Fundamentalism and Terrorism
Posted Aug 30, 2003


Asghar Ali Engineer

(Secular Perspective Jan -1-15, 2003 )

Fundamentalism and terrorism are widely used term in the media as well as academia. And, more often than not, they are loosely defined terms. Many people describe any thing religious as fundamentalism and any act of killing as terrorism. There is great necessity to define these terms properly and prevent their use in loose sense. In fact the term fundamentalism is hardly applicable to Indian religions on one hand, and to Islam on the other. It is American media, which started using ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ when Islamic revolution was taking place in Iran in late seventies. We hardly see this term in the media or academia before that. Our media also then started using the term and soon it was being very widely used.

The term ‘terrorism’ too has its origin in American media after 9/11. We have had violence from across the border since nineties of the last century but never used ‘terrorist violence’ for it. We called it either extremism or militancy. But now call it ‘cross border terrorism’ after 9/11. Thus it will be seen that American rulers and American media set the term for us to be used.

I would, therefore, like to define these terms though not with academic rigour. We can only try to put some sense in these terms so that we do not confuse them with something else or something not intended. America devises terms to reflect its own interests and not to make any academic sense. We should resist temptation to use the terms loosely.

First, let us try to define fundamentalism. It should not certainly be confused with fundamentals of religion. Even in America this term was not used in that sense in early twenties of last century. In fact those who believed that every word of the Bible is literally divine word were called fundamentalist. One, it did not refer to fundamental teachings of Christianity and second, it was never used in derogatory sense. But now the term is used in derogatory sense and specially ‘Islamic fundamentalism’.

As it is used in derogatory sense we must separate it from religion per se. Thus to follow Islam or Hinduism should not be described as ‘fundamentalism’. Even to follow orthodox traditions of religion should not be dubbed as ‘fundamentalism’ tough one may not agree with orthodox practices. There are millions of people in every religious tradition who follow these orthodox traditions without being any nuisance to any one in the society. Their practices could be quite harmless.

Thus one must distinguish between orthodoxy and fundamentalism. Fundamentalism in the sense in which it is being used in the media is, in fact, political misuse of religion in a narrow sectarian manner. In this sense there is not much difference between communalism and fundamentalism. Both the phenomena are based on political interests. But still there is subtle difference between the two. While communalism is all about political or economic interests of a particular community, fundamentalism is enforcement of sectarianism with all rigidity for political mobilisation of a community for the power-goals of its elite. Thus while communalism is exploitation of sentiments of a religion based community for a secular goal (i.e. political power) fundamentalism is enforcing narrow sectarian practices for strengthening religious orthodoxy on one hand, and, achieving political power, on the other.

Thus while BJP will be closer to communalism in this sense while the VHP-Bajrang Dal will be closer to fundamentalism. However, it must be said at the same time that the distinction is getting more and more blurred of late as VHP is setting the agenda of the BJP. Similarly the pre-partition Muslim League was closer to communalism and the Jamat-e-Islami was closer to fundamentalism.

Thus communalism is more about secular interests (mainly political) of a religion based community. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is enforcement of narrow sectarian religion by misusing political power and for political end i.e. with a view to consolidate political power.

Now let us define terrorism. One must admit, while defining terrorism that it is very difficult to reach any consensus about it. Even the UNO failed to evolve one despite great deal of debates. It is often said, and rightly so, that ones terrorist is others freedom fighter. Thus those for Palestinians are freedom fighters, for Israelis they are ‘terrorists’ to be killed and eliminated. And in Kashmir those who are ‘terrorists for us are, for Pakistanis and even for some Kashmiris, are freedom fighters.

The word terrorism is being widely used by the media after 9/11. It was rarely used before. In Kashmir we describe those who use violence as terrorists and no more as extremists or militants, as pointed out before. Again the change of terminology is in keeping with American interests. Though it is difficult to define ‘terrorism’ those who kill innocent and non-combatant people on large scale could certainly be categorised as terrorist. Many Pakistan-based organisations like Lashkar-e-Tayyiba who kill innocent citizens in not only in J&K but also in other cities of India are terrorists.

Now let us see whether fundamentalism necessarily leads to terrorism and what is the link between them. Though logically fundamentalism should not necessarily and inevitably lead to terrorism, it often does. Fundamentalism, as already pointed out, involves enforcement of narrow sectarian practices using political power and for consolidation of political power - extreme coercion becomes necessary and extreme coercion involves violence.

People do not easily accept such enforcement willingly (except a few) while the authoritarian forces use violence. Also, when it involves political power, political rivalries and secessionist movement violence is inevitably used as democratic alternatives take far too long a time and tries out patience. But it should also be noted that all terrorist movements are not fundamentalist in nature though fundamentalism may also lead to terrorism. For example the LTTE movement is terrorist one but not fundamentalist one.

Another important thing to be noted is that terrorists may use religion or religious terminology like jihad or dharma yuddh or holy war but their objective may have nothing to do with religious teachings as such. It would, therefore, be wrong to describe a terrorist act as religious terrorism just because of religion of a terrorist and his use of religious terminology. Thus Usama bin Laden being a Muslim his attack on New York twin towers does not become an act of ‘Islamic terrorism’. Unfortunately the media used this term quite unthinkingly.

Usama bin Laden has his own agenda and his acts by no means represent Islamic teachings. No religion in the world, much less Islam, teaches terrorism or inspires any one to kill innocent people. Though some Muslims may have expressed sympathy for Usama (so did some non-Muslims also who resent American policies and its pro-Israeli stance) he never had any official sanction from any Islamic establishment behind him. It is true there is no priesthood or church in Islam and no fatwa, howsoever eminent the institution issuing fatwa be, cannot be binding on any Muslim.

And in case of Usama no such institution has issued any such fatwa supporting his act of terrorism. It is, therefore, not justified at all to describe 9/11 attack by Usama’s men as an act of Islamic terrorism. Even if any eminent Mufti (one who issues fatwa) had issued such an opinion it would not have been binding on all Muslims. And in this case no one issued such a fatwa   Usama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organisation does not pretend to have any mass base and in fact no terrorist organisation has any mass base anywhere in the world. It would otherwise seem to be a terrorist organisation. Usama does use Islamic terminology to gain sympathy of Muslim masses but use of such a terminology does not make it an Islamic organisation. It remains basically a terrorist organisation. The religion practised by masses of Muslims is more spiritual than political and religion practised by likes of Usama is more political than spiritual.

The Qur’an clearly lays down that killing any person without a just cause amounts to killing whole humanity and saving one person’s life amounts to saving entire humanity. This is truly humanistic and spiritual dimension of Islam and of any religion for that matter. Killing hundreds of innocent people can not qualify for being a religious act by any stretch of imagination.

In fact whether fundamentalism and terrorism (in the sense in which they have been defined above) are linked together or not both are curses for humanity. No truly religious person should approve of such gross misuse of religion. A religious attitude has to be of humility, distance from political power and of non-violence. The Sufi Islam which was truly spiritual Islam always maintained its distance from power centres and believed in the doctrine of what is called sulh-i-kul i.e. peace with all.

True religion is one, which does not get politicised. Political Islam or political Hinduism became great danger for peace and tranquillity in the society. It is political Hinduism (Hindutva) which caused havoc in Gujarat and many other places and it is political Islam which has resulted in bloodshed in New York or in Kashmir or in Algeria, for that matter. Muslims and Hindus should fight against politicising of their respective religions.   



Centre for Study of Society
and Secularism,