30 December 2003

The Challenge of Fundamentalism - a review

THE CHALLENGE OF FUNDAMENTALISM: Political Islam and the New World Disorder, by Bassam Tibi. 262 pages. California, $19.95.

For two decades, Bassam Tibi, one of the tiny and dwindling number of Muslim liberals, has been preaching conciliation between his co-religionists and the rest of the world. “The Challenge of Fundamentalism,” which was written after the first Gulf War but before Sept. 11, 2001, then revised, represents a viewpoint that may need serious revision again as a result of the second Gulf War. Nevertheless, as a comprehensive and clarifying statement from one end of the political range, it repays reading.

If nothing else, it’s worth $19.95 to clear away the sappy misconception that Islam is a “religion of peace.”

Tibi explains that this refers not to peace now, but to a promise in the Koran that eventually the warfare between dar al-Islam (house of Islam) and dar al-Harb (house of war) will end with Islam triumphant. There will then be no more war between the houses, since one will have ceased to exist.

That such a childish tautology has status as profound doctrine in Islam shows how very different Islam is from other societies, leading some, like Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard, to predict a “clash of civilizations.”

Tibi also demolishes the idea that jihad means spiritual struggle. Of course it means armed violence, he says, which will hardly surprise anyone but the willfully ignorant.

“Fundamentalism” is an unfortunate term to use for American audiences, because it gets confused with Christian Fundamentalism, which is not even remotely similar to the Islamic kind. Nor, says Tibi, is Islamic fundamentalism either traditional or authentic. He contends that Islam as a religion should be viewed as an ethical system, that sharia does not derive from either the Koran or hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) and that Islamic fundamentalism is riddled with modern, although unacknowledged, concepts.

“The Challenge of Fundamentalism” is loosely reasoned, but among several candidates as the central point, Tibi argues that the concept of the nation-state is western and alien to the rest of the world — not just the Islamic part. The borders and the forms of government, not being organic to their societies, of course have failed.

With the Cold War ended, this hidden crisis springs into the open.

The situation is complex, with Tibi taking pains to try to separate out strands such as pan-Arabism, legal systems (Islam has four) and anti-colonialism.

He concluded, though, that Gulf War I was a political victory for Saddam Hussein. It’s a dubious proposition, but if ever true, it didn’t last.

Tibi, a Syrian who lives in the West (as almost all Muslim liberals must do to avoid being murdered), says that the political program of the Islamic fundamentalists can never succeed, but that does not mean they cannot create a “new world disorder” by trying.

He disparages military solutions from the West, suggesting instead that Islam as a religion could revert to an authentic tradition of rationality and secular government. Unfortunately, the last important Muslim philosopher who advocated rationalism died more than 500 years ago, and Tibi does not explain how to inculcate an admiration for rationalism in a billion people who are mostly illiterate, who do not enjoy a free press when they can read and whose leading intellectual institutions are avowedly antirational.

If there were suitable institutions, even he avers that “in the minds of the Islamic peoples . . . democracy is not an important issue.”

If that’s right, then Tibi’s program of “international morality and cross-cultural bridging” is more a counsel of despair than a practical political program.

He lets his guard down at one point, noting that “there are competing views of what the commonalities might be.”

In that case, then, they aren’t commonalities.

Nevertheless, Tibi is persuaded that the only alternative to a clash of civilizations (which Islam is certain to lose) is “cross-cultural morality.”

“The Challenge of Fundamentalism” is meant to be an optimistic analysis. It comes across the opposite.

Harry Eager

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Ooooh, that's gotta hurt!


An examination of what has grown into a multibillion-dollar contract to restore Iraq’s oil infrastructure shows no evidence of profiteering by Halliburton, the Houston-based oil services company [emphasis added]

Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr., New York Times

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Some things are worth the incoherence


If we have to have an incoherent, self-loathing “peace” movement, then women showing off their hooters in support of a culture that would stone them to death for showing off their ankles is about as good as it’s gonna get.

Mark Steyn

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