Fractured Fundamentalisms

Extremism exists in every major faith, and sometimes turns violent

BY: Karen Armstrong


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Does fundamentalism inevitably cause violence?
No, it does not. Fundamentalism is most likely to tip over into violence in a society at war or in conflict. The Middle East, which has seen violent conflict for many years, is an obvious example.

But even some Muslim fundamentalists have confined themselves to welfare campaigns. They have opened clinics, taught the people about labor laws, built their own factories where workers have better conditions, and offered free education. Their aim has been to bring some of the benefits of modernity to the people in an Islamic context that makes sense to them. In Egypt, student groups have tried to better the lot of women students, guard them from sexual harassment. Because the universities are often hopelessly overcrowded and ill equipped, they have provided lecture hand-outs and study sessions in the mosques, where people can read quietly, which they cannot always do in the noisy and overcrowded halls of residence. They will take over a lawn or a shady spot on campus and use it as an impromptu mosque, for prayer.

The focus for the most groups has been making Islam more of a presence in the secular world. They have held Islamic study camps, where people study the Quran, pray, and renew themselves spiritually. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish fundamentalists devote their attention to studying Torah and Talmud and preserving true values in a Godless world. Sometimes in Israel they may stone the cars of Israelis who ignoring the Sabbath rules or attack one of their own number whose behavior seems lax. But in general, they are not violent. And the vast majority of American Protestant fundamentalists, as I said above, do not commit acts of violence: they confine their "battle for God" to amending text books, which teach evolution or liberal values, or for school prayer.

  • 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 responsibility does Islam bear for these acts? What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
    The word Islam, which means "surrender," is related to the Arabic salam, "peace." When the Prophet Muhammad brought the revealed scripture called the Qu'ran ("recitation") to the Arabs in the early 7th century C.E., one of his main purposes was precisely to stop the kind of indiscriminate killing we saw on September 11th.

    At the time the Arabian Peninsula was in crisis. The tribal system was breaking down, and the various tribes were locked into a murderous cycle of vendetta and counter vendetta. For a weak tribe, or a man who lacked powerful protection, survival was nearly impossible. The Prophet himself suffered several assassination attempts, and when his religious and social message ran him afoul of the establishment of Mecca, the small Muslim community was persecuted. Things got so bad that the Muslims had to migrate to Medina, some 250 miles to the north, and there they were subject to attack by the Meccan army, the greatest power in Arabia.

    For about five years, there was war and the Muslims narrowly escaped extermination. Terrible things were done on both sides. But when Muhammad sensed that the tide had just begun turn in his favor, he completely changed tack. He concentrated on building a peaceful coalition of tribes, and initiated an inspired, brave and ingenious policy of non-violence. This proved so successful that eventually Mecca opened its gates to the Muslims voluntarily, without a single drop of blood being shed.

    Because the Qu'ran was revealed in the context of an all-out war, several passages deal with the conduct of armed conflict. Warfare was a desperate business in Arabia. An Arab chieftain was not expected to take prisoners; it was a given that he would simply kill everybody he could get his hands on. Muhammad knew that if the Muslims were defeated they would all be slaughtered to the last man or woman.

    Sometimes the Qu'ran seems to have imbibed this spirit. Muslims are ordered by God to "slay [the enemy] wherever you find them. (4:89). Muslim extremists like Bin Laden like to quote these verses, but they do so selectively, never quoting the exhortations to peace and forbearance that in almost every case mitigate these ferocious injunctions in the verses immediately following. Thus "If they leave you alone and offer to make peace with you, God does not allow you to harm them." (4:90)

    Therefore the only war condoned by the Qu'ran is a war of self-defense. "Warfare is an awesome evil" (2:217), but sometimes it is necessary to fight in order to bring the kind of persecution suffered by the Muslims to an end [2:217] or to preserve decent values [22:40]. But Muslims may never initiate hostilities, and aggression is forbidden by God [2:190] While the fighting continues, Muslims must dedicate themselves wholly to the war in order to bring things back to normal as quickly as possible, but the second the enemy sues for peace, hostilities must cease. [2:192]

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