Fundamental problems

Religious writer Karen Armstrong explains why Muslim nations have difficulty with democracy and the qualities that all forms of fundamentalism share.

Topics: Religion, Terrorism, Author Interviews, Islam, Books,

Fundamental problems

Americans are scrambling to learn about Islam in record numbers, and when they do, chances are they’re turning to the works of Karen Armstrong, a British theologian, former Roman Catholic nun and the author of “Islam” and “The Battle for God,” as well as “Buddha” and several other books about the world’s religions. The breadth and liberality of Armstrong’s views on faith in all its myriad varieties makes her the ideal interpreter for those who are frightened and baffled by the dramatic clash between Islam and the West. Salon spoke with her recently by phone.

Where’s the line in the Islamic world between fundamentalists and extreme actions like terrorism?

In many Muslim countries there’s a strong dislike of American foreign policy and that makes it difficult for them to dissociate many fundamentalist leaders. Many of the middle and professional classes have a degree of sympathy for fundamentalist actions while they deplore things like Sept. 11. That atmosphere can encourage radicalism.

How did Islamic fundamentalism develop?

Education has a lot to do with it. There’s not much leadership among the ulema, or religious scholars, who, in many ways, have become separate from the populace. One or two have popular appeal but not many of them. In the 19th century, they tended to retreat in front of the secular forces of the state. There was an ideological vacuum.

In our secular countries we’ve pushed religion to the side. In fundamentalist movements worldwide people are dragging religion back from the sidelines and onto the center stage. In a country like Egypt, modernization has proceeded so quickly, unlike in the West. They’ve done it so fast that only an elite has any understanding of the norms and institutions of secular society while the vast majority of society was left floundering. Many fundamentalist groups have great support among the masses because they can present modernity in a light that people can understand. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt brought clinics, education and labor law into an Islamic context.

Before the Iranian revolution people never had representational government. They tried to get it in the early 20th century and actually got a constitution but it was never put into practice. The British wouldn’t let it happen because oil was discovered and they didn’t want to risk losing the oil to the local government. Under the regime in Iran, they are trying to develop a Shiite democracy, which makes democracy more intelligible to the people. In the last days of Khomeini’s life, he was trying to pass power from conservative clerics to parliament. [Iranian president Mohammed] Khatami is trying to carry that on.

Why do democratic institutions seem to be so hard to set up in Muslim nations?

Democracy is something that we developed in the modern world as a result of our modernization — not because we wanted to suddenly give power to the people. It’s part of the transformation that comes with a capitalist economy. Once more and more people at humble levels had to be involved in the productivity of the country as factory workers, clerks, etc., they had to receive a modicum of education; more education demanded a greater share in the decision-making processes of the country. In order to use all human resources available to them, governments realized that they had to bring everyone into the franchise.

The Muslim world hasn’t had time to develop a home-grown democracy. They still don’t have the same kind of capital market economies, and in many countries democracy got a bad name because it was associated with bad regimes that the United States supported, despots like the Shahs in Iran. In Egypt between 1922 and 1948 or so there were 17 elections all won by the populist party, but it was only allowed to rule five times because each time the British or the palace wouldn’t let them rule because the populists wanted to kick the British out. That sort of thing left a bad taste.

What about the division between church and state in Islam? I understand that the Quran doesn’t have a “render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s/God what is God’s” division and that Khatami’s insistence on the rule of law in Iran has created quite a stir.

Everything has changed under the process of modernization. In fact, even though ideologically [in Islam] there can be no separation between church and state, both Sunnis and Shiites developed a separation very early on. In the Sunni world, the separation was de facto; Islamic law developed as kind of a counterculture to the aristocratic courts. In the Shiite world, there was a separation of church and state on principle. It was held that since every state was corrupt, clerics should take no part in them, that the religious should withdraw until the messiah came and established a proper Muslim state.

The Ayatollah Khomeini’s insistence that a cleric could lead a state was revolutionary.

Do you mean to say that religion hasn’t been a big part of the state in Islamic society?

Fundamentalist movements have tried to drag religion back into the center of public concern and policy across the world. The United States did this first in the early 20th century, really during World War I. Islam was the last of the three monotheistic religions to produce a fundamentalist religion in the late 1960s after the shock of the Six Day War. Religious fundamentalism took hold on both sides of the war. In Egypt, the feeling that [President] Nasser’s secular policy was bankrupt made many Egyptians feel that they wanted to get back to their roots. The same thing happened in Israel with orthodox sects.

Has fundamentalism grown rapidly across the Islamic world since the 1970s or has it been isolated in countries like Iran and Egypt?

Don’t imagine that the entire Muslim world is fundamentalist. And our perception is that only the United States and United Kingdom have happy fundamentalists, but that’s not entirely true. It’s the same in the Muslim world. Not all fundamentalist movements are violent, for example, most American movements and most ultraorthodox Jewish organizations in New York and Israel aren’t violent.

Some of the Egyptian student movements confined themselves to providing assistance to students, and the Muslim Brotherhood was largely occupied with providing social services to the general population until it got quashed and incarcerated by Nasser. Until then their main concern was to open clinics and teach people factory laws. Many student bodies were trying to get better conditions for students because universities in Egypt are extremely overcrowded and offer very little space for quiet study. Islamic student organizations will provide quiet study time in mosques and study handouts where books are lacking. There’s also an enormous concern for women in overcrowded classes because they’re frequently harassed. The vast majority of fundamentalists don’t take part in terror. They’re just trying to take part in a religious world that also exists in their material lives.

What changes fundamentalist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas from social services organizations into terrorist organizations?

If the country is at war. The United States has been fortunate because it hasn’t been at war for a long time. But in the Middle East, political tension and warfare have been almost a constant for the past 30 years. Every fundamentalist movement is rooted in fear. Fundamentalists believe that on some level modern liberal secular society wants to wipe out religion. Even American fundamentalists have that fear. Some people in small-town America feel colonized by the alien ethos of Washington, Yale and so on.

In Middle Eastern countries the secularization process has often been so accelerated that it’s felt as an assault. In Turkey, Ataturk closed all madrassas [religious schools], forced the Sufis underground and forced men and women to wear Western dress. In Iran, Shah Reza Pahlavi gave orders to shoot at hundreds of demonstrators protesting compulsory Western dress. In that environment, you can see how secularization is experienced as an assault.

You have people who feel under fire, rageful and vengeful and feel that they’re fighting for survival. In that condition, anyone can lash out. People in the United Kingdom are so disinterested in religion, so there’s no problem, but we do have football hooliganism where the experiences normally present in religion manifest themselves: You can pour your soul into a movement, experience a collective defeat and lash out at a common enemy. It’s the same mix that fuels a lot of these fundamentalist movements.

Why do you tie the growth of Islamic fundamentalism to the aftermath of the Six Day War?

They felt that adopting the Western method didn’t work, that it was bankrupt, and they withdrew to a religion that they knew.

At the same time, Khomeini was studying in Qum and started protesting against the Shah. He was deported in the 1960s, then there was a lull and a sudden upsurge in the late 1970s. The Moral Majority appeared in the United States, the Iranian revolution exploded and you also see the emergence of religious Zionism in Israel with the new power of ultraorthodox parties there. In the Middle East, you have more and more people inspired by the example of the Iranian revolution turning to their own ideologues like Said Qutb in Egypt who was executed by Nasser in 1966.

Then Afghanistan blew up, then Lebanon. The Moral Majority’s political prominence receded in the United States after the sex scandals, but they’re still in America and are getting more extreme. It hasn’t gone away; these movements don’t go away, they just change.

Similarly in Israel you have more and more fundamentalist parties in the 1980s having an effect on government that they’d never had before. Israel was a defiantly secular state, but now no politician can form a government without support from fundamentalist Jews. At the same time fundamentalism has seen a quiet and steady growth in Islam. Islam is now as popular as Nasser’s socialist and nationalist policies were in the 1950s and 1960s.

There was a yawning vacuum, especially in the Middle East where society became divided and split between an elite intelligentsia who have a Western education and understand what’s going on and the vast rank and file who are essentially left to rot in a pre-modern ethos. They didn’t understand the changes: everything from a new type of town planning, to new political institutions. How can they vote creatively when they don’t understand secular politics? The West did it gradually so that it could filter down to the people. In the Islamic world modernization split countries right down the middle.

It’s worth noting that at the turn of the 20th century every Muslim intellectual was pro-Western because they saw it as a beacon of progress and justice. They thought that progress and justice would filter down to the people. They said, “These Westerners are better Muslims,” because Islam puts great weight on social justice, and it looked like social justice was filtering down to the masses in the West.

What happens now that fundamentalists have such a great deal of support in the Islamic world and many appear to tacitly support terrorist action?

These are all bad religions. In a hostile world, they play down the compassionate ethos of religion and accelerate the more bellicose elements of religion. When you have bad religion, like bad art or bad sex, it can easily tip over into nihilism and tip into things like what happened on Sept. 11.

Once they get into power they moderate, but they still say, “We don’t want to be like Westerners.” It’s a po-mo ethic that says you don’t have to be like the West to be progressive or modern. Rafsanjani [president of Iran from 1989 to 1997] said this will be a Shiite democracy, we’re doing it our way. But at the end of the day they find that any modern government has to be democratic. The governments in Eastern Europe learned the same lesson after they tried to hog all the benefits of modernity and fell behind.

You have to remember that in every society culture is contested. There’s always a struggle over which ideology should prevail. That conflict is going on in the United States where there are people who don’t identify with democracy and have a dim view of it and are convinced that the federal government will fall and that God will take care of it. Similarly, in other countries you’re seeing a struggle over which ideology will come out on top.

What about President Bush’s declaration of war and subsequent use of the term “crusade” to describe it; does that demonstrate a very basic problem of understanding how to approach winning the hearts and minds of fundamentalists?

It was very stupid of him to say “crusade” when trying to appeal to Muslim counties. Americans don’t understand enough about the Muslim world in order to mount a good P.R. campaign. That applies to the Western world in general, but in America there’s a particularly acute ignorance.

In my travels around the states, I’m astonished about the lack of interest in the rest of the world. If you’re staying in Denver the local paper seems totally local; there’s lots of commentary and very little news. That’s all got to change because this attack has shown that if you ignore the world, the world will come to you.

Just before this tragedy, in the United Kingdom, the big scandal was asylum seekers. Every night a number of people would try to walk through the chunnel. You suddenly had a feeling that the world that we ignore is suddenly pressing in on us. We arm our ports, but truck drivers would open their trucks to find them packed full of asylum seekers.

There seems to be some kind of awful parallel between that and the crazed fury of crashing into the World Trade Center.

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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