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The suicide of fundamentalism
Maruf Khwaja, 14. januar 2001
The speed, reach and supports of today’s Islamic terrorism owe much to globalisation. But there is a silent majority building in the Islamic world, and among the young people of its diaspora. Can they take the fanaticism out of fundamentalism?
Terrorism, said US secretary of state Colin Powell, speaking in the grim aftermath of Manhattan, ‘is part of the dark side of globalisation’. It was an unexpected moment of retrospection on a day of flux, of mounting, irrepressible rage. America cried in pain, bared to the world not only its wounded heart but also, not for the first time, its loaded six-gun, and made ready, so it seemed, to draw and shoot from the hip. But if Powell had swung his torch a little wider, he might have momentarily highlighted another, equally dark side of globalisation. Islamic fundamentalism owes the reach and speed of its spread to that very phenomenon.
About a hundred years ago, it took Abdelaziz Ibn Saud, founder of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia (contemporary America’s staunchest ally in the Islamic world), more than 10 years to propagate and enforce the doctrine of Wahhabism – the parent of today’s fundamentalist ideology – upon a cowed populace of a few thousand in a region about half the size of George W. Bush’s home state. Now consider this: it took his principal modern torch bearer and pretender to the Caliphate, Osama bin Laden – advocate of a similar rampant, fundamentalist Islam – half that time to spread his version of the creed across the globe. He won the fanatical loyalty of a multitude of regimented cohorts willing to kill and die for him, thanks to the efficacy of globalisation.
But another, positive side to globalisation may be at work amid the din and clamour of demands for retribution. It is difficult to hear; the sound of reason is seldom heard. However, at least in the West, and possibly everywhere, I think we could be witnessing the end of Islamic fundamentalism. It committed suicide at the same time as the hijackers did.
You may not think it possible when you look at the oppressive, absolutist cultures that yoke many parts of the Muslim world to the will of greedy, insecure rulers, and are whipped into line by toady religious establishments. But like our own in times of political turmoil, that world, too, has a silent majority. As one born and bred within it, I can assure you that it is not fundamentalist or given to extremes. Nor is the Islamic religion inherently an instrument of oppression.
It is a starkly simple creed, and surprisingly flexible. That majority does not go to the mosque five times a day to pray behind ignorant, barely literate mullahs or endure the privations of Ramadan in the murderous heat of summer. Much less does it volunteer to commit murder and suicide at the call of mullahs hopelessly out of touch with the real, competitive world. A vocal and virulent minority has hijacked the public domain, unleashing a culture of bitter, silent compliance, at the behest of absolutist regimes armed to the teeth and propped up by greedy, hypocritical Western governments. The creaks and groans you might have heard from the East in the aftermath of Manhattan could be that silent majority struggling to stand up.
The picture of immigrant Islam in the West is, despite the pervasive sense of doom and gloom, far brighter and more open. As an aging population of first generation immigrants reluctantly makes way for generations locally born and bred, the character of the Muslim communities undergoes an inexorable change. The language of the elders, whatever they may pretend – and pretending is an original sin of Muslim history – is all but going with them to the grave. Language is the umbilical cord that binds an immigrant community to its distant motherland. Take that away and a major element of hardline cultural conservatism disappears. In today’s Britain, an ethnic Asian schoolboy given a choice between taking French, Spanish or English and Urdu-Hindi classes, is more likely to pick the language of knowledge and science. (If you heard, rather than merely saw, the young Asian rioters of Burnley and Oldham in Britain some weeks ago, you might have noticed that their cursing and abusing, albeit deplorable, were in pure Lancashire dialect!)
Yes, the younger generation of Muslim Americans and Europeans who can hardly understand the Potohari rantings of mullahs imported from Mirpur is far more aware of and sensitive to their cultural environment than the older. They are sick and tired of the fundamentalist inheritance, forced upon them by a generation that, by and large, lives in the past and revels in problems and disputes they should have left behind when they first migrated. Yes, they are desperate to make their way in the highly competitive societies they now inhabit. Either that, or they will rot in the ghettoes inhabited by their parents and grandparents. The Manhattan catastrophe could turn out to be the excuse they have been looking for to finally cast off unsustainable burdens. It may not happen suddenly, but it will happen.
Intimate with computers and the Internet, the people I speak of, my community, if you like, we differ from each other in most important ways. But we are all the products of the same globalisation process that on the one hand, transfers theology from Multan, Punjab to Newark, New Jersey; and on the other, downloads pornography from forbidden sites. True, globalisation is corrupting; but it is also liberating. Yes, it may have taken fundamentalism from Kabul to Kansas, but it is also knocking down the walls of rabid conservatism in Iran and Arabia.
How the young decide to use their liberation will determine which direction their communities and their culture will take us in the post-Manhattan era that is already upon us. But don’t be too surprised if, given the space and time, they use their sense of justice to take the fanaticism out of fundamentalism.