Islamists seek to blend Islam and politics, but their movement is a very big tent.
What is the meaning of 'Islamist'?
As it's commonly used in modern English, particularly in the press, "Islamist" means "someone who seeks to blend Islam and politics."
But the term, like so many other shorthands, contains multitudes. The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt is Islamist. So is Al Qaeda, which despises the Brotherhood for participating in politics. And so is Tunisia's Al Nahda, which says it doesn't even want Islamic law mentioned in the constitution.
So "Islamist" is a big tent. And every group inside the tent wants Islam to play a big role in politics, but just how varies.
The Muslim Brotherhood wants Islamic law to eventually be the principle source of formal law in Egypt, but recognizes that not all of society agrees. Legal structures short of that are acceptable for now. Groups like Al Qaeda see anything short of their own radical vision of Islamic law as a form of apostasy that must be fought and defeated.
Then there are groups like Al Nahda, which says it sees the role of Islam in politics as primarily a social one. If they can lead most Tunisians to see alcohol, uncovered women, or interest rates as sinful, the law will eventually follow.
What is the term's Western history?
"Islamist" and "Islamism" originated in French more than 150 years ago as terms to simply describe the faith and its practitioners. That usage was eventually replaced with "Islam" and "Muslim." The term was revived in the 1970s, again by the French, this time to describe the reformist political movements then gaining steam.
Martin Kramer dates the term's crossing into English to roughly 1985, when the French-language "The Islamist movements in contemporary Egypt," by Gilles Kepel, was translated into English.
Though the word "fundamentalism" had been used for the movements, it fell out of favor, largely because there was little that was "fundamental" about their new approaches. By 2002, The Guardian had headlined an opinion piece by Margaret Thatcher "Islamism is the new bolshevism."
Today, the word feels as if it's always been with us. Islamists themselves don't like it, much as they dislike any term that categorizes their beliefs as something distinct from Islam itself, but it's here to stay.
What are the movements' histories?
In the 20th century, as the colonial era came to an end, Islamic leaders looked around, asked themselves "How did we get here?," and decided the problem was that they had gotten away from the core of their faith. Abul Ala Maudadi in India (later Pakistan) founded the Jamaat-e-Islami political party in 1941, which to this day advocates a strict interpretation of Islam.
In Egypt, Sayyid Qutb was an early leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who argued that Muslim nations had fallen from their early grandeur because they had lost the core of their faith. There were similar revival movements from Indonesia to Morocco, all of them grounded in religion but with an expressly political message. These revival movements spawned both the modern Muslim Brotherhood, which eschewed violence in pursuit of its goals decades ago, and the forerunners to the modern Al Qaeda, which has demonstrated its zeal to use violence in pursuit of its ends.