Exploring the concept of fundamentalism Yasser Ahmed describes the
connection and similarities between two modern forms of fundamentalism;
Western-Liberal and Islamic
The term fundamentalism now associated with extremist Islamic
groups, finds its origin in the lexicon of American Christian sects in the late
19th century who proposed a revaluation of the “fundamentals” of
their faith against modernism and renovation in theological studies, which in
their opinion, led towards relativism and syncretism. Later the term came to be
used to describe the attitudes of a number of Islamic groups and schools often
in dispute among themselves that emerged around the 1920s and developed around
the 1960s and 70s. They assume the application of a juridical-normative
framework generated through a precise interpretation of Islamic sources; the
Qur an and the Sunna Tradition , without any exegetical elaboration, claiming
to reinterpret Islam in order to return to its original purity.
Such attitudes are analogous to developments within some Christian
sects that from the Middle Ages to the Reformation and up to our days have
proposed a return to the origins of the `Early Church of the Apostles .
This is not to say that there has never been a “fundamentalist
expression” within Islam before now; in fact such expression can be
identified in the exclusivist theology of the Kharijite movement in around 654
CE during the Caliphate of Ali ibn Abi Taleb. This movement had neither the
support of the first and second generation of the Prophet s companions, nor
that of later scholars.
On the whole the Islamic funda¬mentalisms of today represent a new
phenomenon that can be qualified as “modernist” even when they claim
to refer to a remote past. The date of their birth and development can be
located between the end of the Second World War and the Arab defeat in the
“Six Days War” in June 1967 when the Arab and Islamic world which had
accepted almost enthusiastically, at the end of the 18th century, the proposals
for modernisation that came from the West, found themselves repeatedly
deceived, betrayed and humiliated.
In this context arose almost spontaneously the idea of returning to
the purity of the Muslim tradition as the only refuge and the only basis for a
new start; spiritual, social and political. But the implausibility of the
fundamentalist thesis consists in the impossibility of the application of the
rules of the Qur an and Traditions based on a narrow literal and normative
interpretation which divides the world into two contrasting classifications;
believers and unbelievers.
This is an interpretation that undermines the foundation of a real
civil society and is rejected by the vast majority of the Islamic world which
has been able to provide alternative progressive views, such as the Islamic
Republic of Iran or Malaysia with its `economic miracle within their own
cultural and religious frameworks.
The kind of fundamentalism that characterises these groups and
indeed other religious fundamentalism is based on intolerance towards those who
think differently and are therefore perceived as a dangerous enemy. Their
theology is dogmatic, representing a refuge in a systematic doctrine, spelled
out in details and affirmed with unquestioned authority. It is intolerant in
affirmation of convictions and refuses any critical verification.
Fanaticism is the consequence of intolerance lived actively in the refusal of
contrary opinions and those who hold them.
The fanatical attitude can run in a person or may be reflected in
family life, with someone who becomes a tyrant being the sole holder of the
guiding values . It becomes dangerous when it takes on a social character and
is expressed as an absolute claim with a mission to eliminate dissenting voices.
The paradox of this modern form of fundamentalism is that it
embodies a reading of traditions in an almost anarchical way without the
benefit of any consensus derived from and built upon a body of centuries-old
knowledge. The use of religious texts and religion in general is put at the
service of a political design aiming at keeping control. It
reduces the religious message to a tool for criticism and more
often towards the use of weapons.
However fundamentalism is not a prerogative of a specific time or
people; in fact it can arise even from the `progressive thinking of our modern
Western fundamentalism is born out of the characteristic
intolerance of the Enlightenment Age disguised as broadminded but in reality
carrying a profound conviction that the world of the liberal democracies and
economic liberalism is the best possible one, the ultimate final necessary goal
of any human culture. In fact we are confronted with a new form of
totalitarianism in the making. The German-American political theorist Hannah
Arendt argued that totalitarianism as such necessitates a metaphysical enemy .
So we had the bourgeoisie for Communism and the Jews for Nazism.
Unfortunately in the light of developments in the Liberal West
during the last 50 years we can say that the West is moving towards a form of
totalitarianism. Despite the absence of explicit signs such as the way
consensus is orchestrated, masses are manipulated etc.., it appears that the
West cannot do without a metaphysical enemy . Such were and remain Nazism and
Communism with all their variants. With the defeat of these two monsters the
Liberal West went through a period of discomfort until it was able to
identify a new mortal enemy: Islam.
To turn Islam into a real enemy it needed to be reduced to a single
basic monolithic structure. Therefore the liberal fundamentalist theorists have
decreed and propagated that Islam, in its entirety, is in nature fundamentalist
or susceptible to becoming so and all fundamentalist groups are terrorists or
potential supporters and sympathizers of terrorism.
We have been subjected to a real intellectual, mass media contagion
with any voice of dissent being branded as support of terrorism. We are
approaching a new era of McCarthyism.
The image of Islam as a millennial opponent of the West is
widespread in a misinformed world with superficial knowledge of history.
To this we must add the tragic events of 9/11 and the behavior of
some Muslims who are themselves very poorly informed about both the substance
of their faith, and the very complex political and cultural reality of the
In this way both fundamentalisms, Western-Liberal and Islamic, play
into the hands of terrorist agents whose aim is to translate into practice the
ominous prophecy of Samuel Huntington and bring about the Clash of Civilizations
Have we reached a point of no return or is there a solution to all
Closed societies of the past, in which there existed a strong
social control but also a general solidarity based on a deep sense of belonging
and some shared values, no longer exist. They were homogeneous, because there
was concurrence and sharing between religion, ethics and social behavior.
New economic forms, social mobility and network communications have
opened up ethnic groups and nations, making them interdependent and interconnected.
Back in the 1960s Marshall McLuhan spoke of “planetary
man” and “global village” to indicate how societies can now be
found living next to each other in reciprocity of relationships and influences.
The new perspective of the open society, in which different
identities coexist, is undoubtedly contentious, because in it are manifest
ideological disputes, conflicts of interest, with several wills to control or
power. To idealize the open society then is counterproductive, not least of all
because of the inevitable conflicts that arise and develop in it. The emphasis
should therefore be on “managing conflicts” so that they are
productive and not destructive. In order to do so we must consider
the importance of the cultural and educational spheres.
There is a need to multiply the occasions for encounters, to deepen
our respective identities and at the same time to study and learn more closely
those of others. It is necessary to believe in the mutual interest and sympathy
that arise from the comparison between traditions and cultures conducted with
mutual respect and the desire to strengthen one s own identity through the
acceptance of what is acceptable in other cultures and the enrichment that can be
A good relationship between Islam and the West is possible if we
all act with wisdom and moderation on both sides. Certain western
fundamentalist quarters have made full use of the venomous and demagogic
campaign orchestrated by Islamic neo-fundamentalists. People from the West
must take their politicians to task and ask them to engage positively with the
vast majority of Muslims who wish to articulate a relationship of coexistence
between Islam and modernity, working together to solve some crucial international
problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A politics of sanctions and
censure against the so-called rogue states is colonialist in nature,
imprudent and serves only to prevent a peaceful and harmonious coexistence.