Fractured Fundamentalisms

Extremism exists in every major faith, and sometimes turns violent

BY: Karen Armstrong

 

Continued from page 4

It is perhaps important to note that the suicide bombers are not simply trying to achieve a first-class ticket to Heaven, as Westerners sometimes imagine. The Greek word from which we derive our "martyr," means "witness." So does the Arabic for martyr: shahid. When Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Empire, they believed that in their deaths they were witnessing to values that were higher than those of the coercive, persecuting state. It was a way of giving dignity and meaning to their terrible deaths.

Muslims have the same ideal. They all honor the Prophet's grandson, Husain, a special hero of Shiite Muslims. Husain and his band of loyal followers were killed by the powerful armies of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid. Husain's martyrdom was a very powerful motif in the Iranian revolution, when Iranians exposed themselves to the guns of the Shah's army to witness to the Islamic values of social justice, which they believed the Shah was violating.

But what we saw on September 11th and on previously in Israel/Palestine and in the Lebanon is evil, because no martyr may take other people with him. To turn the vulnerability and lonely courage of the martyr into an act of aggression is a great and wicked perversion, and there is nothing in Islam that can sanction that.

  • How do Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism differ?
  • What kind of Muslim is Osama bin Laden?
  • Does fundamentalism inevitably cause violence?
  • What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
  • Why don't top Muslims reprimand terrorists?
  • Why are there so few Islamic democracies?


    Since the terrorists follow a distorted version of Islam, have they ever been reprimanded by top Muslims?
    Strictly speaking, there are no top Muslims equivalent to the Pope, the Chief Rabbi or the Archbishop of Canterbury. Islam is a very egalitarian religion and at least in principle doesn't believe in authority figures that tell other Muslims what to do.

    However, Muslim ulama [religious scholars] and heads of Muslim states have condemned the atrocity of September 11th. After the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, a meeting of the Congress of Islamic States, which met the following month, unanimously condemned the fatwa as unIslamic--though this did not often make it into the Western press. Last April, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia said that suicide killings were simply suicide and therefore wrong.

    I would like to see ulama and ordinary Muslims all over the world coming out against all acts of unIslamic violence more strongly, and without equivocation. I wish, in fact, that a Muslim were manning this Beliefnet Q and A, instead of a non-Muslim like me. American and British Muslims, whose remarks are often too timid, must join the debate in a more public manner.

    In the current climate, it is understandable that they are afraid to speak out. Also, while Muslims may abhor the wickedness of terrorism, they have grave and painful reservations about American foreign policy in the Middle East. And because Muslims all over the world feel generally threatened in a Western-dominated world, they naturally feel it important to stick together.

    As their countries make the painful rite of passage to modernity, the ulama themselves have not been able to address the difficulties Muslims are experiencing. The Sheikhs of Al-Azhar, probably the most prestigious Madrasah in the Sunni world, were so cowed by some Egyptian leaders' modernizing policies that they simply retreated to their studies, and withdrew.

    In their absence, people turned to such laymen as Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood who was assassinated by the Egyptian government in 1949. Or Sayyid Qutb, about whom we spoke yesterday. For many Muslims--including the terrorists--the conventional ulama are part of the problem.

  • How do Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism differ?
  • What kind of Muslim is Osama bin Laden?
  • Does fundamentalism inevitably cause violence?
  • What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
  • Why don't top Muslims reprimand terrorists?
  • Why are there so few Islamic democracies?

    Why are there few Islamic democracies?
    Democracy is not created by an act of will. The form we know today emerged very gradually in the West. It was not simply dreamed up by political scientists or inspired statesmen but appeared as the result of a process of trial and error. Over time, we've found to be the best way to run a modern society.

    In the 16th century, Europe and, later, what would become the United States began to create an entirely new kind of society. In what we call the premodern world, all civilizations were based economically on a surplus of agriculture, which could be used for trade. But at the time of the scientific revolution, the West began to create a society founded on technology and reinvestment of capital, enabling Europe and America to replicate its resources indefinitely.

    This involved major change at every level of society, and it was a painful process. Modernity did not come fully into its own until the 19th century, and during that time the Western countries experienced revolutions, violent wars of religion, exploitation of workers in factories, the despoilation of the countryside, and great distress as people struggled to make sense of this profound change--similar upheavals are going on now in developing countries, including the Islamic countries, as they make this difficult rite of passage.

    The new order demanded change on every level: social, political, intellectual, scientific and religious. And the emerging modern spirit had two main characteristics: independence and innovation.

    There were declarations of independence in nearly all fields. The American Declaration of Independence was a modernizing document, and the war with Britain a modernizing war. But people also demanded independence intellectually: scientists could not permit themselves to be impeded by a coercive state or religious establishment; the Protestant Reformers who declared their independence of the Catholic Church were also forces for modernization. And innovation: constantly people were making something new, breaking unprecedented ground, discovering something fresh. There was excitement as well as the distress that inevitably accompanies major change.

    Continued on page 6: »

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