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SIDIC Periodical XXXII - 1999/3
Fundamentalism and Extremism. Challenge for the 21st century (Pages 12-19)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Islamic Fundamentalism
Esposito, John L.


* At the dawn of the 21st century, Islamic fundamentalism or political Islam remains a powerful force in many Muslim societies and an issue of global concern. Islamic fundamentalism, the common term used to refer to contemporary Islamic revivalism, is a broad-based but diverse religious movement that has swept across much of the Muslim world, from North Africa to Southeast Asia, for more than two decades.

The landscape of the Muslim world today reveals the emergence of new Islamic republics (Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan), the proliferation of Islamic movements that function as major political and social actors, and, at times, the confrontational politics of radical violent extremists. In the 1980s, political Islam was simply equated with revolutionary Iran or clandestine groups with names like Islamic Jihad or the Army of God. In contrast, the Muslim world in the 1990s has been one in which Islamists have participated in the electoral process. They have served as prime ministers, cabinet officers, speakers of national assemblies, parliamentarians, and mayors in countries as diverse as Egypt, Sudan, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, Yemen, Jordan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Israel/Palestine.

Islamic Fundamentalism – What’s in a Name?

The term Islamic fundamentalism, while commonly used, can be misleading. “Fundamentalism” brings with it the baggage of its Christian origins. It is laden with Christian presuppositions and Western stereotypes, such as biblical literalism, a retreat to a more primitive past, and anti-empiricism (science and technology). The word fundamentalism obscures the diversity and complexity of current movements, their moderate as well extremist elements, their use of modern technology, and implies a monolithic threat. The term “fundamentalism” has revealed little about the diverse nature of Islamic governments and their interpretations of Islam, from the conservative Saudi monarchy to Libya’s populist revolutionary regime and Iran’s clerical state. Often equated with anti-western or anti-Americanism, fundamentalism fails to distinguish between Libya, Iran and Sudan with the West on the one hand and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia on the other. More useful terms are “Islamic revivalism” or “Islamic activism” which are less value-laden and have roots within Islam’s tradition of revival and reform that includes notions of political and social activism. In recent years, political Islam and Islamism have become more commonly used.

Roots of Contemporary Islamic Revivalism

Current Islamic revivalism builds on a considerable historical legacy of religious revival and reform that goes back to the early Islamic centuries. More proximately, during the 18th and 19th centuries, Islamic religio-political movements sprang up across the Islamic world, from the Mahdi in the Sudan and the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia to the Padri in Indonesia, in response to their perceptions of political fragmentation, economic, social and moral decline. Despite significant differences, a common theme was the need to purify Islam through the suppression of foreign (un-Islamic) beliefs and practices and to return to the fundamentals of Islam – the Quran and the Sunnah (example) of Muhammad and the early Muslim community. A number of revivalist movements gave rise to modern states such as Sudan, Libya and Saudi Arabia.

Contemporary movements draw off this legacy and the more proximate examples of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) in South Asia which emerged under the leadership of Hasan al-Banna and Mawlana Mawdudi respectively in the late 1930s and early 40s. Both became ideological and organizational prototypes of today’s Islamic movements. They espoused a worldview that maintained that Islam is a comprehensive and self-sufficient way of life; religion and politics are intertwined. Thus, Islam affects public policy as much as the performance of religious observances or worship. Both the Brotherhood and the Jamaat established effective modern organizations to pursue their goal, the implementation of an Islamic system of government and law through social programs and political action.

Character and Scope of Contemporary Islamic Revivalism

The Islamic resurgence has affected both personal and public life. On the one hand, many Muslims have become more religiously observant (increased attention to prayer, fasting, dress, family values and a revitalization of Islamic mysticism or Sufism). On the other, Islam has reemerged as an alternative ideology to the perceived failures of more secular forms of nationalism, capitalism and socialism. Islamic symbols, rhetoric, actors and organizations have become major sources of legitimacy and mobilization, informing political and social activism. Governments (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Malaysia) and movements (the Muslim Brotherhoods of Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, the Jamaat-i-Islami in South Asia, Turkey’s Refah Party, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front, Tunisia’s al-Nahda, Lebanon’s Hizbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, HAMAS and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, the Gamaa Islamiyya and Jihad in Egypt, ABIM and PAS in Malaysia), spanning the religious and political spectrum from moderate to extremist, have appealed to Islam to enhance their legitimacy and to mobilize popular support.

The causes of “fundamentalism” have been religiocultural, political, and socioeconomic. More often than not, faith and politics (not simply one or the other) have been intertwined. Issues of political and social injustice (authoritarianism, repression, unemployment, inadequate housing and social services, maldistribution of wealth, and corruption) are combined with those of religiocultural identity and values. A series of crises and failures, beginning in the late 1960s, discredited many regimes and the western-inspired paradigms of modernizing elites, triggering a politics of protest, reform and revolution as well as a quest for identity. The result was the positing of an “Islamic Alternative,” reflected in slogans like “Islam is the Solution” or “Neither West nor East.”

Among the more visible “failures” which proved to be catalytic events were: 1) the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (Six Day War) in which Israel decisively defeated the combined Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, occupied Sinai, the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem; the annexation and creation of a “united” Jerusalem under Israeli rule transformed the liberation of Jerusalem/Palestine into a transnational Islamic issue. 2) the 1969 Malay-Chinese riots in Kuala Lumpur, reflecting the growing tension between the Malay Muslim majority and a significant and prosperous Chinese minority. 3) the Pakistan-Bangladesh civil war of 1971-72, heralding the failure of Muslim nationalism, which at independence in 1947 was intended to provide Pakistan’s national identity and unity. 4) the Lebanese Civil war (1975-90), among whose causes were the inequitable distribution of political and economic power between Christians and Muslims, which led to the emergence of major Shia groups: AMAL and the Iranian inspired and backed Hizbollah. 5) the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, a pivotal event with a long-term global impact upon the Muslim world and the West. 6) the Arab-Israeli conflict that spawned its own Islamist movements, among them HAMAS and Islamic Jihad, which grew in strength during the Intifada in the 1980s. 7) in the late 1980s, failed economies in Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan and Turkey fed social discontent and the growth of their Islamic movements.

The failures of the West (both its models of development and its function as a political ally in the Arab-Israeli wars) as well as fear of Western cultural penetration and dominance have been pervasive themes of the resurgence. Many blamed the ills of their societies on the excessive influence of and dependence (political, economic, military, and sociocultural) upon the West, in particular the two superpowers, America and the former Soviet Union. Modernization, as a process of progressive westernization and secularization, has been regarded as a form of neocolonialism exported by the West and imposed by local elites, a disease that undermines indigenous religious and cultural identity and values, replacing them with imported foreign values and models of development. Although the primary concerns of Islamic movements are local or national, international issues have also played important roles in Muslim politics: the Arab-Israeli conflict and the liberation of Jerusalem, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, and Kosovo. Oil wealth and support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as well as Libya provided international support for government Islamization programs as well as for individual Islamist movements.

Worldview and Agenda

For the majority of activists, the resurgence is a reassertion of religio-cultural identity, formal religious observance, family values and morality. The establishment of an Islamic society is seen as requiring a personal and social transformation that is a prerequisite for true Islamic government. Effective change is to come from below through a gradual social transformation brought about by implementing Islamic law. A significant minority, however, judging Muslim governments as hopelessly un-Islamic and corrupt believe that violent revolution is both a theological imperative and a political necessity. These societies and their leaders are regarded as infidels who must be eradicated. Therefore, these Islamic revolutionaries believe that both established political and religious elites (coopted by governments), in whose hands power and privilege are concentrated, must be overthrown and a new Islamically committed leadership and Islamic law imposed. Groups such as Egypt’s Gamaa Islamiyya or Islamic Jihad organizations in Egypt and Palestine, though relatively small in membership, have often proved effective (and deadly) in political agitation, disruption, and assassination.

From the Periphery to the Center:The Quiet Revolution

Much of the 1980s was dominated by fear of the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s threat to export its revolution and incidents of violence, hostage-taking and terrorism. Disturbances in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait, Iran’s strong backing of Hizbollah in Lebanon, and the assassination of Anwar Sadat fed the fears of Muslim rulers and the West. However, no other “Irans” occurred. The late 1980s and 1990s witnessed the diversity of contemporary Islamic movements rather than their image as a monolithic threat. A minority of radical extremists continued to exist and act in many parts of the Muslim world. Groups like Egypt’s Gamaa Islamiya (Islamic Group) battled the government, attacked and killed Coptic Christians and foreign tourists; other extremists bombed New York’s World Trade Center. However, at the same time, a “quiet revolution” had occurred. Islamic activism proved to be an effective social and political force, operating within the system – part of the institutions and life in mainstream society. Islamically inspired organizations ran schools, clinics, hospitals, banks, and publishing houses and offered a wide array of social welfare services. Thus, a new generation of elites, modern educated but Islamically rather than secularly-oriented, may be found today throughout the professions (physicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers, social workers) seeking to implement Islamic alternatives or visions in society.

At the same time, greater calls for political participation and democratization in the Muslim world brought both political liberalization in some cases as well as repression in others. Where governments opened up their political systems, Islamic organizations participated in elections and emerged as the leading opposition in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan where Islamic candidates not only won 32 of 80 seats in parliament but also held five cabinet positions. In Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) swept municipal and parliamentary elections in the early 1990s. Fearing that the FIS would come to power, the Algerian military intervened. Many governments in the Muslim world and the West seemed stunned as they witnessed what had seemed unthinkable, that an Islamic movement would come to power through ballots not bullets.

The seeming successes of Islamic movements in electoral politics led governments such as Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt to suppress their Islamic opposition, charging that religious extremists threatened to “hijack democracy,” to use the political system to come to power and then impose their will. Some experts countered that many governments in the Muslim world, whose political legitimacy is tenuous and supported by a heavy reliance on security forces, only tolerate “risk-free democracy” (a political liberalization that does not threaten their power and rule). While some governments and experts identify “Islamic fundamentalism” as a major threat to the stability of their societies and to global politics, others counter that it is important to distinguish between authentic populist movements that are willing to participate within the system and rejectionists who seek to topple governments through violent revolution.

Islam and Development:The Shattering of Paradigms

The reassertion of religion in Muslim politics and society challenged the western, secular bias and presuppositions of modernization and development theory. Against all expectations, more modern/westernized societies (Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, and Malaysia) developed into major centers of “Islamic” politics. The path of modernization proved not to simply be a choice between “Mecca or mechanizaton,” a static tradition or dynamic change, a secular or religious leadership and path. Countries as dissimilar as Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Malaysia demonstrate the complexity and pluriform nature of Muslim experiences and experiments, their diverse patterns and paces of modernization and their differing interpretations/implementations of Islam.

The earlier division of many Muslim societies, rooted in a bifurcation of education into a modern secular vs. the more traditional religious sectors, is complemented today by a modern educated but more Islamically oriented sector of society. It includes a cross section of society, urban and rural, leaders in politics and professional associations, doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, journalists, and teachers. Islamic political and social organizations embrace modern means to disseminate their messages in the media, audio and videotapes, faxes and the internet. They function within civil society as social and political activists. They build schools, hospitals, clinics, and banks; offer inexpensive legal and social services.

Issues of Leadership, Ideology and Interpretation

The contemporary resurgence of Islam in Muslim politics has raised many issues from those of leadership to theology/ideology and implementation. Most can be encapsulated in two questions, “Whose Islam?” and “What Islam?”

“Whose Islam?” Who is to interpret and implement Islam? Is it to be rulers: the vast majority of whom are unelected kings, military, and former military (eg. the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, Qaddafi in Libya, Omar al-Bashir in Sudan), the ulama or religious elite as in Iran, or elected prime ministers and parliaments? Historically, the ulama were the advisers to rulers, guardians of religion who enjoyed royal patronage. The vast majority of ulama today continue to see themselves as the primary interpreters of Islam and thus a necessary part of any process of Islamization. However, in the twentieth century, their role and effectiveness have been challenged by secular as well as Islamic modernists and activists. Critics note that Islam knows no clergy, that the classical Islamic education of many ulama ill prepares them to respond creatively and effectively to modern realities, and that the notion of scholar (alim, pl. ulama) or expert must be broadened today to include many new areas of expertise (modern economics, medicine, biochemistry etc.). The vast majority of Islamic organizations and leaders have been laymen who claim the right to interpret Islam and challenge the ulama’s sole prerogative as Islamic scholars and leaders. The call in recent years for greater political participation and democratization with its implied empowerment of elected national assemblies further challenges the traditional authority of the political and religious establishments alike. The second question, “What Islam?” concerns the process of Islamization of state and society; is it to be one of restoration or reformation? Some call for an Islamic state based upon the reimplementation of classical formulations of Islamic laws. Others argue the need to reinterpret and reformulate law in light of the new realities of the contemporary society. Several historical facts are important to remember. Islam, like all religious traditions, is an ideal which historically has taken many forms and which has been capable of multiple levels of discourse. It has been conditioned by reason/human interpretation and historical/social contexts. While the period of Muhammad and the Medinan state remained the ideal paradigm, historically there was no single, detailed model of an Islamic state. Islamic law itself is the product of divine prescriptions and human interpretations conditioned by social contexts. Contemporary Islamic activists have generated their own interpretations or paradigms that are themselves human constructions based upon sacred texts. Today one can see this diversity in contending visions of state and society, on issues of gender (women’s status and role in society, the wearing of the hijab or headscarf), minority rights, land reform and democratization in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria.

Distinguishing between competing religious visions and political realities can often lead to a religious reductionism that views conflicts in the Sudan, Lebanon, Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, or Israel/Palestine in primarily religious terms – as Muslim-Christian or Muslim-Jewish conflicts. Although communities in these areas may be broadly identified in religious or confessional/sectarian terms – as is the case of Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communities or Sri Lanka’s Tamil (Hindu) and Sinhalese (Buddhist) communities – disputes and civil strife often have more to do with political (eg. ethnic nationalism, occupation vs. autonomy or independence) and socioeconomic grievances than with religion as such.

A subtle but potent obstacle to understanding and interpreting religious fundamentalism (Muslim, Christian, Jewish) is the secular bias of many policymakers, academic experts, the media. Secularism is not simply seen as an alternative (one of a number of possibilities or choices) but an imperative (the only “rational” choice). Thus “secular fundamentalists” view the mixing of religion and politics as necessarily abnormal (departing from the secular norm), irrational, and dangerous. They fail to distinguish between those who are part of mainstream society and violent extremists, finding it easier to simply dismiss “fundamentalists” as religious fanatics. This issue can be seen not only in the Muslim worlds but in current tensions and debates in Israel today over the role of religion in society as well as the United States with regard to the so-called Christian right.

The assumption that the mixing of religion and politics necessarily and inevitably leads to fanaticism and extremism has been a major factor in concluding that all Islamic movements are extremists and that Islam and democracy are incompatible. Failure to differentiate between Islamic movements, that is, between those that are mainstream or moderate (willing to participate within the system and seek change from below) and those that are violent extremists is misleading and counterproductive. Few equate the acts of violence by Jewish or Christian extremists with mainstream Judaism and Christianity; quite rightly such behavior is seen as aberrant as a distortion or exploitation of a religion. A comparable level of discrimination is often absent when dealing with Islam and Islamic activism.

The use of violence is a particularly contentious issue. Distinguishing between moderates and extremists can be difficult. The line between movements of national liberation and terrorist organizations is often blurred or dependent upon one’s political vantage point. America’s revolutionary heroes were rebels and traitors for the British crown. Menachem Begin and Yitzak Shamir, the Irgun and Stern Gangs, Nelson Mandella and the African National Congress, and until recently, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were regarded by their opposition as terrorists leading terrorist movements. Similar questions or issues exist elsewhere. Is Christian liberation theology and its derivative movements in Latin and Central America simply a crypto-Marxist revolutionary force or an authentic populist movement? Yesterday’s terrorists may be just that – terrorists, or with hindsight they may be recognized as leaders of authentic nationalist movements and become today’s statesmen.

Understanding the nature of contemporary Islamic movements requires an ability to go beyond easy monolithic stereotypes. The diversity reflected in the rulers and governments of the Muslim world can also be seen in differences among Islamic movements from moderate/pragmatist, those that participate within the system, to radical extremists, those that simply seek to overthrow regimes and impose their own brand of Islam. The Muslim Brotherhoods of Egypt and Jordan, Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, Turkey’s Refah Party, Tunisia’s al-Nahda, and Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front, to name a few, eschewed violence and participated in electoral politics. At the same time, Egypt’s Gamaa Islamiyya, Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group, and Jihad organizations in many countries have engaged in violence and terrorism.

Islam, Democracy, and Pluralism

A similar diversity of voices, some harmonious and others strident, may be heard in the discussion and debate in recent years over political participation and democratization. There are in fact a range of Muslim positions regarding democratization. Secularists argue for secular forms of democracy, the separation of religion and the state. Rejectionists maintain that Islam has it own forms of governance and that it is incompatible with democracy. This position is held by moderate and militant Muslims alike, from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to radical organizations like Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Liberation Organization. Accommodationists believe that traditional concepts and institutions: consultation (shura), consensus (ijma), reinterpretation (ijtihad) can be utilized to develop Islamically acceptable forms of popular political participation and democratization.

Political Islam has raised concerns about the status and rights of non-Muslims in Islamic republics such as Iran, Sudan, and Pakistan as well as other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, and Indonesia. Tensions and clashes between Muslim governments or Islamic groups and Copts in Egypt, Bahai (and most recently Jews) in Iran, Chinese in Malaysia, Christians in the Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia have highlighted issues of pluralism and tolerance. The situation is exacerbated by perceived political and socioeconomic grievances. Non-Muslim minorities such as Christians in Egypt, the Sudan and Pakistan or the Ahmadiyya of Pakistan are regarded as having cooperated in the past and benefited from European colonial rule. Similarly, the Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia, Bahai in Iran, and Ahmadiyya in Pakistan, who tend to be more advanced educationally and economically, have encountered resentment and discrimination. Reactionary religious leaders and unscrupulous political leaders have found it easy to mobilize or incite their followers against minorities, viewed as disproportionately successful, who have become the targets for pent-up socioeconomic frustrations.

Addressing these problems requires Islamic reform. According to Islamic law, non-Muslims belong to a second class of citizens, the dhimmi (“protected”) who constitute their own community. In exchange for their allegiance to the state and payment of a poll tax, they are free to practice their faith and are governed by their religious leaders and laws in matters of worship, private life, education, and family laws. Most modern Muslim states granted equality of citizenship to all regardless of religious faith. However, the contemporary resurgence has resurrected pressures to reassert legally the traditional attitude toward non-Muslims which, though changed by modern legislation, has remained operative in the minds and outlooks of many Muslims.

Non-Muslim minorities face a related limitation in Islamic states. Given the state’s Islamic ideology, some ask: “Should non-Muslims be permitted to hold key government positions?” In many contemporary Muslim states, with the exception of the head of state or Prime Minister, citizens regardless of faith may hold office. This modern, liberal, secular pluralistic approach is contested today by those who argue that the state’s Islamic ideology requires a commitment to Islam. This would preclude non-Muslims from holding senior leadership posts in government, the legislature, judiciary and military that formulate and implement the ideology of the state. Moreover, radical Islamic organizations totally reject any non-Muslim involvement in government considering it contrary to Islam. This often means not only those of other faiths but also all those Muslims who do not accept their radical interpretation of Islam.

As Muslims reexamine and redefine the principles and values of Islam and their relevance to the changing realities of modern life, the place and content of Islamic law will be a pivotal issue. Among the questions which are being addressed in the modern context are: Is Islamic law as it was delineated in the past to simply be reinstated or is there a need for a new interpretation and reapplication of shariah principles and values to modern conditions, a fresh reinterpretation (ijtihad)? The issue of the status and role of non-Muslims is one of those important areas of traditional Islamic law that will need to be addressed in this process. While the position of non-Muslims under Islamic law was far superior to that of non-Christians under Christian rule, by the standards of modern states the status of non-Muslims as dhimmi today would be regarded as second class. Resolution of this issue has significance not only for non-Muslims within Muslim countries but also for worldwide Muslim-Christian relations.

Given the past history of Muslim-Christian beliefs and relations, both faith communities face important challenges in redefining their faith positions vis-a-vis each other. Both will want to remain true to the demands of their scriptures and faith and yet at the same time be open to a realignment of their positions (doctrines) where possible. As Muslims rethink the place and status of non-Muslims in Muslim societies, so too Christians must rethink such important and critical issues as the prophetic status of Muhammad and the revelational status or quality of the Quran – doctrines which go to the heart of the relationship of Christianity to Islam. These issues are indeed being addressed by Muslim and Christian thinkers and by religious organizations, nationally and internationally.

Islamic fundamentalism is part of a global resurgence of religion. Muslim communities like those of other faiths, such as Judaism and Christianity, reflect a diversity of orientations. Many Muslims prefer to see religion restricted to private life. Still others wish to see their societies and families more firmly grounded in their Islamic faith and traditions. For many this is simply a social rather than a political process. However, at the same time, across the Muslim world, many other Muslims have grappled with the implementation of Islam in state and society. The struggle has taken many forms. While religion has been exploited by some and made a tool of oppression rather than liberation, it has also reemerged as a major spiritual and political force. In the coming millennium, issues of faith and identity will continue to play a significant role in Islam as in other religions. For the three great monotheistic faiths, differences of faith and past conflicts can not be denied. However, equally important will be an emphasis on our common Abrahamic origins, periods of co-existence and cooperation (such as the Convivencia of Andalusia), and shared religious concerns, values, and interests as we face the challenges of the new millenium in which Islam exists side by side with Christianity and Judaism not only in the Muslim world but also in Europe and America.

* John L. Esposito is Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies, and Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding: History and International Affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World and The Oxford History of Islam, his other publications include: The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, Islam and Democracy (with J. Voll), Islam and Politics, Islam: The Straight Path and Islam, Gender and Social Change (with Y. Haddad), and Women in Muslim Family Law.


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