Lt Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s pick to be national security adviser was reported by CNN to have said in August, 2016 that Islamism was a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people” – in other words, that every Muslim is a potential Islamist.
This conflation of Islam and Islamism is very dangerous. Tell people over and over again that they are terrorists and extremists in the making and you might get what you wish for. In short, Islam is a faith practised by the aforementioned 1.7 billion people. Islamism is a relatively recent revivalist movement, spearheaded in the 20th century by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir.
The ideology of Islamism seeks to detach Muslims from their home countries and nation states arguing that they should, instead, adhere to a globalised identity and strive to create some kind of caliphate. It developed in reaction to the very obvious decline of Muslim majority countries by the 19th century that allowed them to be overwhelmed by European colonial powers. Early Islamists even argued for modernisation and a degree of westernising in order to catch up with Europe.
But the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war, the last Islamic caliphate, gave rise to a yearning among Islamists for the restoration of some kind of Muslim polity where religion and state would be fused – a caliphate under sharia law. But it needs to be emphasised that this was not a majority position among Muslims. And today, while elements of Islamism might find support among many Muslims, it is way off the mark to label all Muslims as Islamists in the making.