Karen Armstrong September 18, 2003 Guardian/UK
History can tell us a great deal about the profile of these movements. Wherever a western-style, secularist society has been established, a religious counterculture has developed alongside it. The persistence of this militant piety shows a disturbing and worldwide alienation from western modernity. Every group that I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam has experienced secularism as destructive, and is engaged in a battle designed to push God and religion back to centre stage. All are convinced that the secularist liberal establishment is determined, in one way or another, to wipe them out.
Only a small minority of fundamentalists take part in acts of terror, but when people feel that their backs are to the wall, they can lash out violently. In the past, any attempt to suppress a fundamentalist group has usually made it more extreme, because it has simply confirmed this deep-rooted fear of annihilation. Far from quelling Islamist terror, Israel's assassination of its leaders has only inspired Hamas to further atrocities, and the invasion of Iraq, which had no links with al-Qaida, has predictably opened a new terror front, convincing some Muslims that the west is truly engaged in a new crusade against the Islamic world.
Yet even though they have given us terrifying demonstrations of their power, those brought up in the secular tradition find it difficult to assess these movements. "Whoever cared about religion?" cried an exasperated official in the US state department after the Iranian revolution. People seem to assume that Muslim extremists are mechanistically driven by a fanatical strain inherent in Islam itself, which is patently not the case, since the terrorism that currently concerns us is chiefly confined to the Arab world, which makes up only 20% of the Islamic population. It is widely believed that the terrorists are simply inspired by a fanatical yearning for paradise and martyrdom that has fuelled both Hamas and the Iranian revolution in exactly the same way.
Ironically, we tend to become like our enemies. In describing his war against terror as a battle between good and evil, President Bush has unwittingly reproduced the rhetoric of Bin Laden, who subscribes to a form of Sunni fundamentalism that divides the world into two diametrically opposed camps in just the same way. The west has also cultivated its future enemies, by arming Bin Laden and other Arab mujahedin in Afghanistan during the cold war and by giving initial support to the Taliban. These exploitative policies reflect a thinly veiled contempt; the religious ideas of these groups were dismissed as beneath serious consideration. Yet to those who had studied these movements it was clear long before 9/11 that fundamentalists all over the world were expressing fears and anxieties that no government could safely ignore.
The west has contributed to the growth of radical Islam in the region by repeatedly supporting undemocratic regimes, which allow little effective opposition. As a result, the only place where the people have been able to express their anger and discontent has been the mosque. Iran is the classic case. After the Mossadeq government deposed the shah in 1953, British intelligence and the CIA organised a coup that put him back on the throne. The US continued to support the shah, even though he denied Iranians human rights that most Americans take for granted. The result was the Islamist revolution of 1978-79.
Had its intelligence taken the trouble to learn more about the dynamics of Shiism, the US could have avoided bad mistakes in Iran. We can no longer dismiss religious movements with secularist disdain, but must study them as seriously as other ideologies. In particular, we must educate ourselves to see the distress, helplessness, fear and, latterly, rage that underlie the various fundamentalisms, if only because these groups now have powers of destruction that were formerly only the prerogative of nation states.
Terrorism is wicked and abhorrent, but it has not come out of the blue. If we simply write off these movements as irrational and inexplicable, we will feel no need to examine our own policies and behaviour. The shocking nihilism of the suicide killers shows they feel they have nothing to lose. Millennial or fundamentalist extremism has risen in nearly every cultural tradition where there are pronounced inequalities of wealth, power and status. The only way to create a safer world is to ensure that it is more just. [Abridged].
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