By Izeth Hussain –
In my last article which dealt with Islamic terrorism I made the point that it is something that comes out of the matrix of Islamic fundamentalism. In this article I want to make some comments on fundamentalism in general, not just in Islam, as it has become one of the important political problems of our time. It is a huge, complex, and difficult problem, requiring in-depth analysis. Here, in these brief comments, I want to make just one point: there is no nexus between fundamentalism and terrorism, between fundamentalism and any sort of violence. This point is crucial for a proper understanding of the Islamic fundamentalism that has been spreading to a seemingly alarming extent in Sri Lanka.
In my earlier article I quoted the opening sentence of Karen Armstrong’s book Battle for God as follows: “One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as ‘fundamentalism’.” I cited also another book by two authors which began by noting some details to show that the three monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam had in the late ‘seventies entered more or less simultaneously into a process of “political radicalization”. Karen Armstrong saw that process taking place within Hinduism and Buddhism also: “Fundamentalism, moreover, is not confined to the three great monotheisms There are Buddhist, Hindu, and even Confucian fundamentalisms, which also cast aside many of the painfully acquired insights of liberal culture, which fight and kill in the name of religion and strive to bring the sacred into the realm of politics and national struggle”.
Some distinctions have to be made. Political Buddhism or militant Buddhism became a factor of primary importance in our politics after 1956. It is an interesting fact that it was precisely after 1977 that it became most potent: it was the major factor behind the State terrorism of President JR which transformed the ethnic problem into a violent form, leading to the 26-year civil war. But there was no violence in the name of Buddhism. Besides there was no claim that the Buddhist religion was being restored in its pristine form, which is invariably the claim made by the fundamentalists of the three monotheisms. The reason for that of course is that it has always been the proud claim of the Theravada Buddhists that they have never abandoned Buddhism in its pristine form. That applies to Burma also where Buddhist violence has been a very recent phenomenon. There could be a nexus between militant Buddhism and violence, but none between violence and a non-existent Buddhist fundamentalism. As for the three monotheisms, there seems to be no significant violence among Judaic and Christian fundamentalists. They are objectionable mainly for turning to the extreme right. Violence therefore does seem to be a specialty of Islamic fundamentalism. But that has to be explained not in terms of a supposed nexus between Islam and violence but in terms of the sequence of literacy-revolution-lowering of the birth rate of Emmanuel Todd’s brilliant theorizing which I expounded in my last article. There is in brief no nexus between fundamentalism and violence. That should always be borne in mind in considering the phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism in Sri Lanka.
But of course it all arguably depends on how you define fundamentalism, on how you understand it. Today most people would understand it as an Islamic phenomenon, the typical manifestations of which have been September 11 and the subhuman savagery of the IS. The idea that there could be something positive about fundamentalism will therefore seem perverse to them. I ill now put down what I understand by fundamentalism. All the world religions came to have orthodox forms, which in the case of Sunni Islam took almost six centuries after the death of the Prophet. The orthodox version of a religion is therefore a construct, not something that exists in the immutable form originally propounded by its founder. Consequently it could come to be questioned; parts of it could undergo revision, a process that could lead to a new version of that religion.
Possibly the most important reason why that happens is that the orthodox version of a religion invariably comes to be tied up with state power. This is what Mohammed Arkoun, the Algerian scholar who was a Professor at the Sorbonne, wrote in his essay The Concept of Authority in Islamic Thought: “Orthodoxy – in its Sunni or Shia version – is no more than the official religion resulting from the collaboration of the ulama with the state”. The word “ulama” means theologian. Therefore people who become seriously dissatisfied with the state of affairs under the Orthodox dispensation could seek to change it by effecting changes in the religion. Today, in the case of Muslims, they seek to do this by adapting Islam to the needs of modernity, which results in what I call liberal Islam. But many Muslims, as well as adherents of the other world religions, have sought change by going back to the roots, to what they conceive of as the fundamentals of the religion. It is that process that I regard as fundamentalism. It corresponds to a profound human need to go back to the roots for self-renewal. It could result in a new benign form of a religion, or it could take a morbid form, morbidly violent as in the case of the IS.
I will take my illustrative material – to illustrate my point that fundamentalism could be a benign process – from two American works of art that have acquired iconic status: Fred Zinnemann’s film High Noon and Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring. The film is available in DVD form through Colombo outlets, material about it is there in the internet, and the ballet is easily accessible through the internet. The film belongs to the genre of the Western but it is really a political film which in my estimation compares with the best work of Wajda and Pontecorvo. The story is about the Marshal of a small town who has done an excellent job in ridding it of criminal elements, which included the bringing to book of a killer who is condemned to death. The killer vows vengeance on the Marshal. He is later pardoned through the intervention of corrupt politicians of the North, and is on the way back to town to join three comrades who will help him in killing the Marshal. The Marshal, who initially flees the town with his newly-wedded Quaker wife, decides to return, against her wishes, to confront his antagonists. His expectation that he would find sufficient supporters in the town to confront his antagonists turns out to be totally mistaken. He is isolated but he manages to kill all his antagonists with the help of his wife. In the famous last scene of the film, he throws his Marshal’s badge in the dust and leaves town with his wife.
What I am now going to do is to provide a reading of what might be called the sub-text of the film. Practically any work of art could be read in more ways than one, all of which could be legitimate. I am informed by a reader, who has provided invaluable help by directing me to important material on the film in the internet, that the Director Zinnemann’s son had in a discussion with Gary Cooper’s daughter stated that the fact that the Marshal’s wife was a Quaker had no importance at all. At this point I must cite D.H. Lawrence’s observation which went something like this: “Trust the tale, never the writer”. I hold that in a work of art the intention of the artist counts for little or nothing: the real meaning of the work of art could burst through without his being aware of it. To my mind the religious dimension of the film is paradoxically intrusive though only implicit, and the film can best be understood in terms of the myth of the frontier and the appeal of fundamentalism in its benign form.
To be continued.