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Understanding religious fundamentalism

Bringing out the worst

Randa Abdel-Fattah

A bomb goes off in the world: there are three choice labels: Islamic fundamentalist, Islamic terrorist, Islamic extremist. Handy and interchangeable labels which the media and our politicians relish using.

Let's take the term Islamic fundamentalism. It is enveloped in ambiguity and all too often employed in the same simplistic, emotive fashion as the term communism once was, failing to capture the reality of complex social movements. Fundamentalism has been a major element in western policy considerations ever since the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni's anti-American, Islamic regime in Iran in 1979. The concern entered a new phase in the 1990s prompted largely by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the success of the Afghan resistance forces, the emergence of the independent Muslim Central Asian republics and so on.

According to Amin Saikal, the term fundamentalism has 'mainly been used to delineate the position of two distinct types of forces within the Muslim world: those who have used Islam merely as a cover for violent anti-Western actions that cannot find justification within the sources of Islamic law and doctrine; and those who have deployed Islam as an active ideology of both resistance and reassertion, and refused to elevate the globalist interests of the US to the prominence that America claims it must have as a dominant world power'.

The predominant portrayal of Muslims as fundamentalists, extremists and terrorists transforms differences, be they national, ethnic, or economic, into opposites, into enemies. Thus, the jingoistic violent US national psyche is denied, transformed and projected as the protector of the democratic way against the struggles of oppressed nations to establish their own rights and national identities. The West is dismally incapable of drawing a clear distinction between those who constitute terrorists and fundamentalists acting in the name of Islam, and those who make up revolutionary reformers, upholding Islam genuinely as an ideological source for social transformation. Failing to transcend treating Muslims as an undifferentiated mass, Sunni or Shi'ite sects, for example, are constructed as a monolithic bloc and dealt with in pejorative terms.

The frequency with which one reads about Islamic fundamentalism in the media suggests that whenever Muslims appear on the world stage, challenging an existing situation, they must be fundamentalists. In such a context, fundamentalist is a synonym for a religious enthusiast who has gone over the top - a fanatic. But a fanatic is only a fanatic because someone else has provided the label and has defined the limits. And defining limits in order to categorise behaviour can occur more out of a desire to contain such behaviour by invoking widespread disapproval, than out of a desire to try and appreciate how Islam understands itself in the modern world.

The word is susceptible to a looseness which suggests pejorative overtones rather than an authentic description of Muslim religious behaviour. The majority of Muslims are strongly opposed to acts of violence, in any form, undertaken in the name of religion. Sadly at the moment within the Muslim world we do have groups that justify violence on the grounds that they are defending Islam against the tyranny of the west.

Zia Sardar, author of the recent best seller, Why do people hate America, in a recent radio interview in Melbourne argued that the political constructions and systems in Muslim countries have prevented the basic Islamic ethics to come to the fore. Take Saudi Arabia, for example. Its despotic monarchy is basically maintained by the US. And the kind of puritan interpretation of Islam that the state forces on the rest of the society, drains the ethics and morality of Islam away, leaving a mechanical, totalistic state, totally devoid of humanity. What we want are communities and states where Islamic humanity can flourish, and where our ethics and humanity can become part of society. But the political situation in the Muslim world is both a product of colonial legacy and part of a shortcoming in perceiving Islam in a very, very narrow way.

Former Indonesian President Abdul Rahman Wahid attributes part of the reason for a narrow interpretation and application of Islam to the fact that those who have not been trained in the rich disciplines of Islamic scholarship, tend to bring to their reflection on the faith the same sort of simple modeling and formulistic thinking that they may have learned as students of engineering or other applied sciences. Many end up taking a literal approach to the textual sources of Islam. Grabbing a few verses out of context, they seek to find answers to the challenges facing Muslim society today. The result is that they use these texts in a literal, reductionist fashion without being able to undertake, or even appreciate, the subtly nuanced task of interpretation of the Quran and Hadith.

As a Muslim, it appalls me to witness people who dare to profess allegiance to Islam while committing heinous acts of murder and destruction. However, we should be loathe to reward them with the privilege of the word 'fundamentalist', for, if we understand that a fundamentalist is somebody who adheres to the fundamental tenets of their faith, then the term is misapplied to those whose actions represent a repudiation and sacrilege to the 'fundamentals' of Islamic doctrine. I have always resisted the word 'extremist' too as it suggests somebody has taken a principle or doctrine and stretched it too far. Like a rubber band stretched so far but which will eventually bounce back to is original position. As if to suggest that bombing a club or hotel and killing innocent people is a mere stretch from an originally legal and valid principle in Islam. In actual fact, such murderous actions repel the dictates and boundaries of the Islamic faith. No matter the cause or struggle, to slaughter civilians is not a tribute to Islam, but a defilement of its teachings, a vile defamation of its image, and an utter contempt of its message. It seems such easy logic to me. Can a religion that preaches that the killing of one innocent life is equivalent to the killing of all of humankind, condone the indiscriminate murder of innocent civilians?

The rubber band has not been stretched, it has been snapped. I have come to accept that although atrocities are committed in the name of all religions around the world, it is Islam alone that will be judged by the actions of those who purport to be its followers. Muslims do not lay blame for the behaviour of so-called Christians at the feet of Christ, not because there is no scripture to rest on, but because we respect the intent of Christ's words and actions and became we know that even those acting in his name are misguided. Why is it so difficult for Islam, a religion followed by 1.3 billion people all of whom cannot be uncivilised, unintelligent, immoral, unthinking dupes, to be treated with the same respect?

Day by day our politicians, media commentators, talkback radio hosts and news sources confirm that the "war on terrorism" has become embedded in a language of stereotyping. I wonder if the failure to transcend treating Muslims as an undifferentiated mass is because our media and leaders have exercised little restraint in saturating news and political statements with terms that use the generic and convenient label "Islamic" to detail egregious acts of violence.

Living against the perception that one represents a synonym for terrorism and fundamentalism, one learns quite a bit. One thing I've learned is that if there is anything which truly commands the power to affect how we connect with each other as human beings, it is our language. To prefix acts of murder with "Islamic" is to suggest that those who murder in the name of Islam somehow represent an unsavoury deviation from the wider Islamic community. As though they are the black sheep in the flock, the thorn in our community's side. But this offers the people who committed such abhorrent crimes a legitimacy they don't deserve, for the black sheep still belongs, the thorn is still attached.

The point is that these people are aliens to the Islamic faith, and the cumulative effects of connecting such people to our faith and community has only ever served to create suspicion, fear and resentment of Muslims. Instead of restoring our faith in the unity of Australians, and giving us the courage to resist turning against each other, those with the power to influence have conjured up Apocalypse Now visions of Islam versus the West. It's a funny thing about life. If you refuse to see anything but the worst in people, you very often get it. We are in danger of bringing the worst out in each other, when the tragedies we are enduring should propel us to look for the best in humanity. It may be that none of us are responsible for all the things that happen to us, but we are most certainly responsible for the way we react to them.


Randa Abdel-Fattah is of Australian-Muslim of Palestinian and Egyptian background, and a lawyer, writer and member of the Palestinian Human Rights Campaign. This paper was presented at the Now We the People conference at the University of Technology, Sydney, on 24 August 2003.


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