Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Religious Fundamentalism and the Legend of the Islamic Exception | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Eli Barnavi, a renowned Israeli thinker and historian and former ambassador to Paris, recently published a book entitled ‘Les Religions Meurtrieres’ (Murderous Religions) which was met with a lot of controversy. In his book, he dedicated an entire chapter to the notion of ‘revolutionary Islamic fundamentalism’, which he considers to be the biggest threat currently facing humanity.

Barnavi launches his book from a common anthropological notion which states that the Revealed Religions are characterized by aggressive and exclusionary visions, which are resultant of an understanding that is marked by certitude, a unilateral perception of truth and the adherence to a referential text in which that truth is embodied. By contrast, the Asian religions are closer to life’s philosophies and the attitudes related to them, while the ancient Greco-Roman religions were little more than a mechanism in society’s body of mechanisms.

The author argues that radical Christian fundamentalism no longer poses a problem because it was vanquished during Europe’s reform and enlightenment ages. Since its inception, Christianity has contained the seeds of secularity with its dual view of authority; the spiritual and the temporal. This led to the exclusion of religion from the public domain rendering it neutral and ridding it of its violent tendencies. Likewise, Barnavi sees that radical Jewish fundamentalism was also defeated, a consequence of the rise of the Zionist state which in turn incubated this radicalism into its political symbolism and democratic structures. As a result, this fundamentalism shifted to take on an isolated tendency that does not pose a threat to anyone – as long as the Jewish religion remains a national religion with no ambitions to covert others. For Barnevi, radical Islamic fundamentalism represents the sole exception in the Revealed Religions, its implication manifesting in all the world’s crises and all the crimes of terrorism and violence.

Rejecting the prevalent interpretations of the phenomenon of revolutionary Islamic radicalism; the socioeconomic approach, the ‘clash of civilizations’ approach and likewise the strategic historic approach, he defends another notion that is a popular one in early Orientalist literature which states that Islam’s ‘predicament’ relates to the fact that it is the only religion that does not separate between religion and politics, in addition to reserving no place for secularism as it is an approach that consolidates the values of human freedoms.

The author concludes his challenging book by calling upon the West to reject the notion of the Dialogue Among Civilizations, which he describes as ridiculous and naïve since it is founded on the right to diversity as a priority based on the values of enlightenment and secularization – which in turn are the values of the universal modern civilization. Barnavi additionally demands that the West redefine its methodology of war so as to defend its cultural and legal values against ‘Islamic fascism’.

The objective, however, is not to provide an extensive commentary on Barnavi’s propositions, which seem to have received a wide positive critical reception in the Western media (especially the French), rather the intention is to tackle the area related to the interpretation of the phenomenon of Islamic extremism. The emphasis will be on what is considered the inextricability of politics and religion in the basis of Islam, as opposed to the ‘peaceful’ nature of Christian and Jewish fundamentalism. And yet, the irony lies in the fact that Islamic movements reiterate that same argument (the organic union between religion and politics), however it generates from a different background that does not take into account the theoretical and procedural consequences of such an approach.

First, however, it must be emphasized that the claim that Jewish and Christian fundamentalism have been tamed within democratic systems is a false allegation. Violent events that have erupted and shaken the world in recent years contain enough evidence to negate the aforementioned premise; The Balkan Wars were instigated by Serbian Orthodox fundamentalism, and the crimes of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel claimed the life of former Israeli Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Rabin.

In reality, what we are witnessing is the employment of the religious fundamentalism discourse in political strategies that have come to feed on salvation mythology, which the existing secularity cannot mask even if it were to exclude religion from the public domain, as a creed and an ritualistic entity.

Renowned American Jewish Philosopher, Hannah Arendt, had arrived at this conclusion approximately 50 years ago. During the Cold War, she stated that the free world’s struggle against the tyranny of communism had stemmed from a growing tendency that sought to interpret this conflict in religious terms, which gave rise to the theme of ‘the return of religion’ to the public arena. This scene is clearly evident and the manifestations of which are clear in the rhetoric of the incumbent American President [George W.] Bush, a matter that requires no further elaboration.

However, this indicator would signify more than just a return of theocratic regimes to the West, or a decline in secularism, instead, the focus of the strategic outlook should rest on the Other using the same puritanical exclusive discourse, which Barnevi considered the essence of the religious ‘imagination’ that Islam has yet to emerge from.

This is untrue, contrary to what Barnevi and Islamic extremists believe that Islam is the only religion that associates between religion and politics and that religion monopolizes the constituents of political legitimacy.

Although it is known that all medieval societies had witnessed an association between the religious and political domains, a matter that does not concern our present exploration here, Islam was characterized by the fact that it has set two necessary and referential basis for the notion of the human administration of political matters, which is the deep background behind secularism (regardless of the ideological feud).

The first rudiment is eliminating the sanctity attributed to the state since it is an oppressive and worldly entity that cannot reflect the moral essence of religion (unlike traditional Jewish and Christian medieval communities). Moreover, neither the Islamic value system nor Islamic legislation call for a religious state. This system is regulated by ethical conduct values rather that the standards of civic values that have to do with the ancient Greek perception, which is matter that has been rejected by early scholars and thinkers (in the sense that the values of virtue cannot be fulfilled except in the city). This position is based on the fundamental division in Revealed Religions between the realm of the Divine and the realm of Humanity, which the early Muslim scholars deduced from that the affairs related to authority were contractual and set by humans and that they were not part of the fundamentals and principles of religion.

The dilemma is not one embodied in the customary question, as to whether there exists a political theory in Islam (this argument is advocated by those who are limited to principles of justices and equality, which are universal moral principles), but rather lies in the status of the state as an entity that preserves the pattern of shared collectivism in the religious reference system. The great advantage of the Islamic pattern, as understood by early Islamic scholars, is that it is a human gain that cannot be guised or embodied in the religion.

Apart from that understanding there is only the extravagance of fanatics or the misunderstanding of false interpreters.