Fertile grounds for fundamentalism

The Islamic world includes very different societies and tribes, stretching from Southeast Asia to North Africa. Muslims comprise over 85 percent of the populations of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Tunisia, Turkey, and most of the newly independent republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus. In Albania, Chad, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, Muslims make up 25 to 85 percent of the population; and India, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Cambodia, China, Greece, Yugoslavia, Thailand, and the Philippines have significant Muslim minorities.

     Despite their ethnic, cultural, and social variety, these societies share striking similarities. Ernest Gellner, a specialist on Islam, has written:

For all their indisputable diversity, the remarkable thing is the extent to which Muslim societies resemble each other. Their traditional political systems, for instance, are much more of one kind than were those of pre-modern Christendom. At least in the bulk of Muslim societies, in the main Islamic block between Central Asia and the Atlantic shores of Africa, one has the feeling that the same and limited pack of cards has been dealt. The hands vary, but the pack is the same.4

     The political and economic objectives of most Muslim societies today are to achieve democracy and freedom, economic growth, and improved living standards. Relatively high birth rates and shorter life expectancy have meant a persistent decline in the average age of the citizenry in most of these countries. The impact of such global developments as the collapse of communism and the growing influence of the international mass media on the younger generation, better informed and less apathetic than their forefathers, will have far-reaching repercussions, and the demands for freedom will become more vociferous.

     Given the profound religious roots prevalent in Muslim societies and the absence of any other viable alternative, the quest for democracy and struggle against dictatorship often assumes a religious, and specifically Islamic, character. Hence religious reactionaries and fundamentalists endeavor to exploit Islam in directing political and social development toward their own ends. They cite "alienation from Islam" as the cause of every problem in Islamic societies, and a "return to pure Islam" as the undefined cure-all. This lack of specifics allows the fundamentalists to impose their own views and policies under the banner of "Islam" while benefiting from the legitimacy religion grants them in the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses. The most obvious example of such manipulation is Khomeini’s usurpation of the leadership of Iran’s antimonarchic revolution in 1978-79 …..

     The Iranian experience is not unique, however. The socio-political awakening of Muslim societies began with colonialism’s decline in the 1950s and early 1960s. The end to the Western empires’ domination of the Islamic world set the various countries on different paths, which nevertheless converged in the political revival of Islam.

     From an economic perspective, for example, so long as they were dominated by the European colonists, these lands were used as sources of raw materials for European industries. After their independence, the new governments moved towards industrialization, building factories and workshops. For various reasons, including mismanagement, inadequate planning, weaknesses in the infrastructure, and political instability, the process of industrialization was generally a failure, with disastrous repercussions: unchecked urban migration resulting in the destruction of agriculture and the helter-skelter expansion of urban centers. Cairo, Istanbul, Tehran, Jakarta, and Lahore became magnets for millions of peasants deserting their ancestral homes in search of a better life. The cities of dreams, however, held nothing for the vast majority but shantytowns and poverty. Isolated from their traditional culture and shunned by the new, alien civilization of well-to-do city dwellers, many urban immigrants sought both solace and a means of freeing themselves from their misery and destruction in Islam.

     The trend toward independence also brought fundamental changes in the educational system. The colonial administrators had often excluded courses from the curricula that would have acquainted the younger generation with their pre-colonial national, cultural, and religious identity in a bid to prevent the growth of pro independence sentiments. In Algeria, for instance, school children learned French rather than their own language until 1962. But this attempt to blot out the Islamic heritage failed. In fact, it made the people in many countries want to learn more about Islam once independence came.

     Different third world countries chose different paths to resolve their mounting problems. Successive failures in the Arab world caused their governments to veer between ethnic nationalism (Pan-Arabism) and state nationalism. Many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Turkey, and Indonesia, experimented with various types of capitalism and socialism; yet neither brought them out of crisis and socioeconomic misery.

     The failure of imported forms of government convinced Muslim laymen, especially the intelligentsia, that these systems could not respond to the complex problems of the Islamic world. Starting in the 1960s, this growing awareness led many to turn their attention to Islam. According to American scholar and researcher Daniel Pipes, "After a generation of experimentation, the time had come to try something different."6 A consensuses was reached by Muslims that no imported political philosophy, however credible or crucial to the freedom and well-being of Muslims, could successfully mobilize the masses in harmony with their spiritual consciousness.

     This search for a compatible system that was "something different" was not in essence fundamentalist or reactionary. Muslim communities’ rejection of emulating the West and Western forms of government liberalism, socialism, and so forth-was never meant to imply that they shunned such universal values as democracy and freedom. The message, rather, was that a new formula must be used to fulfill their yearning for democracy and economic growth while conforming to their cultural, traditional, and religious–in other words, Islamic-beliefs and values. Such a formula would achieve the kind of political stability, economic prosperity, and social freedoms and equity for which the Muslim masses yearned.
Decline of Nationalism

     The decline of Arab nationalism or Pan-Arab ism–which was for several decades a source of tremendous strength for Arab countries and their governments–has also contributed to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. The absence of an attractive democratic alternative caused many political groups throughout the Arab world to turn away from Arab nationalism and toward Islamic fundamentalism. (See Chapter XIV.(

     In non-Arab Muslim countries, nationalism is also succumbing to the mounting wave of religious fundamentalism. Even in Turkey, where a fiercely secular government has ruled since the 1920s, religious fundamentalism poses a serious challenge. While a wave of ethnic nationalism and regionalism has engulfed the European countries of the former Eastern Bloc, deep-seated Islamic tendencies in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union have raised concern about the expansion of fundamentalism even after seventy years of religious repression.