A Passion For Justice


new internationalist
issue 210 - August 1990


Not all muslims are fundamentalist. Two writers
dig deeper to explore the struggle within Islam.
(See also 'Hijacked by Khomeini')

A passion for justice
Erica Simmons believes that to understand Islamic
fundamentalism we need to see why it appeals to the poor.

For many in the West the term 'Muslim' conjures up images of wild-eyed, khaffiya-clad young men brandishing machine guns. But while angry young men are part of fundamentalist Islam, they are not the whole story. Fundamentalism is more broadly based than the media dares mention and there is a good deal more to this politicized Islam than fury with the West. Islam has become the rallying cry for the poor and alienated throughout the Arab world and is today the main voice of opposition to corrupt and repressive regimes.

Like their Christian counterparts, Muslim fundamentalists want to return to the roots of faith. What distinguishes Muslims is their belief that Islam provides the prescription for an ideal state. It is not enough for individuals to be observant - government, economy and society at large must all be based on Islamic principles.

Because of its origins as the religion of an empire, political theory is built into Muslim theology. 'Politics. is the great role of Islam,' wrote the Ayatollah Khomeini in his will. 'The holy Qu'ran and the sayings of God's Prophet ... have more commands about government and politics than about anything else.'

Even the greatest religious schism in Islam, that between Sunnis and Shi'ites, was in essence a political dispute over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad as Caliph after his death in 632. The losers of this battle were the partisans or 'shia' of Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad. Shi'ites make up about 10 per cent of the world's Muslim population and are in the majority only in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain. The greater radicalism of the Shi'ites stems in large part from their history as opponents of the Sunni establishment and their consequent status as a beleaguered minority within Islam.

Whether Sunni or Shi'ite, fundamentalists believe that an Islamic revival is the only way to solve the severe poverty and exploitation that are the legacy of European colonization. For the fundamentalists post-colonial governments based on imported ideologies like nationalism, secularism, liberalism and socialism just perpetuate Western domination and fail to bring either prosperity or social equality.

Islamic fundamentalism is as much a social as a religious phenomenon. Fundamentalists earn much of their credibility through their success in meeting people's needs. The activists we hear about now are not a new breed. They are a radicalized version of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which was established in Egypt in 1928 and is still an active force in many parts of the Arab world. The Brotherhood became the largest mass movement in Egyptian history by providing health clinics, jobs, education and cultural self-respect as it worked to integrate uprooted peasants into urban life.

In Egypt today the mainstream of the fundamentalist movement continues to provide schools, banks and other social services. These are, of course, Islamic schools, Islamic banks and Islamic social services based on traditional Islamic law (Shari'a) and custom. By these means, rather than through political confrontation, the fundamentalists are winning support for Islamicization among the poor and disenfranchized. The fundamentalists are highly organized, well financed by the oil money of states like Saudi Arabia, and this allows them to create an institutional structure parallel to the state.

Along with their social program, the fundamentalists act as a pressure group concerned with upgrading standards of public morality. In place of Western-style permissiveness and materialism, they offer a return to the umma, or 'community of believers', where the interests of the individual are balanced with the welfare of all. They believe a society based on traditional Islamic values will be just, compassionate, strong and prosperous. The poor are attracted to fundamentalism's respect for tradition combined with social activism while middle-class Muslims, especially students, are drawn to the movement's utopian idealism.

This combination of social activism and an appeal to indigenous cultural values is what gives fundamentalism such strength as a mobilizing ideology in the Muslim world. Like the liberation theologists in Latin America, Muslim fundamentalists wed religion to a political program. They hold that an Islamic revival will bring social regeneration, egalitarianism and liberation from Western domination. To the extent they are allowed to operate freely, the fundamentalists deliver on many of their promises.

Given the scope of their aims and the range of their activity, it is easy to see why many Arab governments are fearful of the growing strength of fundamentalism. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took a conciliatory approach in his efforts to ward off a fundamentalist revolution. He allowed a referendum in 1980 which made the Shari'a the main source of legislation, although few of the hotly-debated bills based on it actually became law. Sadat's lukewarm commitment to Islamicization and his peace treaty with Israel radicalized many fundamentalists and new extremist groups emerged. It was one of these groups. Al-Jihad, which finally' assassinated Sadat in 1981.

In 1982, Syrian President Hafez Assad felt threatened enough by the possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood-led armed insurrection to massacre at least 10,000 people in the city of Hama. In most of the Arab world today, radical fundamentalist organizations, no matter how large their following, are suppressed or outlawed.

Muslim fundamentalists are divided not only by the willingness of some to use violence to achieve their aims, but also by their definition of Islam. Most want torevive a form of Islam which is uncorrupted by contact with the West. For the purists, this means Islam as it existed during the time of the Prophet Muhammad from 570 to 632. Other fundamentalists point to the medieval period, called the 'golden age of Islam', as the best historical example of fully Islamic society. Other Muslims argue that Islam has never been static, but has evolved continually over the centuries, so that there is no truly 'correct' version of Islam which can be revived.

Fundamentalist solutions to historical and political problems are far from homogenous. In Indonesia, fundamentalist women ride motor scooters; in Saudi Arabia, they are not even allowed to drive cars. In both countries, however, women continue to study in universities and enter the professions. In Iran, the one country which has had its fundamentalist Islamic revolution, Western-style legal procedures are used to enforce the Shari'a and the alama, or Muslim clerics, act as advisors to an elected parliament. The Shari'a has been described as the 'motor force' of Islamic politics and is the crucial underpinning of all efforts at Islamicization. Fundamentalists of all stripes see the reinstitution of the Shari'a as the key to social harmony and the more radical among them consider it the only acceptable basis for political authority. The governmental role of the Iranian ulama derives from their status as those best able to interpret the Shari'a.

In the non-Islamic world we hear mostly about the more punitive and puritanical side of the Shari'a - whippings and amputations, together with bans on alcohol, gambling and other Western-style entertainments. Yet the consistent application of these punishments is a rare event. Many women with aspirations to full equality object to the reimposition of the Shari'a. This is one sign of the enormous difficulties involved in bringing an old religion to terms with modern society. The strength of fundamentalism lies in its use of historically anchored cultural values. But for its critics this is also one of its great weaknesses, and fundamentalism is often charged with being nostalgic and archaic. If the fundamentalist revolution is to succeed without resorting to violence, it will have to satisfy such critics.

Erica Simmons is a Canadian freelance journalist with a special interest in Middle Eastern politics.

their own words...

'An Islamic regime must be serious in every aspect of life. There can be no fun and enjoyment in whatever is serious.'


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