Islamic Fundamentalism Feared, Misunderstood: Political Repression and Poverty Fuel a Religious Movement

Article excerpt

Islamic fundamentalism has replaced communism as the enemy of the day. But despite the growing perception in this country that Islamic fundamentalism poses a threat to the United States, many Americans have only a minimal understanding of who Islamic fundamentalists are, what they believe and why their ranks continue to grow.

Misconceptions are common, with one-dimensional views of Islamic fundamentalists as violent extremists prevailing over more nuanced understandings of a movement that is complex and diverse.

In fact, most Islamic fundamentalists have much in common with their Christian counterparts, both perceiving reality through an interpretation of scripture that they view as inerrant. While some Islamic fundamentalists are recruited from the poor and uneducated, others come from middle class or prosperous backgrounds" and have university degrees.

"The vast majority are not violent, bomb-hrowing people. They are very much like your average very religious Catholic or Protestant," said Lawrence Davidson, professor of history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and author of the book Islamic Fundamentalism.

For many Muslims, Islamic revival simply means becoming a more religiously observant Muslim. For others, being an observant Muslim is not simply more attention to prayer or fasting; it's also about creating a more just, moral, Islam-ased society, said John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the university's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.

Context, say scholars, is everything, and the political and economic climate that pertains in many Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, fuels Islamist movements that go beyond respect and reverence for the Islamic religion to adopt Islam as a political strategy or that refer to Islamic principles in calling for social and political reforms. These "Islamist" movements, as fundamentalism in the context of Islam is more properly called, have developed increasing popular support as other efforts at economic and political reform in Muslim societies have failed.

"If you held elections, in almost every single country in the Muslim world, Islamists would probably gain a majority. They would obtain a majority because they are highly organized, they have established an effective social base, and they are seen to be quite legitimate by a sizeable number of Muslims," said Fawaz Gerges, the Christian A. Johnson Chair in International Affairs and Middle Eastern Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of the upcoming book Jihadists:Unholy Warriors. "The point to keep in mind is that Islamism is here to stay."

Scholars say Islamism represents for many Muslims a last-ditch effort to better their situation after decades of living in impoverished states that have experimented with socialism, Arab nationalism, military dictatorships and monarchies--with little discernible improvement in living standards for the vast majority of their populations.

"The socialists, the free marketers, the nationalists, the monarchists have failed," said Stephen Zunes, associate professor of politics at San Francisco University and author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism.

Islam appeals because it is an alternative to the secular nation-state, to a Western, non-indigenous, non-Islamic form of social organization and political process, said R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and co-editor of The Fundamentalism Project, a massive five-volume study of global fundamentalism.

Facing formidable obstacles

But to become successful, Islamists face formidable obstacles, Appleby observed. He said most Muslims are wary of Islam as a political movement, oppose Islam's manipulation for violent or revolutionary ends, and don't have confidence in extreme Islamic movements. …