Misunderstood fundamentalism

By Jonathan Power

January 20th 2015

In his book “Faith and Power” Edward Mortimer, the former foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, when writing about Rishid Rida, the great Islamic intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, asked himself if Rida was “fundamentalist” since he was an admirer of the militant Wahhabi puritans of Saudi Arabia. “I do not think so”, concluded Mortimer, “although I must admit that the precise meaning of this word when used in the context of Islam eludes me.”

At a time when the West is again aroused – because of the attack on Charlie Hebdo – by the actions of extreme Islamic fundamentalists we should note that it is astonishingly difficult to define fundamentalism either in Islam or Christianity. If it means “an effort to define the fundamentals of one’s religion and a refusal to budge from them once defined then surely anybody with serious religious beliefs of any sort must be fundamentalist in this sense”.

In Christianity there are many strains of fundamentalism. The Catholic Church, which abhors Enlightenment liberalism, is clearly fundamentalist when it comes to issues like birth control and abortion, a position which allies the Vatican in international population conferences with many Muslim states and wins plaudits from many evangelical Church groups in the US.

But this kind of fundamentalism is anathema to the powerful black Baptist Churches of America which consider themselves also part of the fundamentalist tradition. And where does the fundamentalism of the Northern Ireland’s Protestant firebrand the late Ian Paisley (and now his son) fit in? His tolerance of the ugly Protestant militias killing Catholics made him unacceptable to the opinion of fundamentalists in the southern United States that consider religious toleration an important part of their credo.

Likewise in Islam the so-called fundamentalists have many strands, even as they overlap each other and sometimes intertwine. Wahhibism is not Salafism despite their mutual respect. And Al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s fundamentalism is neither.

It is profoundly ironic that the “fundamentalist” Osama bin Laden, with his Egyptian-influenced credo, adopted a philosophy whose true pedigree reaches back to the tolerant, enlightened reformism of Jamal al-Din-Afghani.

Labels cannot only be seriously misleading, they have led Western policy in a dangerous and totally counterproductive direction. 9/11 and Charlie Hebdo do not mean there is a clash of civilizations as many are now suggesting. The late Samuel Huntington, the Harvard academic, even prophesied in his seminal book, “The Clash of Civilizations” that it could well end in nuclear war between the countries of Islam and the countries of the West. This is truly fear-mongering.

What can the West do to diminish this Islamic hostility that has now reached such unprecedented levels – most worryingly in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine and among a very small minority, resident in Western Europe? ( Less than 40% of Muslims in France attend the mosque regularly as they become increasingly secularized.)

Europeans must more forcefully than hitherto deal with the ignorance that permeates some part of the native population and police forces. It means making more effort to find unemployed young people jobs, not least the offspring of immigrants, even if it is only paid training in skills useful for when economic growth returns.

It means spending resources on knocking down the soulless housing blocks and substituting them with street level apartments, shops, mosques, churches, playgrounds and cinemas- the essence of a stable community life that will not be a breeding ground for extremism. Europe must wake up to the fact that there is no such thing as a low-cost immigrant.

Europe faces a future crisis as the native population ages. The answer is definitely not more immigration but pushing older people into much later retirement. There is no reason why a 75 year-old doctor, teacher or journalist can’t work – or a plumber, bus driver or a worker on an assembly line. Look at Pope Francis at 78 or Janet Yellen, chair of the US Federal Reserve Bank- at the age of 68 she was only appointed last year.

Abroad, foreign policy needs to be radically redrawn. No more Iraqs and Afghanistans – President Barack Obama sees this and hence his right decision not to bomb Syria. It means turning up the heat on Israel. It means forswearing “pre-emptive” military action whatever the state of Iran’s putative nuclear bomb. With Turkey it means accelerating the negotiations that would lead to EU membership.

Also, as Pope Francis said on his way to the Philippines we shouldn’t mock the sensitivities of others even if we have the right to.

We are part of the global village and we can upset and hurt other peoples by our extremism – pornography in hotels or women who dress in an ultra provocative way. A woman’s best friend is what she can hint at.

In short, we have to get down to protecting and respecting all our fundamentals.

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