Islam and Modernity

We sometimes imagine that the besieged and occasionally violent form of religiosity known as fundamentalism is a uniquely Islamic trait. This is not the case. As Karen Armstrong has written, fundamentalism is a global fact and has surfaced in every major faith in response to the problems of modernity. American Christian fundamentalism began around 1900, and the Muslim variety surfaced in the 1950’s. Islamic fundamentalists sought to move religion from the sidelines back to the center of life by withdrawing into an enclave of pure faithas ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities do in Jerusalem and New York.

When Pope John Paul II and Mohammad Khatami, the president of Iran, met in Rome on March 11, 1999, there was much on which they agreed: the struggle against jahiliyyahthe ignorance or barbarism of the modern world. But for many Muslims the Koran allows no dichotomy between sacred and profane, religious and political; the aim is to integrate the whole of life in a community faithful to God. And fundamentalist Muslims invoke a strict and somewhat joyless reading of the law (shariah) over against the toleration and reconciliation the Prophet Muhammad preferred.


Violence and fundamentalism are not intrinsically linked, but violence has broken out in all forms of fundamentalismin Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Confucianism. Remember the Branch Davidians in Texas; Aum Shinrikyo, which gassed people in Tokyo subways; Baruch Goldstein, who machine-gunned scores of unarmed Muslim worshippers in Hebron in Israel; and, of course, Osama bin Laden.

All Islamic fundamentalists try to change the world. An early Pakistani fundamentalist, Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), was one of the first to unite Muslims against the colonial West. Because God is alone sovereign, nobody is obliged to take orders from any other human. Revolution against the colonial powers is a duty, a universal jihad, Mawdudi argued.

Mawdudi influenced the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), who considered Gamal Abdel Nasser an enemy of the faith, an apostate, whose government Muslims were duty-bound to overthrow. After the defeat of Arab armies in the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967, Nasser lost credibility and the whole Middle East swung toward religion. Students and workers created mosques in universities and factories, where groups like the Muslim Brotherhood could set up welfare societies (health care, education, counseling, temporary housing) to demonstrate that Islam worked better than the government. Where modern culture had an alien tenor, fundamentalists provided meaning and a spirituality that was accessible to the people.

For the first time fundamentalism summoned young people from spectator status to an active participation in their culture and, more to the point, gave them a sense of meaning and purpose, something none of their leaders tried to do. The Iranian revolution of 1978-79 can be seen in this light. In the 1960’s, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini brought Iranians into the streets to die by the thousands to protest the policies of Muhammad Reza Shah.

Many see Islam being taken over by a poisonous element, by small-minded theocrats who advocate cruel attitudes toward women, education, the economy and modern life in general. And one finds this all over, in Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesiawhere the faith is policed by religious commissars. The West is hated because its pop culture is corrupting their youth with its music, films, consumer products and secular values. The globalized economy is seen as making the West richer and them poorer. And the West’s support for Israel and its economic sanctions against Iraq are seen as attacks on Muslims.

Christianity’s record of crusades, inquisitions and pogroms shows that it has been as puritanical and violent as anything we find now among rigid Islamic fundamentalists. Only recently did Catholics learn the value of separating church and state and of respecting religious freedom. American and European Muslims may be key actors in helping Islam learn the same lesson, just as American Catholics helped teach this lesson to Catholicism. Only a free commitment can be trusted. Muslims must learn how to renounce the use of state coercion to enforce their religious orthodoxies. Indeed, in rejecting proselytism or forced conversion, Muhammad recognized that only a free religion would guarantee both civic peace and a vibrant religious faith.

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