RFE/RL, Feb. 19, 2003
By Don Hill
Among Christians, the word “fundamentalist” originally referred to adherents of a religious movement that developed in the United States. Use of the word since has broadened to apply to people devoted to the conservative and historic fundamentals of their faith. Two students of Islam tell RFE/RL that Islam is a conservative faith, and that from one perspective, all Muslims are fundamentalists.
Prague, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) — The Prophet Muhammad established Islam at Mecca 14 centuries ago. Roughly 1.9 billion people now follow his teachings. To the question of how many of these believers may be classified as fundamentalists, at least two Islamic scholars say, “All of them.”
John Esposito is a Georgetown University professor and author of many books on Islamic affairs. “I think that where the term fundamentalism can be used in a broad sense is to say that when you’re dealing with fundamentalists, [first of all] they would all say, of course, that they go back to the fundamentals of their religions. Now, for Christians, it would be the Bible, for Muslims it would the Koran, etc. One of the arguments is that all Muslims would say they go back to the fundamentals of their religion,” Esposito said.
Abdul Jalali concurs. An Afghan native living in Prague, he is a U.S. citizen, an Islamic scholar, and holds a doctorate in literature and history from the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union. He described Islamic fundamentalists approvingly: “Those who are deeply involved in Islamic knowledge, or Islamic studies, know better what this religion brought first to backward Arabs of the [Western calendar's] 7th century in Mecca and then extended to other parts of the world.”
One of the tenets of Islam demands respect for “people of the book” — that is, followers of religions guided by what they believe to be holy scripture. The Koran, for example, adopts wholesale from Jewish scripture the story of Abraham, the father of mankind. Likewise, the Koran quotes repeatedly from the sayings of Jesus Christ, whom it treats as a major prophet, though not as the son of God, as Christians believe.
“The first condition for [anyone] who wants to be a Muslim is that he or she must believe in God almighty and all His holy books, brought by prophets prior to Muhammad for the guidance of mankind all over the world,” Jalali said.
Both Jalali and Esposito insist upon a definite distinction between religious fundamentalists and religious extremists. The latter, they say, are moved by conditions other than religious differences. “The extremism in Islam is not a part of [fundamentalism], and cannot be. Generally, I can say that extremism has no true and real connection with Islam. It is a political issue created by those who have political and secular motives,” Jalali said.
Our correspondent asked John Esposito if he equates fundamentalists with extremists. His response was unequivocal: “No. Extremists I would see as the more militant sector of the group. So for me, for example, you have the mainstream Christian right, what we call Christian fundamentalists. This can be, you know, many Baptist evangelicals, and others for whom it describes their theology. The extremists are those who actually take this theology and turn it into a militant theology of hate.”
Esposito said he believes that religious fundamentalism, when combined with poverty, ignorance and hopelessness — such as that experienced by Catholics and Protestants in Ireland — creates an explosive mixture. He cited another example: “I think the same thing is true in Nigeria today, to move into an Islamic context. A good deal of the conflict in Nigeria between north and south, between Muslim and Christian, has to do at its roots with political and economic conditions. But it expresses itself in terms of the religions of these people.”
If Muslims are united in fundamentalism, it remains true that they are divided — like Christians — by varying views of what truths are fundamentals of their faith. There is the branch of Islam, the Sunni, who accept the first four caliphs as the rightful successors of Muhammad. The word caliph means “successor.” There are also the minority Shia, who regard Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and his descendants as the true successors.
A powerful revivalist wave swept the Muslim world in what Westerners call the 18th century across what are now Sudan, Libya, and Nigeria, across the Arab lands and India and into Southeast Asia. One leader was Abd al-Wahhab in what is now Saudi Arabia. An archconservative Sunni, al-Wahhab denounced what he regarded as innovations in Muslim practice. He preached the necessity of returning to the ways of Islam as they existed in Muhammad’s day.
So powerfully does al-Wahhab’s influence continue in the modern day that Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative brand of Islam is known as Wahhabism.
In addition, the term fundamentalism has been adopted — often unfairly — in parts of the Muslim world and in the West alike to describe Islamic extremism, radicalism, and terrorism. Esposito writes in his book “Unholy War” that many governments find the label “Wahhabi” useful “because it implies a foreign source for indigenous problems.”
The term helps to sweep Islamic activists of various kinds into a pile called “terrorists.” In Armenia, the countries of Central Asia, in Chechnya, and elsewhere, activists and dissidents of various stripes can be equated conveniently with Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and other targets in the U.S. war on terrorism.
But among Wahhabis, as well as among other Muslims, many theologians and analysts agree, fundamentalism is a religious position. Extremism and terrorism stem from a political one.