Issue 48, December 2006

Fundamentalism: a way to peacebuilding?
Dr Mohamed Mosaad

The Middle East conflict is perhaps the most cited conflict as a clear example of the negative role religion might play in complicating an already inflamed political crisis. What prevented political solutions, as those conducted in Oslo and Camp David II, from achieving their goals was simply, it is claimed, the mutual religious fundamentalism. How can you make peace with a nation, which your holy book asserts you will fight? How can you convince someone who is committing suicide that peace is good because it gives him better education and a better job? Besides, how can you divide a piece of land between two peoples when each people’s holy book grants the entire land to the holder of this book?

Admitting the significance of religion, particularly in its ability to make peace fail, it was advised that peacebuilders must refer to religion in speeches, writings and activism. It was also thought that once the “religious leaders” instruct their corresponding followers of making peace the followers will automatically shift to a peace agenda. The two pieces of advice were observed but unfortunately the results were disappointing. In Islam the religious leaders’ liberal arguments that Ben Laden has no right to interpret the Koran, his ideology is wrong and Islam “naturally” calls to peace, have fallen on deaf ears.

What went wrong was that depriving Ben Laden from his right to read and interpret the text is simply self-contradictory with a liberal discourse. Second, the emphasis on the need of a new liberal reading to advocate peace sounds conspiratory to mainstream Arab Muslims as it puts the result of the fatwa before conducting its very process. Third, what legitimizes a religious discourse and makes it theologically authentic is not the results it reaches, but rather the strict methodology it follows to reach those results. In other words, it is not the question, of what but that of how, which matters.

Fundamentalism is a migrating concept that has held different meanings in different milieus. In the Islamic theological sphere the meaning it carries is one of orthodoxy; the going back to the two Islamic fundamentals, Koran and Sunna, in encountering the contemporary events and problems. As such its meaning is desirable and respected, leaving behind a very negative sense of heresy and schism to whatever becomes its opponent. The Islamic discourse that calls for using violence has legitimized itself by sticking to fundamentalism, in methodological terms. On the other hand, those Islamic discourses that call for peace have unfortunately used both liberal rhetoric that pleases Western media and politicians, and ethical preaching that convinces no one.

To encounter the violence-discourse one must first critique it both conceptually and methodologically. We have to isolate the corner-stones' concepts of this discourse and then pay them a serious and patient analysis using the traditional methodology Muslim scholars have built up and observed for many centuries. We must also examine the structure of the discourse and the consistency of its arguments; how concepts, pieces of texts and old writings are woven together to make up, and rationalize, an independent body of knowledge with a specific political agenda.

There is a long list of conflict-making concepts such as Jihad, Martyrdom, The Jews, Holy Land, Islamic State, the Prophecy… In their new context Jihad would mean an eternal war against non-Muslims, Martyrdom will be used to legitimize suicide operations against civilians, The Jews will reflect a pan-historical transcendental mass of people, which is destined to a hostile attitude against Muslims and the Holy Land will grant a sacred nature to a piece of land with the creation of new specific political regulations and considerations while approaching it. The Islamic State will turn into an integral part of religion, a necessary political system that is essential to the practice of Islam, and which overcasts the political relations and the land and people it ever ruled with a set of must-observed regulations. The whole discourse is led by a prophecy, a view of the future, and it is not a future of peace. It is a future of war between Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land that will mark the end of this world. How would nice rhetoric like “Islam and Salam have the same linguistic root” shift swiftly these giant obstacles?

Far from being in need to quit the traditional methodology, or to reject the ancient works and writings, we have rather to work them out. By using such a fundamentalist critique, and ultimately founding a new encountering discourse we will achieve two main goals. First, we will show up the inconsistency and the major, sometimes fatal, mistakes the violence-discourse is committing from a traditional point of view. Second, embarking on the rich and diverse Islamic works, which have been carved out through different and quite contradictory historical contexts, we will prove that the known fundamentalist discourse is not the only possible one of its kind. An authentic traditionalist discourse, which yet maintains a peaceful political agenda, is also possible.

Would that automatically solve the Middle East conflict? Certainly not! The conflict has so many elements that the religious element is only one of them. That however will help to solve the problem by neutralizing its inflammable religious element. Most religious people, I believe, want peace. For them, the economic promises are not enough and the ethical preaching is almost meaningless. They need and long for an outlet, a legitimized authentic outlet. This approach aims to offer them what I think is the only possible one for them!

Dr Mohamad Mosaad Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian psychiatrist and anthropologist, is presently researching at the Department of Religion, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.

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