Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Phenomenon of "Fundamentalism"

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Phenomenon of "Fundamentalism"

Article excerpt

Few political developments in the Middle East seem as ominous or as threatening to outsiders as the rise of "Islamic fundamentalism." Even fewer have been so misunderstood. The popular image in the West is of a monolithic movement spreading like wildfire across the region, heralding a return to medieval obscurantism by means of apocalyptic violence. To be certain, the movement has often shown its darker side of intolerance, fanaticism and xenophobia.

This is only part of the picture, however, and" fundamentalism" is neither monolithic nor necessarily violent. It sets as its goal not blind obedience to hidebound tradition, but rather the reintegration of noble religious principles into the political sphere, the renewal of a rich Islamic culture and society, and a return to the roots of Islam. There is, of course, a great deal of disagreement among Islamic activists as to the exact definition of these goals, as well as the means by which they should be attained, and one can only speak in rough generalizations. It is clear, though, that image and reality are often two separate entities when it comes to Western perceptions of "fundamentalism," largely as a result of sensationalist media coverage, a lack of information about the region, its people, and its history, and Western paranoia and misunderstanding when dealing with Islam.

The Question of Terminology

To begin with there is the thorny question of terminology. Many Muslims are uncomfortable with the term "fundamentalism" used in conjunction with Islam. Originally applied to a current of thought in Protestant Christianity that accepts and interprets Scripture literally, the term is often misapplied to Islam by outside commentators, as Muslim "fundamentalists" have interpreted the Qur'an in a variety of ways. Fundamentalist Christians believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. In this sense, however, all Muslims are "fundamentalists," as it is an article of faith that the Qur'an was revealed by God to Muhammad through the angel Jibril (Gabriel).

Other terms widely used to refer to "fundamentalist Islam" are also problematic. "Revivalist" or "resurgent" implies that Islam was somehow dead or moribund before, when in fact there have been repeated calls for reform from both liberal and conservative Muslim thinkers throughout the years. "Radical" Islam is also somewhat unsatisfactory: tactics used by some Islamic activists in the Mideast are indeed radical, but the basic ideology of these activists is very conservative, and even reactionary.

Islamic activists like Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi and the leaders of Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) have preferred the terms "Islamism" and "Islamist" to refer to their movements and their followers. It should be stressed that "Islamism" is not the same as "Islam," and that "Islamist" is not a synonym for "Muslim." Islamists are but a vocal minority among the Muslim community and, as one Algerian taxi driver noted, "I don't have to belong to an Islamist party in order to be a good Muslim."

These relatively neutral terms do little by way of explaining Islamist ideology, however, in part because there are so many divergent groups with widely differing doctrines. In general, Islamists are trying to create an Islamic society based on a glorious and ideal model from the past. Some activists narrowly define that past as the lifetime of the Prophet, while most Sunni Islamists extend the model to include the first four "rightly guided" caliphs. Shi'i Islamists usually look to the examples of the Prophet, the fourth caliph `Ali, and his line of descendants. There is a good deal of romanticization and idealization of this era involved in Islamist rhetoric, and it should be remembered that three of the first four caliphs were murdered and that the Muslim community was often split after the death of the Prophet.

This notion of using an ideal past as a guide for proper conduct is not limited to Islamists. …

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