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Islam in a globalised context
By Asghar Ali Engineer

Is there any relationship between religious fundamentalism, specially Islamic fundamentalism and globalisation? There is no doubt that one witnesses world- wide phenomenon of fundamentalism today. Is it a new phenomenon? If not, why fundamentalism is on the increase? Also, is globalisation a new phenomenon? Or is it a new name for the old phenomenon, which has always existed in the world. Same question can be posed about fundamentalism as well. Is fundamentalism a new phenomenon? Or is it an old one given new name? Also another important question is what is fundamentalism?

First let us answer the question what is fundamentalism? Can it be applied to all religions or only to Christianity? I think the term fundamentalism should not be applied to all religions without proper qualifications. The term fundamentalism was first applied to the Protestant Christian movement in America, which believed that every word of Bible is literally true. It was not used in pejorative sense.

Thus if the word fundamentalism was used in a particular sense for a Christian movement can we use it for other religions, particularly to Islam without proper qualification? I do not think it will be appropriate to do so. The word fundamentalism was applied to Islam for the first time by American media when Islamic revolution was taking place in Iran in late seventies and it was applied in a pejorative sense. Since then the world media has been using it (i.e. Islamic fundamentalism) in a very negative sense. Not only journalists but also academics are using it world-wide pejoratively.

What is Islamic fundamentalism? In fact Islamic fundamentalism has become most widely used term both in media and academia in a very loose sense. The Americans had deliberately coined this term to serve their political agenda. The Shah of Iran served American interests most faithfully in the region. Ayatollah Khomeini who led the Islamic revolution was, on the other hand, very hostile to America and called it a great Satan. Thus Islamic revolution of Iran dealt a great blow to the American interests in the region and hence America began to denounce Islamic revolution of Iran and applied the term “Islamic fundamentalist” revolution. American media used headlines like “militant soldiers of Allah on march”.

Thus it can be seen that the term ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ is basically a political term rather than a religious one. It basically conveys a sense of political hostility rather than religious rigidity, militancy, conservatism or orthodoxy. American media did not describe Saudi Islam, which is more rigid and orthodox but friendly to America and was never condemned by American media as fundamentalist. Thus fundamentalism is basically a political term. 

Fundamentalism in this essay, will however, be used to mean religious rigidity, militancy and extremism as well as use of Islam for political ends rather than for spiritual and moral development. Mere dogmatic approach to moral and spiritual questions should not be dubbed as fundamentalism. The term Islamic fundamentalism thus should be used with proper qualification.

Let us now define globalisation. Is globalisation a new phenomenon? I do not think it is. Globalisation is as old as the human habitation on the earth. Various tribes migrated from one part of the globe to the other in most ancient periods. Globalisation is said to be about connectivity, connectivity with different parts of the globe. It may be said that today all parts of the world are well connected as never before. But connectivity itself is not an entirely new phenomenon.

Does globalisation by itself lead to religious fundamentalism? There is no such evidence in the past though there is some evidence in contemporary period. Thus globalisation per se does not necessarily lead to promotion of fundamentalism. It happens so only if other factors are present. It would be necessary to discuss those factors in order to understand relationship between globalisation and fundamentalism.

Globalisation, as pointed out before, is not a new phenomenon. The silk route connected several parts of the world in old times. Human migrations from one continent to another have been known to anthropologists. It is true means of communications were much slower than today but it is a matter of technology. What technology we possess today may prove to be slower tomorrow. Thus mere technology cannot define globalisation through connectivity and speed is of essence in globalisation. Thus all we can say is that the contemporary globalisation is qualitatively better and faster than that of yesterday.

After defining the two key terms i.e. fundamentalism and globalisation let us see what is the connection between the two in the contemporary period. Is this relation between the two a dependent relationship? Does globalisation today necessarily leads to fundamentalism i.e. religious militancy and extremism? In the absence of other factors one hardly finds any such dependent relationship between the two. Moreover why one talks of Islamic fundamentalism today? Why western media, particularly American media is full of news and write-ups on Islamic fundamentalism and not Buddhist and Christian fundamentalism? Christianity and Buddhism are also two great religions of the world besides Islam. Then why so much talk of Islamic fundamentalism only?

Thus to understand the relationship between globalisation and Islamic fundamentalism we have to introduce another factor which is political, particularly oil politics in the middle eastern region. Without taking into account this factor of oil politics it will not be possible to understand the phenomenon of fundamentalism and globalisation.

As pointed out above the Islamic revolution in Iran is a watershed as far as Islamic fundamentalism is concerned. One hardly heard about this term before the Islamic revolution in Iran. The revolution in Iran upset the American strategies in this region. America lost the ‘valuable’ support it had for its oil politics. The Shah of Iran not only supported American interests in the region but also supported Israel and Israeli policies, which strengthened American cause further. 

Thus America’s perception of Islamic revolution in Iran was highly hostile and it dubbed it as militant and extremist and ‘fundamentalist’. It gave a great jolt to American policies in the region. Even the CIA never expected such a revolution to take place in Iran. Shah’s highly repressive regime was thought to be impregnable by American rulers. They were totally surprised when the Shah’s regime collapsed like a house of cards. In 1952 when Mosaddeg had captured power in Iran and nationalised the oil companies the CIA had managed to stage a coup with the help of some religious leaders on one hand, and, that of lumpen elements, on the other. However, this time the foundations of Islamic revolution were so strong that even CIA could not do anything and remained a mere helpless spectator.

The Islamic revolution also removed the sense of helplessness among the Muslims world over, particularly in the Middle East region, which is so sensitive to American interests. For the first time the Muslims of the region felt that America is not so impregnable after all and that it could be defeated. This further increased American threat perceptions. The other supporters of American policies in the region like the Saudi monarchy or Kuwaiti sheikhdom were also trembling with fear. They thought the people of their respective countries may be inspired by revolutionary ideals and overthrow them. However, it was not to be for reasons not to be discussed here.

But nevertheless threat perceptions remained and American policies were redesigned to fight the ‘threat of Islamic fundamentalism’. Iranian Islam had to be fought with the help of Saudi Islam. It is interesting to note that Iranian radical Islam could be countered not with democratic secularism but with more conservative Wahabi Islam. 

Whosoever supported Iranian revolution was called ‘fundamentalist’ and was ridiculed. ‘Fundamentalism’ became the most widely used but most misunderstood term. The Iranian Islamic revolution also must be understood in all its complexity. The Iranian masses had welcomed the Islamic revolution as it liberated them from Shah’s repressive regime and not necessarily because it was ‘Islamic’. There were various shades of opinion and different interpretations from liberal to most conservative.

Khomeini himself is difficult to categorise. It is easier to describe him as ‘orthodox’ but it would not be realistic. His views about Islam and his politics were far more complex. If fundamentalism means, as we have defined above, as representing militancy, extremism and conservatism Khomeini was not fundamentalist in this sense as American media would have us believe.

Khomeini was, undoubtedly a radical. He was greatly concerned with weaker sections of society. 

He was closer to the left in as much as he championed the cause of weaker sections and denounced western, particularly, American imperialism. His radicalism was of course based on the Qur’an. He repeatedly quoted the Qur’anic verse 28:5 which says, “And We desired to bestow a favour upon those who were weakened in the land, and to make them the leaders and to make them heirs.”

According to Ayatollah Khomeini the conflict between the weak and the powerful is eternal and the Qur’an is on the side of the weak (mustad‘ifun) and opposes the powerful (mustakbirun). Thus Khomeini sided with the third world vis-à-vis America though he based his sympathies with the poor not on the basis of any secular but Qur’anic ideology. Khomeini cannot, therefore, be described as “fundamentalist” in usual sense. Even his interpretation of the Qur’an was very different from other orthodox interpreters.

The epithet ‘fundamentalist’ is often used with political agenda and hence America used it against Khomeini. This is not only in case of America but also others, individuals, parties and groups who accuse others of being fundamentalist. In very few cases the word fundamentalist is used to mean religious orthodoxy, rigidity and inflexibility.

Now coming back to globalisation and fundamentalism whether there is any connection between the two and if so of what nature? Firstly, it should be noted that modern globalisation is qualitatively different from earlier globalisation. The widespread education and information technology makes this qualitative difference. The widespread education has brought tremendous awareness among the people of the developing countries and information technology makes it easier for this awareness to spread. Nothing remains confined to a region or a country. Any major event has global impact. It was not possible in earlier days.

Another important factor is democracy, which empowers people and more often than not, it empowers unevenly. Various collectivities in society, particularly in developing countries where there is so much poverty and backwardness this empowerment is quite uneven. One community or caste or tribe grabs much more share in political power or economic development than other community, caste or tribe. Both then mobilise their fellow community, caste or tribe people – one to retain the privileges and the other to obtain them by using religious, caste or tribal identity.

This mobilisation on the basis of religious, caste or tribal identities leads to extremism depending on the political and social situation. In India community and caste identities have led to growth of religious extremism and fundamentalism. This fundamentalism is further fuelled by globalisation as members of the community settled abroad and comparatively more prosperous finance leaders of these communities.

The growth of Hindu fundamentalism in India and Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan can be partly explained in this light. It should also be noted that fundamentalism grows more in educated middle classes. These middle classes mobilise poorer members of their community by invoking religion and displaying religious extremism. Hindu religion is quite liberal and has universal outlook but the Sangh Parivar Hinduism is just opposite of that. It is most rigid, extremist and narrow. They distinguish it from Hinduism and call it Hindutva.

Hindutva is basically a political ideology and has nothing to do with spiritual and moral or philosophical aspects of Hindu religion. Hindutva ideology is most combative and aggressive and seeks to mobilise upper caste Hindus for grabbing political power and economic hegemony. The upper caste Hindus, especially those from Gujrat, settled abroad send money to Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) for promoting fundamentalist Hinduism. More the money from abroad greater rigidity and extremism, and more rigidity and extremism more money flows from abroad. Now Bajrang Dal which can be called Hindu jihadis is giving its men and women training in using arms in the name of self defence.

This has gone to such an extent that a leading magazine Outlook in its issue of July 8, 2002 says, in its cover story “The Crisis in Hinduism” “One of the World’s most liberal religions is in danger of being perverted. The siege is from within. A way of life has been seized upon as a means to political power and a religion held hostage.” In the same cover story Swami Agnivesh, a noted Hindu scholar and human rights activist says, “Hindutva is a total perversion of the subtle, profound, enduring qualities of Hinduism.”

All this is being done by exponents of Hinduism not to serve any moral, spiritual or philosophical cause but to grab political power. If the Hindutvawadis perceive that political power is slipping from their hands, they intensify their Hindutvawad. Greater the fear of power slipping from their hands greater the efforts to militarise the Hindus. Communal violence in Gujrat in which more than thousand lives were lost was a direct consequence of fear of losing coming elections. The VHP and Bajrang Dal, with the help of BJP Chief Minister Mr. Narendra Modi, planned and executed most horrid communal carnage in Gujrat.

In Pakistan it is Islamic extremism which plays the same role. The jihadis (those who use Islamic term jihad) have a clear political agenda. The Muslim ‘Ulama who have tested power and others who see in Islam a great opportunity to come close to power centres, invoke the Islamic concept of jihad and practice most sectarian, extremist kind of Islam. Partly America is responsible for creating fundamentalist Islam in Pakistan. 

America was interested in bringing down the left regime in Afghanistan and it trained thousands of Muslims to fight Soviet army in that country and called them ‘mujahids’ (a laudatory Islamic term which means those who fight bravely). Usama bin Laden was also creation of CIA and was used in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet forces. Religious extremism was deliberately cultivated among the Afghans and Pakistanis. Once Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan and Soviet Union collapsed the USA dumped these ‘mujahidins’.

However, these Afghan and Arab fighters in Afghanistan had become quite aware of their own rights and their own plight and now decided to fight American power in the region. America, in order to maintain its hegemony in Middle East, backs up Saudi monarchy on one hand, and unconditionally supports Israel, on the other. It also attacked Iraq to serve its own interests in the region. It has maintained its troops in Saudi Arabia for the same purpose. All this created strong resentment among these so called mujahidins and they now turned against their old master.

Thus these jihadi groups are products of struggle for political power in the region. Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator of Pakistan also promoted highly narrow and sectarian Islam to seek legitimacy for this power, which had no popular sanction. Thus Zia-ul-Haq greatly contributed to promote Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. The ISI of Pakistan is also instrumental in spreading Islamic fundamentalism in South Asia. The military has now permanent stake in power in Pakistan and would keep on strengthening fundamentalist forces in Pakistani society.

It would be really difficult to fight Islamic fundamentalism effectively in Pakistani without strengthening democratic forces in that country. It has become a sort of vicious circle in Pakistan. Greater the power of military more the potentiality of fundamentalism being promoted and if democratic rule comes military, in collaboration with some militant mullahs, intensifies fundamentalism to frustrate democratic aspirations of the people. This has been going on in Pakistan for number of years.

Though president Musharraf is not interested in promoting fundamentalism and has modern mind set but is now prisoner of the situation. It is not easy for him to defeat the fundamentalist forces. These forces are extremely powerful and can incite a section of people in the name of religion. These forces also do not hesitate to kill or assassinate their foes. Such political assassinations are quite common in Pakistan today. The Saudi and Iranian political interests in Pakistan have also provoked Shia-Sunni militancy. The extremist Sunnis belonging to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi kill Shiahs and Shias, in retaliation kill the Sunni extremists. 

Thus it will be seen that religion has become most powerful tool in the hands of politicians and they are using it without any compunction. Religious extremism is being financed from abroad in almost all cases. Sikh fundamentalism also had its source of finance in U.K. and USA, Hindutvawadis also get financial support from these countries and Islamic jihadis in South Asia, particularly in Kashmir and Afghanistan also have their supporters in these countries.

Thus the migrants to USA and U.K. are providing lot of funds to religious militants in whole of South Asia. Even LTTE militants in Sri Lanka have their sources of funding from U.K. and European countries. These migrants to western countries feel guilty for having left their motherland and also feel alienated in western countries and compensate for their guilt by financing religious militant groups back home. Thus, in a way, globalisation is fuelling religious fundamentalism in Asia, particularly in South Asia.

The interests involved are so powerful that there is no easy solution to this problem of religious militancy. In some countries it is military dictatorship, which fuels it and in some countries it is democratic set up, as in India, which promotes it. Thus democracy by itself is no remedy for fundamentalism unless other factors like justice and morality become integral parts of it. Social, political and economic justice is very essential for fighting religious fundamentalism. Most of the societies are faced with highly unjust and uneven power structures with high rates of poverty and unemployment. These are the breeding grounds for religious fundamentalism coupled with ruling class interests. 

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