A fork in the road: the radicalisation of Islam

A fork in the road: the radicalisation of Islam

Rajkumar Singh traces the course of Islam, from early lofty ideals to fundamentalism and terrorism

Current-day terrorism, typified by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism throughout Asia and other parts of the world, has many faces.

Its objectives are multifaceted and its operations multipronged. The world is its stage, making it a prime concern for governments and societies. No society is safe from its impact. It ranges from individuals to groups to international networks, posing a challenge to the internal intelligence systems of nation states.

Some analysts believe terrorism is a world war—not the third one, but the fourth. The first two were traditional and classical wars. The first ended European supremacy and the colonial era; the second ended Nazism. The third, which did not happen, as a dissuasive cold war, ended communism.

Each successive war went further towards creating a unique world order. But the fourth world war is elsewhere, haunting every global order and hegemonic domination. Like a virus, terrorism is everywhere and, like the shadow of any system of domination, is ready to emerge as a double agent. It has no boundaries and is in the very core of the culture that fights it.

At the root of today’s devastating terrorism is religious fundamentalism. Every religion comes into existence in a given society with its values, ethos, customs and traditions, and tries to reform society by providing certain ideals and values.

But human behaviour is never determined simply by the religion one follows. It is determined by several factors such as personal or group interest and inspiration, social mores and traditions, and tribal or national expectation Thus understanding a religion varies according to tribal, national and ethnic considerations—and one always finds a tension between the theological and the sociological.

Many voices

This tension can be creative or destructive, depending on the situation or approach of the people concerned. A religion, particularly if it has existed for a long period and continues to be practised, speaks to us in many voices. By expressing the diversity of historical experience, a religion allows for a degree of internal and external critique.

Religious extremism propagates intolerance and hatred of other communities, and generally leads to violence that may take the form of terrorism. When driven by political motives, it invariably leads to terrorism, as the aim of extremist groups is to capture or retain power. A fundamentalist sect or group may also want to isolate other sects or religious factions from the national mainstream to prevent them competing politically or gaining equal status.

Fundamentalists look on scriptures as the world of God. Fundamentalist traits have appeared in all the major religions. In Israel, the Gush Emunium claims that God has given the Land of Israel, with precise boundaries, to his children. In Sri Lanka, there are militant Buddhists.

However, it is Islamic fundamentalism that has the broadest global sweep, stretching from the Mediterranean through the Balkans, the Black Sea, across the Caucasus and southern Russia, through western China, enveloping Pakistan and Bangladesh, affecting India and moving on to southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

As the best organised fundamentalist force with a worldwide network, Islamic fundamentalism is, however, of an entirely different variety of Islam. It emanates from an extreme rigidity of beliefs and disdain for other religions, though it is against the true tenets of Islam.

Originally, the term Islam means submission to God, and as such designates a religion preached by the Prophet Muhammad at the beginning of the seventh century AD. Islam believes peace, prosperity, happiness and salvation lie in obedience to God. According to Islam, the prophets who preceded Muhammad were all true prophets, and Islam is nothing but a confirmation of the true faith taught by previous religions and teachers.

Vital force

Religion is certainly a vital force in every society, and Muhammad made Islam a permanent force, vitally, by giving it a natural and rational basis. (The Koran: 5.35). In spreading from Arabia to Asia, Africa and Europe, Islam could embrace diverse social and ethnic countries, and it emerged as a universal religion from the beginning.

As the scripture of Islam, the Koran is the authentic source of Islamic teaching. Its emphasis on the need for tolerance of diversity and the sanctity of life is worth noting. Islamic teaching also emphasises the universal concept of religion such as the unity of God and the unity of the human race.

As to the sanctity of human life, the Koran says ‘anyone who kills a human being if not in retaliation for a murder, nor for causing corruption in the land must be accounted to have killed all mankind, and who ever saves a life it will be as if he had saved the life of all mankind’. Islam’s concept of the unity of man had deep and far-reaching effects on the social, political, economic and moral way of life of Muslims.

Muhammad outlined an ideology couched in religious terms from which it was almost impossible to escape

Islam started as a great revolutionary movement based on equality, human dignity and justice. These ideals were partly acceptable to the tribal society of Mecca. Equality and human dignity were acceptable in a limited way within tribal social boundaries. Members of a tribe could be accepted as equals, but not those of other tribes, who could be accepted only as clients.

Radical Islam is what Muhammad is believed to have given to the citizens of Medina after his fight from Mecca. He outlined an ideology couched in religious terms from which it was almost impossible to escape. It offered no accommodation except on its terms, ruled out all compromises, and demanded an allegiance in which any violation was declared blasphemous and invited instantaneous annihilation.

As radical Islam spread far beyond Mecca and Medina, often in the shadow of the sword, it encountered powerful ideas which sometimes mellowed it and led to the emergence of new sprouts.

In the circumstances, the concept of universal brotherhood and inter-tribal equality created social tensions throughout Islamic history. Even within Arab society these became explosive after the death of the Prophet. By the time he died, different Arabian tribes had embraced Islam.

Thus the ideas of radical Islam are in contrast to the Koran’s message that the mystery of divine mercy is also being experienced in other traditions. Muhammad accorded this worldview and encouraged Muslims to approach non-Muslims with respect and learn how the mystery of God found expression in older traditions.

With their internationalist attitude and travel for trade or in search of knowledge, Muslims became the pioneers of interreligious dialogue. Their desire to understand what other cultures might have to offer enriched their cultural heritage. However, these lofty ideals received a setback when the tribe of Quraysh claimed the Caliphate, quoting a hadith of superiority over other tribes.

Featured image
‘Flag of the Taliban Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Dr Rajkumar Singh is professor and head of the Postgraduate Department of Political Science, Bhupendra Narayan Mandal University, West Campus, Bihar, India.

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