Islam, Fanaticism & Violence
(Investigator 96, 2004 May)
Religious motivated violence seems to be on the increase of which September 11 and other recent terrorist atrocities are but a few tragic examples. Why is it that violence in the name of religion occurs? The reasons are many and in this article I shall give a very general outline of the major factors, concentrating on those associated with Muslim fundamentalism as this is of most concern at the present time.
The historical record shows that many of the major religions have passed through phases of extremism at some point in their history (Christianity with its Crusades, pogroms, and witch hunts is an example that comes readily to mind). I think the answer to why can be found in the social milieu of the times.
During the early Middle Ages Islamic civilization was the richest and most advanced culture of the time, and perhaps reached its highest point during the 9th century. Unfortunately, the glories of Islam were slowly eclipsed by European civilization, and gradually stagnated and declined. The major factors that contributed to this fall are as follows:
In order to understand Islamic fundamentalism we need to examine the societies where it is prevalent. We find that the majority are oppressive regimes where little individual freedom exists, especially the freedom to question institutions, powerful individuals and beliefs. This kind of oppression inevitably leads to a sense of frustration in many—they know society could be better, but are constantly confronted by the fact that it is not. This sense of frustration, as we shall see, can be harnessed for evil as well as good.
The fact that Muslim societies have not become democracies is partially the fault of the ruling elites of those societies themselves. (I could be wrong, but I am yet to be convinced that the interference of Western powers is SOLELY responsible for Middle-Eastern dictatorships). Human nature, being what it is, means that people are often reluctant to accept personal responsibility for their problems, and often seek a scapegoat on which they can blame their failures. The West in general and America in particular serve this purpose admirably.
Islamic fundamentalism can be seen, in part, as a reaction to Western ascendancy—in trying to account for the lost glories of Islamic civilization, many see the failure in terms of having departed from the Prophet’s ideas (by embracing aspects of the West), and seek to return to a ‘pure’ form of Islam which they claim has all the answers to social, economic and political problems affecting Muslim society.
The country that seems to be spawning fanatical versions of Islam (apart from Iran) is Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the state religion. The proponents of Wahabism transformed most of the Arabian Peninsula into a theocracy through conquest. It is a rigid and deeply intolerant version of Islam that preaches denegation of all other faiths:
Saudi textbooks have been laced with passages that not only extol the supremacy of Islam but also denigrate non-believers. An eighth-grade book states that Allah cursed Jews and Christians and turned some of them into apes and pigs. Ninth-graders learn that Judgement Day will not come "Until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them." A chapter for a 10th-grade class warns Muslims against befriending non-Muslims, saying, "It is compulsory for the Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider infidels their enemy." (After 9/11 The Saudis: Friend or Foe? Time, September 15, 2003, page 32)
Raised on such a diet of hatred it should come as no surprise that fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers were citizens of this country. In addition Saudi Arabia exports this intolerant version of Islam by funding extremist religious schools in other Western and non-Western nations.
A Western scapegoat can be very useful to the religious and political elite (which cynically use Islam for their own ends) whose power and prestige would be eroded by democratic reforms. Our society is largely secular thanks to the efforts of Freethinkers and Rationalists who challenged religious beliefs and the authority of the Church and State.
Consequently, it is in the interests of dictatorships to promote (either overtly or covertly) the idea that "America is the Great Satan" as a means of distraction. For if a large percentage of the population can be kept busy hating the West then their energy will be spent on this futile exercise rather than on pressuring their own governments to initiate reforms. In addition, there is nothing like a hated enemy to promote a sense of unity and superiority that can also be harnessed by those who hold the reigns of power.
In spite of the above factors, the vast majority of Muslims do not appear to be bloodthirsty fanatics hungering for the destruction of the West.
Therefore, the question now arises of why certain individuals are influenced by these factors and become involved with organisations that promote violence in the name of religion (usually used as a justification for political ambitions).
One possible reason might be that some individuals are unable to find a constructive purpose to their lives, viewing their existence as worthless and meaningless. In order to escape this sense of meaningless they become imbued with the desire to merge themselves with some greater purpose that transcends their limited and ineffectual existence. The idea of a Holy War against the West that gives them the justification to vent their anger appears, for some, to fulfil this need.
But why, specifically, does the idea of a holy war arise? (Jihad, actually means "struggle", but not necessarily an armed struggle) Part of the reason may be due to feelings of doubt and insecurity:
There are many religions in the world and if a particular faith claims that it alone is true then its adherents must explain the fact that other faiths, philosophies and ways of life exist, and may, in fact, be the TRUE PATH, or at least better than their own. One way of coping with this possibility is to denigrate beliefs and cultures other than one’s own. However, this may be considered insufficient by some—these other beliefs and ways of life must also be eliminated. By being victorious over them the believer gains the increased sense of security he needs—the enemy lost because they were wrong, misguided or just plain evil.
If fundamentalism gains the ascendancy then it can only harm those societies who are toying with the idea, because it is the antithesis of the very things that advance civilization, for Fundamentalists of all persuasions are intolerant of:
• Individualism, liberty of personal choice and plurality of thought.
• Free debate and inquiry.
• Anything perceived as contrary to their faith.
• Open societies
What then of the future? Will Muslim fundamentalism increase its influence? Unfortunately, the answer may be yes. In going to war against Iraq, the Coalition may have sown the seeds of further hatred. Many Muslims would be deeply disturbed by the (largely) American occupation and feel a sense of humiliation at the conquest of their country.
In my opinion the Coalition probably acted with the best of motives, however, the path to Hell (metaphorically speaking) is often paved with good intentions. Indeed, democracy imposed by force may be seen by some as just another form of tyranny. If this proves to be the case, then Western ideas and values will continue to be rejected by many.
Whatever form of government is eventually established in Iraq stands a good chance of being perceived by the fundamentalists as a puppet of the West. Consequently, they will attempt to destabilize the country. Given the fact that it will be a fledgling democracy with no solid history of democratic institutions, there is a good chance they will succeed. Consequently, we could be facing the prospect of a civil war or revolution within a few years of a Coalition withdrawal. Hopefully, history will prove me wrong.
In the long term how will the situation resolve itself? As I have neither the gift of prophecy nor psychic powers it is impossible for me to know. However, I feel confident in saying this: If Islamic societies are to change for the better, then this change must wrought by indigenous reformers if it is to be embraced by the majority of Muslims.
Hoffer, E. The True Believer, Mentor Books, New York, 1960
Schechterman, B. Religious Fanaticism as a Factor in Political Violence
After 9/11 The Saudis: Friend or Foe? Time, September 15, 2003.