Essentialized “Islamists”

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking my head is going to explode because I keep hearing these empty and meaningless words: Islamists, fundamentalists, radicals, and of course, terrorists. Even supposedly sophisticated media organizations use these terms. These labels tell us nothing. If this was all they did, my head wouldn’t explode. But they do more. They play into an outrageously simplified and ahistorical narrative that serves various interests. The messy realities of the world get leveled and simplified for stupid consumption.

My head is not, however, going to explode. For this I thank Adam Curtis, whose awesome BBC blog keeps dishing some of the best stuff on the web. In his most recent entry, Adam painstakingly details the realities behind the “Islamist” movements in northern Africa. It’s a fine mix of history and anthropology with policy implications mentioned in closing:

America’s response [to local Somali initiatives that identify as Islamist] was to immediately label the Islamic Courts Union as yet another part of a global jihad network linked to “Al Qaeda.” Within six months Somalia was invaded by Ethiopia – backed by America and supported by giant US gunships and a naval fleet. The ICU fled – but then the Islamist movement re-emerged in a much more violent form in the shape of a group called Al Shabaab. Mary Harper says that America’s intervention in Somalia had created the very thing it feared.

And the same thing is happening now all across the northern part of Africa. In Mali, in northern Nigeria with Boko Haram, and in Algeria with the remnants of the GIA. In every case what are local struggles for power are being simplified by Western politicians and commentators into part of a global battle against “Al Qaeda.”

The best thing you can do today or this weekend is spend the time required to read (and watch) Adam’s piece. It is a palliative for potentially exploding heads.


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