Some of the terminology regarding Muslim-Western relations has been widely misused or misunderstood, confusing key issues and clouding constructive opportunities. In an attempt to improve ongoing communication, we have developed the following Terminology in Muslim-Western Relations guide. A downloadable PDF version is also available.
Terminology Guide
Term: Islamist / Islamism
Intended Meaning: In academia, the term Islamist (noun/adj.) denotes a Muslim who seeks a formal role for certain Islamic ideas in a political system, and/or to describe those institutions or principles which uphold this end; in such circles, the term denotes "political Islam" and has neutral implications.
Why a Problem: In mass media, the term is often used to describe a wide spectrum of players without distinction between them, from non-controversial and non-violent groups and individuals who believe that governance of their state should be based on certain Islamic principles, to Islamic political parties (AK in Turkey, Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), to Islamic political parties-cum-armed-wing (Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine), to would-be Islamic political parties operating in states of relative political anarchy (Taliban), to terrorist or vigilante groups (Al Qaeda and its spawns). There are significant and very serious differences between these groups, e.g., some are advocating democratic states based on certain Islamic values or principles.

Alternatively put, the term is often used to describe any one of the following: Islamic activist, extremist, radical, fundamentalist, militant, as well as vigilante or terrorist acting in the name of Islam.

Note : The adjective "Islamist" doesn’t exist in Arabic, despite its having been around in English for a while – it is translated as "Islamic".
Impact: Makes mainstream Muslims feel disrespected given its often negative use/association, even resentful when applied to radical movements; angers some Islamic political parties as they are placed in same category as vigilantes and terrorists; makes it difficult for mainstream Muslims to argue or disagree with radical elements because the term is so tightly associated with the religion that they fear appearing to denounce Islam and not only the actions of a specific group.
  • Islamist/Islamism (when the intended use is specifically defined)
  • Name of group whenever possible
  • Islamic Politicians/ Islamic Political Activists
  • Supporters or Proponents of Political Islam
  • Political Islam/Politicized Islam
When not being used to denote a Muslim who seeks a formal role for Islamic ideas in a political system, use the appropriate alternative: Islamic activist, extremist, radical, fundamentalist, militant, or vigilante or terrorist acting in the name of Islam, as appropriate.
Additional Distinctions
Term:Muslim (noun/adj.)Islamic (adj.)
Definition:Denotes an adherent of Islam or a characteristic of its adherents (descriptive, adj. comparable to "Jewish")Denotes the religion or its institutions (prescriptive, comparable to "Judaic")
Example:A Muslim country is one where the majority of citizens follow the religion of Islam An Islamic country is one whose political system is based on Islamic law
Why Important: Avoids negative events, acts or ideas being attributed to the religion of Islam itself (rather than its followers)
Definition:Worn by many Muslim women to cover their hair in public; usually accompanied by non- revealing clothes Worn by a small minority of Muslim women to cover face; usually accompanied by non-revealing clothes
Referred to as:Hijab Niqab
Why Important: Important "Veil" conjures up "barrier" and has a negative impact on bridge-building efforts
Note: neither garment necessarily says anything about one's political viewpoints