Saturday, August 2, 2008

Islamic Fundamentalism and the Arab Political Culture Part III

By David Bukay

3rd part of 3

What are the Main Characteristics of Islamic Fundamentalism?

The Islamic movements represent different trends, varied plans of action, and different views of how to achieve objectives. They are complex, multi-dimensional movements that function mainly within national political systems, although they have links to regional (mutual influence and ties between movements and states) and international (sources of funding and activity) organizations.

These movements play a major role in shaping the system of relations and conflicts in Arab politics at the level of government and of groups that oppose the government. They include groups acting within a messianic revolutionary regime, as in Iran; in a conservative and closed regime, as in Saudi Arabia; and in the coalition of a military regime, as in Sudan. At the same time, some of them function in violent opposition to the regime, as in Egypt, Algeria, Syria, and Tunisia; or in agreed partnership with the regime, as in Jordan (where there are also radical movements of the bin Laden type, which the state harshly represses).

The Islamic movements are deeply entrenched in most social and economic strata of Moslem society. Their leadership comes from the professional organizations of the educated, urban middle class (engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers). The voice of the Islamic movements is the most clear-cut and assimilable. They are not only a political but a significant social force as well, arising from an educated and radical generation, with an academic background in the sciences, concentrated in the middle strata of the urban society. Moreover, they make intensive and sophisticated use of the media.

It is often claimed that the activism and militancy of the fundamentalist movements is essentially a defensive phenomenon, a way of fending off threatening Westernism, reflecting profound distress that issues in a blend of cultural and political protest, a perspective cultivated by a particular line of research in this field.9 We maintain, however, that this approach provides only one possible view.

A different perspective notes that the primary issue is not one of defensiveness and distress, but rather an attempt to cope with a hostile and dissonance-producing reality that involves relatively glaring contradictions to the notion of presumed Islamic superiority. Islamic fundamentalism does not exhibit passivity but rather an iron determination to disseminate the values of religion, and provide Islamic answers to the maladies of modern society. This is not at all a defensive struggle. The Islamic movements do not display or express a sense of failure and self-protection, but rather an offensive push toward victory. Despite their radical zealousness, the fundamentalist Islamic movements have displayed versatility and flexibility in their activity, and have undergone different stages that manifest an adaptive, pragmatic approach to changing circumstances. At first there emerged an all-embracing ideology, based on a just and righteous Islam rooted in the ancient teachings the Prophet Muhammad. Since the mid-1960s, the Islamic movements have shifted to the political sphere and made use of violence and terrorism, striving to overthrow secular Arab regimes. Since the mid-1980s, they have made attempts to integrate into parliamentary systems by participating in elections and to seize power from within. Finally, in light of the political repression and manipulations of the regimes during elections, as well as the movements’ gains through organized violence, two sub-groups have emerged within the fundamentalist movements: one decided to return to ancient Islamic origins and to social activity among the populace sanctioned by the regime; the other changed its strategy to join the training camps of Afghanistan, with the encouragement and aid of Saudi Arabia and the backing of the United States. Belatedly, some Western nations have come to realize that fundamentalist Islam threatens not only the Arab and Islamic regimes, but its menace embraces the whole world. By now it is well known that the menace takes the form of terrorism and violence. Less well known is the fact that the enormous immigration of Arabs and Muslims into Western countries has serious implications for their political stability. All the studies in this volume, with two exceptions, were written before bin Laden’s terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. They include analyses of a wide variety of Islamic issues, and have critical implications for how this phenomenon is understood in the widest sense.

David Bukay

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



1. For a fascinating analysis of these movements, in terms of the “significance of heresy”, the “revolutions in Islam”, and “Islamic concepts of revolutions”, see B. Lewis, Islam in History: Ideas, Men and Events in the Middle-East, London: Alcove Press, 1973.

2. R.T. Antoun, “On the Modesty of Women in Arab Muslim Villages: A Study in the Accommodation of Tradition”, American Anthropology, 70/4, August 1968, pp. 671-697.

3. F. Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Moslem Society, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987; L. Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1993.

4. D.P. Ausubel, “Relationship Between Shame and Guilt in the Socializing Process”, Psychological Review, 62/5, September 1955.

5. C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, 1973.

6. In other words, a crisis syndrome that is inherent to modernization processes, involving: identity, legitimacy, penetration, division, participation, and expectations. As we shall see, in Arab and Islamic politics the most important of these factors is identity. See L. Binder et al., Crises and Sequences in Political Development, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971.

7. H. Sharabi, “Modernity and Islamic Revival”, Contention, 2/1, 1992, pp. 127-138.

8. B. Lewis, “Roots of Muslim Rage,” Atlantic Monthly, September 1990, pp. 47-55; D. Pipes, “Fundamentalist Muslims between America and Russia”, Foreign Affairs, 64/5, Summer 1986.

9. E. Sivan, Radical Islam, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985; E. Sivan, Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.


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