Shades of Islamic Fundamentalism

Interview With Religion Expert Massimo Introvigne

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TURIN, Italy, NOV. 8, 2004 ( Fundamentalism is by no means a monolithic phenomenon, says a leading expert on religions.

Massimo Introvigne, founder and director of the Center of Studies on New Religions, addresses the complex phenomenon of fundamentalism in the book «Fondamentalismi. I Diversi Volti dell’Intransigenza Religiosa» (Fundamentalisms: The Different Faces of Religious Intransigence), published in Italian by Piemme.

In this interview with ZENIT, Introvigne explains the different typologies of fundamentalism. Introvigne has given courses to the FBI and security experts in the Middle East. Among other works, he is the author of «New Age, Next Age,» and «God Has Returned.»

Q: Does an uncertain and vulnerable world kindle religious fundamentalism?

Introvigne: It all depends on the definition of fundamentalist, which is not unanimous. In my book I distinguish religious attitudes in five classifications: ultraprogressive, progressive, conservative, fundamentalist and ultrafundamentalist. The criteria to distinguish them are different and some are quite technical.

Q: Can you give me an example?

Introvigne: The attitude vis-à-vis the separation of religion and culture which began with the Enlightenment and, therefore, of the separation of religion and politics.

The progressivist accepts the separation as inevitable, and the ultraprogressivist accepts it with enthusiasm.

The fundamentalist rejects the separation in the line of principle, but is disposed to any compromise. The ultrafundamentalist is not disposed to any compromise and separates himself radically from society, trying to change it through violence.

The conservative position — in which, quantitatively, the majority of the population in the world that declares itself religious is classified — does not accept either the radical separation of the Enlightenment or the fundamental fusion of religion and culture.

It prefers a distinction without separation, an autonomy of culture and politics that does not prevent religion from presenting its position in this field.

For political reasons, whether it is a question of Islam or Europe, certain media label conservatives, fundamentalists and ultrafundamentalists as fundamentalists, but their positions are very different.

In the Muslim world, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a conservative, the Al Jazeera preacher Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi is a fundamentalist, and Osama bin Laden is an ultrafundamentalist. In the Christian realm, both Bush as well as Rocco Buttiglione are conservatives, but the political polemic labels them fundamentalists.

Q: What does the religious fundamentalist desire? Certainties, a return to the past, to die and be reborn?

Introvigne: Here, too, the difference between conservatives, fundamentalists and ultrafundamentalists is fundamental. I would say that none of the three wish to return to the past.

In Islam, in particular, fundamentalism is a modern form that seeks to restore the Islamic law with the political instruments of the 20th century. It is distinguished from traditionalist forms that use traditional instruments and concentrate on morality more than politics.

Q: Is the economy related to fundamentalism?

Introvigne: I am inspired by the sociological school that refers to the «religious market» or «religious economy.» We use instruments and models of economics to study religion.

But this is a methodological attitude, which doesn’t mean at all to reduce religion or fundamentalism to a phenomenon that has predominantly economic motivations.

Q: Is the West partly responsible for the rise of Muslim fundamentalism?

Introvigne: Yes, because for a long time it has favored nationalist and secular regimes — let us think of the military dictatorships in the Maghreb or of Saddam Hussein himself — which have suppressed with the same zeal conservatives, fundamentalists and ultrafundamentalists. If they are all repressed, the only ones who are able to function underground are the ultrafundamentalists.

The repression that should uproot fundamentalism in fact favors its most extreme forms.

In general the West suffers from a sort of Voltaire syndrome — in a spasmodic manner, particularly in France — which leads it to identify progressive and ultraprogressive Muslims who either don’t exist or are generals prepared to govern only at gunpoint, or are intellectuals who serve to participate in congresses in Europe, but who don’t count at all in their countries, nor among the immigrant communities.

The alternative to fundamentalism is not progressive but conservative Islam.

Q: Do you foresee the growth of Muslim fundamentalism in the immediate future?

Introvigne: I would say no. If religious communities open up, and democracy allows for normal functioning, conservative Islam will be imposed over fundamentalism, as shown in the cases of Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Q: What do you think of secular fundamentalism? Is this a new phenomenon?

Introvigne: Anti-clericalism is an old phenomenon. Anyway, the secular fundamentalisms we see in France — as is the case of the laws against the so-called sects or against religious symbols — or in the European Union, as occurred with the Buttiglione case — are a reaction to the fact that religion, which according to the secularists should disappear, returns at times in new and unexpected forms.

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