The Origins of extremism: theology or reality?
By Soumayya Ghannouchi
Language is not a transparent medium or a neutral instrument, but it is overwhelmed with power strategies. Language not only reflects worldviews and modes of life, it articulates and dictates them such as to preclude any possibility of separating terminologies from their contexts. This is most evident in the bulk of Western intellectual and political discourse on Islam. Indeed much can be read into the deceivingly simple words President Bush or Prime Minister Blair use to characterize the blood chilling catastrophic events of September 11th; "the attacks" we are told "are an assault on the free civilized world". Before such a world stands its anti-thesis an enslaved barbaric world, one that encapsulates all that "we" are not. The far stretching lands of Islam loom largely in this bleak uncivilized sphere. If the modern West is dynamic the world of Islam is stagnant, if it is governed democratically and honors self-ownership, Islam is plagued by a despotism that crushes the individual altogether out of existence. If it is rigorously rational, the world of Islam is the embodiment of raving instincts and wild emotionalism.
The practice is also popular amongst a great many Western intellectuals, journalists and academics who, reminiscent of 18th Century Christian missionaries, urge us to promote ‘our’ Western "values everywhere from Burma to Saudi Arabia, Iraq to Chechnya" as a leading columnist in the Guardian daily newspaper vehemently proclaims. Islam is thus transformed into a silent passive object laid bare before their gaze, stigmatized categorized and tried, a "world-picture" to use the words of the well known German philosopher Martin Heidegger. In this vortex of comments and analyses, Islam’s voice remains unheard.
The 19th century European traveler’s distant detached observations of the strange ways of the Muslim other, the Christian missionary, colonial administrator and military general’s representations of the remote world of Islam are now replaced by ones by journalists, Islamologues and so-called experts. And while medieval Christians dissociated the historical success of Islam from its doctrinal and philological sources – which were deemed false and indeed fraudulent – modern and present day Western intellectuals almost unanimously attribute the decadent historical condition of Islam to its beliefs and value system. While Medieval theologians insisted that Islam’s historical accomplishments did not validate its claim as a true revelation – Christianity being the one and only right path to God – their modern secularist heirs fervently insist that the roots of the backwardness of the Muslim world are to be traced back to its religious texts. Intensely intricate labyrinthine social and political phenomena are thus uprooted from their historical contexts in a bid to consolidate a portrayal of Islam as a "deficient", "stagnant" religion, a warrior blood thirsty religion that glorifies slaughter and aggression against its enemies on the outside, while oppressing minorities and subordinating women internally.
Even those of little if any knowledge of Islam and its intensely complex historical condition, movements and traditions have now entered this unrestricted open market. Thus on the basis of translated scattered fragments pulled out of their interpretive contexts, with no knowledge of any of the great languages of Islam, and no awareness of the complexities of Muslim society, many do not hesitate to declare that Islam is an "intolerant" barbaric religion. With no concern for the most elementary requirements of responsible objective scientific research parts of verses are extricated from their contexts and combined with other fragments to distort the general meaning, Qur’anic verses are confused with sayings of the prophet, talk of otherworldly punishment and reward is represented as rules determining treatment of non-believers in this world. And daily we witness the hideous spectacle of ignorance, arrogance and prejudice parading freely across the larger part of the countless analyses, columns and articles on Islam and its world that stretch across pages and pages of newspapers, glossy magazines and academic reviews.
Verses are quoted selectively with no mention of exhortations to peace, which almost in every case follow teachings on conduct in armed struggle. "Thus, if they let you be, and do not make war on you, and offer you peace, God does not allow you to harm them" (4:90). Nor indeed is there any mention of the verses that form the bulk of the Qur’an that enjoin Muslims to treat with respect those of other faiths. "Let there be no coercion in religion" is the rule it lays down for the treatment of those of other convictions. A special status is reserved for Jews and Christians, whom it refers to as "the people of the book". Judaism and Christianity are not regarded as other religions but as intrinsic to Islam itself. Their God is its God, their prophets its prophets. In fact not only is Islam tolerant to these religions, since tolerance implies dualism and a fundamental difference between the subject and object of tolerance, it identifies itself with Judaism and Christianity and enjoins upon its adherents religious respect and devotion to the Prophets and revelations of these two great religions. It is indeed striking that while no religion preserved the shrines of another in its own base and enabled them to flourish in its midst except Islam, none has been so deeply misrepresented and cruelly disfigured as Islam has been.
Difference, according to the Qur’an, is not only to be tolerated and accepted. It is to be celebrated as the object of creation itself. The Qur’an emphatically notes "And had your Lord so willed, He could surely have made the whole mankind one single community, but He willed it otherwise, and so they continue to differ save among those on whom God has bestowed his grace and for this He has created them."
The principle governing relations between humans is, the Qur’an tells us, atta’aruf, or acquaintance. Addressing humankind it insists: "O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another" (49:13)--not to conquer, convert or subjugate but to reach out toward others.
If such is Islam’s conception of relations between human beings why we must ask do many extremist tendencies manifest themselves on its surface?
If we are to gain insight into the grave phenomena emerging in the Islamic world, we must free ourselves of the blind naďve essentialism characteristic of a great many analyses of the problem, which seek theological explanations for highly complex historical phenomena. The intensely intricate nature of the Islamic socio-political situation marked by striking contradictions and strong tensions is better understood when viewed within the context of the waves of Western imperialist expansion, of the crises of the post- colonial state and the reality of social deprivation, economic dependence and decadent educational systems unable to fill the vacuum generated by the erosion of traditional learning centers, along with the marginalization of the Muslim masses from the political system. The situation has been further complicated by American foreign policies in the Middle East, its backing of Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian land and insistence on an increasingly painful embargo on Iraq, which according to Columbia University researcher Richard Garfield, led to the death of 60,000 to 220,000 children between 1991 and 1998. The West’s support of despotic totalitarian regimes that annihilate all margins of freedom and stifle all voices of dissent proves to be another principal source of frustration. The U.S. is widely regarded by many in the Middle East as a crucial obstacle in their struggle for freedom from oppression. It is indeed interesting that the most despotic states in the Middle East region are those who have the closest ties with the U.S. and its Western allies. One indeed may legitimately ask if such totalitarianism is the product of Islam, or whether it is the creation of Western policies themselves.
It is to West’s hegemonic self-engrossed policies in the region that we should turn if we are to understand the causes of the great turmoil shaking Muslim societies to their very depths. Much to the horror of the journalists and intellectuals acting as the "enlightened missionaries" of new colonialism, it is America’s statesmen, generals and moneymen that hold the key to our search for the origins of so- called Islamic fanaticism and extremism, not the texts of the Qur’an or the tradition of Islam’s Prophet as they never tire of repeating.
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