Fundamentalism, Extremism and Islam

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By

Prof. Dr. Anis Ahmad[1]

Abstract

(To call Muslims as fundamentalists and extremists is not a post-9/11 spill-over. The basic concept of the term “fundamentalist” has been changed for the Muslims, from one who strictly adheres to traditional orthodox belief any kind, to an imaginary set-up of backward, primitive, uncivilized people who appear warlike, barbaric and cruel. It would be naïve to fight this false impression with themes of soft image and “enlightened moderation” through vulgarization of the electronic media. The only rational solution in this perspective is a massive education programme, through which the masses may practice and project an image of their true faith to the alien audience. – Editor)

The terms extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism evoke images of Muslims.  Whether they are Palestinian liberationists, Afghan mujahideen or Kashmiri freedom fighters; the worldwide perception of a Kalashnikov-wielding Muslim as a symbol of jihad is consistent.

The global media has played its role in the development and projection of a stereotype image of Muslims and Islam as espousing violence, extremism, intolerance and dislike of non-Muslims. Violence anywhere in the world is, prima facie, considered an act inspired or acted upon by Muslims. The point of reference, for instance, for the term suicide bomber invariably falls on freedom fighters in Palestine, Kashmir or Iraq. They are portrayed as inventors of suicide bombing. No news coverage traces its origin to the heroic act of the Kamikaze, the World War II Japanese air-force suicide pilots, or the Tamil suicide bombers. Freedom fighters are never projected as human rights activists and heroes but as crazy terrorists. The viewers and listeners of global networks are never reminded of the atrocities and inhuman acts of religious madness committed earlier in Northern Ireland in the name of Christianity nor about the violence perpetrated in Sri Lanka by the Tamil Tigers. Historians and journalists never refer to the Tigers as Buddhist or Hindu suicide bombers. The French and American nuclear bombs are not given the title of Catholic or Protestant bombs but the term “Islamic bomb” is used without any hesitation. Muslims alone, unfortunately, are in focus when violence is reported.

This perception of Muslims and Islam is not recent or a spill-over of the 9/11 episode. Over two centuries of a Euro-centric vision of history and civilization, colonization, imposition of western educational systems on the Muslim world and Christian missionary propaganda have cumulatively played a crucial role in the development of deep biases and distorted images of Islam.  The onus, however, cannot be placed entirely on external factors. Some Muslims are equally responsible for this confusion. Four major trends can be identified over the past two centuries amongst Muslim intellectuals and leaders in the sub-continent that have contributed to the confusion.  They are:

(i) The successors of Shah Waliullah of Delhi (1703-1762) responded to the aggression against Muslims in the form of a jihad movement. Shah Waliullah’s son was a famous scholar (and not the political authority of the time).  Shah Abdul Aziz (1746-1824) issued a decree for jihad, which translated into a vibrant movement by the known heroes of the Muslim ummah or community, namely the grandson of Shah Waliullah, Shah Ismail Shaheed (1781-1831) and his murshid (spiritual guide), Syed Ahmad Shaheed (1782-1831). This movement, after the fall of the Peshawar Khilafat, was further extended by Haji Shariatullah (1770-1840) who founded the Faraidi movement of Bengal. The overall effect of this approach in the sub-continent was an armed struggle (jihad), against the oppressors and aggressors as a means to attain social change. Consequently a mindset developed which preferred jihad over other methodologies of change. The Balakot movement of Shah Ismail and Syed Ahmad Shaheed was, for some unknown reasons, referred to as a Wahhabi[1] movement by western orientalists and writers. As a result, all jihad-related movements that followed were referred to as fundamentalist and extremist movements rather than movements for liberation from oppression and colonial rule.

(ii)  Muslim apologists tried to present an image of Islam as a mix of Christian, Buddhist and Jain pacifism with focus on individual spirituality and religiosity. They interpreted jihad as a temporary and defensive method used in early Islamic history which was, in their view, no more needed nor was it relevant in the so called age of “enlightenment,” “moderation” and “peace.” While writing during European colonialism in the sub-continent and other places, these Muslim scholars sought to down-grade armed struggle or jihad and emphasized instead the spiritual dimension and mystical methods of purification of soul, as the essence of Islamic teachings. They questioned the viability of an Islamic political order. They also tried to underscore religious tolerance, observance of justice and fair treatment in the policies of the overseas imperialists and colonizers.

(iii) An approach developed under the influence of Shah Waliullah and Allama Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938) emphasized a fresh interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet) through the process of ijtihad (systematic reasoning), in order to discover the Qur’anic and the Sunnah foundations of a new political, economic, social, legal and cultural order. This approach, based on the dynamic principle of ijtihad, tried to steer the Muslim community toward revival and resurgence of an Islamic polity and social order. This innovative and revivalist approach was led by Syed Abul A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979) who is considered by some western writers as the most influential Muslim personality of the twentieth century.[2] This movement for islah (rejuvenation) and ijtihad focused on social, economic, political, legal and educational reform leading to the revival and re-assertion of the Muslim ummah.

(iv) The traditionalists focused on a rather narrow religious view of Islam, i.e., observance of ibadat (worship), rituals and ceremonies. Political activity, being a worldly activity, was considered undesirable. They easily reconciled with the overseas colonisers so long as they were free to observe their “religious” rituals. The tableghi (teaching and propagating) Jamaat of Maulana Ilyas (1885-1944) represents this traditionalist approach. Iqbal ridiculed traditionalists in one of his couplets by saying that since the mulla (the cleric) is allowed to pray in India, the simpleton thinks Islam is free.

The traditionalists and apologists have been considered as moderate and enlightened representatives of Islam by western authors, while the activist, revivalists or the ijtihadi movements, due to their desire for social change, have generally been categorized as fundamentalists and extremists.

The Meaning of Fundamentalism

The term fundamentalism is generally defined as “strict adherence to the traditional orthodox belief of any kind.”[3] If we accept this rather general, therefore not so appropriate definition as valid we can easily call the believers in western liberal democracy and those who adhere to the capitalist world order as fundamentalists. Similarly, those who consider secularism as the only just social order may also fall into this category. Leaving the issue of definition aside, let us try to understand its origin in the context of history.

The term fundamentalism historically originated in a purely Christian theological context. It was used in eighteenth century western European Christianity in reference to the Protestant churches such as the Evangelicals and Charismatic sects. Their basic doctrines included inerrancy of the Bible and the doctrines of a virgin birth and atonement. They believed in taking the Bible literally and rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution.[4] Rapid development of the fundamentalist approach and its concomitant impact on society and state took place in the early twentieth century in the U.S.  The Pentacostals, Presbytarians and Baptists heralded this movement. Several gatherings of “Believer’s Meeting for Bible Study,” were held between 1878-1914 at different places in the U.S. These included major cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and other places like Niagra and Northfield. In 1886 Dwilight L. Moody established a Bible Training School in Chicago. In 1908 a Bible Institute was founded in Los Angeles. In 1919 an international conference of Christian fundamentalists was called in Philadelphia, over 6 thousand participants resolved to establish the World’s Christian Fundamentalists Association (WCFA).

Institutional networking followed, and the Dallas Theological Seminary was founded by W.H. Griffith in 1924. The Independent Church of America was established in 1930.  The Presbytarian Church of USA was established in 1931.[5] The basic doctrines included four major beliefs:

(i) Inerrancy of the Bible which implied literalism; taking the words of the Bible literally without any rational interpretation or exegesis.

(ii) The doctrine that belief is a matter of dogma; one has to accept matters of faith without scientific and rational arguments.

(iii)History has entered the sixth dispensation or “church age” in which, Jesus will re-appear. A precondition for his second coming is the reconstruction of the Temple of Solomon. This was only possible with the establishment of the state of Israel.  Consequently, Christian fundamentalists, became lobbyists and advocates for the birth of the Zionist state of Israel by displacing the Palestinians who are even mentioned in the Old Testament as Philistines or original residents of the land before the Jewish migration into Palestine.

(iv)Their conservatism did not allow them to welcome modernity. The rejection of modernity became their fourth outstanding character. In the American context they emerged as a sect that proudly called itself fundamentalist, but soon the term acquired a negative and pejorative connotation.

Its impact on American politics and society is obvious. “Today, it denotes an aggressive and confident religious movement which, in coalition with conservative political forces, seeks to combat what is regarded as a liberal take over of the state, family and church since the days of Roosevelt’s New Deal.”[6] Recent developments in U.S. foreign policy, particularly during Reagan’s and Bush’s presidency, are evidence to the ascendancy of influence and control of the neo-conservative or Christian fundamentalists.  In this backdrop a scientific study published in an encyclopaedic work on fundamentalism claims that today 72 percent of Americans subscribe to the basic doctrines of Christian fundamentalism.[7] Nevertheless, neo-cons are more vocal and critical of “Muslim fundamentalism” as a global threat to world peace. They fail to understand the danger of their own evangelical dogmatism.

Use of the term for Muslims

It is interesting to note that the term fundamentalism, with reference to Muslims, was used for the first time in 1957 in The Middle East Journal. It soon became associated with conservative elements in Muslim society. Western orientalists, being well aware of Christian fundamentalism, without trying to discover the truth, emphatically interpreted any appeal for going back to the Qur’an and the Sunnah as a call for conservatism, a backward movement of history, a nostalgia for the past and the rejection of reform and modernity.[8] Concurrent socio-political developments in the Muslim world, particularly the demand on the part of a majority of the people in newly liberated countries, for the introduction of Islamic Shari’ah (Divine commands) and for establishment of Islamic states further confused many who equated the call for Islamic state with fundamentalism. Sami Zubaida refers to this phenomenon as, “modern political movements and ideas, mostly oppositional which seek to establish, in one sense or another, an Islamic state.”[9] Any direct or indirect reference to Islamic states has been, therefore, generally interpreted by western scholars as a theocratic, despotic, authoritarian and undemocratic politico-religious set up and, therefore, fundamentalist and extremist in nature.

Use of the term fundamentalism for the Muslims and Islam became more common after the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. Ayatullah Khomaini was projected as a blood thirsty cleric and the introduction of Islamic principles in a state was regarded as a retrogressive movement. Western media played a major role in building a negative image of Muslims and Islam as enemies of western culture and civilization. Even people such as the former Secretary General of NATO, in an interview, argued that, “Muslim fundamentalism is at least as dangerous as communism once was. Please do not under estimate this risk….at the conclusion of this age it is a serious threat, because it represents terrorism, religious fanaticism and exploitation of social and economic justice.”[10]. If the post 9/11 image of Muslims and Islam is examined in this backdrop, one can see a continuity in the biases, misconceptions and a systematic dissemination of negative propaganda by the western media from decades prior to 9/11. The projection of Islam and Muslims as a threat and no less a peril than communism soon became a common misgiving. Some scholars went a step further in attributing fundamentalist, terrorist and extremist tendencies not to some “jihadi” Muslims but to Islam. “The underlying problem for the west is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of superiority of their culture and are obsessed with inferiority of their power.”[11]

Western perception of “Muslim fundamentalism” is perhaps, also due to the claim made by an insignificant number of Muslims, who call themselves salafi or followers of salaf al saleh (their pious elders). They consider the observance of a traditional ritualistic view of “religion” as a valid sign of religiosity. Presence of a marginalized group of persons who adhere to this understanding, however, does not mean that call for going back to the Qur’an and the sunnah, as such, means traditionalism. There is hardly a page of the Qur’an where it does not reject traditionalism and blind following of the elders. It invites all humans to use reason, observation, critical thinking, innovation and creativity. The Qur’an strikes at the mind-set of traditionalists who blindly consider the behaviour of their elders as ideal. Islam’s anti-ancestor worship and anti-traditionalism approach is also reflected in its emphasis on ijtihad or finding new solutions for emerging problems.

Christian fundamentalists imply, through their doctrine of inerrancy, that the scripture should be taken literally. They insist that meanings of the Bible are unchanging and, therefore, do not require exegesis or interpretation. The call to go back to the Bible, in its Christian context, therefore, means following the Bible literally. If for example the Bible refers to the creation of the world in a specific time-frame or if it declares God as Father or Jesus as Son, these words are not interpreted by them allegorically or metaphorically. With this cultural and intellectual background, when a researcher finds modern Islamic revivalist movements inspired by the Qur’an and the sunnah, this is interpreted as reversing the cycle of history and trying to go back to pre-industrial society. In actual fact, the Qur’an has not been taken literally by Muslims for at least the past fifteen centuries of their history. An example may perhaps illustrate the point. The Qur’an in Surrah al Maidah says “for the thief male and female, amputate their hand” (5:37). If these clear, unambiguous and judiciously stated words of the Qur’an are to be taken literally then any person being robbed may take the law into his or her own hands. However, under Islamic law, even if the culprit is caught red-handed the victim cannot apply the Qur’anic command on at least three counts. First, execution of the Qur’anic legislation takes place through the courts and no individual can take law into his/her own hands. Second, the court, after thorough and proper investigation, has to establish that the theft was actually committed.  Third, even when theft, prima face, is committed by the accused the court is required to determine the motive and circumstances which led that person to commit the crime. If there is even a slight doubt in the mind of the judge, the prophetic command is that it is better to err on the side of leniency and  to give the benefit of doubt to the accused rather than impose a harsh punishment on him. This shows that all Qur’anic commands are subject to rational interpretation, and a legal process. This is why some scholars of the Qur’an have elaborated its meanings from a purely legal view point; while others from a philosophic stance; and still some others from a literary view point. Some of the major libraries in the Muslim world contain hundreds of such tafasir (commentary). This shows Muslims have not only a highly developed tradition of exegesis but also that they do snot take the Qur’an literally. These exegesis, to mention only a few, include tafasir: al-Tabari, Ibn Kathir, al-Qurtabi, al-Baidawi, Zamakhshari, al-Mazhari etc. Modern tafasir include tafsir al-Manar, tafsir al-Johari, al-Bayan, Tafhim al-Qur’an, Tadabbur al-Qur’an, Mu’arif al-Qur’an, Fizilal al-Qur’an, etc. Existence of these tafasir is evidence of the fact that by going back to the Qur’an a person does not become “fundamentalist” but learns how to approach the Qur’an rationally and scientifically, from various points of view and by use of different methodologies.

Despite this dynamic approach, Muslims and Islam are still projected as being inclined towards fundamentalism. It appears that most western scholars and some Muslim intellectuals, educated and trained in western educational institutions, have built their perceptions of Islam on a number of wrong suppositions. The secular capitalist societies of the west have developed their own social, economic and political institutions, substituting a number of traditional institutions which included the religious ones. As a result, the traditional role of “religion” ceased to exist. Consequently, anyone who adhered strictly to “religion” was considered retrogressive. Viewed from this perspective, people who believe that Islam is relevant and can be used to resolve contemporary issues, are categorized as fundamentalists, traditionalists and conservative.

One major misgiving has been the nature of the Qur’an vis-à-vis Christian scripture. The Qur’an claims to be the divine revelation (wahi) or Allah’s (S.W.T) speech (kalam), in other words, He is the author.  The Bible, on the other hand, is a collection of twenty-seven books, written by different scribes who were inspired by their God. These books contain the history of Christianity and a record of hardly three years of the ministry of Jesus. The Bible, being a human creation and compilation, has also been subjected to a process of biblical criticism, demythologization and hermeneutical process.[12]

The Qur’an, however, is not a book of history and Allah is its author. It is not a collection of the Prophet’s assertions, mental projections, ideas, or teachings either. It is unique in the sense that every single word of the Qur’an is preserved and pronounced in its original form. Therefore, it is inappropriate to compare it with the Bible, or other religious scriptures like the Upanisads or Avestas. Being wahi, and not an inspiration, it is in a category of its own. Treatment of the Qur’an in the same way as Biblical criticism treats the Old and the New Testaments is, therefore, incorrect. An invalid premise can only lead to a wrong conclusion. Very few western writers have been able to understand this crucial point. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, is one such exception. He, very correctly, points out that if one is drawing parallels in terms of structure of the two religions what corresponds in the Christian scheme to the Qur’an is not the Bible but the person of Christ – it is Christ who is for Christians the revelation of God.[13] Bibilical scholars question the source of the Bible. The text has been revised several times and has gone through a process of evolution. The Qur’an on the other hand has one single source and that is Allah’s revelation (wahi), preserved without gaps or a break in the chain of communication for the past fifteen centuries.  The Book itself calls its readers to use reason and critical and analytical methods in understanding and applying its principles, commands, directives, instructions and legal decrees. The Book directs its followers to always have a group of experts who involve themselves in deep understanding, tafaqquh, of its teachings in order to educate others. This leaves no room for dogmatic and literalist approaches. The more a person is aware of the meaning and message of the Qur’an, the more he or she becomes open-minded, critical and progressive. This unique aspect of the Qur’an is totally ignored when it is compared with the Bible.

The third major misgiving which has inculcated a general bias about Islamic revivalist movements is the interpretation of their call for establishment of Islamic states. An Islamic state is usually visualized by western scholars as theocratic with no room for modernity. Where ever a demand is made for establishment of an Islamic state, or a reference is made to the glorious period of the Prophet or that of the “rightly guided” Khulafa (caliphs), the westernized mind assumes that it is a call for a backward movement of history. A question often raised is how a socio-economic and political system developed in the seventh century can be applied in the twenty-first century. The establishment of an Islamic state, consequently, is interpreted as an effort for revival of a pre-modern way of life.

The west considers itself the ideal modern liberal society. This has generated the belief that non-westerners constitute a potential threat to western civilization. Scholars such as   Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington tried to prove that in the western secular liberal democracy and in the capitalist economic order mankind has reached the end of history and climax of culture and civilization. The disintegration of the former Soviet Union is interpreted as an ideological victory that placed capitalism as the ultimate world order. It is also claimed that progress and development can only take place when the western model is adopted. In a supposedly “post-modern” age, a Muslim discourse on revival of Islamic society and state is interpreted by the westernized mindset as a revolt against the west. This dogma of the perpetual supremacy of the secular capitalist order is emphatically expressed by Huntington: “only when Muslims explicitly accept the western model will they be in a position to technicalize and then to develop.”[14] Muslim “fundamentalism” has also been closely linked by the west with the economic backwardness in the Islamic world. The impact of Marxian and Freudian views on religion, as a transitory phase in the evolution of human society is visible, according to Huntington’s analysis, in the Muslim mind. He considers “Muslim fundamentalism” only a symptom of a more serious problem, namely Islam’s assertion as a movement for an ethical paradigm shift. Huntington assumes that the major reason for the clash of Islamic people with the west is the perception that they have been deprived of economic and political power. He is of the view that besides economic and political frustrations prevalent among the Muslims, Islam as a faith and culture is responsible for this clash. The underlying problem for the west, he believes, is not Islamic fundamentalism but Islam because Muslims are convinced of the superiority of their culture but obsessed with the inferiority of their power. This shift of emphasis from Muslim fundamentalism to Islam is a typical western exclusivist approach which divides humanity into two watertight compartments i.e., the west and the rest.

It will be naive to think that this western perception of Islam and Muslims, as political rivals and a serious threat is a post-9/11 phenomenon. It has a long historical background. Martin Luther (1483-1546), the sixteen century reformer, had a similar vision of Islam as a violent and fundamentalist religion. He is reported to have called it “…a movement of violence in the service of the anti-christ…… it can only be resisted by the sword, and even that with difficulty.”[15]

The end of the Cold War generated speculation among policy planners and think tanks in the U.S. on the next rival of the sole superpower in an emerging unipolar world. The two obvious candidates were the “yellow threat” and the “green threat.” A study, entitled “The Green Threat,” done by Leon Harder, Bureau Chief of the Jerusalem Post, was published by the Cato Institute in Washington D.C.[16] It suggested that militant Islam was knocking at the doors of Washington and London. The Economist invented the term “fundie”[17] for the breed of Muslims who, inspired by the Khomeni model of revolution, were prepared to wage war against western civilization. They were also described as “home grown terrorists” implying that extremist violence is endemic to Islamic teachings.

The thesis advanced by Huntington, considered by some at that time as science fiction, gradually took tangible shape as a war between Christianity and Islam. The latter was publicly declared the new enemy of secular liberal democracy, the United States and the west. The sequence of writings in the European media on the subject is intriguing.[18] One can see how a fear syndrome develops into a justification for pre-emptive strike against the fictional genie of “Islamic fundamentalism” and terrorism. When viewed in this larger context, the two U.S. invasions of Iraq, and the World Trade Centre and Twin Towers debacles appear as episodes of a strategic plan and has given rise to conspiracy theories.

The emergence of Islamic movements, in the post-colonial period, and global Islamic awakening, at an intellectual level, was construed by the west as a fundamentalist, militant and revolutionary movement similar to those of Bolshevism, Fascism and Nazism in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. The erroneous perception of a so-called “green threat” emerged. The former Secretary General of NATO, in an interview, regarded it similar to the threat previously posed by communism.[19]

The message conveyed was unambiguous. Western writers and the media projected Islam and the Muslims as a “great threat” to democracy, secularism, western cultural values and civilization. This implied that if Muslim masses are allowed to realize their vision of Islamic society and state, the west and, by implication, the whole world would be in turmoil. Therefore, the United States had a prime “moral” responsibility to pre-empt this danger.[20] Edward Saeed had foreseen the emergence of this mindset more than two and half decades ago when he spoke of the misconceptions of the US and the west about Islam and the Muslims as “….a resurgent atavism, which suggests not only the threat of a return to the Middle Ages but the destruction of what is regularly referred to as the democratic order in the Western World.”[21] It is not easy to assess the extent to which misconceptions of Islam and Muslims played a role in repeated violations of international law, the occupation of territory through war and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

It is unfortunate that in a globalized age in which instant communication facilities, high-tech systems and on line access to information are readily available, both ordinary citizens and the policy makers in the west and the US, know very little about Islam and Muslims.  Michael Suleiman, in his scientific study of how Arabs and Muslims are presented in high school textbooks in the U.S, brings to light a hidden dimension of misinformation. He concludes that Arabs and Muslims are projected in text books as “….backward, primitive, uncivilized, people who…….appear warlike, powerful, barbaric and cruel[22] This early impression of Muslims and Islam, fed through the education system, is not easy to erase.

The lack of authentic information or conscious misinformation about Islam and the Muslims, re-enforced by a media war, helped create a belief in the west that the world of Islam has a terrorist infrastructure; a global network of “Islamic jihad” which has declared a “holy war” against the west. The truth, however, is that in the Qur’an and the sunnah there is no concept of “holy war” or Harb al-muqaddas. The term harb al Muqaddas does not appear even once in the Qur’an or the sunnah. Many influential Muslims believe that historically the US policy in the Middle East is directly responsible for the violent reactions in the region. Added to it is the fanciful portrayal of Islam as a potent, capable and vigorous enemy by the Neo-con policy planners of the US.[23]

An assertion, repeated ad nauseam, is that fundamentalism leads to extremism and terrorism. It has already been noted that Islam, which in essence is the Qur’an and sunnah, rejects fundamentalism and inculcates a critical, rational and balanced approach to all aspects of human existence. Then why is the religion unthinkingly blamed for instigating extremism and terrorist violence?

The historical roots of this problem are generally traced back to colonization, during the 18th and the 19th centuries, of a significant portion of the Muslim world by European imperialism. The struggle for independence from colonialism was, by and large, non-violent. Nevertheless during the post-independence period several Muslim states at the behest of the west were engaged in armed conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia. The US supported the armed struggle to drive the Soviet occupation forces out of Afghanistan. This perhaps provided an incubating ground for people who were at first lauded as mujahideen heroes by the White House, but later castigated as “militants,” “jihadis,” “Taliban” and  “al-Qaidah.”.

The success of the irregular mujahideen over the properly trained Soviet troops gave them confidence in their ability to struggle against what they perceive as illegitimate, oppressive and corrupt regimes within their own societies and also to combat the occupation of Islamic territories notably Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq and Afghanistan. The governments in Kabul and Baghdad are seen as surrogate puppet regimes supported by the US and the west. The possible fragmentation of Iraq along sectarian fault-lines, as demonstrated by the increasingly recurrent violence created between the Shiias and the Sunnis, is considered a consequence of the invasion and occupation of the country. Furthermore concepts such as pre-emptive strike and regime change to promote “democratization” are construed as interference and constitute a major cause of “extremist” violence. The perpetrators believe that they are the victims of aggression. This does not, however, imply hatred of the west, Christianity or any other faith.

Richard Nixon observed in his tenth and posthumously published  book, Beyond Peace, that a clash between Islam and the west was not inevitable but could become a self-fulfilling prophesy if the Muslims believe that the world has double standards in instances in which they are the victims of violence and aggression. He cited the example of Serbian shelling of Sarajevo in 1994:

“It is an awkward but undeniable truth that had the citizens of Sarajevo been   predominantly Christian of Jewish, the civilized world would not have permitted the siege to reach the point it did on February 5, when a Serbian shell landed in a   crowded market place. In such an instance, the West would have acted quickly and would have been right in doing so.” [24]

The US-led west has been strangely wayward in its declaratory policy of promoting democracy. Authoritarian regimes and absolute monarchies in the Muslim world have been supported for no better reason than their secular pretensions. Oppressive rulers who do not draw their legitimacy from their own people, help in increasing the gap between the poor, the middle class and the rich. Economic and social injustice and non-representative regimes create frustration and sense of alienation among the youth. This gives rise to violence and extremism in society.  Unless a meaningful and substantial shift is made in the prevailing policy of the west and those patronized by it, terrorism and extremism will continue to grow.

Terrorism and the Right to self-determination

The contemporary western discourse on terrorism usually does not draw a line between the inalienable right of those who are denied their freedom and security. The struggle for liberation of their land for example, cannot be compared with terrorist acts. An ad-hoc committee of the United Nations General Assembly, in 1973 commissioned three groups to define terrorism. The Non-Aligned group defined terrorism as “ ……acts of violence committed by a group of individuals which endanger human lives and jeopardize fundamental freedom, the effects of which are not confined to one state. This should not however effect the inalienable right to self-determination under the colonial and racial regimes.”[25]

In 1987 the Secretary General of the U.N. convened an International Conference to define terrorism and to differentiate it from “freedom struggle.” The conference made a clear distinction between terrorism and a freedom struggle against racist and foreign rulers and exempted freedom movements from committing any crime of terrorism.[26] The history of freedom struggles shows that use of brutal force against freedom fighters has only produced more violence and terrorism. Unless the root cause, i.e. denial of right to self-determination, is removed, violence and use of force cannot be eliminated from society. On the contrary, use of brutal force by the US, NATO or any foreign powers against natives of Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan will only increase violence in society.

Fundamentalism and extremism, appear to be closely related, but in general these terms are used in the context of “religious” extremism and dogmatism. Their use has become more frequent with reference to Islam and, more specifically, contemporary Islamic revivalist movements although the essence of revivalism lies in ijtihad or rejection of conservatism and traditionalism. Nevertheless the call for going back to the Qur’an and the Sunnah by the revivalist movements is mistaken by their critics as a call for traditionalism. In the context of Pakistan, Iqbal and Mawdudi, complemented each other in their concern for ijtihad in the socio-economic and political realms. They shared   a desire to reconstruct the methodology for social change. They were critical of traditionalism and conservatism.

How to fight “fundamentalism and extremism” in Pakistan

In view of the specific situation in Pakistan, introduction of so-called “liberal” “enlightened moderation” through vulgarization of the electronic media, or holding of fashion shows in the name of promoting a “soft image” cannot serve the purpose of defeating extremism. On the contrary, it has the potential of generating a stern populist backlash. This is because 97 percent of the country’s people are Muslims and will not countenance what they perceive to be a violation of their religious norms. This obscurantism is largely due to the failure through the decades of the country’s leadership, whether civilian or military, in realizing the Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s , dream of building and Islamic state based on religion’s teachings of  social justice, economic equitability and a just  political order. Pakistan, therefore, is essentially an ideological state in which religion occupies centre-stage.

Successive governments since Pakistan’s independence in 1947, have exploited Islam for no higher motive than the dictates of political expediency. Thus it was none other than a mainstream secular political party, when it faced a public outcry against poll rigging and its autocratic rule, that prohibited liquor and prostitution, declared Qadianis as non-Muslims, introduced Friday as a holiday and included articles 227 and 230 in the country’s constitution.  Similarly the so called “Islamization” under a subsequent army ruler was basically motivated to ensure political survival.  This demonstrates that the people of Pakistan attach enormous importance to their ideological foundation and can even be exploited when Islam is in focus.

While we must condemn the political use of Islam by the civilian or army dictators, the fact remains that in Pakistan, Islam is a central factor in the life of its people. This is why the card of sectarianism has been exploited through the decades by the so-called religious parties under state patronage. The rulers, irrespective of being civilian or otherwise, have supported and protected these sectarian parties for their own survival. In other words “sectarian violence” and “extremism” in the final analysis, is not theological or religious but essentially political and often motivated by self-interest of the rulers.

The question remains how to resolve the interrelated issues of extremism, sectarian violence and fundamentalism. The analysis in this paper makes it abundantly clear that, at a conceptual level, fundamentalism has no place in the Qur’an and sunnah though it may exist among some Muslim groups. We have also looked into the historical origins of fundamentalism in European and the American Christian sects resulting in the rise of the Neo-con, Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. Islam in essence does not welcome fundamentalism or ghulu i.e. extremism. Nevertheless the ground realities are that Muslim societies are projected as intolerant, extremist and fundamentalist. Can the use of force whether in South Waziristan, Baluchistan or any where else eliminate the threat of a “fundamentalist” take over of Pakistan. Has brutal force anywhere in the world including Iraq and Afghanistan, been able to bring peace and supremacy of the law?              The solution, in my view, lies is a long term educational reorientation of the people and rulers of the country. An educational strategy alone can help in solving the problem. The above analysis shows that besides certain historical biases, one major cause of lopsided U.S. policy toward the Muslim world, is its lack of proper understanding of Islam and Islamic movements.

In the case of Pakistan too, the lack of proper Islamic education, misinformation about Islam, and the political exploitation of the religious sentiments of the masses are major negative factors responsible for extremism. This is why an educational methodology, though long term, is the key to the solution of the problem. This can bottle the genie of extremism and fundamentalism gradually but surely.

We are convinced that limited and distorted knowledge of Islam as communicated by different interest groups is a major cause of sectarian tension in Pakistan. If we only expose our coming generation, directly, to the Qur’an and the sunnah, we can bring a change in the community. The answer is very simple. The coming generation in Pakistan should be required to have a complete cover to cover, reading of the Qur’an and its meaning in the Urdu and English languages, along with translation of one of the six canonical books of hadith. This will provide every citizen of Pakistan the knowledge of the basic Islamic teachings of honesty, love, social justice, fair play and tolerance. Once they directly understand the message of the Qur’an and the sunnah, no emotionally charged speeches of Imams or mujtahids will be able to persuade them to act violently. It will bring a qualitative change in the attitude and behaviour pattern of the people. They will discover how to live with dignity and respect for others. Only then can genuine cultural pluralism be established and accepted.

Since the 97 percent of the people in Pakistan are Muslims, it would only be democratic and logical to let them understand directly what they claim to believe. It is also important to understand that the 3 percent population which may not believe in Islam, should also know the basic belief of the 97 percent people with whom they have to interact and deal with. It should be borne in mind that the teachings of the Qur’an are not particular to Muslims. The universal teachings of the Qur’an and the sunnah have relevance for all human beings though they are not obliged to practice and follow them strictly. The Qur’an claims it is for the whole of humanity and that it contains teachings which are universal and shared by earlier religions.

One major cause of religious extremism is exclusivism, which generates self-righteousness, a bias against others, and a sense of superiority. This can be easily resolved if extensive interaction takes place among the teachers and students of our deeni madaris (seminaries) through educational visits and activities. Mutual interaction will widen their horizon and allow them to discover that the so-called differences are minimal while commonality is enormous.

It is also important that instead of trying to secularize the deeni madaris, trust and confidence is built and they contribute in the effort to minimize sectarian tension and conflict. Any attempt to secularize the madaris is bound to cause serious reaction, which will strengthen the forces of extremism. A culture of research and investigation, on the other hand, should be encouraged among their students and faculty members. This will water down the rhetorical and theological approach and encourage the coming generation to use tools of rational analysis and develop a critical mindset.

The media too has to play an educative role and act responsibly. It should not confine itself to entertainment. While focusing on the common bond of Islam, the media should encourage an on going dialogue between the various sections of society including madhhabi madaris (sects). An open discussion on issues such as violence, extremism and fundamentalism will ultimately allow participating scholars and their viewers to develop a balanced approach and attitude toward others.

These few steps can bring a behaviour change and create respect and understanding within the members of society in Pakistan. It needs to be emphasized that “religion” for centuries, has played a vital role in creating love, harmony and tolerance among people of differing faiths. While some persons could, by choice, become fundamentalist, extremist or violent, religion remains a source of love, respect and ethical and moral behaviour.

The true teachings of the Qur’an and sunnah, when properly internalized will enlighten the followers and make them moderate and balanced. Lack of knowledge of the Qur’an and the sunnah will only make people vulnerable to emotional calls and half-truths in the name of sectarianism.

Our major problem is a lack of knowledge and morality. If we only develop a knowledge-based society with a commitment to global Islamic ethical values we can easily overcome and minimize our biases, sectarian conflicts, extremism and “fundamentalist” tendencies. Islamic revivalist movements, being educational in their essence, have a moral and ethical responsibility in the development of a strategy to achieve this objective


[1] Prof. Anis Ahmad, is a social scientist  and  Vice Chancellor of  Riphah  International University, Islamabad.


[1] An euphemism for an orthodox interpretation of Islam attributed to Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahab (1703-1787) the ideological guide and source of inspiration for the present Saudi Arabian rulere.

[2] Charles J. Adams, “Mawdudi and the Islamic State,” in John L.Espasido ed. Voices of Resurgent Islam, New York, Oxford University Press, 1983, p.99.

[3] The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, London, Oxford University Press, 1962, Vol. I, p.353.

[4] David A, Martin, “Fundamentalism,” in William Outhwaite and Tom Bottaman ed. The Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth Century Social Thought, London, Blackwell, 1993, p. 238.

[5] Nancy T. Ammerman, “North American Protestant Fundamentalism,” in Martin E. Marty & R. S. Applby ed. Fundamentalism Observed, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1991, Vol. I. pp. 20-29.

[6] Lionel  Caplan, Studies in Religious Fundamentalism, London,  Macmillan, 1987, p.1.

[7] Nancy T. Ammerman, “North American Protestant Fundamentalism,” in Martin E. Marty et. al. Fundamentalism Observed, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1991, Vol. I, p.2.

[8] W. Montgomery Watt, Islamic Fundamentalism and Modernity, London, Routledge, 1988, pp.2-3.

[9] Sami Zubaida, “The Quest for the Islamic State: Fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran,” in Lionel Caplan,  Studies in Religious Fundamentalism, London, Macmillan, 1987, p.25.

[10] Willi Claes, Secretary General of NATO, TV interview reported by Inter Press Service, 18 February 1995.

[11] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, London, Penguin, 1006, p.217.

[12] Albert J, Nevins, ed. The Maryknour Catholic Dictionary, New York,  Dimension Books, 1965, p.556; also William R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem, New York, Macmillan, 1964.

[13] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Islam in Modern History, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957, p.26.

[14] Samuel P. Huntington,  The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, London, Penguin Books, 1996, p.7.

[15] Albert Hourani, Europe and the Middle East, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980, p.10.

[16] Ahmad Moussalli, Islamic Fundamentalism Myths and Realities, Reading UK., Garnet Publishing  Co., 1998, p.5.

[17] “Fear of Fundie,” The Economist, 15 February 1992, pp.45-46.

[18] See David  Ignatius, “Islam in the West’s Sights: The Wrong Crusades?” Washington Post, 8 March 1992;  “Muslim Militant Big Concern,” New York Times, 1 January 1992; “The US Fears Sudan Becoming  Terrorist,” Washington Post. 31 January 1992; Timothy D. Sisk, Islam and Democracy, Washingto DC, US Peace Institute Press, 1992; Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72 No. 3, Summer 1993, pp 22-49; Judith Miller “The Challenge of Radical Islam,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No.2, 1993; Bernard Lewis, “Islam and Liberal Democracy,” The Atlantic Monthly, February 1993, pp.89-98.

[19] Welli Clares, NATO Secretary General, TV interview by  Inter Press Service, 18 February 1995.

[20] Augustin Richard Norton, ed. Civil Society in the Middle East, London, Brill, 1995, Chapter threee “Modern Fundamentalist Discourse on Civil Society, Pluralism and Democracy.”

[21] Edward Saeed, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How we see the Rest of the World, New York, Pantheon Books, 1981, p.51.

[22] Michael Suleiman, The Arabs in the Mind of America, Brattleboro,Vt., Amana Books, 1988, p.2

[23] Steve Emerson, “Political Islam promotes Terrorism,” in Paul A. Winters, ed. Islam: opposing viewpoints, San Diego, Greenhaven Press, 1995, p. 161.

[24] Richard Nixon, Beyond Peace, Random House, New York, 1994, p.154.

[25] Proceedings of the 28th Session of  the UN General Assembly U.N.A./9028/1973.

[26] UN report A/42/832,  resolution of the  Sixth Committee of the 94th meeting of the General Assembly, 7 December 1987.