentalist. Islamist means simply “an adherent of Islam.” Thus, an Islamist is a person who follows or believes in Islam. Both Islam and Islamism describe the religious faith of Muslims (which is the practice of Islam). The terms are somewhat interchangeable.

The key here is fundamentalist. Not all Muslims are fundamentalist. Not all Islamists are fundamentalist. Rather, fundamentalist describes a smaller subset of a religious or political group. For instance, there are fundamentalist Christians as well as fundamentalist Muslims within the Christian and Muslim faiths respectively. Fundamentalism, defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, as “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles,” describes a subgroup within a faith that is particularly strict and literal in its interpretations of and following of religious doctrine. Fundamentalists are generally a subgroup and, as such, do not represent the majority of those who practice their faith.

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Q: In “Fighting Militant Islam, Without Bias,” Daniel Pipes writes, “Islamism differs in many ways from traditional Islam. It is faith turned into ideology, and radical ideology at that.” We therefore, Pipes concludes, “should regularly and publicly distinguish between Islam, the religion of Muslims, and Islamism, the totalitarian ideology.”

A: All the meanings I refer to are based on definitions found in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, which cover nicely all the senses of Islamist I found in my research.

The first sense of Islamism refers to the practice of Islam. An Islamist can simply mean one who practices Islam. Muslims also practice Islam. When used in this context, the meaning of Islamist and Muslim is the same. Although there are instances in print in which a Muslim is referred to as radical or militant, primarily the term Muslim is applied to the broad population of believers in Islam and not any small or militant faction.

The second sense of Islamism refers to a reform movement promoting a government and society run by the laws prescribed by Islam. This sense refers to the more radical factions within the Islam faith and an Islamist, in this context, is an adherent of a radical faction of Islam. Some might call this fundamentalist Islam.

We do have evidence for this in our files. But it is noteworthy that the word is almost invariably modified by an adjective, like militant, radical, revolutionary, and fundamentalist. This suggests to me that there is an effort being made to distinguish between the Islamist as a general follower of Islam and the Islamist as radical.

Part of the reason I did not address this issue in my first correspondence is that I hesitate to in any way define or debate at this time in history what a radical, fundamentalist, or any other follower of Islam might or might not be. I can only tell you what our definitions say and reiterate that they reflect how these terms are used according to our research.

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