Islamic Fundamentalism: Eponym or eristic imputation

8 Mar

The phrase “Islamic fundamentalism” is so frequently used by the tele-pundits that it has become virtually impossible to sever the word “fundamentalism” from Islam. Scholars have been more nuanced in choosing adjectives, often choosing euphemisms like “Clash of Civilizations” and “Political Islam” to describe, what they see as key attributes of Islam – intolerance, terrorism, oppression of women etc. These impugnations are by no means limited to the Lewises, the Huntingtons and the Friedmans, they are frequently declaimed by the ‘liberal’ faces of Islam, who often start any discussion on Islam with elaborate defensive apologies.

Based on ‘expert’ evidence, we have already declared the words Islam and fundamentalism man and wife. In the following paragraphs, I will try to analyze not only theories about the love affair between the words, but the legitimacy of consecrating such an alliance based on specious evidence.

Islamic fundamentalism has been explained via variety of theories ranging from poverty (poverty causes terrorism) to Islam’s role in freedom struggles in countries like Algeria and India (political Islam causes terrorism) to latent problems in the religion which became manifest as Islam went into decline.

Let us first analyze the first hypothesis that declaims poverty as a progenitor of terror. According to this theory, sub-Saharan Africa should be the leading exporter of terror – which it is not. Poverty clearly does play a part – especially in recruiting disenchanted young men from poor households with the proffered aim of eliminating the western imperialists, the root of their economic and social ruination. Poverty doesn’t explain the geopolitical motives that are at work in funding and training the poor and nor does it explain why college graduates or enrollees form nearly 80 percent of Egyptian Islamist groups.

Then comes the theory which argues that Islam, the religion, itself is the root cause of its decline. These ‘latent problems’ in Islam, according to Arab scholar Bernard Lewis, are due to the lack of separation between ‘Church’ and state in Islam. He follows up this argument with the case of Christianity which, since it developed under the Romans, always argued for a separation between Church and state (Romans) (– and hence is successful?). Obviously, Mr. Lewis chooses to ignore Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism – all of which had virtually no separation between church and state during their early development.

The latest fad has been to explain rise in Islamic Fundamentalism via ‘political Islam’ or politicization of Islam. While the phenomenon traces its history to the crusades, it is generally studied from independence movements onwards. The current iteration of ‘radicalization’ is generally explained via rise in Identity politics, similar to the rise of RSS of BJP in India and Rush Limbaugh in US, in face of cultural globalization. What peddlers of the theory, that draws a straight line between politicization and fundamentalism, forget is that politicization is not new. The entire civil rights movement in US, the overt moral logic of ‘colonialism’, all had roots in politicization of religion. Politicization doesn’t quite explain the rise in Islamic fundamentalism.

“Islam has taken a violent turn because it is suppressed, quarantined, persecuted – most directly by rulers of nations where Muslims live.” – Appleby

This view is supported by theorists who use Gramscian theory of hegemony to explain the rise of fundamentalist Islam. Thomas J. Butko, in an influential paper titled “Revolution or Revelation: A Gramscian approach to the rise of political Islam”, argues that the rise in Muslim fundamentalism should be seen as a localized response to ineffectual tyrannical governments. This theory is corroborated by the fact that leading proponents of democracy in countries like Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all Islamic fundamentalists. What is more interesting to note here is that a lot of these so called Islamic fundamentalist organizations(including Al Qaeda) are not primarily religious organizations concerned with doctrine and faith but political organizations utilizing Islam as a ‘revolutionary’ ideology to “attack criticize, de-legitimize the ruling elites”. These organizations, argues Butko, are authentic counter-hegemonic movements focused on overthrowing these despotic regimes and acquiring political, economic and social power.

Let me weave one more theory ‘explaining’ the rise before I move on to the counter arguments. I argue that the rise in Muslim fundamentalism in some Muslim countries has much to do with the constitutions of those countries. Constitutions of the colonies are generally a bequeath from the colonial masters. (About 30 years ago most constitutions were copies of constitutions of their colonial masters or of “successful countries” like US). This has left countries with absolutely unsuitable constitutional structures (which govern the nature of government – consociational election models/rights/law) which breed resentment as they sometimes deliberately go about suppressing the religious identity of the populace. Examples would be Algeria, Indonesia, and Malaysia to a certain extent and of course Egypt, Morocco etc.

It is an oft asked question – Why is there only an Islamic terror network and no say a Hindu or a Buddhist global terror network? Answer, according to Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani, is straightforward – US spent $5 billion creating an Islamic terror network. If some other country had spent that much money on fostering a Hindu network of terror – we would have had one. (Except Hindus have one in LTTE)

Mamdani, in “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim”, mocks poorly thought contentions dichotomizing Muslims into jihadists and liberal. Mamdani persuasively argues in the book that the reason for growth of terrorism in general and Islamic terrorism in particular, is cold war. America and erstwhile USSR, both extensively used ‘low-intensity’ warfare to carry on a brutal war in a wide array of countries. This low-intensity warfare directly explains the savagery of numerous civil wars in Africa. Islam comes into picture with Afghanistan (even Algeria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt) and US’s cynical exploitation of religious fundamentalism to win the Afghan war. He then goes on to argue how end of cold-war also marks the time when these ‘out of work’ mujahideen start looking for alternative avenues of funding either via Opium or as paid soldiers or as “jihadists”.

What has become abundantly clear is that none of these theories quite explain the sudden resurgence in Muslim consciousness. In fact, it begs the question- has there has been a rise in Muslim consciousness, or has it just been a rise in paranoia.

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