- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
For newspaper reporters, the short answer to that question is "no."
On Thursday, the Associated Press revised the usage of the word "Islamist." But instead of banning the word, like it did with "illegal immigrant," it restricted the use of Islamist to certain situations.
For example: Here is the how the new Stylebook instructs reporters:
Islamist An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.
The decision is an acknowledgement that a wide swath of Muslims — ranging from mainstream politicians to violent jihadists — view the Quran as a legitimate political model, and the AP’s restriction is an effort to not conflate those two types of Muslims. But the move doesn’t fully satisfy demands by the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties group, CAIR, to "drop the term" altogether. As CAIR’s Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper argued in January, using the term in any fashion represents something of a double-standard:
There are few, if any, positive references to "Islamist" in news articles. There are also no — nor should there be — references to "Christianists," "Judaists" or "Hinduists" for those who would similarly seek governments "in accord with the laws" of their respective faiths.
No journalist would think of referring to the "Judaist government of Israel," the "Christianist leader Rick Santorum" or "Hinduist Indian politician Narendra Modi," while use of "Islamist" has become ubiquitous.
Hooper is right that the use of the word "Islamist" has become ubiquitous. But he’s wrong that "no journalist" would ever think to say "Christianist." For evidence, look no further than cantankerous political blogger Andrew Sullivan, who famously adopted the term to differentiate Christians like himself and more fundamentalist Christians in a 2006 Time magazine article:
Let me suggest that we take back the word Christian while giving the religious right a new adjective: Christianist. Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist. Muslims are those who follow Islam. Islamists are those who want to wield Islam as a political force and conflate state and mosque.
In the ensuing years, Sullivan went on to derisively label hard-right Christians as "Christianists" in numerous blog posts for the Daily Dish (now simply, the Dish). At the time, Sullivan took a fair amount of heat for this characterization, and still does to this day. In a 2006 rebuttal, the American Spectator’s R. Andrew Newman chastised Sullivan for comparing (Christian) apples to (Muslim) oranges:
You know, Rick Santorum equals that nuke-loving Iranian guy, the one who looks like an older, Muslim Maynard G. Krebs. Jerry Falwell is a chubbier Osama bin Laden in a suit off the rack from J.C. Penney.
Of course Sullivan says that’s not what he means. Not at all. They’re not terrorists, they’re not violent. It’s only that Christianists have hijacked Christianity like Islamists have hijacked Islam. Except they haven’t slammed a plane into the Pentagon, leveled walls on homosexuals, stashed women in burqas, or rioted because Jesus appeared on the funny pages. But beyond that, I’m sure he has a point. Somewhere.
It’s certainly a debate that feels very early aughts, but it still has resonance today. Right now, CAIR is hailing the AP’s move as a "step in the right direction," while a phalanx of conservative media is denouncing it as a bow to political correctness. "That’s not a journalistic judgment," Rush Limbaugh said on his show today. "That is a partisan political judgment."
The AP Stylebook contains no entry for "Christianist" — and if the news agency’s move to ban "illegal immigrant" is any indicator, hot-button words will only become rarer. That’s why the smart money suggests an eventual phase-out of "Islamist" for the Associated Press altogether. If that makes your skin crawl, you’re in luck: This thing called the Internet is not beholden to AP standards. You can say anything you want. So long live the world’s Islamists, Christianists, Judaeists, Sikhists, Wiccists, Heathenists, Hinduists, Hellenic paganists, Taoists, Rastafarists, Buddhistists, Jainistists, Zoroastrianists, and Confucianistists.