Fractured Fundamentalisms

Extremism exists in every major faith, and sometimes turns violent

BY: Karen Armstrong


Continued from page 5

It was found that in order to be fully productive and thus provide a sound basis for the new civilization, more and more people had to acquire the modern spirit and therefore a modicum of education, even at a quite humble level. Printers, clerks, factory workers and finally women were brought into the productive process. As the populace became more educated, they quite naturally demanded a share in the decisionmaking process of society.

Similarly, to make full use of its human resources, governments found they had to draw upon minority groups such as the Jews, which had been either persecuted or confined to ghettos in Europe. In England, Catholics were emancipated. Those societies that were secular and democratic seemed to work best. In Eastern Europe, countries that reserved the fruits of modernity for an elite, and that used more draconian measures to bring Jews into the mainstream, fell behind. It's important to note that this modernization took about 300 years. New ideas and ideals had time to filter down to society's lower echelons, under the dynamic of its own momentum. This has not been the case in the Islamic world. Here modernization has been far more accelerated, leaving no time for the trickle-down effect. Consequently, society has been polarized: only a privileged elite has been educated to take part in modern politics, while the vast majority find their society changing in ways that seem incomprehensible and bewildering. It has been compared to the trauma of watching a beloved friend changed by mortal illness. Religion has been a solace--but of course religion too has to change in the modern world.

In some Islamic countries, furthermore, modernity has not been accompanied by independence, but by colonial subjugation. Even after colonialism, powers like Britain or France, and latterly the United States continued to control the political destiny of these developing nations. Instead of independence, we've seen an unhealthy dependence. Secondly, instead of innovation, the Islamic world has had to settle for imitation. We are simply too far ahead.

It is interesting to compare the experience of Japan, which was never colonized and has made its own highly successful modernity; again, one of the countries which has achieved a secular democracy of sorts is Turkey, which also escaped colonialization.

You can compare this to the process of baking a cake. If you do not have proper eggs but only powdered eggs; if you have to use rice instead of flour, you are not going to get the nice cake in the cookbook. These wrong ingredients have sometimes produce something very nasty indeed-not a nice, liberal democracy at all. What you see in the Middle Eastern countries is not a society corrupted by the outmoded religion of "Islam," but an imperfectly modernized society.

Islam is not inherently opposed to democracy, however, and this recent attack was not a war against democracy or freedom. There are principles in Islamic law, such as the need for shurah (consultation) before passing new legislation, which would be very compatible. And it is not strictly true that Islam is incapable of separating what we in the West call "church" and state. In practice, Muslims have perforce kept religion and politics separate. In the Shiite world, this separation of religion and politics was a sacred ideal, because all states were seen as corrupt. In the Sunni world, there was a de facto separation of religion and the political life of the caliphal court. The shariah, the Islamic legal system, began as a counterculture, as a white revolution against what they saw as the corruption of the court. The ulama (religious scholars) promoted a more egalitarian, principled and just system of law than was actually feasible in the realpolitik of the court, which had its own aristocratic culture, known as the adab. Muslims do have problems with the Western definition of democracy: "Government with the people, for the people and by the people," is not tenable, because in an Islamic perspective God and not the people is sovereign.

And there are historical difficulties to contend with. Early last century in Iran, the leading intellectuals and progressive ulama demanded a modern constitution and representational government. A parliament majlis was duly set up by the Qajar shahs, but never allowed to function properly. First the Russians helped the shah to close it down; later the British, who were trying to make Iran a protectorate during the 1920s, rigged elections to ensure a result favorable to themselves. In 1953, the CIA and British intelligence were instrumental restoring to throne the deposed Shah Reza Pahlavi, who not only closed down the Majlis to effect his modernization program, but systematically denied Iranians fundamental human rights.

In Egypt, there were 17 general elections between 1923 and 1952, all of which were won by the popular Wafd party, but the Wafd were permitted to rule only five times. They were usually forced to stand down by either the British or the king of Egypt. So democracy has got a bad name, and sometimes even seems like a bad joke.

Nevertheless, as modernization progresses, some Muslim states may realize--as Western countries did before them--that a degree of democratization and secularization are essential. This seems to have been Iran's experience. The Islamic Revolution of 1978-9 did give Iranians forms of representational government for the first time; admittedly these institutions were flawed and often highly unsatisfactory, but a start had been made.

At the very end of his life, Khomeini made an important "declaration of independence," proclaiming that the state must have a "monopoly" in such practical matters as urban affairs, agriculture or the economy, and must be emancipated from the constraining laws of traditional religion and the conservative mullahs. Government, he said, must not be impeded in its utilitarian pursuit of the interests of the people and what he saw as the greater good of Islam. He also seemed to support the radical sermon preached on January 12th, 1988 by the Speaker of Parliament, Hojjat ol-Islam Rafsanjani, which announced that Iran must strive for a form of Shiite democracy, rooted in God.

This move towards the democratic ideal is continuing today, under President Khatami, elected in 1997 in a landslide. Khatami still has to struggle with the conservative clerics, but Iran seems on creating their own kind of cake, forming a democratic ideal in a Shiite package. Instead of being a foreign and discredited export, it would be grafted onto Iranian traditions.

So the achievement of a full democracy is not simply a matter of setting up a parliament, and it is nearly always contested. Religion can sometimes facilitate the struggle. After the American Revolution, the prophets of the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening used the New Testament to demand an equality and a greater share of power for the people than some aristocratic Founding Fathers had envisaged. Religion can be a modernizing factor, and some forms of fundamentalism in the Middle East can be seen as enabling people to make the painful rite of passage to modernity more easily.

  • 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?

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