Fractured Fundamentalisms

Extremism exists in every major faith, and sometimes turns violent

BY: Karen Armstrong


Continued from page 1

Jewish fundamentalists have committed acts of terror: the plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the Hebron massacre, and the assassination of President Rabin are examples. And Muslim fundamentalists have committed the suicide bombings that culminated in the appalling action of the 11th September.

It must be emphasized, however, that the vast majority of fundamentalists in all three religions do not take part in acts of terror, but are simply struggling to live a religious life in a world that they feel is inimical to faith.

In all three faiths, history has shown that suppression tends to make fundamentalists more extreme, providing them with more proof that society wants to destroy religion. And these movements all distort the faith and tend to the kind of nihilism we saw in New York and Washington last week.

  • 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?

    What kind of Muslim is Osama bin Laden? What is the background of his movement?
    Osama bin Laden is from Saudi Arabia, where a particular form of Islam, Wahhabism, is practiced. Wahhabism was an 18th century Muslim reform movement, not unlike Puritanism in Christianity. It wanted to get back to the sources of the faith, get rid of accretions and additions, and all foreign influence. Thus Wahhabis wanted to eliminate the practice of Sufism, the mysticism of Islam, which developed after Muhammad's time; it was deeply opposed to Shiite Islam, another later development. And Wahhabis wanted to rid Islam of all foreign influence. Instead, they wanted to go back the bedrock message of the Quran, and renew the faith by going back to the sources.

    Bin Laden believes that the Saudi rulers are corrupt and that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not living up to the purity of the Islamic ideal. Like most Sunni fundamentalists, he has been influenced by the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by President Jamal Abdul Nasser in 1966.

    Qutb's story shows why so many fundamentalists believe that secularism is aggressive and inimical to faith. Nasser paid lip service to Islam and used the rhetoric of religion when it suited him. But he was a secularist, committed to a form of socialism and nationalism. The vast majority of Egyptians, who had not had a modern education, found his secularism alien and baffling; they responded far more warmly to the Muslim Brotherhood, which thus constituted a rival. After an attempt on his life, Nasser imprisoned hundreds of the Brothers without trial. Many of them had done nothing more incriminating than attending meetings or handing out leaflets.

    Qutb went into the concentration camp as a liberal, but after 15 years of physical and mental torture, he came to the conclusion that Muslims had a duty to conduct a jihad against their secular rulers. He developed a form of liberation theology: because God alone was sovereign, no Muslim had any obligation to obey any authority--religious or secular. Egyptian society was evil: it was like the jahiliyyah, a term Muslims use to describe the "Age of Ignorance" in Arabia before the coming of Islam. Muhammad had fought the jahiliyyah of his own day, and now Muslims must continue this struggle, even against their own people, who were only Muslims in name.

    Qutb devised a program of action, which included a withdrawal from the world, a period of preparation and finally an offensive against the enemies of Islam. This program completely distorts the meaning of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, who was forced to engage in war but who achieved victory by an ingenious and inspiring policy of non-violence. Bin Laden roughly subscribes to this kind of Sunni fundamentalism. His quarrel with the United States is not, however, over theological differences. He resents what he regard as its partisan and one-sided support for Israel, its support of such unpopular leaders as the Saudi kings and President Mubarak; and the continued bombing and sanctions against Iraq, which have deprived the Iraqi people (though not Saddam and his cronies) of food and drugs, as a result of which thousands of Iraqi children have died of cancer. All this Bin Laden regards as an act of war against the Arab peoples. All this seems to him, and to many people in the Middle East, an American war against Islam.

    He is not simply concerned with fighting the United States. He also wants to get rid of regimes that he regards as apostate in the Muslim world: his targets include Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Shiite Iran. He is not fighting democracy or freedom per se. He simply wants the United States out of the region, and is fighting a war against what he regards as American imperialism.

    Only a small minority of Muslims would support Osama's full program, but most of the middle classes would share his dislike of "American Imperialism" There are many business people and professionals, who believe the United States now controls the region, economically and politically, and they deeply resent this. Because much of this opposition is mainstream, this creates conditions sympathetic to the radicals. People in the mainstream do not like American foreign policy, and even though they utterly deplore the events of September 11th, they continue to believe that America and the West has no concern for their welfare or their views. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that the United States regards their needs and concerns as unimportant.

    Fundamentalism, I said earlier, is nihilistic because it denies crucial and sacred values of the faith. The ideology of Qutb and bin Laden is unIslamic, because Islam condemns violence, aggression and killing, and, like Judaism, holds that to kill even one person is in a sense to kill the whole world. The Quran will permit only a war of self-defense. It holds that killing is always a great evil, but that sometimes it is necessary to fight in order to preserve decent values. This is similar to the mainstream Western ideal of the just war: in World War II the allies deemed it necessary to fight Hitler.

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