Fundamentalism and Islam

FUNDAMENTALISM AND ISLAM

by Shahid Akhtar


When Dr. Khalid Sohail invited me to speak at the Seminar on Islam and Fundamentalism, frankly, I was taken aback.  My first thought was that nothing in my personal life experience related to either Islam or Fundamentalism to an extent that I could speak on the subject with authority.  I am the first to admit that I am one of those quintessential “gunah-gaar” Muslims who would not qualify as devout or practicing but whose only claim to Islam is that they were born in a Muslim family to parents who were religious in a traditional sense. At the same time, I never felt the need to dissociate myself from my heritage.  Despite the fact that there were lots of Muslims I was thoroughly ashamed of for what they did to their own co-religionists, I never felt the obsessive/ compulsive urge to rebel against Islam or felt ashamed of my Islamic roots.  If anything,  I felt pride in some components of this legacy the same way I would feel proud of my heritage like place of origin, color of skin, language and cultural affiliations.

Upon reflection, it occurred to me that in some ways my link with Islam typified a large number of Muslims who may not be terribly devout but still relate to the religion they were born in, identify with it and above all are forcefully impacted by both the reality and perceptions of fundamentalism and Islam.  It is in this Human Interest context that I wish to explore the subject in plain language as a phenomenon that has brought in new dynamics in our daily lives whether we like it or not.

The moment one utters the two words, Islam and Fundamentalism, in the same breath it evokes a certain indelible image, that has been deeply engraved on the 21st century’s media- saturated and brain-washed minds.  We will need to obliterate the grooves of ignorance, prejudice and stereotyping in our brains before we can even begin to comprehend the interrelatedness between Fundamentalism and Islam.

WHAT IS FUNDAMENTALISM:  The first step in an attempt to understand fundamentalism in Islam is to get a sense of what fundamentalism is. Simply put, fundamentalism is the basis, the root, the core, the essential, and the spirit of any concept, idea, philosophy, myth, belief, hypothesis or discipline.  It does not matter what that concept is.  It could be science, capitalism, communism, nationalism or, above all, religion. 

The fundamentalism in all these concepts means that the proponents and followers of these concepts believe them to be as unquestioningly true and essential and therefore fundamental. 

There could be fundamentals of capitalism where its followers would not compromise on the core concepts.  There could be fundamentals of communism which the diehard communists would regard as rudimentary.  There could be fundamentals of philosophy or science where certain principles would be absolutely essential and the basic essence of the idea and standpoint could not be negotiated.

Similarly, there could also be fundamentals of each religion where believers would insist upon commitment to certain pillars that give special meaning and true worth to that belief system.  Let us ignore for a moment that the term Fundamentalism was actually introduced in English Language as a movement in Protestantism insisting on the literal interpretation of Bible. But in other religions too this may be equally applicable, be it Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Judaism or Islam.

So let us now come to Islam.  Islam has its own fundamentals like any other religion.  It has its five pillars on which generally Muslims would not compromise because doing so would simply mean that the belief system would cease to be what they consider as Islam.  Theologically that is all what Islamic Fundamentalism is. 

Now this is the theological foundation of Islamic Fundamentalism. This is the real Islamic Fundamentalism.  However, there is a problem.  The problem is that reality, really, does not matter.  What matters is that the expression “Islamic Fundamentalism” has metamorphed into a political expression.  It has been co-opted and become an explosive expression.  Hence, the only reality that actually matters in this day and age of public opinion manipulation is the perception of Islam and Fundamentalism in the minds of both supporters and critics of Islam.  This is a perception based upon the CNNization of not only Islam and Fundamentalism but almost all discourses in the 21st century.  It is this CNNization which has hijacked the term and made Islam and Fundamentalism sound like dirty words tied to Terrorism in the most sensational way. 

TERRORISM AND ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM: In order to appreciate how we reached at this stage where Fundamentalism in Islam could be interchangeably used for Terrorism, we need to briefly go back to see where did this perception come from. 

Historically, Islamic Fundamentalism was nothing more than an allegiance to the core requirements of the faith, what Muslims believed to be the dictates and precepts of Islam. 

After its rise in 7th and 8th centuries, Islam continued to be a modern religion, keeping up with the times, evolving and adapting theological interpretations as it expanded into other cultures of Asia, Africa and eventually Europe. 

This interpretation - adjusting the religious obligations with the societal demands- is called Ijtihad.  As long as Ijtihad, or this willingness to interpretation in keeping with the times stayed operative, Islam continued to adapt itself to meeting the requirements, challenges and opportunities of new times, places and cultures and excel in science, technology, scholarship, poetry, art, literature, astronomy, cultural richness and governance. 

Unfortunately, the evolution in Islamic thinking in keeping up with modernity got a great set back when the doors to interpretation or Ijtihad were slammed shut by declarations that any further interpretation was neither required not permitted. 

Now let us leap across a few centuries.  The cumulative effect of crusades, Mongol invasions, renaissance in the west, and fear of elimination due to exposure to the forces too overbearing for the Islamic World caused Muslims to fold themselves into the shell of old Islam.  Muslims and Islam have since gone downhill in almost all spheres in which they had excelled earlier. 

This downward spiral created a malaise, hopelessness and despair in Islam.  From time to time efforts were made to regain the old glory.  Some of these attempts which would later lend their lexicon to the modern world were lead by bizarre and outlandish characters. 

ANCIENT TERRORISM:  In those days the terms like terrorism and fundamentalism were not known the way we know them now.  However, if a direct link can be established between the 21st century media portrayed terrorism and Islam, that link would date back to one such character in late 11th and early 12th century.  The name of this character was Hasan bin Sabah. 

Hasan bin Sabah was a charismatic leader and a scholar.  A story is told that once he was sailing in a ship when it ran into a turbulent storm.  While other passengers panicked, he stayed calm studying and reciting Quran.  When horrified passengers asked why he was so unruffled, he replied that he knew that the ship was not going to sink.  Ultimately the storm subsided.  The passengers were so impressed that they en masse swore allegiance to him and became his unquestioning followers.

This clever man used his ingenuity and the absolute loyalty of his followers to build a chain of fortresses in the mountain range in the area now forming Iran and Central Asian Republics He built a paradise in the hollows of one of these mountains.  He would order his dedicated followers to kidnap young men from the rich and influential families.  Once in his clutches, the victims would be intoxicated with heavy doses of Hashish.  Upon regaining consciousness the young man would find himself in a place with signing birds, waterfalls, flower beds and melodiously enchanting music surrounded by the most beautiful women,.  He would be told that he had actually died but because he was the chosen one, he had come to this paradise and would live there in eternity in luxury and lavishness.  Later he would be presented to the holy man himself to be told that in the other world, i.e. the world he had left, there were people who were hurting the noble cause of the holy man and needed to be eliminated.

These young men, who came to be known as Hashishins, were almost always kept intoxicated, would be trained as ruthless assassins ready to take the life of anyone their master and leader ordered.

Hasan bin Sabah would select his enemies, mostly top notch establishment people and send the young men on assassination missions.  Almost invariably these attempts succeeded.  The assassin was so completely brain-washed into unshakeable certainty that no harm could come to him because he was already dead and gone to paradise that he would walk fearlessly into the most risky situations and come out successful.

So far as the certainty of belief was concerned, these assassins were the forefathers of today’s terrorists as popularly defined. The hashisheens or assassins were exceptionally successful because they had the unwavering belief that they were on the right path.  It was that force of conviction that made them fearless and invincible. For the first time, Islam’s name was associated with assassination campaigns and organized terrorism driven by appeals to religious zealots and their eagerness to be rewarded in paradise for committing acts of political terror.

This was the closest that some leaders in the Muslim world had come to exploiting Islam in order to carry out acts of terrorism, kidnapping and murder and achieve their own ends in relatively ancient times.

FUNDAMENTALISM IN 21ST CENTURY: The modern discussion of Islam and Fundamentalism must start with the Iranian Revolution, although since the downfall of the Ottoman Empire there had been some movements in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Muslim India and elsewhere to regain fundamental ancient glory of Islam.

The Iranian revolution is the most noteworthy modern event where the leader of the Western world, the United States came into direct clash with a country where the revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini, did not seek the green light from either superpower.  The inspiration for the revolution was rooted in Islamic affiliation.

The grievances of Iranians against US went back to the fifties when US ousted the democratically elected and popular Dr. Mosaddiq and installed Reza Shah Pehlvi as the Emperor of Iran who did not waste much time in declaring himself the King of Kings or Shahinshah.  Khomeini was an arch enemy of the Shah.  His hatred for the Shah was not only religious but combined the bitterness he felt towards the United States for imposing the Shah on Iran.

Vulnerable people all over the Muslim world found Khomeini greatly inspiring seeing him as a bold leader who could confront America.  Standing up to the greatest power on earth became a rallying cry for Muslims in many places.  Streets and mosques were used to ignite anti-west and especially anti-American passion.  Muslims were encouraged to challenge the West through whatever means were available to them.

Soon the “Godless” Soviets invaded Afghanistan and with generous help from United States a group of Fundamentalist Mujahideen honored as “moral equivalent of our founding fathers” by Ronald Regan rose to terrorize Soviet occupiers in the name of protecting Islam.  Young Muslims rushed to Afghanistan to help their fellow Muslims in fighting Jihad against the Soviets.  The same Jihadis would one day turn their guns against their benefactors and sponsors. 

At the same time the Palestinian conflict was churning out its portion of so-called terror.  Although a significant number of Palestinians were Christians and their movement was essentially secular, in the Islamic World the Palestinian cause was a galvanizing force which received inspirations from acts of violence by Palestinians.  Great many Muslim masses applauded Palestinians as the symbols of defiance against one of the most powerful allies of the West and especially of the United States.

Images of American forces in the holy Muslim lands added fuel to the fire after the first Gulf war and getting rid of the “infidel” became the unifying slogan for the likes of Osama bin Ladin.

Then came the collapse of Communism and Soviet Union crumbled. America became the sole superpower in the world and soon began to miss its arch enemy.  US needed Soviet Union to be replaced by some target which would justify armament industry to continue to produce weapons of mass destruction and fuel the economic engine. American psyche needed an enemy as it had lost the best justification for perpetual armament and military expansion.  In order to rationalize the greed of death merchants, some creative minds in the US came up with a brilliant idea.  “Let us create a new enemy”, they argued, “a new threat that will enable us to continue to expand our arsenal of death and destruction and save our way of life.” 

These were the days when Palestinians were engaged in a life and death, mostly death, struggle with Israel in the post First Intifada period.  The secular movement of PLO consisting of a fair number of Christians was portrayed by the US spin doctors as an Islamic movement.  That was when, as some of you may remember, the Time Magazine published a cover story with an Arab looking young man, face covered in a kafiyya, with a raised Kalashnikov in hand with the caption, “Islam, should we be afraid?”

There was predictable reaction in the Muslim world.  Muslims in general obliged.  They also began to see US and Israel not as just two states fighting a territorial battle against Palestinians but as the enemies of Islam.  The manipulating and stage-managing leaders in the Islamic world screamed the eternally handy slogan of “Islam is in danger”.  That is when each act of terrorism, even by non Muslim Palestinians was seen as an act of Islamic Terrorism.

Outside Palestine, as a result of new bases established by Americans in the Muslim holy lands, the resentment which previously was aimed at the Soviet was now directed at the United States.  That was when attacks on Kohl, Kenyan Embassy and US complex in Saudi Arabia took place.

THEN CAME 911:  Since that fateful Tuesday on September 11, 2001, dynamics of any discussion on Islam, Fundamentalism or Terrorism have changed forever.  Helped by main-stream media, Muslims and Islam became synonymous with terrorism.  Security trumped liberty. Human Rights took a back seat.  Draconian laws were accepted under the doctrine of necessity.  “Clash of Civilizations” acquired currency and acceptance in any discourse of the West and its relationship with the Muslims here or in the Islamic countries.  To defeat terror, War on Terror ensued. 

Almost all opinions, debates and propaganda on Islam, Fundamentalism and Terrorism in the post 911 world are now driven by the CNNized definitions of these terms.  Let us accept these definitions, for arguments sake, on face value. Let us assume that terrorism and fundamentalism is what popular western media says it is

Even with this definition in mind what anyone can see clearly is that the way this so-called War on Terror has been executed, it has succeeded in achieving only one objective.  What no terrorist organization could achieve with all the resources at their disposal this war on terror has achieved for the terrorist.  It has destabilized an entire region.  Instability is the ideal breeding ground of intolerance, hate and terror.  By focusing this war entirely in Muslim countries the proponents of war on terror have given the so-called Muslim Fundamentalist the greatest gift; the dignity of having United States and its allies as the enemy.  This is visible to anyone, except perhaps the neo-con extremists .

FUTURE OF ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISM AND WHAT CAN BE DONE NOW:   

Despite all the dark clouds on the horizon, for some reason, I am still optimistic that the world’s free fall into irreversible fundamentalism and terrorism can be checked.  Those in position of power and authority need to realize that their actions are counter productive and hurt their own interests.  Their policies in the execution of the misguided War on Terror are getting exactly the opposite results than intended. 

The Western powers lead by US have to ask themselves that if they are trying to eliminate or at the very least reduce fundamentalism in the Islamic world then shouldn’t they first stop operating the terrorist breeding factories in each theatre of unrest.

There is no questing that each time they kill an innocent person as a collateral damage they produce ten fundamentalists whose purpose of life, reason detere is to avenge the death of the innocent.  When NATO public relations officers say they have killed fifty suspected Taliban in Kandhar, they forget that they have only guaranteed the offering of young Canadian men and women as cannon fodders to those who now hate them because their innocent brother, sister, father, mother, son or daughter was killed. 

Makers of Afghan Policy in Canada should be asked, what would you do if some Afghans came to the streets of Toronto, killed your innocent brother or sister or mother or father because in their opinion you were doing something immoral and undemocratic and they had the brute power to support their argument with weapons?.  We can be sure that these policy makers and executers of War on Terror will then not then worry about democracy or morality.  They will want to get even.  That is precisely what the victims in Afghanistan and Iraq are doing.  The children who are watching their sibling and parents blown up by bombs or Blackwater “protectors” will carry this hatred into the next generation.  If we want to stop the downward spiral towards fundamentalism, we have to stop acting in the way that has done nothing but caused burgeoning of fundamentalism.

Military powers have to understand that when you are invading another country or become a party in a civil war like Afghanistan or Iraq, no matter how many suspected Taliban or insurgents you kill, you can not kill them all.  They are the local people. In a military struggle, in the long run locals will always win over the invader.  They will be there till you are exhausted.  There are just too many of them.

No matter when the western forces leave Iraq and Afghanistan, there will still be people who will say that they have left segments of population unprotected.  One day these military forces will have to leave.  Even on that day there will still be girls who can not go to school, women whose human rights are violated, gays and lesbians who are the targets of hatred.  What will be said to console those vulnerable people then?  Whatever strategies western thinkers of War on Terrorism were planning to say to them then, they should say it now and get the hell out of there.

We as Canadians can not afford to sacrifice our young men and women to protect the corrupt war lords in the name of democracy or sending little girls to schools. 

Unless we decide to be there forever this will not work out.  Even if our forces were to be there for a hundred years, the question will remain the same.  Who will look after the vulnerable then?  NATO and America can not.  That society will have to do it.  Let us help them do it.

Another thing the West and NATO can do is to try for a change to really win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world.  It is much easier than it has been made to appear by the neo-cons.  Even the population of Iran especially the young people are deeply pro American, though not pro-current administration.  Use that power.  Use education. Use your influence.  Don’t support dictators.  Talk to Iran and Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas.  Let Algerians elect whoever they want to elect.

Above all, put pressure on your allies not to sabotage peace efforts.  And in the name of all that is dear to you, stop being so arrogant that you produce nothing but resentment in the hearts and minds of people you are trying to win over to your side.

MUSLIMS IN THE WEST: I also think that a great deal of responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Muslim population in the West.  We see two types of Muslim activists in the West.  One group consists of Muslims who miss no opportunity to humiliate and put down anything to do with Islam and Muslims like Salman Rushdi, Irshad Manji or Wafa Sultan.  Their venom against Islam and Muslims is powerful and they have strong allies in the established liberal media as well as conservative press like Fox and CNN.  The other group consists of people like Tariq Ramadan, Wali Nasr and Ingrid Mattson, who are trying to create a dialogue between Islam and the west while not robbing Muslims and Islam of all the dignity and respect.  They also have allies in the media like NPR and CBC.  I think it is people in the second group who will create a climate where issues of Fundamentalism, as perceived currently, will eventually be addressed. 

Ordinary Muslims also need to take added responsibility of educating whoever they can in their own circles.  We must open our hearts and minds and doors to our homes, our mosques and our community centers to all other groups. 

ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES:  There have been unintended (or perhaps not) windfalls from the rise of fundamentalism.  The terrorism industry has produced Blackwater and filled the coffers of Halliburton.  The economic exploitation and actions of the occupiers have produced the mindset among the exploited and the humiliated to seek revenge at all costs.  This revenge may not be direct military confrontation with the West.  The first rule of war is to hurt one’s enemy whichever way one can.  It can be suicide bombing or destroying the economy of one’s enemy. 

The non-military weapons of terror could take many forms.  Cyber-terrorism could crash stock exchanges and hence the investment markets. Pentagon systems could be broken into by computer hackers who could turn weapons back at the launcher.  High tech communication could be brought to a standstill by just overloading cyber traffic   This form of vengeful Islamic Fundamentalists- produced terrorism could take advantage of the vulnerability of infrastructures like water systems, bridges and food chains.  It could even use such low-tech methods like rumor mongering about the stability of banking systems.

CONCLUSION:  With political will, the so-called Islamic Fundamentalism can be stopped from spreading further and even minimized.  But lot of it depends on the Western powers lead by US and its execution of the so called war on terror.  Even in the remaining one year, if the current administration wants to leave a legacy that will be admired by history,  it can put its immense power and resources in exerting moral, military and political pressure on its allies and adversaries instead of seeing everything through the barrel of a gun.  Something the Bush administration is not likely to do.

Islamic Fundamentalism is not spreading only because Osama bin Laden attacked the United States.  It is spreading because Osama bin Laden has most powerful unintended allies.  The West has provided Al-Qaida the ammunition they need.  Bush administration has done everything in the book to give the impression of unquestioning certainty that they are on the right track and God has appointed them the policeman of the world.  Osama bin Laden and his cohorts are equally certain that they are doing God’s work.  They have ended up being God’s ironic gift to each other.

Let us hope that with change of administration in the US there will be a change in this mindset of certainty and doing God’s work As long as the mindset of the most powerful country on earth does not change, the reaction to its policies will not change.  One form of Fundamentalism will only beget the other form of Fundamentalism in a vicious cycle.

Still, let us hope not.

Note…This essay is prepared for the seminar titled Understanding Fundamentalism held in Toronto Canada Dec 1st, 2007 http://www.familyofheart.com/07/Dec01/


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