Armstrong: extremists know they are heretical

Karen Armstrong in today’s Guardian on how extremists in Islam, like those in other religions, are deliberately outside the mainstream of their religion and in fact have contempt for it:

Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), whose ideology is followed by most Sunni fundamentalists, had no love for the west, but his jihad was primarily directed against such Muslim rulers as Jamal Abdul Nasser. In order to replace secularist Fatah, Hamas began by attacking the PLO, and was initially funded by Israel in order to undermine Arafat. Osama bin Laden began by campaigning against the Saudi royal family and secularist rulers such as Saddam Hussein; later, when he discovered the extent of their support for these regimes, he declared war against the US. Even when fundamentalists are engaged in a struggle with an external enemy, this internal hostility remains a potent force.

It is unrealistic to hope that radical Islamists will be chastened by a rebuke from “moderate” imams; they have nothing but contempt for traditional Muslims, who they see as part of the problem. Nor are extremists likely to be dismayed when told that terrorism violates the religion of Islam. We often use the word “fundamentalist” wrongly, as a synonym for “orthodox”. In fact, fundamentalists are unorthodox - even anti-orthodox. They may invoke the past, but these are innovative movements that promote entirely new doctrines.

For one thing, I find it irksome that people blame Qutb and Mawdudi for the terrorism we know of in the Muslim world today. Mawdudi in particular founded a political party, and his thinking is today mostly of interest to politically-minded rather than jihadist Muslims. The present day jihad of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts emerged out of the Saudi-Wahhabi jihad effort in Afghanistan of the 1980s, and they turned on the Saudis, and the west, when their offer to expel Saddam Hussain from Kuwait was rebuffed. Why Fahd did this - because he did not have faith in their ability to actually get the job done in the face of Saddam’s forces, because of affection for the USA or because he specifically did not want OBL to gain power anywhere - I can’t answer.

However, they certainly do not regard themselves as a fringe movement outside the mainstream of Islam; they are blind to the fact that they are the fringe of a small, but moneyed, sect. If the writings of Abu Hamza are anything to go by (I have two of his books at home), they regard their interpretations as being grounded in mainstream Islamic opinion, quoting classical imams (not just Ibn Taymiyya) and naming their contemporary authorities within the four madhhabs; Abdullah Azzam, for example, was named as a Shafi’i scholar, though whether Habib Omar bin Hafeez would recognise him as one I have no idea. In their own mind, they are the orthodox, and it’s the rest of the Muslims who have gone astray.

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