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T r e a s u r e s 2007
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Farhang Jahanpour, TFF Associate


March 11, 2007

Today marks the third anniversary of the terrible bombings in Madrid that killed nearly 200 people and wounded hundreds more, an outrage that was committed by some fundamentalists acting in the name of Islam. This was followed by similar bombings when four terrorists blew themselves up in tube stations and buses in London and killed 52 innocent people, including my cousin's daughter, and wounded over a hundred more people.

This event, and of course the much greater tragedy on 9/11, are manifestations of a very ugly phenomenon that has developed among a small minority of radical Muslims who have a deep sense of grudge against those whom they hold responsible for the afflictions that have beset the Islamic world.

Yet it would be as wrong to define their activities as the evidence of a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West, as it would have been wrong to describe the IRA atrocities as a clash of civilisations between Catholicism and the West, or the numerous suicide-bombings of Tamil tigers as a clash between Hinduism and Buddhism. It is also important to bear in mind that the Al-Qa'ida and other terrorist groups do not only pose a threat to the West, but to the whole world, including the Islamic world. This is why these terrorists are not being fought only in the West, but also in Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and many other Islamic countries. In those countries, one cannot say that the terrorists represent a clash of civilisations between Islam and those largely Muslim countries. Terrorists are terrorists, and they should not be glorified by any association with any major religion.

Nevertheless, the return of religious fundamentalism – and for that matter all kinds of fundamentalism, including political fundamentalism – is a disturbing reality of our modern age, and unless we find a cure to it, all of us will suffer its evil consequences. Instead of looking at individual cases and demonising certain religions, it is important to look for the reasons behind the growth of fundamentalism and militancy in all cultures and religions. Here are some characteristics that are common among all religious fundamentalists:

1. They have a blinkered view of reality and see the world only through their own narrow perspective. They have reduced religions that have produced complex civilisations, philosophies and cultures into one-dimensional and narrow concepts. Muslim militants have reduced Islam with its amazing mystical and philosophical dimensions to Shari'a, or the compendium of Islamic penal codes mainly put together by Medieval theologians that are completely out of keeping with modern realities.

Many Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are also guilty of the same offence. Ask why they believe in something and they quote you a verse from the Bible, the Gospels or the Koran, not realising that those teachings were written at a time and a place, completely different from the world in which we live today

2. The fundamentalists are reactionary and backward-looking, instead of innovative and forward-looking. As the result of their limited approach towards religion, they make religion look like a stagnant pool. They do not realise that if religion were not a changing and dynamic phenomenon it would stagnate and die like a swamp.

Religion is or should be like a flowing river. It moves on and takes on the colour and the shape of the channels and the courses it runs through. All religions have been greatly influenced and often improved by the cultures and civilisations that they have come into contact with, but to the fundamentalists innovation is heresy. In fact the Arabic word bid'ah or innovation also stands for heresy.

3. Another problem with the fundamentalists is that they believe in the literal meaning of their texts. They do not realise that the literal text is a shallow text. Any profound and lasting text is complex and multi-layered and requires the mediation of human intelligence, understanding, interpretation and hermeneutics. The text by itself is mute. They find their meaning through the interaction of our minds, insight, understanding and vision.

To take the literal meaning of the texts that were written centuries or thousands of years ago is not only an injustice to those texts, it is even profoundly harmful and dangerous. In the words of Christ, 'the word killeth, the spirit giveth life.' The Koran tell us that it contains two types of verses, the muhkamat or clear texts that do not require any interpretations and mutashabihat or allegorical texts that should be read with the eye of the soul, whose meaning can be understood only by 'those who are firmly-grounded in knowledge'.

4. The fourth problem with the fundamentalists is that not only that they have a narrow understanding of religion, they wish to impose their views on others. They are not content with believing what they do but they expect others to have the same narrow vision of reality. If others do not agree with their prejudices, they force it on them through violence.

Therefore, fundamentalists are also violent. Speaking after the 9/11 atrocities, former President Mohammad Khatami said of the perpetrators of that crime: "They have self-mutilated their minds and hearts and tongues and can only communicate through the language of violence." The philosophy of the fundamentalists is 'I am right; you are dead."

5. However, despite their aggressive behaviour, the fundamentalists also suffer from a feeling of victimhood. They believe that the whole world is against them. Regarding themselves as the true custodians of truth, they believe that those who do not share their views are intent on destroying them. Not believing in pluralism and the relativity of truth, they think that 'you are either with us or against us'. Any deviation from the 'straight path', as they see it, is a declaration of war against them and their narrow ideology. Therefore, they see it as their mission to fight against the enemies of 'God' and 'Truth'.

6. Another characteristic of fundamentalism is that it is a reaction to change and modernism. It is a rearguard action and really has no message for today or tomorrow. Like simple people who are suddenly confronted with a complex situation and are baffled, the fundamentalists also react to modernism with rage and resistance. They are basically frightened. They are frightened of change, of modernism and development. They feel insecure in themselves and their beliefs. Consequently, they lash out against what they do not understand. They want to stick to the status quo and prevent the march of history.

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7. The fundamentalists are filled with hate and with rage, while all religions have preached tolerance, humility, patience, forbearance and love.

Buddha taught: "It is not by hatred that hatred shall cease, it is by love that hatred shall cease."

The Bible teaches: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Christ went even further and taught: "Love your enemy as yourself" and 'turn the other cheek.'

Muhammad preached: 'You will not go to heaven unless you have faith, and your faith will not be complete unless you love one another.' The Koran says: "A man who kills another human being it is as though he has killed mankind", because killing is an act of sacrilege against God's creation." The Koran also states: "Goodness and evil cannot be equal. Repel (evil) with something that is better. Then you will see that he with whom you had enmity will become your close friend. And no one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint."

In the words of Justice Louis D. Brandeis, "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding."

The biggest challenge that mankind faces today is to prevent the views of the 'men of zeal' to predominate. What the world is facing is not a clash of civilisations, but a clash between a liberal and pluralistic view of the world, and one based on religious and political dogmatism and fundamentalism.

What is needed is not resort to force but a clash of ideas and an effort towards greater understanding and tolerance.




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