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The use of the term Islamism was at first "a marker for scholars more likely to sympathize" with new Islamic movements; however, as the term gained popularity it became more specifically associated with political groups such as the Taliban or the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, as well as with highly publicized acts of violence.

"Islamists" who have spoken out against the use of the term, insisting they are merely "Muslims", include Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, the spiritual mentor of Hizbullah, and Abbassi Madani, leader of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front.

In contrast, Abid Ullah Jan, writes "If Islam is a way of life, how can we say that those who want to live by its principles in legal, social, political, economic, and political spheres of life are not Muslims, but Islamists and believe in Islamism, not [just] Islam." A writer for the International Crisis Group maintains that "the conception of 'political Islam'" is a creation of Americans to explain the Iranian Islamic Revolution and apolitical Islam was a historical fluke of the "short-lived era of the heyday of secular Arab nationalism between 19", and it is quietist/non-political Islam, not Islamism, that requires explanation.

Another source distinguishes Islamist from Islamic "by the fact that the latter refers to a religion and culture in existence over a millennium, whereas the first is a political/religious phenomenon linked to the great events of the 20th century".

Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.

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