THINKING ABOUT RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM
by Gene TeSelle, Witherspoon Society Issues Analyst
In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, we have been urged not to
depict all Muslims as terrorists, and we have been reminded that the
Islamic doctrine of jihad or "just struggle"
prohibits this kind of indiscriminate violence against non-combatants.
Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaedde organization, we are told, are no more
typical of Islam than James Jones or David Koresh were of the Jewish and
Christian tradition. Cautionary statements like these have been
necessary at a time when the desire for revenge has led to a number of
overt acts of violence against people who look Arab or Muslim. They
inevitably lead, however, to further questions, especially how we are to
understand other religious traditions and where lines are to be drawn.
The point has been made repeatedly that Muslims are
the ones who must make judgments about the Islamic tradition and the
relation of Osama bin Laden to it. A number of Islamic leaders have
already ventured theological statements about these issues. Even his own
family has declared his views and actions to be out of bounds.
Judgments of this kind are not limited to Islamic
leaders, of course. The Pope, during his visit to Kazakhstan, reaffirmed
the Catholic Church's respect for "authentic Islam, the Islam that
prays, that is concerned for those in need," and asserted that
"hatred, fanaticism and terrorism profane the name of God and
disfigure the true image of man."
President George W. Bush even ventured theological
judgments about true and false Islam in his address to the nation and
the world on September 20. His position is not likely to be viewed as
authoritative by most Muslims; but by backing it up with U.S. military
and economic might he certainly drew a line in the sand and made it
clear to political leaders in all Muslim countries that they now
confront the hour of decision.
What they judge to be authentically Muslim will have
momentous consequences for the military, economic, social, and political
health of their countries. But of course these same governments must
consider not only the military and economic might of the U.S., but also
the effects of U.S. saber-rattling and overt actions upon their own
people, who may not always be happy about what their own governmental
The principal irony, of course, is that the Taliban
and Osama bin Laden -- precisely those who have been identified with the
"evil" that the President intends to "destroy" --
were helped on their way to power by the U.S., which first gave help to
any forces that might counter the Soviet invasion of 1979, then
withdrew, leaving Afghanistan to rival warlords with an immense supply
of new weapons.
Geopolitically, Afghanistan lies on the path between
the oilfields of Central Asia and the warm-water ports of the Indian
Ocean. That is why both the Soviets and the West regard it as important
territory. Relations among the tribal groups have been destabilized by a
number of external factors: a flourishing opium trade, an influx of
sophisticated weapons, and covert operations by various interested
parties. In the contest over Afghanistan, strategists found it easier to
work with the Pashtuns in the center and south of the country, who had
relatives inside Pakistan, than with the groups related to the Iranians
in the West and the Tajiks in the north. It is also likely that Pakistan
was, and still is, looking to Afghanistan as a back-up area in case of a
war with India.
At the start of the fight against the Soviet
occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan's military government supported
Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, a pan-Islamist extremist, more because of his
beliefs and policies than because of any actual achievements inside
Afghanistan. Military types are likely to prefer a disciplined kind of
religion that is not too concerned about civil liberties and electoral
process. Kurt Lohbeck in Holy War, Unholy Victory reports the
comment of a C.I.A. officer that "fanatics fight better."
Operatives went throughout the Arab world recruiting zealots, who then
flocked to Afghanistan. The Taliban itself is the creature of Pakistani
policy, which trained and indoctrinated young Afghan refugees in camps
Summing up all these developments, Eqbal Ahmad has
pointed out that Pakistan and the C.I.A. were responsible for the first
trans-national jihad in a thousand years, indeed, were
responsible for transforming the idea of jihad into the
indiscriminate sowing of terror. The Islamic ideal of the umma,
the one people of Islam transcending all differences of nationality, has
thus been given a terrifying new meaning.
Yes, there is Islamic extremism. But when we talk
about religiously motivated extremism we cannot talk only about the
Islamic world. During the past decade we have learned that extremist
attitudes based upon religious motivations are not limited to any single
religious tradition but can be found in any of them.
RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM AROUND THE WORLD
Twenty years ago we thought that Islamic extremism
meant the Shiites in Iran. Now we find that the extremists in
Afghanistan are Sunni. The country is ruled by the Taliban, a name that
means "seminary students." But zealous seminarians are not
limited to the Islamic world. Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was
assassinated by a Talmudic student, Yigal Amir; and this event, rather
than halting extremist talk, has stimulated further labeling of any
politician who speaks of "land for peace" as the equivalent of
Yassir Arafat or Adolf Hitler.
In the struggle for the independence of India from
Britain, the Congress Party insisted upon religious and ethnic
inclusiveness. Today, however, the ruling BJP represents a kind of Hindu
particularism that goes against all that the Congress Party stood for,
and it is constantly trying to appease its allies farther to the right.
Their policies in turn inflame passions in Muslim Pakistan.
Looking closer to home, Christian conservatives in the
U.S. objected last year to federal hate crimes legislation as a
restriction on their rights of free speech against gays and lesbians and
abortionists. More recently they have been upheld in federal court, on
free speech grounds, for calling physicians who provide abortions
murderers, posting their names on their web site, and checking off the
names of those already killed. Whatever their rights of free speech,
they exhibit all the marks of extremists.
WHY RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM?
This quick survey should be enough to indicate that
religious extremism is a problem of significant scale and that it is not
limited to any single religion, ethnic group, or region of the world.
About ten years ago the University of Chicago Press
published five huge volumes, almost needing a wheelbarrow to carry the
whole series, prepared by the Fundamentalism Project and edited by
Martin E. Martin and R. Scott Appleby. Scores of authors try to track
the various kinds of fundamentalisms (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and
Hindu), find some kind of definition for this admittedly loose and
metaphorical term, and trace what seems to be a new surge of
fundamentalism around the world.
So what are we to say about the sources of
fundamentalist reaction? When we ask a question like this, we mean at
least two things. One is a question of "explanation," asking
"why" it happens. While this question is inevitable, it is
always risky, for the answer can be both simplistic and reductionist.
The other is a question of "interpretation," asking
"how" the participants see things. This encourages us both to
be more open-minded and to expect to find complexities. As we survey the
answers that have been given, I hope that we will be more interested in
interpretation than in strict explanation.
1. The end of the Cold War
Many commentators have suggested that the Cold War
kept intense passions under control, channeling them along political
lines. While this often involved demonization of one side or the other
as the Evil Empire bent on world conquest, the stakes were so high that
political prudence controlled what was actually done. With the end of
the Cold War these passions have been freed from political constraints,
with the result that they can be directed against whatever seems
physically threatening, psychologically alien, or religiously
This answer may account for the release of those
passions, but not for their origin or their intensity. We need to keep
2. Specific political conflicts
Others look to specific political conflicts. Israel
and the Palestinians is certainly one issue, filled with perceived
injustices on both sides and perhaps incapable of resolution. When
perceived injustices continue, desperation sets in, leading to extremist
In the Islamic world the problem is older and larger,
however, than Israel and the Palestinians. The Arab nations were under
the yoke of the Ottomans for centuries. Between the wars they were
ostensibly free but with monarchical governments controlled by Britain
and France. Saudi Arabia developed ties with the Anglo-American Oil
Company. Other Gulf states, too, have become linked with the world oil
market; being vulnerable to pressures from neighboring states, including
Iraq, they have become increasingly dependent upon military support from
the U.S. and its allies. The final abomination, according to Osama bin
Laden, is that Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy cities of Mecca
and Medina, welcomes U.S. armed forces and permits them to violate many
of the provisions of the Koran on Arabian soil. The twentieth century
came to be viewed by many Arabs as a massive humiliation, fueling
resentment against colonial or hegemonic powers, against Arab
governments that collaborate with them, and against the Zionist state.
Basic resentments like these can be expressed in a
variety of ways: in the terrorist actions of Osama bin Laden and other
extremist organizations; in popular sympathy for such actions; but also
in the rise of movements that try to overcome the humiliations with a
more broad-based reassertion of autonomy or "subjecthood."
One of the most revealing examples is the Ikhwan or
Muslim Brotherhood, which grew in Egypt during the 1930s, was suppressed
by Nasser in 1954, but today is viewed as a precursor by movements in a
number of Islamic countries. It is usually criticized by Marxist,
Zionist, and liberal scholars alike, for it was anti-imperialist,
anti-collaborationist, anti-Zionist, and anti-Communist. A recent book
by Brynjar Lia suggests, however, that it was far richer and far more
instructive than these judgments would suggest.
The Ikhwan did not want to be a political party, for
it saw the many compromises involved in going down that road; instead it
became a mass movement with a far-reaching welfare network. It was not a
movement of religious traditionalism, for it was explicitly open to
practical reinterpretation of Islamic traditions. Its focus was neither
mystical nor scholarly but activist. It did not reject
"Western" values but adopted and adapted them in its own way.
It was a non-elite middle-class movement that honored virtue and hard
work. It respected religious and political leaders when they exemplified
the best in Islam, but it also drew upon the Islamic tradition of
rebuking those leaders when they fell short. Its emphasis was on zealous
loyalty to the traditions of Islam and their expression in all aspects
It is an instructive example, then, of what
sociologists call "resource mobilization." In its class base
and its value system it seems quite similar to the evangelical movements
that have been growing in the U.S. in recent decades, and like them it
can find expression in more moderate or more extremist forms. Its
original grass-roots concern for social justice has been replaced by a
more hard-line "sharia as law" approach, funded by
oil money from the Arabian peninsula. This outside influence,
religiously and politically conservative, is as destabilizing to the
Muslim world as the earlier influence of European imperialism or U.S.
military and economic aid.
3. Different political cultures
Another source of tension is not overt political
domination but the difference in "political culture" between
Islam and the West. The urgency of this question is exacerbated by
recent news stories about violent acts by Muslims against Christians,
sometimes governmentally sponsored, sometimes sheer mob violence, in
places as diverse as Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and
Indonesia. It would be wrong to gloss over these issues just because we
do not want to seem prejudiced.
Islam does not want its people to convert to other
religions, and it does not like to see missionaries trying to persuade
them to convert. Christianity has often felt that way, too. In Colombia
as late as the 1950s Protestants were persecuted on the theory that all
baptized persons are under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic
Church. Many Christians limit salvation to those who explicitly confess
the name of Christ, and they are especially harsh toward those they
consider heretics or apostates. Some political theorists of the
"communitarian" persuasion still find it easier to define
religious freedom as toleration of diverse religious groups than to
include in it the freedom to leave those groups.
Islam, furthermore, assumes that there will be a close
relationship between religion and government. Christianity assumes that,
too; but it has had long experience differentiating between them and
then working out the relationship between them. This does not always
mean "separation" of church and state; there have been many
kinds of "cooperation" between them. But most Christians
assume a differentiation between the two.
More than that, policy-makers in the West decided, as
early as the seventeenth century, that religion can cause so much damage
in political life that the differentiation needs to be more clearly
drawn. Germany did this after the Thirty Years' War; England did it
after the Puritan interregnum and the Restoration; the U.S. did it with
the First Amendment. This does not mean that religion is made irrelevant
to public life, that it is treated like a "private hobby," as
Stephen Carter so wrongly states the issue. But it does mean that there
is not a direct institutional relationship between religion and
That is why George W. Bush's initiative to give
faith-based organizations federal funds, even when they discriminate in
employment or permit proselytization in publicly funded programs, is so
disturbing. There are many other, and far more constructive, ways of
relating religion with public life. Especially at a time when we are
newly conscious of the religious pluralism of our society, the Bush
administration's initiative seems inappropriate and counter-productive,
promising only to reintroduce religious passions and interreligious
competition into political life.
The West has learned, by and large, to live with a
clear differentiation between religion and politics, even to live with a
"secular state" in the sense that it has no religious test for
public office and no formal relationships with any religious
institutions -- although the Bush initiative indicates that there are
some who have not learned much from the experience of the last four
There are many in the non-Western world who appreciate
this Western experiment and would like to see its lessons applied in
their own countries. Turkey was the first Islamic country to adopt the
European idea of the secular state, and the pattern has been adopted by
a number of revolutionary or progressive governments in the Arab world,
too. India under the Mogul rulers had its own experiment with religious
pluralism, with some constructive results to which people look back with
appreciation, especially when compared with the interfaith violence that
has too often taken its place.
And yet there are many political and religious leaders
in the Middle East and Asia who claim that the West is engaging in
"cultural genocide" when it insists upon religious pluralism
and upon human rights more generally. They must be asked, in turn,
whether their own traditions are really as uniform and domineering as
they assume, or whether they are projecting their own political wishes
into those traditions.
In 1998 Charles Kurzman edited a volume entitled Liberal
Islam: A Sourcebook (a Google search will turn up a number of
comments on this book and on the theme of "liberal Islam").
Essays are gathered in sections entitled "Against Theocracy,"
"Democracy," "Rights of Women," "Rights of
Non-Muslims," "Freedom of Thought," and
"Progress." Kurzman finds, in addition to
"customary" Islam and "revivalist" Islam, a
significant strand of "liberal" Islam. Sometimes it is clearly
influenced by the Western liberal tradition, sometimes it seeks
authentic roots within the Islamic tradition; usually there is a strong
element of "correlation" between both factors. Such movements
are a salutary reminder that we should not allow Islam to be
stereotyped, by either insiders or outsiders, as
"anti-Western" and "anti-democratic."
4. A backlash against the scientific spirit
Finally, there are some who regard fundamentalism,
Western or non-Western, as a backlash against the scientific spirit.
That was certainly a significant feature of the fundamentalism with
which we are familiar in the U.S., which often manifested itself as a
reaction against Darwinism and biblical criticism (it may also have
been, less overtly, a reaction against the new industrial economy,
ironically parallel with Socialism and Progressivism but in a more
If a characteristic feature of fundamentalism,
wherever it is found, is a reaction against the spirit of science and
technology, then Islamic fundamentalism is ironic in the extreme, for
during the middle ages, when Europe was relatively primitive on the
scale of economic and social complexity, the Islamic world was one of
the high points of civilization and culture (India and China were off
the screen as far as most Europeans was concerned). Peter O'Brien,
following earlier suggestions by R.W. Southern, has called attention to
the shock of the Spaniards when they entered Toledo in 1085 and beheld
not only its buildings and its complex economic life but the library
containing whole disciplines about which they had no inkling. This began
the long process of translating scientific and philosophical works and
assimilating them into the Christian culture of northern Europe. While
there were some in Christian Europe who engaged in denial, attempting to
keep things as they were or claiming that nothing really new was
happening, most people adapted rather quickly. It was a revolutionary
time, for Aristotle represented what some in our time call "secular
humanism," an entire world-view with no religious base; and it was
made more provocative by coming from the hands of Muslims and Jews,
precisely the "infidels" that Europeans feared the most. But
people in the middle ages learned to read Aristotle, ask new questions
about the relationship between faith and reason, even accommodate
themselves to a diversity of "schools" of philosophy and
theology (the standard list in the late middle ages was eight such
schools), no longer expecting perfect unanimity in either the church or
We need to remember, then, that the Islamic world
taught Europe much of its scientific and technological culture. If
Europe surpassed it a few centuries later, there is no reason to suppose
that this is a permanent state of affairs or that the Islamic world
cannot adapt to that culture and make its own contributions to it. Of
course there can be "fundamentalism" in the Islamic as well as
the Christian world. Refusal to consider the challenges of new ways of
thinking can be attractive to any of us in our more threatened moments.
But we should not encourage any religion or any people to shut itself up
in the fundamentalist closet.
I see, in looking back, that I began my list with the
most dramatic features of the recent past, the large-scale political
events that gather headlines and have such evident power to intensify
emotions. Then I moved to long-range cultural factors, much more subtle
but perhaps even more powerful in shaping hearts and minds.
We have no guarantee that the Islamic world will be
any happier than many in the West about liberal political institutions
or the spirit of scientific inquiry. But we do have the obligation to
encourage a more open society in both the Islamic world and in the West.
To do otherwise would be to continue the spirit of imperialism and
exploitation that has not only made so many people in the Islamic world
resentful of the West but has kept the West itself from fulfilling its
potential for constructive cooperation with the peoples of the world
that we all share.