The Challenge of Fundamentalism

With reference to the Muslims of the present day, the news most highlighted in the media relates to Muslim fundamentalism. Experience has shown that there is nothing more destructive than fanaticism—the driving force of Muslim fundamentalism. However, it is not generally appreciated that Islamic fundamentalism, launched in the name of Islam, has been dealing a death blow to the image of Islam as a religion of peace and mercy. For it is this Muslim fundamentalism which, today, has converted the image of Islam into one tarnished by violence.

Let us place this form of extremism in a historical perspective. At the time of the emergence of modern western civilization, the greater part of the world was politically dominated by Muslims. The Ottoman Empire at the western extremity and the Mughal Empire on the eastern border had become symbols of glory for the Muslim ummah. These Muslim empires came into direct conflict with the western empires and, in the long run, the Muslim empires were vanquished. This brought to an end 1000 years of their political supremacy. People in general tend to accept what they see on the surface, so that Muslims all over the world came to hold that, in the break-up of their empires, the upholders of western civilization were the oppressors, while the Muslims were the oppressed.

However, in actual fact, the internal degeneration of these Muslim empires had reduced them to the state of wood infested with white ants. It would only have been a matter of time before they collapsed on their own. It was only by a fortuitous concatenation of events that the military might of western civilization was ostensibly the cause of their fall.

Be that as it may, the upshot of this was that the entire Muslim world became averse to western nations. At an earlier period this aversion had already manifested itself towards the British and the French, and then somewhat later towards the U.S.A., for, in actuality, it is the Americans who have been leading the western nations since the end of the Second World War.

Now, I should like to identify and analyze the origin of the present extremist aspect of Islamic fundamentalism, which has made such a rapid descent into violence. The principal reason for it having come into being in this virulent form has its roots in a certain defeatist mentality which has, unfortunately, been developing in the Muslims since the loss of their empires. A defeatist, or a besieged mentality inevitably opts for a negative course of action. The possessors of such a mentality consider themselves as the oppressed, and those whom they see as setting themselves up against them as the oppressors. With this bent of mind, they are willing to engage themselves in any activity whatsoever, no matter how damaging to humanity or contrary to religion it might be.

What made matters worse—as a direct result of this negative psychology—was the emergence of certain Muslim leaders in the first half of the twentieth century, who expounded their own political interpretation of Islam, according to which Islam was a complete system of State and Muslims had been appointed by God to fulfill the mission of establishing this Islamic state throughout the world. Some well-known names associated with this interpretation are the following: Syed Qutub in Egypt, Ayatullah Khomeini in Iran and Syed Abul Ala Maududi in Pakistan.

This political view of Islam, in spite of being a grave misinterpretation, spread rapidly among Muslims. The only reason for this was that Muslims, owing to their defeatist mentality, saw nothing incongruous in its negativity. Given the circumstances of their past history, this political interpretation was in total consonance with their psychological condition. Thus, due to their negative mindset and not due to Islamic reasoning, this false interpretation soon gained currency among them, and the activities which were an offshoot from this—paradoxical as this may seem—were backed by funding from America in a bid to stem the rising tide of Communism.

Prior to 1991, when the Soviet Union had assumed the position of a super power, and posed a continuing threat to America, one of the strategies adopted by America was to set off the Muslim fundamentalists against the Communists, because these fundamentalists were persistently writing and speaking against Communism as being the enemy of Islam. America also gave all kinds of help, to the fundamentalists. It provided them with weapons to set themselves up against the Soviet Union and assisted in the dissemination of their literature all over the world. But this enemy-of-my-enemy-is-a-friend formula ultimately proved counter-productive, in that it virtually amounted to replacing one enemy with another. The waging of this proxy war turned out to be only very temporary in its benefits.

Those who at a later stage felt the impact of extremist fundamentalism, took this to be a case of violence against them. So they opted for a policy of gun versus gun. But subsequent events proved this policy to be a total failure, the reason being that the issue was not that of conducting a purely physical struggle, but of exposing and scotching the fallacies of a flawed ideology. You can win a fight with arms, but to defeat an ideology, a counter-ideology is a sine qua non. Without that nothing can be achieved.

There is no doubt about it that Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to peace, for, due to their fanaticism, its proponents do not stop short of resorting to destructive activity, even if it should prove suicidal. Now the task we must undertake is to make use of the media on all fronts in order to make people aware of the fact that this political interpretation of Islam is totally without basis either in the Quran or in the examples set by the Prophet in thought, word and deed. As opposed to this erroneous interpretation, the true values of Islam, based on peace, brotherhood and well-wishing should be presented to the public. If this correct interpretation of Islam could be brought to people’s attention, I should have high hopes that the majority of the people who have been misguided would abandon the path of hatred and violence and come back to Islam—“to the home of peace” to which God calls us in the Quran.

It is true that in these violent activities only a small group is involved. But this small group has the indirect support of the majority, who are no less swayed by the political interpretation of Islam. According to Khalil Gibran:

“not a single leaf falls from the tree without the silent consent of the whole tree.” If then the majority were to withdraw its indirect support and condemn Islamic militancy, these fringe groups would lose their moral courage. That would be the first step. Then the time would come when the fundamentalists who are directly involved in violent activities would abandon the path of violence altogether.