issue 155 | January 1986
Fighting the idol
IMAGINE a scene in which people are down on their knees praying, their prayers so fervent that they can neither hear nor see what is happening only a few yards away.
A gang is raping a girl on the sidewalk; teenagers are injecting drugs into wasted bodies; a desperate mother is abandoning an infant at the foot of a parking meter. But the devotees hear nothing because they are too busy worshipping, not a god or a figure on a cross, but money and the commodities spilling from an advanced production system.
This is the West in the eyes of many Islamic fundamentalists. And it is this sort of perception of the West's moral bankruptcy that has persuaded many people in Muslim countries to look elsewhere for a better model of society.
Muslims believe human beings have divine attributes and that any social or economic system which places a higher value on commodities and services is idolatrous. Love of things is a form of idolatry (shirrk). God alone is to be worshipped. So the revulsion felt in some Islamic communities towards the vice and violence of Western societies has a firm religious basis.
But it was only when some Muslims began to put their beliefs into practice that the media started paying attention. The 1979 overthrow of the US-backed dictator, the Shah of Iran, marked the beginning of what has variously been called 'the Islamic revival' or 'the Islamic re-awakening'. The mullahs and their followers were dismissed as 'fanatic fundamentalists' by the Western media. But the Iranian revolution had a firm religious base. Resisting an oppressor and putting an end to economic exploitation have been guiding principles of Islam since the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed over 1,300 years ago.
These principles are regarded by about 800 million people around the world as the very word of God. They are religious edicts. But they also carry important psychological and political weight.
Only a society that cares about all aspects of human life can be a just society. A just society, in turn, is the only kind acceptable to God. And God has already given permission to wage war against 'the minions of the devil'.
The revolution in Iran was national as well as Islamic. Not only was God's will being blatantly ignored by the Shah, he was also flaunting his role as the region's policeman by helping protect US interests in the Middle East. His hectic 'modernisation' was designed to rebuild the nation along American lines. Islamic leaders saw this as idol-worshipping. But the threat to traditional culture by imported American values also prompted the urban middle class, Marxist-oriented Muslims and members of the atheist Tudeh Party, to join the religious resistance led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Later, Ayatollah Khomeini turned on his allies. They weren't religious enough. They loved their TV sets and foreign clothes too much. Their minds were too suffused with secular ideas - with technological efficiency for example, and the need for women to be released from historical bondage.
The war within the country was extremely bitter, Something like 25,000 people were executed between 1981 and 1983 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. This internecine violence shows that most Muslims regard the quality of life as more important than life itself. They have not been subdued by commercial propaganda. They do not accept that washing-machines or videos or cars are the purpose of life.
According to the Quran, we were placed on earth as God's vice-regent. We have a soul; we are capable of faith; we have imagination and intellect. To allow these divine qualities to be defaced by an artificially kindled lust for more products is to surrender our higher faculties. So the Islamic opposition to capitalism is far more profound than the Marxist opposition. Marxist regimes have been openly antithetical to God and to religion. Theirs is a materialist conception of reality. They, too, worship things: goods, economic plans, quotas. Islamic scholars see them as more or less incompetent versions of the model exemplified by the United States - with one profound difference. In the United States individuals at least have physical freedom. They don't have to get permission in triplicate to move house, or to start up a business, or to travel abroad. Anyone can acquire wealth to their heart's content, regardless of the poverty and suffering around them. Also, religion is woven into the very fabric of American life. It is the explicitly atheistic side of Soviet communism that fuels the implacable animosity towards the Russian forces in Afghanistan.
In Egypt, too, a pristine form of Islam shook the status quo. President Anwar Sadat flirted with Israel, courted Washington and allowed foreign goods to flood the country. In October 1981, the fundamentalists struck - Sadat was murdered while reviewing a military parade in Cairo. The tyrant had to be toppled; it was a divine duty.
Since Iran, the revolutionary fervour of Islam has spread like wildfire, igniting explosions of anger as far afield as Nigeria and Indonesia. In their hearts Muslims are, first of all, members of the Islamic community (ummah). Whatever passports they carry, whether they are Chinese or Tunisian, neither their language nor their culture is a barrier between them. They all face Mecca to pray, whether they are in Chicago or Delhi. They all utter the same Arabic words, at approximately the same time, in the same order. Prophet Mohammed's injunction that Muslims should pray regularly is seen as a powerful cohesive force. And every year when pilgrims make the Hajj to Mecca, they meet, talk and exchange ideas - and the word spreads across all continents.
It must be clear to observers, however, that the Islamic resurgence has so far been politically conservative - even reactionary. Some Muslim communities feel that the values of modern industrial society are deeply offensive. These include the supplanting of compassion by impersonal relations, and a lack of respect by young people for their elders. This breakdown of direct bonds between people has isolated them from their identity. They feel they can only be Muslims as members of the ummah. But the ummah is itself being threatened by the demands of modern development. Muslim traditionalists are conscious that the Western package always seems to be accompanied by moral laxity. 'Why,' they ask, 'can't we just take the techniques and leave the liquor and the drugs, the violence and prostitution?'
That in a nutshell is the dilemma the fundamentalists see. Either they remain part of the world community by embracing modern technology and risking the changes in attitude and social relations which come with it. Or they turn away from Western technical achievements, wallow in the splendours of their past and condemn their children to future poverty and ignorance. It is almost a definition of fundamentalism that they have chosen the latter course.
In the process they've used Islam's impressive history as a bastion against the loss of cultural identity. But in effect what they are doing is confusing their language, their style of dress and their folk heroes with their religious beliefs. They don't want to accept that it is possible to command science and also submit to the will of God. They get away with it, and stir up a lot of fervour in the process, because the vast majority of their followers are illiterate or semi-literate.
In doing so these fundamentalist Muslims are themselves guilty of idolatry. By preferring ignorance to learning, they are rejecting the Prophet's instruction that we should 'seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave'.
We should be clear about another matter, too. Nowhere in the Quran does it say that women should stay home, do only housework and remain uneducated. Quite the contrary. In the Prophet's day women were given the right to inherit property, to own and run their own business and urged to study and improve their minds. 'The acquisition of knowledge is incumbent upon every Muslim man and every Muslim woman' are the words of Mohammed himself.
Science was regarded as one key to the wonders of divine creation. But it required an enquiring mind, a refusal to be told what to think, and ijtihad, reinterpreting reality in the light of changed conditions.
Today, with a few exceptions, ijtihad is nowhere to be seen. Independence of mind is dismissed as subversive or foreign. This is not surprising, since few Muslims live in countries whose governments have come to power by democratic means. In the fundamentalist wish to impose such a blinkered morality it would seem even the Islamic principle of consultation and consensus (shurah) has also been abandoned.
Dr Enver Carim is editor of Third World Development magazine.