What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism?

Like fundamentalists in any religion, Islamic fundamentalists have a specific historical origin.
  • Transcript


Question: What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism?

Barrett: Well you’ve got a variety of roots. There have been historically impulses in Islam to purify the religion; to clear away practices that the purifiers disagree with. There’s a very famous or notorious such movement that has its roots in the 18th century Persian Gulf associated with an evangelist – an Islamic evangelist named Wahab who saw . . . in who . . . who saw his religion as having become corrupted over time; and that the ideas of the final prophet Muhammad and his coterie having been lost to the ages. And he was gonna change that as preachers in various faiths have declared at various points all through the ages. And he . . . He and his ideas eventually linked up with a tribal group named Saud. And lo, down through the generations, you have a country called Saudi Arabia that is largely animated, at least among its clerical establishment, by the ideas of Wahab – that there’s a pure, single version of Islam stripped of the outside world’s ideas that other religions are so abhorrent and so at odds with Islam that they cannot even be tolerated. Thus, for example, non-Muslims are not allowed in certain holy cities in . . . in Saudi Arabia – in particular in the holiest . . . at the holiest sites of Islam. This is . . . This is not the only version of fundamentalism. This is one Islamic fundamentalism. There are others. Fundamentalism in my view – and I’m not invoking any kind of academic theory of Islamic fundamentalism – I’m telling you how I use the term. It’s a religious intolerance. The point is not that any one person’s view of their religion is right or wrong. But fundamentalists tend to see people whose views are different as headed straight for hell; as being enemies of the faith – not just different from the faith, but a threat to the faith. There is a tendency, although not a necessity, for that hostility to encompass or to justify violence. Fundamentalists are not all violent, but some violent people use fundamentalism to justify their desire to stamp out people they disagree with. There is in Islamic fundamentalism of the most recent era a reaction to European colonialism, and the secular regimes that European colonialism left in its wake in the Middle East in the ‘50s and ‘60s in places like Iran, in Egypt, and Syria, and Jordan, and Lebanon, and on and on. You had an absence of democratic practice at a time when democracy was being preached. And the only alternative, the only avenue that many people saw for themselves to criticize those secular, often dictatorial regimes, was religion. And the preachers of fundamentalist religion took advantage of this and became . . . became the opposition. So you have the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and spreading out elsewhere. And out of this hugely complex mixture which cannot be actually easily simplified – because you have fundamentalists who were Shiia Muslims in Iran who hate the fundamentalists across the border, you know, in Saudi Arabia . . . very much at odds and spend much of their time jockeying and trying to each grab dominance throughout the region; both fundamentalists at odds with each other, but sharing in many cases an animosity toward the west; sharing an animosity toward Israel and Israel’s friends, chiefly the United States. And out of this you get this . . . you know this roiling, resentful, frustrated movement that can be captured with the concept of fundamentalism.

Recorded on: 12/4/07