In Search of a Progressive Islamic Response to 9/11, Farid Esack (2002)

In Search of a Progressive Islamic Response to 9/11, Farid Esack (2002)


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It is not sufficient to say that we must return to Islam. We must specify which Islam: That of Abu Dharr or that of Marwan, the ruler […] One is the Islam of Caliphate, of the palace, and of rulers. The other is the Islam of the people, of the exploited, and of the poor. (`Ali Shari`ati cited Abrahimian, 1982, pp. 14-15)

They may prefer to burn the temple down, rather than succumb to the worship of a foreign god. (Paul Salem, 1993, 364)


Defining Progressive Islam

In some ways all attempts at definitions are authoritarian. Like any social movement progressive Islam has a contingent nature and is likely to be interpreted in a variety of different ways. What Moghissi said about Islamic feminism is equally applicable to Progressive Islam: “There is no coherent, self-identified and or easily identifiable Islamic feminist ideology and movement operating within the boundaries of Islamic societies” (1999, 126) While there is – or aught to be – a dynamism with any phenomenon described as ‘progressive’ there may be certain parameters beyond which one cannot stretch the application of the term and still make any claims to coherence. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out, “any term which tries to cover everything would end up meaning nothing in particular, since signs work by virtue of their differences” (1996, 103). The Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines “progressive” as “moving forward, advocating progress or reform”. In a political or ideological context the term has decidedly leftist overtones and is usually juxtaposed with “reactionary”, i.e., being wedded to the status quo or to conservative political ideas. In critical discourse the term “progressive” also denotes an affinity with some form of communitarianism as opposed to liberalism which espouses greater individualism. Many leftists use the terms exclusively in relation to them as an ideological group engaging in a radical critique of society and challenging the structural basis of various injustices such as class and gender rather than opting for simple reformism that leaves the structural basis of such injustices intact. While others would, for example, be content with asking why men cannot create more social space for women or present systematic charity such as zakah as a response to poverty, progressives attempt to go beyond this and challenge the patriarchal nature of social reality and an economic system that, in their reasoning, must lead to a society where the poor will forever be dependent on the rich. The term is also used in opposition to liberalism with its emphasis on individual liberties within a societal framework in which all have equal opportunity regardless of the starting points of various classes within a society. While liberals would advocate social change, progressives would additionally interrogate the nature of change and ask which socio-economic class stand to benefit from these changes. Within the broader socio-economic context, liberalism with its commitment to minimalist universal ethics (and minimum state intervention in the market) is often seen as merely a set of ideas advocating greater individual liberties while it is actually inextricably interwoven with the free market ideology. Progressive ideologues have, in fact, argued that the North – or the developed countries – with its stress on an individualistic competitive system causes social dislocation and injustice and that while it has the outward forms of freedom and human rights but that, in reality, there are subtle forms of violation which are even more repressive and unjust. An example of this would be the emphasis on the right to complain about unemployment while structuring one’s economy in such a way that there will always be unemployment.

In Muslim discourse the term is usually used in a variety of contexts and for many it often represents a simply anti-authoritarian or anti-conservative Muslim discourse. The expression “progressive Islam” was first popularized by Sorush Irfani with his Revolutionary Islam in Iran – Popular Liberation or Religious Dictatorship? (London: Zed), published in 1983. Prior to that the term had a few sporadic appearances in some articles where it was really employed as a synonym for Modernist or Liberal Islam. Irfani’s work was the first to employ the term in the way that it was used in leftist ideological circles although his broad sweep minimizes differences between earlier Muslim reformers such as the decidedly pro-British Indian scholar, Sir Sayed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) and Sayed Jamaluddin Al-Afghani (1838-1897) – the quintessential representatives of early expressions of Liberal and Progressive Islam respectively. Irfani utilized the life and ideas of Dr `Ali Shari’ati (1933-1977) and the tendency in activist Islam then represented by the … progressive Islamic movement is anti-imperialist, and in the economic domain, its opposition to capitalism and the exploitative system on which capitalism rests is unequivocal. It believes that Islam as an ideology can mobilize the Muslim masses by its appeal to social justice and the challenge it poses to the status quo (1985, 33)

A Definition and Declaration

The only systematic attempt to define Progressive Islam hitherto was the initiative undertaken by the Progressive Muslim Network (hereinafter “PMN”) late in 1998 on the internet by a number of activists and scholars, including the present author, from various parts of the Muslim world. After several drafts consensus was reached on a final document titled “Progressive Islam – A Definition and Declaration”. This declaration (hereinafter “the Declaration”) continues to form the basis of membership to the Progressive Muslim Network and is the framework against which I want to reflect on Liberal Muslim responses to the events of 11th of September and offer an alternative progressive Muslim view. The following definition is offered in this Declaration:

Progressive Islam is that understanding of Islam and its sources which comes from and is shaped within a commitment to transform society from an unjust one where people are mere objects of exploitation by governments, socio-economic institutions and unequal relationships. The new society will be a just one where people are the subjects of history, the shapers of their own destiny in the full awareness that all of humankind is in a state of returning to God and that the universe was created as a sign of God’s presence (PMN).

There are several pertinent issues here that frame my discussion on a Progressive Muslim perspective of the events of 11th September 2002. Some of these are specifically outlined in the document when it elaborates on the definition:

First, while there is a commitment to “understanding”, the locus of progressive Islam is the terrain of the struggle for justice – or praxis – rather than the arenas of critical thinking for its own sake. Understanding is viewed as the product of engagement for justice combined with reflection rather than the product of a disemboweled critical enquiry. In the words of Rebecca Chopp who has done much to examine the tensions between modernist and liberation theology, the “turn to praxis a way of making theology less a false theology, less an academic illusion and less an incoherent abstraction (1989, 38). “Understanding” or “critical enquiry” is thus secondary to the task of working for justice and an extension of “an expression of Islam that places socio-economic, gender and environmental justice at its core” (PMN).

Second, the concerns of the privileged or the dominant classes are not the primary subject of progressive Islam; its focus is on those who have become “objects of exploitation by governments, socio-economic institutions and unequal relationships”, in the words of the Qur’an; those who had been marginalized (aradhil, Q. 11:27; 26:70; 22:5) or downtrodden in the earth (mustad`afun fi’l-ard, Q. 4:97; 8:26). The declaration describes the mustad`afun fi’l-ard as “those individuals and groups who, for no wilful reason of their own, find themselves pushed to the edges of society to live in conditions of social, political and economic oppression.”

Third, humankind is located within their dual position of being simultaneously autonomous beings with full agency and as returning to God. Agency implies power over one’s life and one’s status as a returnee to God implies both a sacredness beyond one’s commodity value as well as defining the limits of that agency. “In other words, our struggle to experience a personally and socially meaningful Islam is rooted in praxis geared towards creating a more humane society as part of a sustainable eco-system in the service of the Transcendent” (PMN).

Fourth, there is an ‘intolerance’ toward those who are viewed as responsible for exploitation; The document covers three elements that may be ‘blameworthy’: governments, socio-economic institutions and unequal (personal?) relationships. This seems to be an attempt to reflect comprehensively on how, not only governments or obviously political institutions, but also those who play more covert political roles such as large corporations, the international monetary institutions as well personal relationships can militate against human dignity. In opposition to the mustad`afun fi’l ard, the Qur’an does present – and demonizes – the “mustakbirun” (those who exalt themselves above others. (Q. 16:22).

Finally, the declaration significantly omits any mention of ‘peace’ or ‘tolerance’ and outlines the following as tendencies that must be opposed: a) The projection of an inevitable of Pax Americana and the unfettered march of globalization in the service of the market. b) The relentless promotion of corporate culture and consumerism which results in the exploitation of our natural environment, deforestation, the destruction of local communities and the eco-system and cruelty to animals. c) Racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of socio-economic injustices, both within and outside of Muslim societies and communities. “These injustices”, the declaration says, “detracts from the sacredness of all humankind imbued when God blew of His own spirit into the first created person.” d) Intolerance and fascist tendencies which insist on and seeks to enforce a single and absolute appreciation of truth in all religious and cultural communities including Islam.

From the “Major Jihad” to the “Superior Jihad” – Liberal Islam’s Response to 9/11
In the media frenzy which followed 11th of September numerous Muslims were interviewed in the media and a large number offered editorial pieces or had their own thoughts circulated on the internet. While it was a time for conservatives to go into hiding or re-invent themselves as liberal apologists for the faith and for the fundamentalists to quietly vent their glee as they dispersed in order to regroup for another battle at a later stage, the more authentic liberals dominated the media as spokespersons for the Muslim community. Large sectors of the media wanted to allay the fears of the western public that the “majority of Muslims, unlike those Afghanistan-based barbarians or the fanatical Wahabis, are really decent folk with whom we can do business.” “It’s a bad analogy, said Emran Qureshi, an independent scholar and software designer who lives in Ottawa, “but I feel like I can come out of the closet and criticize these guys,” (New York Times, 28th October, 2001) Several of these liberal Muslims, as Qureshi’s response suggests, were also the victims of past or ongoing persecution by the conservative or fundamentalist elements in the Muslim communities and the ravages of those injuries clearly showed in their responses. It was one of the rare opportunities when liberals emerged as publicly recognized – even if grudgingly – saviours by and of the Muslim community.

From a perusal of more than a hundred articles circulated on the Internet the following salient features may describe the liberal Muslim response:

First, there was the widespread acknowledgement that Muslims and or certain tendencies in Islam are “the problem”. Tendencies singled out for criticism or condemnation included intra-Muslim intolerance; Wahabism, Muslim fundamentalism, stagnation in Islamic jurisprudence and a refusal to recognize the religious legitimacy of Christians and Jews. While most commentators dealt at length and exclusively with these, a few suggested that attention also need to be paid to other broader political or ideological concerns which either breeds fundamentalism or are invoked to fire it among Muslims.

Second; liberal Muslim responded from the premise that ‘fundamentalism’ was perhaps the single-most important issue facing the world and the events of September the single-most important ‘event’ that required a radical shift in Muslim responses to modernity and being in the world. ”I am a Muslim” wrote Mona Eltahawy. “The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 shook my faith to its foundation. I am angry and ashamed that Muslims will forever be remembered for such horror. (Washington Post, 3rd January, 2002, p. 17) While the way the North, particularly the USA, responded to those events ensured that it was going to be decisive moment in world history, liberal Muslims did nothing to challenge to the idea that this was inevitable and that the USA’s pain is not – or not to be – the axis around which the earth rotates. With few exceptions, the frightening and calculatedly “short-termism” of the US was embraced with a fury. The death of millions of people through lack of access to clean water or due to HIV/Aids and the insistence of the pharmaceutical industry on placing patent rights ahead of the lives of patients, the thousands killed by a Christian equivalent of the Taliban – The Lord’s Army – in Northern Uganda, and environmental degradation did not count for much in liberal responses to 11th of September. One has no desire to engage in maleficent calculus but to the challenge implicit assumption that everyone must redefine their existences and struggles in terms of the demands of the USA. The head of the Empire was bleeding and all efforts concentrated on those wounds – even as the wounded Goliath, “armed to the teeth, adored by the polls, unfettered by law, answering to no-one” (Neville, 2001, 3) was readying itself to inflict collateral damages on greater numbers of innocent civilian Afghanis than those who perished in the attacks of 11th September.

Third; there was desperation to distance Islam from ‘terrorism’ and while some attempted to reflect on the underlying causes of terrorism there was little or no attempt at defining it.’ When it was discussed at all, it was presented as “the result of long-standing and cumulative cultural and rhetorical dynamics” rather than concrete historical conditions of political marginalization or dispossession. Demands for clarity were usually dismissed as “fudging the issue” or unhelpful in the attempt to prove that Islam is a peaceful religion. In this desperation the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – acknowledged by all hadith scholars as “weak” – that armed combat was a lesser (asghar) jihad compared to the greater (akbar) jihad against one lower self was elevated to canonical status and one liberal commentator even rendered ‘asghar’ as ‘inferior’ and ‘akbar’ as superior. While jihad was critiqued and repackaged as entirely non-threatening, an uncritiqued ‘peace’ was presented as an absolute pillar of faith. Islam was persistently and erroneously declared to mean ‘peace’.

Fourth, most Muslim liberals commentators presented themselves as the ‘authentic’ interpreters of Islam and engaged in the decidedly non-liberal tendency to essentialize Islam; “Osama bin Ladin was not a Muslim”, “Wahabism and fundamentalism have nothing to do with “true Islam” and “true Islam” was presented as a concrete immutable of set of idea and beliefs while others became the “inauthentic usurpers” of this set of beliefs: “Why have we allowed the sacred terms of Islam, such as fatwa and jihad, to be hijacked by obscurantist, fanatic extremists?” asked Ziauddin Sardar (The Observer, September 23, 2001).

Finally none of the liberal Muslim response suggested any awareness of the larger context wherein the tragedy of 11th September was unfolding; it sadly appeared as if issues of globalization, the rise of the new empire and corporate power, the unbridled exploitation of the earth’s limited resources, global warming, consumerism and its twin sister, poverty, as well as HIV/Aids seem to belong to another planet. Flushed away were all memories of the co-operative relationship between the Taliban and the USA administration-oil industry nexus. While progressive intellectuals such as Edward Said and Noam Chomsky and journalists such as Robert Fisk remained useful sources to invoke in a limited anti-Isreal and anti-Zionist rhetoric, their broader critique of power and powerlessness escaped liberal Islam.

A Progressive Critique of Liberal Islam

The most important underlying distinction the progressive and liberal responses were the primary subject of discourse In owing the obsession of the powerful their own, liberal Muslims made the powerful their own primary subject and issues of authenticity and meaning the central crisis for their understanding of Islam. Progressive Muslims insisted that the primary subject and focus of their Islam were the “non-subjects of history”. In effect, Liberal Islam has functioned as an ideology of and for the bourgeois, struggling to secure freedom as individual and ahistorical. Elsewhere I have argued that there is no objective theory unaffected by each person’s socio-historical particularity and for Islam to be self-consciously grounded in praxis (Esack 1977). “When scholars or commentators deny their social location or base their responses entirely on personal negative encounters with their communities then they end up effectively being extensions of the structures of the powerful. The current “Islam means Peace” and “The basic message of the Qur’an is really identical to the USA constitution” discourse, within the context of the rise of the New Empire and all the concomitant injustices is really the beginnings of what the Kairos theologians operating in the South African context described as a “theology of accommodation”. In this theology religion is used to buttress the often unstated ideological assumptions of the dominant classes and corporate interest on the one hand and to placate those who are marginalized by siphoning of “any critical energy through charitable goodwill” on the other (Chopp, 1989, 34).

While Progressive Muslim shared the revulsion of others at the death of innocents they display a much more cynical attitude towards an uncritiqued peace discourse. For Progressive Muslims, “real peace” seems to be one that follows the creation of a just world. In contrast, a seemingly ideologyless peace which, uncritiqued, translates into acquiescence to a new corporate dominated world most starkly represented by the United States of America – is not only one to be avoided but also opposed. Dominant empires develop an ideological rooted interest in peace which reinforces a status quo that may very well be an unjust one as Paul Salem points out: ”Conflict and bellicosity is useful – indeed essential – in building empires, but an ideology of peace and conflict resolution is clearly more appropriate for its maintenance.” (1993, 364) When we fail to raise critical questions about the status quo that requires peace then we run the risk of becoming a part of the problem.

In a more local context, this was certainly true for all the progressive forces in South Africa where “making the state ungovernable” was a necessary first step towards the creation of just society. South Africa had for long been a deeply conflict ridden society. This conflict assumed a structural nature under colonialism with more pronounced racial undertones during apartheid. The apartheid regime, attempting to obscure its own violent nature, consistently presented any opposition to it as an affront to peace and stability. A series of laws criminalizing opposition to apartheid were presented as peace-keeping and stability ensuring measures. As is the case of any most totalitarian states in the world “law and order” were the watchwords. When peace comes to mean the absence of conflict on the one hand, and when conflict with an unjust and racist political order is a moral imperative on the other, then it is not difficult to understand that the better class of human beings are, in fact, deeply committed to disturbing the peace and creating conflict. Along with other progressive forces in South Africa I affirmed the value of revolutionary insurrection against the apartheid state and conflict as a means to disturbing an unjust peace and a path to just peace; In other words; peace, law and order were of no substantive consequence to us; the fundamental question was “Stability and peace to what end?” Our response to the regime’s call for peace and stability was to call on people to wage a jihad against the apartheid state.

A Progressive Muslim Response to 9/11

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the ‘war against terrorism’ the progressive Islam response was perhaps best captured in a khutbah (sermon) delivered in Johannesburg by Naeem Jeenah, a leading figure among Progressive Muslims. Jeenah dealt with the crisis at two levels of responsibilities – that of the USA and that of Muslims. He described the “war against terrorism as “what Allah calls istikbar – arrogance’ which is most evident in Bush’s “dead or alive” statement and his assertion that “you are either with us or with the terrorists”.

So without asking the world where it stands or what its options are, Bush has made the decision for us. There is really no need for us to even think about it; he has decided: you either shout “Viva America” or you are a terrorist! It is the kind of pharaonic arrogance that has seen the downfall of dictators all through time. Because, all through time, the arrogant – mustakbireen – have been opposed by the oppressed – mustad’afeen. It is the Sunnah of history.”

Unlike most traditional and liberal Muslims, Jeenah locates the ‘problem with the USA” beyond the Middle East and ‘our suffering Muslim brothers in Palestine/Kashmir/Chechnya/Azerbhaijan.

In their arrogance and their cynicism the US has forgotten the most crucial response to September 11. They have forgotten to ask “Why?”. Why did such an attack against the symbols of American economy and military happen? Why is the US so hated that such a heinous act is not only contemplated but actually executed? The Americans seem keen not to learn! They should have learnt some lesson after Vietnam; they should have learnt some lesson after the Gulf Massacre; they should have asked how endearing they have made themselves to people of the Third World. It seems the only thing they are willing to learn is that they are able to attack and massacre foreign populations with impunity; and they will do it repeatedly – with no regard for the consequences. If Americans were serious about the “why?”question they could easily find the answers. The answers are in the occupation and dispossession in Palestine; in the murder of one million Iraqi children; in the blockade of Cuba; in the carpet bombing of Colombia; in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba; in the terrorist dictatorships supported by the US government: Saddam Hussain, Manuel Noriega, Mobutu Sese Seko, the Shah of Iran, Suharto, successive apartheid governments in South Africa and Israel. All of these, too, are acts of terrorism.

Jeenah looks beyond the drama of TV and the grand events of the moment:

The World Trade Centre slaughter was despicable. We can say it a million times. But on that same day (and every day recently), 35000 children in the Third World starved to death because of a global capitalist system that comforts the rich and causes misery for the poor and dispossessed. These children did not (do not) get minutes of silence, lowering of flags or thousands of action replays on TV.

The Islamic religious inspiration of the terrorist of 11th September was acknowledged as well as their culpability. Furthermore, the painful reality of people rejoicing at the collapse of Twin Towers and the Pentagon as well as widespread Two Third World support for Osama bin Laden was acknowledged and challenged:

Then there are those of us who have suddenly become pro-Usama and pro-Taliban without necessarily understanding what that means. We extend our support to those who deserve it. In this case we extend our unqualified support to the Afghan people who have been victimised for more than two decades. But the Taliban? […] whose intolerance against people of other faiths is legend and whose intolerance against other Muslims is often violent? […] if the Taliban or their local supporters were ruling this country, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to deliver this sermon in English (if I would be allowed to deliver it at all), the women upstairs would not be allowed to attend the mosque, we probably would know very little of what’s happening in Afghanistan because our TVs would be smashed and our access to information restricted.

The Clash of Twin Fundamentalisms

In the wake of the terrorist attack several observers began commenting on the similarity between the style and rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and the USA President, George W. Bush, and, indeed, at times it appeared as if the were in competition to out-evil each other with each referring to the other as the “head of a snake”. This self as other, captured on the cover of Tarek Ali’s “Clash of Fundamentalisms” (London, Verso, 2002) where Bush appears fully bearded and wearing a turban, was also reflected in the comments of several leftist writers. Arundhati Roy wrote:

Both invoke God and use the loose millenarian currency of good and evil as their terms of reference. Both are engaged in unequivocal political crimes. Both are dangerously armed – one with the nuclear arsenal of the obscenely powerful, the other with the incandescent, destructive power of the utterly hopeless. The fireball and the ice pick. The bludgeon and the axe. The important thing to keep in mind is that neither is an acceptable alternative to the other.

Both Bin Laden and Bush were being singled out as the “bad king” by some and the “good king” by others, and vice versa, all of this in some ways reflecting a very inadequate view of how history unfolds. Individuals certainly contribute immensely to the shaping of history. However, reducing the problem to a “bad king versus good king” ignores the fundamental tensions in the world, the class and gender interests of some and the way these are only represented by ‘good kings’ and ‘bad kings’. The liberal rhetoric of ‘if only we get rid of Saddam/Gaddhafi/Bush/Sharon/Arafat usually prevents or at least impedes any serious analysis of a problem – and indeed, one sometimes gets the impression that this is intentional. Roy, however, takes the analogy of the terrible twins further to actually embrace issues much wider than the persons of Bush and Bin Laden:
But who is Osama bin Laden really? Let me rephrase that. What is Osama bin Laden? He’s America’s family secret. He is the American president’s dark doppelgänger. The savage twin of all that purports to be beautiful and civilised. He has been sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America’s foreign policy: its gunboat diplomacy, its nuclear arsenal, its vulgarly stated policy of “full-spectrum dominance”, its chilling disregard for non-American lives, its barbarous military interventions, its support for despotic and dictatorial regimes, its merciless economic agenda that has munched through the economies of poor countries like a cloud of locusts. Its marauding multinationals who are taking over the air we breathe, the ground we stand on, the water we drink, the thoughts we think. Now that the family secret has been spilled, the twins are blurring into one another and gradually becoming interchangeable. Their guns, bombs, money and drugs have been going around in the loop for a while. (The Stinger missiles that will greet US helicopters were supplied by the CIA. The heroin used by America’s drug addicts comes from Afghanistan. The Bush administration recently gave Afghanistan a $43m subsidy for a “war on drugs”….)

The attack on Twin Towers and the Pentagon represents the collision of two forms of religious fundamentalism; the one only cruder than the other. The fundamentalism of the Market was attacked, not by Islam but by a particular manifestation of it – a fierce, angry and vicious fundamentalism driven by pathological and deluded but nevertheless religious, individuals. David Loy, the Buddhist thinker and Harvey Cox, the Harvard based Christian scholar, have both provided valuable insights into how the Market is becoming “the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe into a world-view and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as “secular”. (Loy) Cox writes about his trepidation when he first ventured into reading about economics – deviating from his more familiar theological terrain. He was surprised by the familiarity of all the concepts that he encountered:

Expecting a terra incognita, I found myself instead in the land of déjà vu. The lexicon of The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of Time and Newsweek turned out to bear a striking resemblance to Genesis, the Epistle to the Romans, and Saint Augustine’s City of God. Behind descriptions of market reforms, monetary policy, and the convolutions of the Dow, I gradually made out the pieces of a grand narrative about the inner meaning of human history, why things had gone wrong, and how to put them right. Theologians call these myths of origin, legends of the fall, and doctrines of sin and redemption. But here they were again, and in only thin disguise: chronicles about the creation of wealth, the seductive temptations of statism, captivity to faceless economic cycles, and, ultimately, salvation through the advent of free markets, with a small dose of ascetic belt tightening along the way, especially for the East Asian economies. (Cox)

Definitions of religion have constantly eluded scholars of religion. In a general sense a Transcendent, usually called ‘God’, or an “Ultimate Concern” is at the core of religion and the focus of the believer’s life and physical death is a an attempt at moving closer towards that or concretizing that in his or her life. Religions in general have a theology of selfhood and otherness, temples that are abodes where a ‘purer’ form of that attempt to connect with the Transcendent is expressed. Being religious is a way of being in the world with its unique and often competing symbols – e.g., the Cross and the Crescent. For many religious believers there is also a paradise or nirvana for the faithful adherents and a hell for those who refuse to join them or who failed to do so because of their “essentially evil nature.” The term ‘fundamentalism’ is also used in a variety of different ways. It has a peculiar history in 20th Century North American Protestantism with its insistence on adherence to the literal inerrancy of the Bible and many have argued that its imposition by journalism on to Islam and Muslims is an unfair one that does little to advance any understanding of contemporary developments in the Muslim world. Whatever its origins, fundamentalism is today widely regarded as a combination of several attitudes: a) an obsession with a single truth as understood by the believer or the believer’s group b) a sense of chosenness tied to the demonizing or damnation of all others who refuse to get behind this ’truth’ c) the willingness to destroy those who offer alternatives in a “holy war” where innocent victims are referred to as ‘collaterals’ and d), the conflation of ideals with one’s personal being. (“Islam is a perfect religion, therefore I am beyond questioning”, “The American Dream is perfect, therefore trust me”).

While the Taliban and Al-Qaida represented the worst of Muslim fundamentalism, in the larger scheme of things though, their reach was and remains rather limited. This is particularly true if one does not embrace the growing tendency of many states to utilize the new anti-terrorist orthodoxy as a way of dealing with all forms of internal dissent and resistance to foreign occupation ranging from the Uighur Chinese, to the Tibetans and Chechens. Far more extensive in its actual – as opposed to perceived reach – is the fundamentalism of the Market. As Loy argues, because we have failed to recognize the Market Capitalism as a religion, let alone a fundamentalist one, we have failed to offer “what is most needed, a meaningful challenge to the aggressive proselytizing of market capitalism, which has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system in human history.” (Loy, p.1)

Harvey Cox has detailed the way the remarkable similarities between the description of God and the Market as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Here I want to briefly deal with the way we relate to the Market as God and to Market Capitalism as religion. Adherents of the Free Market see their lives driven to the worship of the One All-Powerful and Jealous God – Capital. Underpinned by its theology – economics – it has numerous huge temples in the form of shopping malls where people are increasingly being drawn to by deeply unfilled inner needs; for which the temple, church or mosque were earlier viewed as adequate. (“I shop to feel good”, “I go to the Mall to hang out”). The connectedness with both God and community provided by the temple has now been supplanted by the highly individualized and anonymous encounters between cashier and consumer; These temples of consumerism often display a determination to drive out all the smaller little corner churches propounding insignificant little heresies such as “the humanness of chatting to your own friendly butcher”. The major symbol of this religion, that M arch of McDonalds, has driven out that other symbol of a now old-fashion religion, the crucifix of Christianity, as the most widely recognized symbol in the World. The arch is telling the crucifix: “The Lord, Your God is One; You shall have none others in my presence.”
Many who have remained nominal religionists find their lives rotating around the worship of Capital and like suicide bombers drive themselves to death as sacrificial lambs (or martyrs) at the altar of “success” in its service. “Shop till you drop” is a basic creed of faith. It is difficult to leave one’s home or switch on one’s TV without being confronted by its missionaries or having a pamphlet thrust in one’s hand (“Convert Now Or You Will Lose Out!” “Buy Now – The Sale Ends Today!”) So successful, however, have their missionary activities been that people restrain their annoyance at these intrusions to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Religion of the Market also has an eschatology, even a theory of the “End of History”; Paradise awaits those who believe and hell those who reject or who fail – or have failure written in their destiny. (“The unemployed are just lazy”, “The poor shall always be with us.”). Images of the ideal of “the Glorious Lounge”, “The Perfect Toilet for you!”, “The BMW accompanied by your very own sex-bomb”, correspond to images of paradise presented by other religions that sometimes have their own sex-bombs, Houris – or a few – thrown in as an added incentive for martyrdom. While very few can ever hope to “possess” the ‘Houri’ accompanying the picture of the BMW, hope springs eternal.

The struggle against countries which choose an independent economic path is unashamedly described as a “crusade” with collateral damage (“There are no innocent victims in our crusade against Cuba; their children dying under our sanctions are either the offspring of infidels so who cares or we are doing it for the Greater Good). Damnation awaits those who do not share the beliefs of its adherents. Belief is important; for believers will always fall short as practitioners. The vast majority of believers in the Market are destined to be failures simply because the market economy success can only come to a minority; Its paradise, after all is founded on an earth that has limited resources. This fundamentalism of the Market seeks to convert all other cultures in its image, utilizing them for consolidating the system. In the aftermath of 9/11 several spokespersons for the USA, including Colin Powell, have linked ‘anti-terrorism’ to the adoption of “free trade” policies as the dual requirements of allies in the “you’re either with us or against us” doctrine of the Bush Administration. The Market is thus being openly presented as the only way with the assertion that outside its pale there is no salvation for the world, only hell-fire of destruction, or the limbo of ‘primitivism.’

Beyond the public drama of religious fundamentalism and more covert forms of religiously justified political violence are realities which impact on a much larger amount of people and on the only home of humankind, the earth. The obsession with Muslim fundamentalism may, in fact, serve to detract from this. (Regardless of whether there is a causal relationship between Muslim fundamentalism and these realities). There may indeed be a relationship between the war on terrorism and the decision of the Bush administration to open the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling exploration. The United Nations Development Program’s statistics that indicate that in 1960 countries of the North were about twenty times richer than those of the South. In 1990 North countries had become fifty times richer. The richest twenty percent of the world’s population now have an income about 150 times than that of the poorest twenty percent, a gap that has continued to grow. According to the UN Development Report for 1996, the world’s 358 billionaires are wealthier than the combined annual income of countries with 45% of the world’s people. As a result, a quarter million children die of malnutrition or infection every week, while hundreds of millions more survive in a limbo of hunger and deteriorating health. For the mustad `afun fil’ard Bin Laden is distant figure or, sadly, a hope as some many demonstrators at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg seem to think with their t-shirts displaying his smiling face. For those the 2.8 billion who “live” on less than $2 a day and who confront death by starvation or half an existence under foreign occupation the realities cited above may well be the terrorism of our age. When Muslim liberals suggested any relationship between 9/11 and political grievances then it was confined to USA foreign policy on the Middle East. One searches in vain for any critique on the problems of domestic wealth, domestic consumption, domestic corporate greed, domestic homelessness and domestic racism – all issues which drive foreign policy considerations. It’s as if the only tragedy was one of exclusion from the table of the New Empire leading to sadly misguided yearnings of “if only our lobby could be as powerful as the Jewish lobby”. A progressive rereading of our theological heritage does not take its point of departure the concerns of dominant and dominating classes nor of the yearnings to join “the club” but “in a perception of the real situation of the poor, and, with new eyes, bestowed by this experience, it rereads the foundational texts of the faith. (Boff, 1985, 25-6). The location of the Progressive Muslims amongst the marginalized of the world is the sunnah (precedent) of the all the Prophets of God and the choice that God himself exercises. (Q. 7:136-7, 34:31-33)


There is nothing in this clash of fundamentalisms that is intrinsically Islamic in the same way that there is nothing intrinsically Christian about the religion of the Market or of the ideology of apartheid. That the Muslims responsible for this attack may have been inspired by Islam is plausible; that they used Islam as justification for their deeds is apparent for the Qur’an is as open to diverse readings as any other text. There is thus some responsibility on the part of Muslim thinkers to expose and oppose the theological and textual basis of their arguments. To confine oneself to combat with those tendencies, however, is inadequate from both a South perspective as well as an Islamic one. To do so also risks being co-opted in an uncritical peace discourse that has a name: Pax Americana; peace on the terms of the United States and with an ideology incompatible with social, economic, political and environmental justice.

A progressive commitment to destabilizing the current world order – and destabilization is not to be conflated with political violence as numerous activists in the global justice movement are increasingly demonstrating – is not an option because of a blind hatred. Rather, unlike the Market fundamentalists, we actually believe that an alternative vision of the world and being in it is possible. Humankind, as the Progressive Muslim Network Declaration affirms, are not only consumers or the objects of greed; we are in a state of returning to God. Islam is, indeed, a religion of peace, but not exclusively that. It also calls upon people to destabilize the peace when it hides the demons of injustice. In addition to confronting the fundamentalism of the Market and the havoc that it has played with we also have to the problem of Muslim brokenness, fragile egos and delusions of grandeur involving our power and control over a world governed by the shar’iah. The problem with Muslim fundamentalism is that is as totalitarian and exclusive as the order that it seeks to displace. It seeks to create an order wherein they are the sole spokespersons for a rather vengeful, patriarchal and chauvinistic God – a God that incidentally resembles that of George Bush and his fellow travelers in the religious right wing. The Taliban represent the logical consequence of a literalist and misogynistic reading of our earlier Islamic heritage; a reading that is far from an aberration. They have, for example, always insisted that women will also have access to medical treatment if the government can afford it. How different is this from the Wahabi regime in Saudi regime where they do enforce this segregation because they have the financial resources to do so. When we see Osama sitting cross-legged surrounded by hundred of books on Islamic jurisprudence and theology, we are seeing one of the strands in the Islamic. Arguing that the Taliban and the Wahabis do not “really” represent Islam is unhelpful for we fall into the trap of setting ourselves up as the sole authentic spokespersons – the same weapon that is being used against liberal and progressive Muslims, we can insist on asking, along with `Ali Shari’ati,: “Whose Islam? Whose lives and interest are being advanced by our understanding and interpretation of Islam”
Which Islam is that the Shah refers to? Is it the Islam of imperialism?; an Islam which is made for the next world and says nothing about this world. The imperialist brand of Islam dictates that Islamic nations be their colonies and allows then to loot the wealth, resources and productivity of Muslim lands.

People concerned about other people and aware that the earth is our only home with finite resources need to find each other and collectively work for socio-economic alternatives before these fanatics led by Corporate America under the flag of the M arch and Bush as its spokesperson or Al-Qa’idah under the crescent with Osama bin Ladin as its spokesperson – destroy all of us.


Abou El Fadl, Khaled 2001, Islam and the Theology of Power, Middle East Report 221, Winter 2001

Abrahimian, E. 1982. `Ali Shari`ati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution’ in MERIP Reports, January, 1982.

Boff, Leonardo and Clodovis. 1985. Salvation and Liberation – In Search of a Balance Between Faith and Politics. New York: Orbis Books

Chopp, Rebecca, S. 1989. The Praxis of Suffering: An Interpretation of Liberation and Political Theologies. New York: Orbis Books.

Cox, Harvey, ‘The Market as God”

Eagleton, Tony. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Oxford: Blackwell

Esack, Farid “A Clash of Fundamentalisms”: Financial Mail, 21 September 2001.

Esack, Farid, 1977. Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism, Oxford: Oneworld

Irfani, Suroosh. 1983. Revolutionary Islam in Iran – Popular Liberation or Religious Dictatorship? London: Zed.

Moghissi, Hiadeh, 1999. Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis. London: Zed

Neville Richard, “Beyond good and evil”, April 15 2002

Progressive Muslim Network, Definition of Progressive Islam

Roy, Arundhati, “The algebra of infinite justice” Guardian, September 29, 2001

Salem, Paul. E. 1993. “A Critique of Western Conflict Resolution from a Non-Western Perspective” in Negotiation Journal, vol. 9, no. 4. pp. 361-69

Ziauddin Sardar “My Fatwa on the Fanatics”, The Observer, September 23, 2001


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