FARANGI IN TOWN: Understanding fundamentalism —Ella Rolfe

The problem with ‘fundamentalism’ is that ‘fundamentalists’ would almost certainly love the rest of us to think of them in terms of a clash of civilisations; that speaks to their target audience

A recent poll of Muslims in Pakistan found that 33 percent of them supported Al Qaeda and its violent anti-US tactics. This in itself is not surprising — encouraging, perhaps, that the proportion was not larger, but fairly standard. The surprising thing is that a similar poll of American Muslims found exactly the same: 33 percent. Who would have thought American and Pakistani Muslims would have so much in common?

This commonality illustrates an interesting trend in recent Islam: like everything else, Islam is becoming a global village. Muslims in Pakistan today are far more likely than their parents to agree on a whole range of points with Muslims from America, the UK, France, Algeria, Malaysia, or any other Muslim community.

Information is being exchanged the world over within the ummah in a way not possible in the past. Debates about world affairs, Islamic identity and Muslims’ relations with non-Muslims are, one would hope, consequently being informed by a much wider set of ideas. But of course, Al Qaeda is getting in on the act too.

Hanif Qadir, one of the founders of London NGO the Active Change Foundation, told the BBC recently that he thinks recruits to Al-Qaeda are increasing in number; and where in previous decades they came from countries which already had a significant Islamic bent, now more and more are coming from the UK and the US. Most recruits from the UK make a beeline for Pakistan’s tribal areas. Their main grievance, Qadir says, is western foreign policy.

It is for this reason that I have been feeling uneasy about Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God, which I have been perusing. Armstrong is a prolific scholar of the religious mind, and has written widely on various ideas about god and their impact on politics and culture as well as religions themselves.

In The Battle for God she examines ‘fundamentalism’, that slippery modern catch-all, and seems to argue that a particular psychological and social reaction to change, or modernisation (another thing I am unhappy with — but that’s for another day), in which religious people are confronted with events that challenge their faith and way of life and are forced to reformulate their beliefs, is behind all movements that we would call ‘fundamentalist’ since the seventeenth century.

Armstrong’s book is, so far, very interesting; and there is clearly something in the idea that social upheaval changes intangible things like ideas and emotions and feelings of spirituality.

But it sits uncomfortably with me. If fundamentalism and its consequent campaigns (sometimes but not always violent) are based on a profound clash between spiritual myth — experienced as ritual — and the more rational, ‘modern’ ways of thinking which Armstrong says first emerged in western Europe in the sixteenth century, then why are many of those accused of carrying out terrorism for ‘fundamentalist’ organisations like Al Qaeda modern, highly educated, clearly rational-minded, scientists?

If it is because they have had a chance to examine ‘rationalism’ (Armstrong calls it logos) and found it unsatisfactory, this still fails to explain the claim that it is current affairs and politics — the very stuff of logos — and not any particular religious feeling or spiritual experience which motivates most recruits to ‘fundamentalist’ organisations.

The dichotomy between myth and logos also leaves us with the problem of respected Islamic clerics such as Sheikh Salman Al-’Oudr and Syed Imam Al-Shareef, who have both spoken out in recent years against Al Qaeda’s violence (from previous positions of vociferous support for the organisation) using a combination of spirituality and rational legal and moral precepts from Islamic law and scholarship.

I don’t think it is possible to argue that such men and other preachers like London cleric Abu Bashir Al-Tartusi represent the logos of Islam in contrast to the pure myth and ritual of the fundamentalists, when many of their opinions are voiced in the mosque shortly after undertaking the highly ritualised act of Muslim prayer.

The claim that politics, not spirituality, drives many ‘fundamentalists’ is one made by the Active Change Foundation, which deals with hundreds of young men who either have been or are at risk of being brought under Al Qaeda’s violent sway. The organisation uses Islamic arguments, among other things, to dissuade such young men from violence. They are mostly men; and they are always young.

Tuesday, August 12, was the United Nations International Youth Day; much as this seems to have joined the myriad other Days declared in having passed without much comment, it does remind one that the one billion 15-24 year olds out there, 85 percent of them in developing countries, are a huge resource for good or for bad that is often ignored and deprived of a chance to contribute meaningfully to the world.

When you can’t get a job of any sort, education is closed to you because of the poor quality of your previous education, and no one listens to what you have to say about it, no wonder it seems an attractive proposition to head off to a remote and exciting place and be given a gun, a sense of purpose and a chance to express your views.

The problem with ‘fundamentalism’ is that ‘fundamentalists’ would almost certainly love the rest of us to think of them in terms of a clash of civilisations; that speaks to their target audience of (often entirely justifiably) discontented young people much more effectively than any spiritual message.

Perhaps I am misinterpreting Karen Armstrong; perhaps she is saying that ‘fundamentalism’ is the logos developed by the marginalised to counter the logos of the dominant west which seems to have destroyed myth and mysticism for everyone else. Instead of spirituality, fundamentalists turn to restrictive ‘real-world’ dogma and rationalisations, be that the American Right’s very this-worldly views on abortion or the similarly mortal pronouncements made by some Muslims about the evils of women’s liberation.

If this is so, it is all the more possible to change the more damaging ‘fundamentalist’ views with argument, debate and rationality — much easier than to change a person’s feelings following a deep spiritual revelation. Organisations that provide a chance to debate and thrash out one’s own logos are a great light for the young people of today.

The writer is a staff member at The Friday Times

Source: Daily Times, 25/8/2008

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