Talking about "Islamic fundamentalism" is a dangerous business for one outside the religion. Many Islamic things that to us look alike on the surface (and have the same effect on our lives as non-Muslims) come from different sources.

Is Bin Laden a Wahhabist? How would you know whether he is or is not? Is he a disciple of Sayyid Qutb? Often they write alike. But that is not the same thing. Again, how would you know that?

Something that ought to have been obvious all along struck me while reading "Basic Principles of the Islamic Worldview" by Sayyid Qutb, the mid-20th century Egyptian scholar whom Karen Armstrong calls "the founder of Sunni fundamentalism."

Even the furiously defensive preface by Hamid Algar (who is of the Israel=Nazi Germany school) notes the "curious and paradoxical" quality of Qutb's writing, that while he announces his intention to expound on Islam, he spends most of his time condemning and refuting everyone else's beliefs and systems -- Christians, Buddhists, Jews, philosophers, Marxists, secularists. "In some cases," Algar writes, "they receive greater analytical attention than the characteristics of Islam that form the subject matter of each chapter."

Of course, Algar goes on to excuse this by blaming it on the West -- specifically on the "censorious Westerner peering over the shoulder of the writer." But invoking that fictional specter, which many Islamic writers beside Qutb seem to fear, begs a question. After all, apologists for Western liberalism don't seem to feel a censorious Qutb peering over their shoulders.

Likely the fixation with rejecting and refuting Western/Christian ideas reflects a silent acknowledgment of their powerful lure to the people in the Islamic world (and elsewhere) as well as an awareness of the poor performance turned in by Islamic societies in most of the measured achievements of modernity.

[Whether we ought to measure human achievement by the standards of Islam or modernity, of course, is the essential question between Qutb and us.]

That the Wahhabis, Qutb, Bin Laden, and to a certain degree Hamas, Hezbollah, and others tend to look the same to us is perhaps less a matter of "this begat that" or "this evolved from that" as it is an outcome of the nature of fundamentalism in religion, which is an attempt to turn back the clock as far as possible toward the zero-point of revelation. It seeks to purify the faith of the compromises and borrowings, the rust and "debris" (in Qutb's word) that accrue to it once it passes from divine hands into himan ones.

In Christian history, you have Christ preaching a way to live, and then 300 years later you have Constantine marching into battle under the banner of Christ. The gap between the two experiences is disturbing to many Christians, and attempts to turn Christianity back to its dynamic wellsprings generally bypass Constantine.

In Islam, Muhammad is both Christ and Constantine. Struggle -- jihad -- is integral to the roots of the faith. Islamic fundamentalism embraces the struggle for purity within the community and the aggressive engagement with outside powers, because both are prescribed in the revealed text.

As Algar puts it in his introduction, the "Islamic concept" is "dependent on engagement in struggle and effort to create the society mandated by revelation." Qutb's "urgent concern" was to "reconstitute, after a more than millennial lapse, the environment of struggle in which the revelation had first been received and to achieve thereby a new, exemplary era, mirroring the first."

And that struggle will naturally follow the path laid down in the original revelation: a call to establish a world founded on the justice of the faith, with other creeds tolerated, restricted, taxed, and protected under the virtuous rule of Islamic leaders.

Here Qutb shares his vision, rebuking those who deny the accusation Islam is the religion of the sword by the equally (to him) false assertion that it is a religion of peace:

Some Crusaders and Zionists, for example, doggedly accuse Islam of being the religion of the sword, claiming that it was spread by the edge of the sword. Consequently, some of us defend Islam and refute this accusation by invoking the idea of "defence." Thereby they lessen the value of jihad in Islam, narrow the scope, and apologise for each of its instances, claiming that they were undertaken only for the purpose of "defence," in its present shallow meaning.

These people forget that Islam, being the last divine path for humanity, has an essential right to establish its own system on earth so that all humanity can enjoy its blessing, while every individual enjoys the liberty to follow his chosen creed, for "there is no compulsion in religion." Establishing the "Islamic system" to have beneficial sway over all humanity, those who embrace Islam and those who do not, does indeed require Jihad as does the liberty of men to follow their own beliefs. This goal can only be accomplished with the establishment of a virtuous authority, a virtuous law and a virtuous system that calls to account whoever attempts to attack freedom of worship and belief.

[emphasis added]

Consider this critique of modern Western culture:

"Any objectives other than the immediate utilitarian ones are by-passed, and any human element other than ego is not recognized. While the whole of life is dominated by such materialism, there is no scope for laws beyond provisions for labor and production."
Ted Hughes or Jimmy Carter might have written that. Any number of best-selling pop psychologists could sign off on it.

But it wasn't any of them. The quote is, again, from Qutb. We can answer the suicide bombers of 9-11 with military might, and we can use diplomacy to contain Syria or Iran. But we must also answer the critiques of the intellectual founders of modern Islamist fundamentalism. Because, while a terrorist with a bomb pack may be beyond argument, the tradition that breeds him is based on sane, if twisted or imperfect, views of man and God and life.

Bin Laden is not much of an original thinker. He cribs from Qutb, who himself was influenced by Pakistani Abul Ala Mawdudi, who espoused a militant vision of Islam centered on jihad against Western influences.

These men were not cave-dwellers, ignorant of the wider world. As a young man, Qutb was enamored of English literature. He was educated in modern reason and science, and for many years he reconciled his deep Muslim faith with his enthusiasm for secular politics and Western culture. But he was disillusioned in the '40s by British and French colonialism in North Africa and the Middle East, and by the rise of Zionism. A period of study in the U.S. deepened his disillusionment, which was completed by a spell in prison under Nasser.

As a result, his thinking and writing reached the point where he identified the West (and the corrupted though nominally Islamic Middle Eastern regimes) with the jahili ("ignorant") pagan societies of Mecca that Muhammad had fought in a death-battle. Much of the Quran is a call to battle against these forces. It is the Muslim's ultimate duty, if the Quran is read without a sense of its historical context. Between Mawdudi and Qutb, on the one hand, and the terror-killers of 9/11 is just a short step. Bin Laden happened to fill it; others could have done as much.

Who will answer the critique these men leveled against the secular West? This ought to be the work of our universities, where the finest products of Western culture traditionally concentrate. But these have been taken over by an anti-Western spirit that values only the questioning and doubting qualities of modern humanism, without its essential faiths and creative, positive belief in itself. Today, if you want a vituperative screed against Western literature, science, politics, culture, and values, you go to a university. Where do you go for a defense of them?

In fact, a major challenge in the Islamist intellectual and spiritual critique of the West is that much of it is echoed in the West.

"Humanity today is living in a large brothel! One has only to glance at its press, films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ballrooms, wine bars, and broadcasting stations! Or observe its mad lust for naked flesh, provocative postures, and sick, suggestive statements in literature, the arts and the mass media! And add to all this, the system of usury which fuels man's voracity for money and engenders vile methods for its accumulation and investment, in addition to fraud, trickery, and blackmail dressed up in the garb of law."
Qutb again. Billy Graham could sign on to the first half of that. Michael Moore would agree with the economic critique. A liberal Mennonite probably would approve of both.

The conservative American thinker Dinesh D'Souza has an interesting piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about this third front in the battle against Islamist extremism. He sees that, like the Jesuits of old, the modern defenders of Western culture can concede much, and still triumph in their debates.

Let us concede at the outset that freedom will often be used badly in a free society. Freedom by definition includes freedom to do good or evil, to act nobly or basely. Given the warped timber of humanity, freedom becomes the forum for the expression of human flaws and weaknesses. On this point, Qutb and his fundamentalist followers are quite correct.

But if freedom brings out the worst in people, it also brings out the best. The millions of Americans who live decent, praiseworthy lives deserve our highest admiration because they have opted for the good when the good is not the only available option. Even amid the temptations that a rich and free society offers, they have remained on the straight path. Their virtue has special luster because it is freely chosen.

By contrast, the theocratic and authoritarian society that Islamic fundamentalists advocate undermines the possibility of virtue. If the supply of virtue is insufficient in free societies, it is almost nonexistent in Islamic societies because coerced virtues are not virtues at all.

Which is quite as true of non-Islamic societies where the law governs all human behaviors. The historian William H. Prescott, in 1847, after describing such a society in the Inca empire, wrote, "Where there is no free agency, there can be no morality. Where there is no temptation, there can be little claim to virtue. Where the routine is rigorously proscribed by law, the law, and not the man, must have the credit of the conduct." ["History of the Conquest of Peru"]

Reports from fundamentalist-dominated Fallujah tell of barbaric cruelties committed by the jihadis, and the 9/11 hijackers spent their last nights in strip clubs and booze halls. As the Greeks discovered to their dismay, the coerced virtues of the Spartans fell apart utterly when they became masters in other lands.

D'Souza doesn't say so in as many words, but he suggests the argument could be carried forth by the people of faith in the West.

This is the argument that Americans should make to people in the Islamic world. It is a mistake to presume that Muslims would be totally unreceptive to it. Islam, which has common roots with Judaism and Christianity, respects the autonomy of the individual soul. Salvation for Muslims, no less than for Jews and Christians, is based on the soul choosing freely to follow God.

We can make the case to Muslims that freedom is not a secular invention. Rather, freedom is a gift from God.

It might work. And gods know you're not going to hear that argument out of the universities.

I think it would be a valuable exercise to have the whole nation take a day off work and read what Osama Bin Laden has said and written about us and what he plans to do to us and why.

But the question is, where to find it; and the answer to that is surprisingly difficult. There is one published collection in English that I am aware of, Messages to the World. It's a good collection, but it has problems.

The problems in the book are not so much in Bin Laden's words, but in the surrounding material. The introduction by Bruce Lawrence (a professor of religion at Duke) seems to bend over to present Bin Laden as an honorable man reacting to legitimate grievances with appropriate resistance that he perhaps takes a wee bit too far.

This is repulsive to me, but perhaps the editors thought they were counterbalancing the hyperbole that the demon evoked from us. Bin Laden certainly is not a madman, and he often uses reason in parts of his arguments and he has a highly developed sense of honor.

But was it necessary to present so many encomiums of praise to the architect of 9/11? If this introduction is merely an attempt to balance other writings, why not say so, and what exactly are those writings? He's also a liar and a mass-murderer and a racist and an implacable enemy of Americans. This is glossed over in the introduction, and at the top of the list of the "further reading" section at the end is Tariq Ali's "Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq."

Not America, Americans. Just take the man at his word:

Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians. This is a part of our belief and our religion. For as long as I can remember, I have felt tormented and at war, and have felt hatred and animosity for Americans.
That's from an interview aired on Al-Jazeera in December 1998. The quote is on page 87 of the book.

But, curiously, if you look in the index under "bin-Laden's anti-Americanism" or "Jews," both of which have separate headings in the index, there is no reference to page 87, either alone or in a sequence. The whole index is highly curious in this regard. Certainly if you wanted to know what Bin Laden has said about Jews and Americans, that quote is pertinent. But the compilers of his writings have seen fit to steer their readers away from it.

The footnotes are just as deceptive. The editors jump in with a footnote every time they find a chance to bolster one of Bin Laden's points. But on his errors, they are silent. Why have footnotes at all if all you wish to do with them is legitimatize Bin Laden?

Example: In the 1998 Al-Jazeera interview, Bin Laden says America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki "after Japan had surrendered," a gross error that is allowed to stand without comment by the editors [p.67].

But in Bin Laden's more carefully crafted open letter to Americans (posted on the Internet on Oct. 14, 2002) he wrote "You dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan, even though Japan was ready to negotiate an end to the war" [p.168].

Here the editors jump in with comments from "several high-ranking US military commanders" and one post-war military report to support Bin Laden. Nowehere do they add that there are as many comments to the opposite effect, and the topic is hotly debated among historians even today, and that the whole business of speculative history is far from certain.


Online Work





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© October 28, 2006 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"