A Rising Tide of Islamic Fundamentalism

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A Rising Tide of Islamic Fundamentalism

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What fuels Islamic fundamentalism? An article in the November-December 1998 issue of Foreign Affairs helps us understand the roots of the motivation that probably lies behind the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Written by Professor Bernard Lewis of Princeton University, it began by quoting from a London-based Arabic-language newspaper dated Feb. 23, 1998.

Al-Quds al-Arabi published the full text of a "Declaration of the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and the Crusaders." Osama bin Laden and other leaders of militant Islamic groups in Egypt, Pakistan and Bangladesh were among the signatories.

"The declaration begins [states Foreign Affairs] ... [by] quoting the more militant passages in the Quran [Koran] and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, then continues:

"'Since God laid down the Arabian peninsula, created its desert, and surrounded it with its seas, no calamity has ever befallen it like these Crusader hosts that have spread in it like locusts, crowding its soil, eating its fruits, and destroying its verdure; and this at a time when the nations contend against the Muslims like diners jostling around a bowl of food.'"

The statement continues, condemning the United States for three main reasons:

"First, for more than seven years the United States is occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of its territories, Arabia, plundering its riches, overwhelming its rulers, humiliating its people, threatening its neighbors, and using its bases in the peninsula as a spearhead to fight against the neighboring Islamic peoples ...

"Second-Despite the immense destruction inflicted on the Iraqi people at the hands of the Crusader-Jewish alliance and in spite of the appalling number of dead, exceeding a million, the Americans nevertheless, in spite of all this, are trying once more to repeat this dreadful slaughter ...

"Third-While the purposes of the Americans in these wars are religious and economic, they also serve the petty state of the Jews, to divert attention from their occupation of Jerusalem and their killing of Muslims in it."

The signatories conclude that these "crimes" amount to "a clear declaration of war by the Americans against God, his Prophet, and the Muslims." The declaration reminds readers that throughout the centuries the Islamic religious authorities "unanimously ruled that when enemies attack the Muslim lands, jihad becomes every Muslim's personal duty." Jihad is defined narrowly by Islamic fundamentalists as holy war, the call for a religious conflict that no Muslim may ignore.

Sensitivities over Arabia go back almost 1,400 years to the beginnings of Islam. "The classical Arabic historians tell us that in the year 20 after the hijra (Muhammed's move from Mecca to Medina), corresponding to 641 of the Christian calendar, the Caliph Umar decreed that Jews and Christians should be removed from Arabia to fulfill an injunction the Prophet uttered on his deathbed: 'Let there not be two religions in Arabia.' The people in question were the Jews of the oasis of Khaybar in the north and the Christians of Najran in the south ...

"... The expulsion of religious minorities is extremely rare in Islamic history-unlike medieval Christendom, where evictions of Jews and ... Muslims were normal and frequent ... But the decree was final and irreversible, and from then until now the holy land of the Hijaz [that is, the western Arabian peninsula, now joined with neighboring dominions to form Saudi Arabia] has been forbidden territory for non-Muslims ... For a non-Muslim to even set foot on the sacred soil is a major offense ...

"Where their holy land is involved, many Muslims tend to define the struggle-and sometimes also the enemy-in religious terms, seeing the American troops sent to free Kuwait and save Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein as infidel invaders and occupiers. This perception is heightened by America's unquestioned primacy among the powers of theinfidel world."

The article, written three years before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, concludes:

"... Some Muslims are ready to approve, and a few of them to apply, the declaration's extreme interpretation of their religion. Terrorism requires only a few. Obviously, the West must defend itself by whatever means will be effective. But in devising strategies to fight the terrorists, it would surely be useful to understand the forces that drive them."

Religious-affairs writer and historian Karen Armstrong helps us understand Islamic fundamentalism in her book Islam: A Short History: "As the millennium drew to a close ... some Muslims ... for the first time ... have made sacred violence a cardinal Islamic duty. These fundamentalists often call Western colonialism and post-colonial Western imperialism al-Salibiyyah: the Crusade" (2000, p. 180).

This is a chilling term for Muslims, calling to mind the violent clashes between the forces of medieval Christianity and Islam almost 1,000 years ago. European armies went on a series of Crusades to free Christian holy places from the forces of Islam, frequently committing atrocities during the period. "The colonial crusade has been less violent but its impact has been more devastating than the medieval holy wars" (ibid.).

Western cultural values have impacted all the countries of the world and, while some aspects are eagerly embraced, they are also sorely resented by many people.

Writer Armstrong continues: "All over the world, as we have seen, people in all the major faiths have reeled under the impact of Western modernity, and have produced the embattled and frequently intolerant religiosity that we call fundamentalism" (ibid., emphasis added). We shouldn't expect Islamic fundamentalism to go away anytime soon. GN