Islamic Fundamentalism: Notes on Internal Contradictions and Historical Origins

I wrote this blurb a couple of years ago, but never got around to posting it anywhere public–so, here it is!  

I sat in on a Middle Eastern studies lecture today.  It was a small, discussion-based class, with about ten kids—most of whom seemed to be international students.

The subject of the day was “fundamentalism,” and since we were talking about the Middle East, the discussion predictably turned to Islamic fundamentalism.  We discussed the assumptions made about fundamentalism by western populations, such as the lumping of all Islamic religious groups as operating in perfect unison and harmony, and political Islam’s portrayal as an archaic mindset that has its roots in an era now hundreds of years past.  Of course, these two assumptions are heavily challenged by anybody who knows anything about history and sociology.

The idea that all radical religious movements in the Middle East are connected by some strange trans-national connection is absurd.  It is akin to the mainstream American’s ignorant assumption that Iran and Saudi Arabia are both authoritarian autocracies united in their quest against the free democratic world.  In reality, the Middle East is a kaleidoscope of political games, power dynamics, and varying hegemonies and ideologies.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are two opposing powers in the region, who contest each other for land, resources, and allies—as well as over the ideological struggle between their two respective Islamic identities, Shia and Sunni.  After all, much of the reasoning behind the Saudi invasion of Bahrain following the popular uprising earlier this year was due to the House of Saud’s fear that the Shia majority in Bahrain would overthrow the Saudi-backed royal Sunni family, and defect as an ally for Iran, thus increasing their sphere of influence, as well as enabling power projection around the Strait of Hormuz, a major international shipping lane.

Fundamentalist groups, while less hostile to one another, are still separated by various core beliefs.  The famous al-Qaeda, for instance, was a creation of the Saudi Osama bin Laden and the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, whose purpose was to enact a global jihad against American imperialism and neo-colonialism.  On the other hand, the Taliban, who would eventually be a major host to al-Qaeda forces, were a nationalistic Pashtun movement in Afghanistan; in fact, their commander, Mohammed Omar, has allegedly never seen a television or flown on a plane.  Other groups, like Hamas and Hezbollah, are also groups that, while deeply rooted in religion, derive most of their purpose and support from a nationalist cause.

The other assumption, that modern fundamentalist Islam is a retreat to the “Dark Ages,” is also a woeful generalization.  The truth is far more complex; religious fundamentalism—and modern political Islam—can be traced back to the early 20th century, where various peoples across the Middle East were engaged in anti-colonialist struggles.  One writer, Sayyid Qutb, created a famous (and misunderstood) doctrine that combined revolutionary struggle with Islam.  It was a doctrine that was anything but anti-modern, for Qutb had visited the United States and was impressed with its technology and scientific progress; what he was not impressed with, however, was the social and political degeneration that a consumerist, materialistic, capitalist order had inflicted on the average American—a sentiment that modern communists, socialists, and anarchists can fully understand.  Throw in Qutb’s social conservatism, and his shock at the sexual and social freedoms of the United States, and you can now account for both his affinity for the idea of Islam being a vehicle of resistance against Capitalism, as well as the modern sound-bite for explaining Islamic fundamentalism that emerged in the United States after the September 11 attacks—that they “hate our freedom!”

Thus, to fully understand the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, one must reject the generalization that the concept undergoes in mainstream analysis, and instead look to the causes.  Every reactionary movement is just that—a “reaction” to something.  In the case of radical Islamist movements, that “something” was the growing body of excluded people—homo sacer—who were growing more and more poor, disenfranchised, and excluded from a society that was increasingly dominated the expansion of world-capitalism and its oppressive economic and military dimensions.

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