Egyptian protestors are seen through an Islamist flag during a demonstration organized by Egyptian Islamists against the French intervention in Mali on January 18, 2013 in Cairo.
The rise of Islamist fundamentalist movements in various parts of the Islamic world and outside has given birth to many mentalities and viewpoints about the nature of these movements and the way they spread. During previous years, al-Qaeda and the Taliban were the focus of attention from media and theoreticians as the most broad-based and the most challenging underground and violent movements. Today, however, Daesh is in the limelight due to different methods that it uses to publicize its violent acts, in addition to the wave of immigrants that are fleeing wars in the Middle East and Africa. One of the questions that can be raised here is what relationship exists between such groups and Islam? Does being a Muslim have anything to do with membership in and the rise of such groups?
It is generally believed that violent armed groups are mostly founded by Muslims and their main goal is to promote the principles of Islam. It is also generally believed among non-Muslims and the public in the Western countries and among Christians that there is a direct relationship between believing in and commitment to the principles of Islam and fundamentalism. In other words, the more profound people believe in the religious principles of Islam, it is more possible for them to have fundamentalist ideas.
In reality, there is no positive or negative relationship between the degree of religiosity and fundamentalism. In fact, like other Muslim groups, fundamentalists cover a wide range from totally religious people committed to religious affairs to moderates and even those who lack a firm belief in religion. It is usually more common among them to use religion as a tool to promote their views; however, this does not mean that they are religious people, because bigotry and deviated beliefs form an integral part of their conviction. The most important part of their deviated conviction is lack of belief in human principles and unwavering human rights. This is while any true Muslim would reach the conclusion after studying the contents of Islam that this is a religion marked with compassion. At the same time, it strictly recommends Muslims not to give in to bullying, seek truth, support one another, and respect the rights of other people, especially those who are weak, poor, stranded in strange places, orphans, children and women, and even animals and plants and nature and those people who believe in God and monotheism. In this way, the apparently religious fundamentalists are unable to act upon real and humane criteria of Islam and take advantage of Islam as a tool to promote their goals. It is a reality that the content of Islam (including text of the Quran and Prophet Mohammad (PBUH)’s Sunna) has made way for all kinds of liberal, socialist, humanist and even belligerent interpretations. It only depends on the approach that the reader of the text takes to the text, and he can even reach a selfish conclusion on the basis of the apparent meaning of that text.
At present, most regions in the Islamic world are plagued with violent crises. We are witnessing that the main problems nagging Muslims stem from ethnic tensions, political issues (especially opposition to existing ruling systems), international issues (especially interferences by regional powers, neighbors and superpowers), unjustifiable poverty (because historical poverty does not cause crisis on its own), alternating or continuous economic stagnation and social crises. In fact insurgency in the name of religion is an effort to resolve these crises and overcome them. For example, in Syria, the power void resulting from the collapse of the central government in the neighboring country (that is, Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq), which used to use military means to suppress various ethnicities and tribes, became associated with unguided demands of various ethnic groups (due to historical absence of a democratic system and legitimacy of government). In later stages, when regional powers and global power blocs started to interfere in the country, it turned into an unsolvable crisis and provided a good breeding ground for fundamentalist forces.
In Afghanistan, historical ethnic tensions among various ethnicities (generally Pashtun, Hazara and Tajik), on the one hand, and intervention by foreign forces (including occupation of Afghanistan by the Red Army and before that Afghans’ wars with Britain, India and Iran), on the other hand, led to absence of a central government for many long years and this paved the way for the creation of a power void and the collapse of the traditional power system in Afghanistan. The factor that provided ground for the rise of the Taliban was a common message through which opposition forces were able to bring all groups together and claim to be capable of offering an Islamic and indigenous solution to unsolvable problems of Afghanistan. It was from here that Islamist fundamentalism started to grow in this country.
Part of the international fundamentalist terrorism came into being in reaction to domestic dictatorships and exploitation of nations through foreign interferences, and that part is currently accounting for the active body of the Islamist fundamentalism in terms of finances, organization, and even manpower. These people come from a disillusioned middle class, who have taken advantage of financial and information poverty in crisis-hit Islamic countries and try to impose their generally imaginary ideals on these nations. Arab nationals hailing from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, those promoting Egyptian ideas, as well as disillusioned forces from Caucasus and Tajik ethnicity account for the main members of this fundamentalist body, who have been able to come up with a common message under the aegis of Islam and buy legitimacy for their forces around that common message.
Those forces that live in such regions as Caucasus and Central Asia have become inclined toward fundamentalists due to disillusionment with totalitarian governments in these regions and extreme poverty. A large part of these people are migrant workers who are constantly migrating between the country where they work and the country where they live, and are paid low wages. Another part of these forces are disillusioned veterans of domestic wars and suppression, who have either lost a relative in those wars and serious harm has been done to their families, or are protesting to the status quo.
All in all, through a fair approach, religion, regardless of its diversity, cannot be blamed for all these acts of fundamentalism.
NB: This article first appeared in Iran Review.
Motahare Hosseini, an assistant professor, is the senior fellow at IRAS.