A perspective on Islamic fundamentalism, from 1992

“The furious and malignant anti-Westernism of the Islamic fundamentalists is in part an expression of the Arab world’s rage at itself. It is in certain respects an outpouring of Arab agony over what is regarded as cultural surrender to the West. From this standpoint, Islamic fundamentalism is a weapon with which people who feel they have been overpowered by the West for almost three centuries try to strike back. In defense of their greatly damaged sense of self-esteem, the Arabs are attempting to prove that their institutions, their way of life, and in essence their whole culture is not inferior to that of the West.

“While Islamic fundamentalism flails at the West, it also assaults contemporary Arab life, striking at the divisions of Arab society. The Arab world as much as any other major geographic and cultural region in the world has been bombarded by the swiftly changing twentieth century. Population has relentlessly increased, causing cities to explode, which in turn has upset the comfortable networks of families that traditionally ran them. Concurrently, the availability of education released many of the middle and lower middle classes from the curse of political impotence, giving them a voice with which to express new convictions, grievances, and hopes. They became the Gamal Abdul Nassers and the Hafiz Assads of the modernizing Arab world. As a result, an enormous gap has developed between the traditional leaders and this new elite on the one hand and between the new elite and the masses on the other. Their conflict is one of identity more than politics. It is identity expressed in terms of the proper relationship between the heritage of the past and the needs of the present. In the tension that surrounds them, all the tormenting questions explored by earlier generations as to whether Islam should define Arab politics or whether the future lies in secularism have once more surfaced. And once more, Arab society seems unable to find an answer.

“In striking ways, the Arab world is suffering some of the same social tensions that Mecca suffered at the time of Muhammed. As in seventh-century Arabia, the rapid growth of commerce and a money economy especially since the 1970s has widened the chasm between the rich and the poor and between the influential and their dependents. New wealth has led to new life-styles that break with the past. The kinship of money supplants that of blood in a milieu in which money and power measure the man. It is all in contradiction to the values Muhammed laid down for Islamic society.

“Muhammed taught that the pure man was a grateful man who prayed to God for the forgiveness of sin, helped his fellow man, avoided all forms of cheating, led a chaste life, and cleansed himself of the love of wealth. This was Islam — the surrender to God. Those originally drawn to it were men who resented their inferior positions compared to those at the top of the social order. In the 1980s, Islam became the language of political discourse. Its powerful words denounce Western power and influence, those subservient to Western influence, those governments regarded as corrupt, and society generally, which seems to have lost its moral principles and its direction. To those lost in the present, Islam promises an answer, no matter how imperfect, to the complicated problems of a stagnated society. It calls to men shut out of the political process by the new elites, and it connects the confused and uncertain to the traditions of the past and to the glories of the Arabs.

“To regard Islamic fundamentalism as purely reactionary would be false. For there is at work in it also a praiseworthy constructive endeavor to build a modern society on the basis of justice and humanity, as an extrapolation from the best values that have been enshrined in the tradition from the past. It represents in part a determination to sweep aside the degeneration into which Arab society has fallen, the essentially unprincipled social opportunism interlaced with individual corruption; to get back to a basis for society of accepted moral standards and integrated vision, and to go forward to a program of active implementation of popular goals by effectively organized corps of disciplined and devoted idealists. This is Islamic fundamentalism at its best. At its worst, it is a repressive throwback to the past that refuses to come to terms with the present and expends its energy manning the barricades against the West.

“There is a perpetual struggle among Arabs between those who look to Islam and the Arab world for their political culture and those who look to secular government with institutions modeled on those of the West. The secularists, who have been dominant in the twentieth century, have not been successful in achieving either stability or prosperity. Thus Islamic fundamentalism is on the ascent in part because, having failed to eradicate their problems through modernization, many Arabs believe those problems can be relieved by returning to tradition.”

–Sandra MacKey, Passion and Politics: The Turbulent World of the Arabs (1992)

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