2016-06-30
British writer Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, is the author of a celebrated account of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, "A History of God," and "The Battle for God," on fundamentalism in the major religions. She teaches at Leo Baeck College, a seminary for reform Judaism in London.

  • 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?


    How is Islamic fundamentalism different from the fundamentalism of Christianity and Judaism?
    The militant form of piety we call fundamentalism erupted in every major religion during the 20th century, and constitutes a widespread revolt against modernity and secular society. The first of these movements emerged in the United States at the turn of the 20th century; Jewish fundamentalism came to the fore after the Nazi Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel; and Islamic fundamentalism erupted in the late 1960s, after a degree of modernization had been accomplished and after secularist ideologies, such as nationalism and socialism, seemed to have failed. In all three faiths, there had been proto-fundamentalist movements before these dates, but this is the general pattern.

    Jews and Muslims often object to the use of the term "fundamentalism," and in truth it is not a very satisfactory term. It was coined by American Protestants to describe their reform movement led by William Bell Riley, A.C. Dixon, J. Gresham Machem and others. Anxious about Darwinism and harboring apocalyptic beliefs, their followers wanted to go back to the "fundamentals" of the tradition. But, like it or not, the term is here to stay and the widespread series of movements do bear a strong family resemblance.

    Obviously there are differences. Christians tend to be more concerned with dogma (particularly with the inerrancy of Scripture and such issues as how the Darwinian theory of evolution conflicts with Genesis) than either Jews or Muslims, who are more concerned with the practicalities of being religious in the modern world. But in all three faiths of Abraham, fundamentalism is highly political. Fundamentalists are determined to drag God and religion from the sidelines, where they've been relegated in secular culture, back to center stage.

    And in this they have achieved a degree of success. In the mid-20th century, it was widely believed that secularism was the coming ideology and that religion would never again play a major role in world events, but that is clearly not the case today.

    In all three faiths, fundamentalists see themselves engaged in a "battle for God." Every single fundamentalist group I have studied is convinced that secular or liberal society wants to wipe out religion. All are rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. The movements begin by opposing members of their own faith and their own people; it is only at a later stage that they turn their attention to foreigners.

    Because they believe that they are fighting for survival, fundamentalists tend to militancy, ignoring the more compassionate elements of the faith in favor of more ferocious theologies. In all three religions, including American Protestantism, fundamentalism seems to be becoming more extreme.

    Fundamentalist groups and ideologies all tend to follow a similar pattern of behavior. First, they withdraw from mainstream society to form sacred enclaves of pure faith. Obvious examples are Bob Jones University; the ultra-Orthodox communities in New York; and Osama bin Laden's training camps. These fundamentalist churches, colleges, yeshivas, communes, settlements, study groups are fortresses where the "faithful" can live what they regard as a true religious life. They create a counter-culture, in conscious reaction against the modern society, which fills them with such dread.

    But from these bastions, fundamentalists sometimes plan a political, military or social offensive. This was very clear at the end of the 1970s, when we saw the Iranian revolution, the emergence of the Moral Majority in the USA, and an upsurge of Islamic and Jewish groups in the Middle East.

    Christian fundamentalists in the United States have committed fewer acts of terror than the others for two main reasons: they live in a more peaceful society, which, until last week, was not at war or engaged in a deadly political conflict. Second: the more extreme Protestant groups believe that the democratic federal government of the United States will collapse without their needing to take action: God will see to it. The Christian Identity Groups, a very loose and small network (which seems to have influenced Timothy McVeigh) do sally out of their survival communities in such states as Montana and commit what they regard as acts of war against the godless government and society of the United States: abortion clinics and personnel are often targets.

    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.


    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]

    The word jihad is much misunderstood. It is rarely used as a noun in the Qu'ran, but in a verbal form, meaning striving, struggle or effort. This jihad denotes the determined effort that Muslims must make to put God's commands into practice in a terrible and evil world. Sometimes this will mean armed struggle, but the jihad also refers to a spiritual, moral, intellectual, social, domestic or purely personal effort. There is a very famous and much quoted hadith or "tradition" about the Prophet Muhammad, which describes him returning home after a battle and saying to his Companions; "We are returning from the Lesser Jihad [the battle] to the Greater Jihad," which is the far more important and urgent struggle to reform one's own heart and one's own society.

    Consequently, the Qu'ran is quite clear that warfare is not the best way of dealing with difficulties. It is much better to sit down and reason with people who disagree with us, and to "argue [with unbelievers] in the most kindly manner, with wisdom and goodly exhortation." If Muslims are forced to respond to an attack, their retaliation must be appropriate and proportionate to the wrong suffered, but forbearance is preferable: "To bear yourselves with patience is far better for you, since God is with those who are patient in adversity." (16:125-127]

    The Quran also quotes the Jewish Torah, which permits the lex talionis--an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth--but adds that it is a meritorious act to be charitable and to refrain from retaliation. [5;45]

    Muslims must be realistic. If God had wanted all peoples to be the same and have identical opinions and policies, then he would have made them into one nation and made them all Muslims. But God has not chosen to do this, so Muslims must accept his will. [10:99;11:118]. If there is an irreconcilable difference, Muslims must simply go their own way, as the Prophet himself did when he found that he could not agree with the Meccan establishment, saying: "Unto you your moral law, and unto me, mine." [109:6] You go your way, and I'll go mine.

    Above all "There must be no coercion in matters of faith." {2:256]. The grammar here is very strong, very absolute. (La ikra fi'l-din) It is similar in form to the Shehadah, the Muslim profession of Faith: "There is no God but Allah!" ("La illaha `l Allah!" The Unity of God is the basis of all Muslim morality and spirituality. The principle of tawhid ["making one"] is the Muslim task par excellence. Nothing must rival God ~ no ideology, material goods, or personal ambitions. A Muslim must try to integrate his entire personality and his whole life to ensure that God is his top priority, and in the unity that she will discover within herself when this is achieved, she will have intimations of that Unity which is God. It is, therefore, significant that in the Quran, the prohibition of force and compulsion in religious matters is made as emphatically as the assertion of the Unity of God. The principle is as sacred as that.

    Muhammad did not intend to found a new world religion to which everybody had to subscribe. The Qu'ran makes it clear that he considered that he was simply bringing the religion of the One God to the Arabs, who had not had a prophet before and had no scriptures in their own language. The Qu'ran insists that its revelation does not cancel out the revelations made to previous prophets: to Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Enoch, or Jesus. Every nation on the face of the earth has been sent some kind of revelation, which it expresses in its own cultural idiom. So every rightly guided religion comes from God.

    In the Qu'ran, Muslims are commanded to speak with great courtesy to Jews and Christians, "the People of the Book," who believe in the same God as they do. [29:46] These were the world faiths that Muslims were familiar with; today, Muslim scholars argue that had the Prophet known about Buddhists, Hindus, the Native Americans or Australian Aborigines, the Qu'ran would have endorsed their religious leaders too. Muhammad simply thought that he was bringing the Arabs, who seemed to have been left out of the divine plan, into the religious family founded by the other great prophets.

    This is reflected in the symbolic story of the Prophet's spiritual flight from Mecca to Jerusalem, where he is welcomed by all the great prophets of the past on the Temple Mount, preaches to them there, and then ascends to the Divine Throne, greeting and sometimes taking advice from Moses, Aaron, Jesus, John the Baptist and Abraham on the way. It is a story of religious pluralism: the prophets all affirm one another's visions and teachings; they gain help from one another. And it also shows the Prophet's yearning to bring the Arabs in far-off Arabia into the heart of the monotheistic faith.

    So when Osama bin Laden declared a jihad against Christians and Jews, he was acting against basic tenets of the Qu'ran. It goes without saying that any form of indiscriminate "killing" [qital], which is strongly condemned in the Qu'ran, is also unIslamic.

    So too is suicide, which is forbidden in Islamic Law. True the Qu'ran promises that those who fall in battle while fighting for their lives against Mecca will surely go to Paradise. It was certainly not encouraging Muslims to rush out and expose themselves to the danger of certain death .

    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.

    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?