Colombo Telegraph

After Islamic Fundamentalism?

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

In recent articles I have tried to establish that there is no nexus between Islam and terrorism, or between fundamentalism and terrorism, and I have also written about the widespread Islamophobic campaign to spread prejudice and hatred towards Islam. Each of those articles may seem valid to the reader but he may yet wonder whether, after all, I am not indulging in Islamic apologetics. I seem to be blaming the ills of the Islamic world on Islamophobic outsiders instead of recognizing that there has to be something indigenously wrong with that world to produce such monstrosities as Wahabism and its clones, particularly the Boko Haram and the IS. The truth is that for clarity of presentation I have to limit the number of subjects in each article. What is wrong with the Islamic world is a huge subject that has to be dealt with separately.

What is wrong is partly the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in various forms after 1979 in parts of the Islamic world. More particularly, what is wrong is the violence and terrorism that has gone with it, not everywhere but in some parts only. In earlier articles I have expounded the theory of Emmanuel Todd that the violence and terrorism correspond to a phase in the transition to modernity. There is also much else that is wrong with the Islamic world, such as for instance the recalcitrance to democracy. I cannot deal with all that in this article. Here I will limit myself to a few topics. I will firstly note that the fundamentalist drive could have reached its climacteric and will probably enter into a phase of decline. Thereafter I will make some observations on the impact of Islamic fundamentalism on Sri Lanka and what we might do to counter it.

The spectacular recent beheadings in Saudi Arabia of no less than 47 persons in one day, most of them reportedly Al Qaeda terrorists apart from an eminent non-violent Shia cleric, seems to be a highly significant development. There is more than a touch of hysteria, even of panic, about it. Saudi Arabia, the headquarters of Islamic fundamentalism, seems to be reacting against it, at least in its violent form. What has gone wrong? Western reactionaries used to be enamored of Islamic fundamentalism, first in the form of the Moslem Brotherhood as it was seen as a counterweight to Communism. Thereafter Islamic fundamentalism could be seen as a useful instrument to keep Islamic countries in a backward and therefore manageable condition. But retrospectively it would seem that things took a different turn after the Taliban’s splendid performance in Afghanistan: it saw itself as the power that had destroyed Soviet Communism and destroyed the Soviet Empire.

It is understandable that fundamentalist movements became more powerful and more violent thereafter. We have had Al Qaeda and now we have the much more monstrous Boko Haram and the IS.

The IS is unique because it functions as a state and is beyond the control of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Islamic world. It is totally impervious to criticism, and proceeds to perpetrate its subhuman horrors with impunity. Most of its funds come from Saudi donations and most of its fighters are from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two great headquarters of Islamic fundamentalism today. In the context of serious schism within Saudi Arabia there is a prospect of the IS coming to power there. The point I am coming to is this. Islamic fundamentalism has been promoted mainly by Saudi Arabia mainly for the purpose of serving its political objectives. But that promotion has had behind it the backing of Zionists and powerful groups in the US who would want to keep the Islamic world in as backward and degraded a condition as possible for as long as possible so that it will never become a counterweight to the West. But the fundamentalist drive has become seriously counterproductive, and we could therefore expect, on commonsensical grounds, a significant diminution in the potency of that drive.

It is in that perspective that we must examine what looks like a success story of the Wahabi promotional drive of the Saudis, which I hold to be the greatest tragedy that has befallen the Sri Lankan Muslims in a long while. I will mention only one detail in illustration of that success story. I am told that in every mosque across the length and breadth of this island, Friday sermons are used to inveigh against Shi’ism in Sri Lanka’. Apart from the Borahs – who are definitely not being targeted – there have been only a tiny handful of Shias here, admirers of the Iranian Revolution practically all of whom I used to know. So, who is being targeted? I don’t want to go into details that might bore the reader but it is clear that the targets are strictly orthodox Muslims some of whose tenets and practices correspond to those of the Shias. So the Wahabis are spreading schism, which could have a violent potential, among orthodox Muslims here.

There are two reasons – apart from doctrinal ones – why I would regard the spread of the Wahabi version of Islam in Sri Lanka as a great tragedy. One is related to the fact that under modernity – more than under any earlier phase of civilization – achievement has been given a central value. Two and a half centuries of Wahabism has not brought forth any achievement worth speaking about, unless we regard the terrible destruction wrought in the holy places of Islam as mighty achievements. Islam came out of the desert and led to a great and glorious flowering of civilisation. Wahabism came out of the desert and wherever it has gone it has created a desert. The achievement level of Muslims practically all over the world tends to be lower than that of non-Muslims. I don’t want it to become even lower.

The other reason is related to the fact that during the decadent phases of Islamic civilization Muslims tend to withdraw into a shell. They seem to have an in-built ghetto mentality, so much so that it might be said that one of the essential differences between Jews and Muslims is that the Jews were forcibly confined to ghetto for centuries and were glad to get out of it while the Muslims create their own ghetto and are very reluctant to leave it. In Sri Lanka they were leaving their ghetto after 1945 but they started retrogressing into it in the ‘seventies. At present there are Muslims who want to show not only that they are different but that they don’t belong here. The retrogression corresponds to a period when the Middle East started making a significant impact on Sri Lankan lives, and in subsequent decades Wahabism became an important part of that impact. At present the Sinhalese power elite seems to have realized, at long last, the need for some degree of cohesion, for some degree of national integration, in this tragically fragmented country where there are many tribes and no nation. Wahabism, unless we are sensible and vigilant about it, could become a factor standing in the way of national integration.

I have to be brief about the measures that might be taken to counter Wahabism. I have two proposals that should contribute to the process of national integration, proposals on which I will have to expand later. The first is that the Muslims should be persuaded that Buddhism is not idol-worship. In recent times this idea seems to have assumed importance in Muslim consciousness almost certainly because of the spread of Wahabism, the central tenet of which is that nothing should come between man and the transcendental. The point is that when a Buddhist performs an act of worship before a Buddha statue, he is not worshipping a statue made of stone but the transcendental reality that is symbolized by the statue. He is really engaged in prayer which puts him in relation to the transcendental, which is the function of prayer in all religions. The Buddha statue is not an idol, a fetish endowed with supernatural powers. The correct notion about Buddhism should be implanted in the minds of young Muslims who are studying in the madrasahs.

My second proposal is that we Muslims must struggle to establish a form of Islam in which the following verse from the Koran assumes central importance: “Verily, those who believe and those who are Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans, whoever hath faith in God and the last day, and worketh that which is right and good – for them shall be the reward with their Lord; there will come no fear on them; neither shall be they grieved”. It is clear that according to the Koran the adherents of the three monotheisms who lead virtuous lives will go to heaven. What about Hindus and Buddhists? Not only Vedantists but average Hindus also speak of a transcendental God, and Buddhists clearly believe in a transcendental One, not in a multiplicity of Gods. All this is consistent with the fact that the Koran is insistent that the revelation of the one true God was given to the whole of humanity, not just to the Arabs. The version of Islam that I am advocating can be validated on Islamic texts just as much as other versions that are validated on alternative Islamic texts.

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