There is a big difference between being a believing Muslim and being a devotee of political Islam. Political Islam attempts to make the religion a platform for gaining governmental power. This movement (political Islam or the Muslim religious Right) has been very important in many Muslim countries in the past few decades, but its rise has also created a backlash against it on the part of those uncomfortable with its premises. The opponents of political Islam are not necessarily secular. Many are believing Muslims and political centrists. They just don’t think Islam is a political party.
I think part of the problem in understanding these distinctions has to do with language. I don’t think the term “Islamist” is very helpful. But let me come back to that below.
In Bangladesh, among the world’s more populous Muslim countries, the relatively secular Awami ruling party tried a prominent leader of the Jamaat-i Islami, the major South Asian vehicle of political Islam, for his war crimes in the 1971 partition from Pakistan. In polling, most Bangladeshis say that they want those war crimes punished. Jamaat supporters have struck and gone on rampages, clashing with police, but most Bangladeshis seem satisfied with the verdict.
The overthrow in Egypt of Muslim Brotherhood figure Muhammad Morsi was accomplished by a coalition of activist, left-liberal youth, workers and the poor upset by the bad economy, and the military. Although many believing Muslims were involved in this movement against the Muslim Brotherhood, significant numbers of the activists spearheading it were suspicious of attempts to turn Islam from a religion into a political party. They resented Morsi’s implication that only the Muslim Brotherhood consists of Muslims and that non-members are somehow not Muslims or not very good Muslims. There is still a strong Left among the youth in Egypt, descended from the followers of Gamal Abdel Nasser (the 1950s-1960s nationalist leader), or from the communists, socialists and Trotskyites. Many Egyptian union activists are at least vaguely influenced by Marxism, and although many of them pray and go to mosque, they see the Muslim Brotherhood as a movement of the religious Right, tied to businessmen like Khairat al-Shater, and unsympathetic to the plight of workers. Morsi’s overthrow came about in part because he moved too fast, too far, in attempting to ensconce the Brotherhood in power. His prosecutions of journalists, bloggers and television personalities who criticized him angered a lot of the youth.
I don’t like the term “Islamist” to describe proponents of political Islam; for all its problems, I prefer ‘fundamentalist,’ because most people will misunderstand ‘Islamist’ to be Islam or more authentically Islamic. It is confusing in English, where we don’t say Christianist for Christian (unlike in French, where the word ‘Islamist’ originated). And, if you say that most Egyptians and most Bangladeshis are not fundamentalists, that isn’t hard to believe and maybe is even self-evident.
And if you say that the fundamentalists in Egypt over-reached, it is easy to understand why religious centrists, along with secularists, rebelled.