The Intellectual Fathers of Fundamentalism

From: Joe Dees (
Date: Fri Jan 18 2002 - 00:34:01 MST

('binary' encoding is not supported, stored as-is) Osama’s Library

Lisbeth Lindeborg, Dagens Nyheter (liberal), Stockholm, Sweden, Oct. 25, 2001

In a TV interview this week, we could see Osama bin Laden in front of his bookshelves. Ma’alim fi al-tariq (Milestones) is probably among the titles. This best seller by Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of Islamic fundamentalism, is said to have been published in close to 2,000 editions.

What Sayyid Qutb has to say makes Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial The Clash of Civilizations appear relatively tame. “After the complete breakdown of democracy, Western civilization has nothing else to give humanity....The dominance of Western man has reached its end. The time has come for Islam to take the lead,” writes Qutb.

Most of Qutb’s books can no longer be ordered at bookstores. Just recently, they were banned by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But millions of pirate copies are being distributed. In Germany, copies are available from Islamic religious associations. The common theme in Qutb’s writings is his prognosis that the Western, secularized world, which is deeply inferior to Islam, must be replaced by an Islamic world order.
Qutb made this assessment upon his return to Egypt after completing his academic education in the United States in 1950. But for former Egyptian President Gamal Nasser, such trains of thought were all too subversive, and in 1966 he had Qutb executed.

This is explained by Bassam Tibi, a professor of political science at Göttingen, Germany, and at Harvard. Tibi is one of the world’s leading authorities on Islamic fundamentalism. As a Muslim born and raised in Syria, and as a student of Max Horkheimer at Frankfurt on the Main, he had the early advantage of living and working in two civilizations. In a large number of books, he analyzes the development of Islamic fundamentalism in relationship to other movements within the Muslim world. He also points to the political implications this development brings with it for the world’s 55 Islamic nations, for Europe with its 23 million Muslim immigrants, and for global development. In book after book, Tibi repeatedly stresses the importance of distinguishing between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism or Islamism. The latter is a new phenomenon with ideological roots in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928.

The humiliation of the Six-Day War in 1967 [against Israel] gave rise to a repoliticization of Islam with “revolt against the West” as the leading train of thought. But according to the Islamists, the West isn’t only found in the West. Since a considerable portion of the Muslim world adopted elements of modernity, Islamists are directing their fight equally as much against the “Westernization” of their own civilization—a type of Muslim civil war. This war against their fellow believers—albeit apostate—is being waged with terror, especially in Algeria, where approximately 100,000 people have been murdered.

The explicit goal is to spread Islamism across the entire Muslim world. According to Tibi, after the election victory of the fundamentalists in Algeria in 1991, a strategy was drawn up for the complete Islamization of the Mediterranean region, complete with maps.

Yet, even if most of modernity is rejected as ungodly, an exception is made for technology and science, such as weapons technology. “Our goal is to learn how to handle modern weapons, how to produce and develop them further, so that we can conquer our enemies,” proclaims the Egyptian Islamist Hasan al-Sharqawi in another best seller al-Muslimun ‘ulama’ wa-hukama (Muslims and Scientists) from 1987.

In his books and interviews, Tibi goes straight to the heart of the matter: “The goal of the Islamic fundamentalists is to abolish the Western, secular world order and replace it with a new Islamist divine order....The goal of the Islamists is a new imperial, absolutist Islamic world power.”

One of the Muslim world’s most widely read social theorists, Tibi points out, is Pakistani Abu al A’la al-Maududi (1903-79), a follower of Sayyid Qutb. One of the central themes for al-Maududi is his plea for Hakimiyyat Allah, in other words, the supremacy of God—in contrast to democracy. But democracy, a “dreadful system,” according to al-Maududi, is incompatible with Islam. That people should govern themselves instead of God and his representatives is a heretical idea. Democracy is therefore a symptom of kufr (lack of faith), writes al-Maududi in his best seller al-islam wa al-madaniyya al-haditha (Islam and Modern Civilization).

The same trains of thought are presented by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a sheik from Egypt, who is considered to be Islam’s foremost contemporary ideologue. In three comprehensive volumes, Hatmiyyat al-hallal-Islami, al-Quaradawi presents an “Islamic solution” in contrast to “imported solutions.” In addition to abolishing democracy, he also contends that the rise of nation-states has contributed to the decline of Islam. Instead, a return should be made to the Islamic community, the umma.
Since they seldom find support for their ideology in the Quran, the Islamists have created new interpretations of well-known and accepted terms. Besides new interpretations of “jihad,” or holy war, Tibi points to the term “imam,” which in addition to its usual meaning of a priest for a mosque congregation, also refers to a spiritual and worldly leader with the task of holding the world’s Muslims together.

The Islamists, explains Tibi, have now expanded the term “imam.” For them an imam is a leader who has gone underground, such as Bin Laden. By calling him “imam,” the fundamentalists implicitly grant him the highest status within the Islamic public.

A common theme for Islamists is their desire to close off their world from the Western world. This is behind the demand of Bin Laden and other prominent figures to exclude non-Muslims from the Muslim world. The same self-chosen ghettoization can be found among Islamists in the Muslim-European diaspora, a deeply disturbing trend, observes Tibi.

Under the cover of religious congregations, the Islamists are invisible to the outside world. In this way “active Islamists are abusing the right to asylum and religious freedom in Europe for their own interests. The logistical center of militant fundamentalists is not in the Middle East or Central Asia, but in Western Europe,” explains Tibi.

For example, German security police were able to stop an Islamist terrorist group in Frankfurt on the Main from blowing up a Christmas market in Strasbourg in December 2000. In 1998, another group led by Metin Kaplan, “the Caliph from Cologne,” planned a terrorist attack in Ankara during the 75th anniversary of the Turkish republic. If Turkish security police had not suspected mischief, the Caliph—who met with Bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1997—could have turned the celebrations into a bloodbath. Kaplan is currently sitting in prison, but the group, with approximately 8,000 members, is still active.

Even larger than the Kaplan group is “Milli Görrüs,” with 30,000 members. Tibi estimates the number of fundamentalists at roughly 100,000 in Germany alone, in a Muslim population of 3.5 million.

But how many of these people are terrorists, so-called “sleepers,” no one knows. They hide themselves in the above-named organizations, in certain mosque congregations, and in charitable organizations. Despite the fact that the German Office of Constitutional Protection warned of these activities for many years, politicians are only now reacting. After Germany, Tibi claims that Sweden, Holland, and Belgium have the most “sleepers” in Europe.

How widespread is Islamic militancy? According to Tibi, a distinction must be made between “worldview fundamentalists,” who may embrace the hope for Islam’s future supremacy, while rejecting terror—and militant activists or terrorists. In Pakistan for example, Tibi estimates the number of fundamentalists at half the population, but the percentage of those ready to resort to violence is roughly 3-5 percent.

Tibi himself commutes between West and East as a sort of messenger of peace and is among a handful of prominent Muslim intellectuals who are demanding the separation of religion and politics. He views the events in September as a considerable setback. “Today, I must admit that the fundamentalists’ war—up until now a war of values—has taken on a military dimension that has manifested itself in the jihad-soldier’s terrorism.”

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