The open politics spawned by the Arab Spring have stretched the term “Islamist” to its limits, covering everyone from hip moderate young Muslims to long-bearded hardliners bent on imposing a divine dictatorship.
The rainbow of varieties of political Islam has forced world media to start using unfamiliar terms such as Salafi — an ultraconservative champion of an Islamic state — to bring out some of the diversity in the emerging Muslim democracies.
Even local analysts and journalists in the Middle East find themselves fumbling for nouns and adjectives to describe exactly where a party stands in the spectrum of political options that find inspiration in the region’s main religion.
Khaled Salah, editor-in-chief of the Cairo daily al-Youm al-Sabe, said the lines separating different Islamists were often so unclear that no agreed terms have emerged.
“It’s very difficult even for Egyptians to understand the differences between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis and the other groups,” he said.
Ibrahim Negm, senior adviser to Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, said the Islamist parties agreed on a role for religion, but little else.
“It’s wrong to put them all into one basket,” he said. “Their interpretations and tools are radically different.”
Islamist, originally a French academic neologism for advocates of a political role for the religion, seemed to fit the bill while the region was ruled only by military dictators or monarchs who jailed faith-based challengers.
Iran’s Islamic Republic seemed to be the model, even though it was a theocracy run by a Shiite hierarchy that has no equivalent among the Sunni Muslims who make up the majority in the Arab states of the Middle East.
Since pro-democracy demonstrations began a year ago, Islamist politicians have become prime minister in Tunisia and Morocco, while Egypt’s main rival Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, are leading in its staggered elections.
Egypt, the Arab world’s largest nation, offers the widest selection of options for Muslims who want their faith to be reflected in some way in the new political landscape.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which deposed former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, used as a bogeyman to justify his perennial emergency rule, has emerged as the broad middle ground of Islamism there.
Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna as an Islamic political and social welfare movement, its Freedom and Justice Party has garnered almost 40 percent of the vote so far in the three-stage parliamentary elections scheduled to finish next month.
Its leaders advocate a gradual move toward a more Islamic society, telling voters they want more morality in public life, but will not impose veils on women or scare away foreign tourists by banning bikinis and beer from Egyptian beaches.
Still, in a Western country, Muslim Brothers would be among the staunch social conservatives, something like the evangelical wing of the Republican Party in the US.
Political analyst Abdel Rahim Ali discerned three factions within the Brotherhood, depending on whether they stressed social and religious work, moderate political change or a more militant focus on achieving an Islamic state.
“It’s hard for these factions to stand up publicly because the leadership has firm control,” he said.
To the right of them are the Salafis, who have picked up more than a quarter of the votes so far — the big surprise of these voting rounds. These ultratraditionalists used to say democracy was un--Islamic, but jumped on the election bandwagon this year.