In last Wednesday’s New York Times, David Kirkpatrick wrote that recent events in the Middle East suggest that violent extremist interpretations of politicized Islam are threatening to replace electoral Islamism. “Moderate” is employed to describe Islamists who contest politics through official electoral institutions, while “radical” is used to describe jihadi groups that seek to overthrow existing status quo governments through extra-political and violent means.

While there does not yet exist enough evidence or distance from current events to assess the validity of his claim, his linkage of dissimilar Islamist actors in the dissimilar countries of Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen is problematic and reflects imprecise language used in describing of Islamist actors. Jillian Schwedler has previously noted that adjectives such as moderate and radical only make sense when they are explicitly précised to refer to ideology, tactics or goals, and the meanings of these terms are conditioned by the national context within which actors operate. In addition, the terms only make sense in comparison with some baseline category, and require an appropriate basis of comparison – perhaps other actors using similar tactics or holding similar objectives, actors within the same political context, or other actors within the same interpretive tradition.

However, all the groups referenced in the article would qualify as “Islamist,” and thus a larger question remains — how can so many different political actors, ranging from non-state reform movements to political parties to revolutionary groups and militias, be subsumed under one adjective? Rather than being a product of imprecise language, the significant variation in the nature, tactics, and objectives of these groups suggests an ambiguity inherent in politicized Islam we often fail to recognize in contemporary debates about the subject – one that is increasingly important as the region witnesses continued multiplication of Islamist actors engaged in electoral, militant, and extra-political activities.

Anthropologists have long recognized significant pluralism and variation within specific religious traditions. All major religions encompass at least two significant innate divergences. The first divergence is between text and practice – what Robert Redfield called the “great” and “little” traditions. Actors operating within the same faith tradition can and do debate which texts “count” as the great tradition and as legitimate sources of religious tradition, while the little-practiced tradition varies across groups and even individuals that may be considered part of the same larger faith tradition. A second divergence occurs within the practiced tradition. As Clifford Geertz noted, practiced religion differs significantly within different regional, national, or sub-national contests, within different sects, and even across individuals within any of these given contexts.

Talal Asad accepts this complexity in order to allow for the inclusion of multiple interpretations under single faith traditions. He writes that “Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals.” Rather, it is a “discursive tradition” – meaning that “Muslim discourse that addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present.” As a result, all practices that relate themselves to a certain religious discursive tradition, however this relationship is manifested, should be considered part of that religion and studied as such.

What does this mean for understanding contemporary Islamist politics? Islamism’s definition as an ideology that locates political legitimacy in the application of the sharia (often translated as Islamic law) and in Islamic tradition pegs it to complicated and unfixed concepts that are diversely interpreted in different manners by different practitioners. Various definitions of sharia draw from any combination of the prescriptions outlined in the Koran and the Sunnah related to larger societal issues of politics, economics, justice and social organization. The complexities arising from the translation of a multiplicity of practiced and interpreted Islams is manifested in the diverse range of actors that might fall under the rubric of an Islamist movement, party, or group. Islamists can range from those that advocate for quietism, effecting gradual political change through internal individual reform, to political parties advocating for societal reform through social welfare and electoral contestation, to revolutionary militants that seek to overthrow illegitimate states and implement revolutionary change. Islamists range from those who root justifications of their political behavior in personal and literalist interpretation of the textual tradition, to those who rely on interpretations derived from independent reasoning and decision-making with a firm basis in established schools of Islamic legal theory.

I further explore the importance of variation in defining Islamic tradition for politics in a working paper co-authored with Christine Fair and Rebecca Littman – though we look at public opinion (specifically, in Pakistan) rather than actor placement and ideology. We find that the relationship between supporting the implementation of Islamic law, and support for democratic values and militancy, depends on one’s definition. Conceptualizing an Islamic government as one that implements sharia by providing services and security for the people predicts increased support for democratic values, whereas conceptualizing an Islamic government as one that implements sharia by imposing hudud punishments and restricting women’s public roles predicts increased support for militancy. These results suggest that depending on how individuals within a particular context and time period conceptualize a sharia-based government, public support for the multi-faceted sharia can either be a positive force for democracy or a predictor of support for militant politics.

While we understand the limits and correlational nature of survey data, the results in combination with an understanding of sharia and the plethora of Islamist political actors throughout history suggests that varying definitions matter for what the descriptive “Islamist” means in different contexts.  The relationship between a group’s Islamist ideology and the nature and shape of its political engagement largely depends, and it depends on one’s definition of sharia, how one draws from Islamic tradition, and which part of the Islamic tradition from which one draws, and in which national context one operates.

In many ways, this finding and the larger point are obvious and intuitive, but it’s something that continues to get lost in contemporary debates. It means both actors and critics who essentialize Islam, and fault or credit the entire faith tradition for one politicized version contained within its discursive tradition, are incorrect. It’s why militant actors as well as religious parties cannot claim that they speak for all of Islam or Muslims as a collective community, and it’s why outsiders cannot condemn Islam as a monolithic entity. These differences in interpretation and practice are the fascinating and frustrating challenges in understanding religion in politics, and understanding the inherent multiplicity and pluralism contained with religious faith traditions is important for consumers of news about Islamism and its current political actors.