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Section Index

  1. Introduction
  2. Fundamentalism in Religions
  3. Islamist Fundamentalism
  4. Outlook

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1. Introduction

If we look at current conflicts on a global scale, the impression cannot quite be ignored that the greatest frictions occur in or in relation to Islamic countries. Clashes include the two long-time war zones of Palestine and Kashmir, but also today's focal points of Afghanistan, the Iraq, Chechnya and the Philippine Island of Jolo, as well as long-forgotten areas like the Sudan, Somalia and Pakistan.

All those regions are shaped by the threat of Terrorism carried out in the name of Islam, fuelled and funded by religious fundamentalism.

This short paper sets out to attempt an overview of what falls under the label of Fundamentalism.

But firstly, how could we as Europeans or Americans even talk about the topic? Can we truly hope to do justice to a matter not within our own cultural sphere? Is there not the danger of appropriating a discourse in a however good-willing but nevertheless colonial attire, when we, once again, under seemingly shifted conditions, try to understand the "orient" "as such"? Though such a problem might exist, it cannot be avoided by shying away from it. We cannot hope to finally and conclusively "understand" the phenomenon, yet not because it is an unattainable "other", but because such would be the case with any subject matter.

Still, we have to be aware that there is a lasting trauma within Europe, a "kind of paranoia[1]", as it is phrased by Edward Said in Orientalism: "[T]hat Islam outstripped and outshone Rome cannot have been absent from the mind of any European past or present[2]"; the European trauma of an always alien and threatening Islam having led to an almost default position of distrust and an assumed necessity to "bring order" to the things we don't understand.

If we want to avoid the mistakes of the past, if we want to avoid falling into the trap of stereotyping and crudest simplifying, the answer cannot be to escape a topic at all. Thereby, we would only continue such an atmosphere of misunderstanding by continuing to obscure something as "other", as unattainable, as beyond our understanding. We would then as well be much more inclined towards falling in the trap of that by letting somebody else speak for themselves, we'd also invite somebody else speaking about somebody else while pretending to represent those who, in fact, are never truly represented. Just as neither the Orthodox nor the Protestant churches can speak for all Christianity, just as neither Europe nor America can speak for the entirety of what is called the "West", just like that, the Taliban and other fundamentalist movements cannot speak for all of Islam.

We must not, in trying to be understanding and tolerant, mistake those for the whole truth who are themselves not representative of the whole but constitute just an however aggressive part. Objectivity lies not in closeness to a phenomenon, but in an awareness of one's own position in the discourse.

2. Fundamentalism in Religions

What we have in the case of so-called fundamentalism is nothing but a severe muddle of concepts, terms and methods. There are several voices blaming the entire phenomenon on the nature of Islam, claiming that the Muslim religion would be naturally inclined to be violent and backwards-oriented, that the prospect of modernity, secularity and democracy, or even human rights, would be doomed to failure in the Islamic world "as such", all being related to the nature of Islam.

Of course, there are different voices and threads within the Islamic world as well. Unlike some Christian denominations, Islam does not necessarily rely on a strict hierarchical structure. There is no pope, no patriarch, no Dalai Lama. The foundation of Islam is the Quran, to which specific traditions may be added as defining elements. The division between Sunni and Shiite Islam, for instance, is a matter of tradition rather than a matter of scripture. The yearning for a union between religious and political power, as it has been the case in the caliphate, is just as non-binding a step as the union between papacy and politics throughout the European Middle Ages.

There seems to be a specific problem regarding the definition of what constitutes religion lying at the center of the fundamentalist question, a problem that does not even seem to be related specifically to the religion of Islam. Such a conflict can be found as well within other religions, with related consequences. Christian fundamentalism has led to a mixture of power and religious authority, providing the rudest political and military means with a label of sanctity, leading to an era of crusades, colonization and ruthless missionizing. Hindu fundamentalism leads to a continuing discrimination of Muslims and Sikhs in India, and right-wing political and religious groups within Israel continue to further politics of settlements and segregation within Palestinian areas.

The discrimination of women, as it appears in its most extreme in the case of the Taliban movement, which is still gaining momentum in countries like the Sudan and its place of origin, Pakistan, as well as in Afghanistan still, is not a phenomenon that is solely related to the Islam. The role of women within the Christian churches has always been a submissive and secondary one in relation to the ideal of masculinity, same holds true for the Hindu context.

Strangely, the religious texts themselves seem to be at odds with such practices, so that religion as an idea stands in stark contrast to religion as a cultural and/or political performance, varying from country to country, from region to region. There exists no single authoritative version of Islamic culture: Although the foundational religious text may be the same, the differences in religious and political life can be as striking as the differences between a secular, European practice of Islam, and an archaic, totalitarian practice that is represented by the Taliban.

3. Islamist Fundamentalism

How could we define Islamist Fundamentalism? Can there be any single, authoritative definition at all? Bassam Tibi has proposed to separate the religious rhetoric from its political core: Fundamentalism, in whatever forms and variants it may occur, would be basically a political strategy, the religious elements taken from Islam forced into a framework whose main motivation is not religious but political. Due to the necessary brevity of this paper, I will follow that kind of definition, leaving out those shades in between which would fall into categories like that of an extreme conservatism just before the brink of fundamentalism.

In order to work, the political rhetoric has to take up certain elements from what belongs to the general discourse. The rhetoric cannot be entirely arbitrary. Such elements are the universalist claim manifesting itself in a narrow definition of Islam, and a radical understanding of Jihad not as a task of personal growth but as an outright war against all those defying one's own narrow, politicized understanding of Islam.

When the colonial empires of Britain and France were dissolved, the European notion of the nation state was imposed unto regions to which the concept of nation was rather alien, as it had been alien throughout most of European history as well. Despite all schisms within Islam, there seems to remain the central idea of the Umma, the House of Islam, the union of all believers. The political version of the idea of Umma would for instance be the talks of Pan-Arabian political unity, or universalist claims made by the recently dethroned self-made Caliph of Cologne, or by Bin Laden himself. In theory thus, there exists the notion of a unified Islamic world. In practical politics, however, the post-colonial nation states will still work to secure their future existence. The failures of short-lived projects like the unified Egyptian-Syrian state that existed between 1958 and 1961 show that the Umma may be an overall accepted idea, but not something to be easily put into practice.

This conflict between a religious idea and the political sphere stands at the center of the Fundamentalist perspective. Islam itself, like most religions, is first of all directed at the individual. It is first and for all an ideal, the unity in God; especially if you follow modern theologians like Yaşar Nuri Öztürk[3]. It is not a concrete setting of coercive strategies, as Sura 2:256 states very definitely, "There shall be no compulsion in religion". The political sphere, however, demands for concrete answers to concrete problems - thus simplifying and thereby distorting cultural questions, exploiting them for a mere pragmatic use for power play politics.

The political rhetoric claiming to ground itself on Islam, however flawed and misguided it may be, does have an appeal though: It caters to the disenfranchised, making use of feelings of being left out of the picture. Any radical ideology with a drive for power will find avid followers if it can promise to not only better the situation of those who cannot partake in the shaping of society, but also to punish those who are seen as being responsible for the situation at hand. The follower needs to be told that he is better than someone other. The first victims of such a process of othering and de-humanization are all too often women, which leads Alice Schwarzer[4] to draw a comparison between two such cults of masculinity and brutal strength, the ideologies of Nazism and radical Islamist Fundamentalism in the most extreme form of the Taliban.

The suppression of women is the clearest case of Fundamentalist disregard for Islam, for its being a political rather than a religious idea, as the Quran treats men and women as equals[5]. Under the guise of religious righteousness, a cult of exaggerated masculinity in the far-right political spectrum has become a threat first and foremost to the Islamic states themselves, creating what Tibi calls a new world disorder.

For the continued prospering of such radical groups there needs to be a unifying outside threat, be it real, exaggerated or imaginary. Afghanistan has played a central role in the rise of fundamentalism: The defeat of the Soviets by the Mujahedeen was seen as a chance by the more xenophobic political circles within the Arab world to overcome the "humiliation" of the Six Days War (i.e. the success of Israeli troops in defying an invasion). A combination of themes, namely the unification of the Umma, the liberation of suppressed minorities, namely in Palestine and Kashmir, plus the recurring far-right and far-left motif of an alleged Zionist-American world conspiracy, brought into a framework of pseudo-Islamic masculine heroism has become a powerful grounds for terrorist warlords of the Bin Laden brand.

4. Outlook

One of the motifs supporting the already far-reaching Fundamentalist movements is the extremely paranoid notion of a Western conspiracy to hinder Islam from taking its rightful place within the world. Therefore, military means of problem-solving are a highly volatile and questionable choice as they feed right into the rhetoric of Fundamentalist agitators. The perception of an ongoing campaign against Islam, ranging from Palestine to Kashmir, Bosnia, Kosova, Chechnya, Afghanistan and now the Iraq, and possibly even Syria and Iran, has already worked to play into the hands of the Fundamentalist rhetoric, and an increased paranoia and desperation on both sides will serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The promise of democracy for the Iraq stands challenged by the continued Western support for the dictatorial and ultra-conservative regime in Saudi-Arabia, the military dictatorship in Pakistan, and the agony of the West when faced with the situation in Kashmir, Algeria, the Sudan and Palestine.

While the military campaign in Afghanistan may have removed an immediate threat by the connection between Taliban and Al-Quaida, a threat not only to the West but much more to the surrounding region, namely Pakistan, Kashmir, India and the bordering CIS republics, little has been done to address the atmosphere of despair and disenfranchisement that serves as the basis for Fundamentalist rhetoric, and a recruiting pool for related terrorist cells like Al-Qaida, Abu Sayyaf and the various Palestinian groups. If that basis were to fade, if the manifest material problems in the region, namely drug trafficking, food and water shortage, minority rights and a lack of civil society were to be countered, Fundamentalism would very probably lose its function as a refuge and its political appeal.

April 4th / August 12th, 2003 [HTML Version]

(Paper delivered at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, at the international students symposium
"Reactions to Terrorism. Amidst Political Answers and Cultural Questions", April 4-5, 2003)

see also: On Terrorism


[1] Edward Said. Orientalism. Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin, 1978/1995.
[2] Said 74
[3] Yaşar Nuri Öztürk. 400 Fragen zum Islam, 400 Antworten. Grupello: Düsseldorf, 2001 (İstanbul 1998).
[4] Alice Schwarzer et al (Hg). Die Gotteskrieger und dir falsche Toleranz. Köln: Kiepenheuer und Witsch, 2002.

For a bibliography, please check the Selected Bibliography page.

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