The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism

Article excerpt

The Dual Nature of Islamic Fundamentalism, by Johannes J.G. Jansen. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997. xvii + 180 pages.

Notes to p. 191. Index to p. 198. $29.95.

This book seeks to employ "a theologian's outlook to understand what fundamentalism is about" (p. 5). By defining Islamic "fundamentalism" as "both politics and religion" (p. xi), Johannes Jansen identifies avowed Islamic theologic doctrines and ideas, rather than socio-political conditions, as the causes of fundamentalism.

The essence of Jansen's thesis is that Islamic fundamentalists believe they could restore an "Islamic golden age" if only they could fully implement Islamic law. Such implementation is seen as both a religious and a political obligation. The fundamentalists argue that since existing governments are an obstacle to the full implementation of Islamic law, it is a religious duty to overthrow these governments in order to institute an Islamic government. Using Egypt as his case study, Jansen diligently and successfully cites many examples that dovetail neatly with his portrayal of fundamentalism.

Jansen argues that "Islamic fundamentalism is very much a creation of an Islamic religious imagination" (p. 5). Since both the interpretation and imagination of Islam are debated and contested in different temporal and spatial dimensions, Jansen selects those views that best fit his explanatory scheme. There is little room in his argument for Muslim scholars who present more pluralist views of Islam, such as Taha al-'Alwani and Muhammad 'Umara. Moreover, academics such as Nazih Ayubi, Dale F. Eickelman and Sami Zubayda have demonstrated that the phenomenon of "fundamentalism" is a modern invention and has no deterministic roots in Islam as a religion.

Jansen rightly indicates that there is a small yet noteworthy group of Muslim fundamentalists who seek to impose on the rest of society their vision of truth. This, however, cannot fully explain the politicization of Islamic idioms and symbols. If Jansen's only goal is to examine fundamentalists who "derive the right to kill from the traditional Islamic rules concerning apostasy from Islam" (p. 23), he should have constructed their position vis-a-vis pluralist Muslims. Indeed, there are fundamentalists who believe that Islam as a religiopolitical system can solve all human problems. Islam, for fundamentalists, becomes a totalitarian regime of truth to decide what is right and wrong. This is, indeed, a dangerous illusion. By examining the apostasy cases of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and Faraj Fuda, and the issues of female circumcision and anti-Semitism, Jansen demonstrates the way in which some fundamentalists use Islam to control public morality and to establish the rules of governance. At times resorting to fanaticism and violence, they play a part not only in preventing the evolution of a civic culture, but also in undermining Islamic values of tolerance, mercy and self-reflection. Jansen, however, fails to consider seriously that despotic political systems, cynically claiming to represent Western values, worsen the distribution of income and use appalling violence to suppress virtually all demands for political reform and for accountability, resulting in the radicalization of some Islamist movements which then resort to the ruthless logic of their foes. …