Islamic perspective

Fundamentalism, traditionalism and communalism


Generally no distinction is made between fundamentalism, traditionalism and communalism, they are often used synonymously. However, it is not so. These terms have distinct meanings and different implications.

Religious orthodoxy is often condemned as fundamentalism even by many well meaning scholars. It should also be remembered that orthodoxy, traditionalism and fundamentalism do not apply to religion only. These terms can equally be applied to political ideologies and even to social or natural sciences. But generally these terms are applied to religious beliefs and practices.

Religious orthodoxy or traditionalism may not be desirable for many and may be of great value to others. Religious orthodoxy has great deal of social implications but very little political consequences though not always bereft of it. But fundamentalism, at least the term as it is used by the scholars and media today, has serious political implications.

Fundamentalism, in its original sense as used during the twenties in United States did not have political implications. Those who believed that the Bible's words should be literally understood. In that sense even fundamentalism had no political implications.

But after the Islamic revolution in Iran, the word fundamentalism came to be used largely in political sense. This word began to be used with political overtones by the Western media to debunk Islamic revolution in Iran as the Iranian revolution directly challenged the American supremacy and political hegemony.

Also it was in the Seventies that the Libyan revolution took place and Qaddafi also became an obstinate challenger of American policing of the world. However, Libya was not what Iran was and the word ‘fundamentalism' was not applied to the Libyan revolution.

The Shah of Iran had a strategic importance for America and with his help American authorities sought to control the Middle Eastern region. The Shah was also pro-Israel and exercised effective control over the radical movements in the region. Thus the Islamic revolution in Iran in the late seventies hurt American interests much more than the Libyan revolution. Hence the word `fundamentalism' was reapplied in the new political context.

The Western media did not use the term fundamentalism when it came to the Saudi regime as it was friendly to America and did not threaten its interests. Thus while the Saudi regime was characterized as ‘orthodox' the Iranian regime was described as ‘fundamentalist'. The word fundamentalist has since become quite threatening in its implications.

In the beginning the Taliban revolution in Afghanistan was also thought to be quite innocuous by the USA and it was for that reason that America hurriedly recognized it. Afghanistan could become a launching ground for controlling the Central Asian regimes which became independent after the dissolution of Soviet Union. But when the Taliban began to threaten the American interests in number of ways and even harboured Osama Bin Laden it also graduated into fundamentalist regime. Moreover, when the Taliban imposed unacceptably rigid code for women, there were loud protests.

In the Indian media too the word ‘fundamentalism' is rather loosely applied to all sorts of people including the orthodox or traditional people. The Indian media and academia also began to use the term fundamentalism in imitation of the Western media. It became current here towards the end of seventies when Islamic revolution was taking place in Iran.

It was initially applied to the sections of Hindus and Muslims. But later it was also applied to a section of Sikhs when the Khalistan movement was launched in the Punjab. All those who agitated for reversing the Shah Banu judgement of the Supreme court of India were also dubbed as fundamentalists.

Similarly the BJP and VHP or Bajrang Dal activists who agitated for demolition of Babri Masjid and construction of Ram temple were also described as Hindu fundamentalists. Thus it will be seen that since late th Seventies the Indian media and academia are using the term ‘fundamentalism' as political use or misuse of religion.

Thus fundamentalism has come to be used widely in this sense throughout the world and all radical religious movements with political implications are described now as ‘fundamentalist' movements.

There is of course very thin line between fundamentalism and religious orthodoxy but religious orthodoxy is not necessarily as threatening as fundamentalism. Religious orthodoxy, as pointed out before, has little, if any, political implications compared to fundamentalism. However, some people are as much put off by orthodoxy as by fundamentalism though the former is not as offensive politically as the latter.

While religious radical movements in India or any other part of the world have spread terrorism and violence the religious orthodoxy has not. However, it is a different thing that religious orthodoxy has brought about social stagnation and obstructed change. But often religious orthodoxy has sided with politically progressive movements while the modernists have sung separatist tunes (though not always of course).

I would like to cite an example from the Indian context. The orthodox Ulama always stood against social change and opposed all attempts for reforms with all their might. They opposed all attempts to reform Muslim personal law. But the same Ulama led by most prominent theologians stood by composite nationalism.

In the 19th century, in the post-mutiny scenario while modernists like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan advocated change and reform and boycotted the Indian National Congress and thought that the Congress politics was not necessarily in the interests of Muslim the most orthodox Ulama led by Maulana Qasim Ahmed Nanotvi urged upon the Muslims to join Indian national congress and fight shoulder to shoulder with their Hindu brethren to throw out the British rulers.

No doubt Badruddin Tayebji was an exception to this rule who was modernist and also an advocate of the Congress politics and also became its first Muslim president. But generally the modernists among the Muslims provided cadre for the Muslim League. It is important to note that right from the beginning the Muslim League drew its support from educated upper classes of Muslims.

In the 20th century too the Jami‘at al-Ulama - an organization of the orthodox theologians opposed the two nation theory and the Pakistan movement tooth and nail. Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani who defended the Shari`ah law and opposed any change in it condemned Jinnah's two nation theory and launched a movement against it. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, though not orthodox like Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani was also a prominent theologian of Islam and he too stood firm like a rock opposing the Pakistan movement.

Jinnah, on the other hand, was a modernist and advocated reforms in Shari‘ah law and also moved various Bills to this effect was opposed to composite nationalism during the end of thirties and became not only champion but also the architect of Pakistan. Similarly Maulana Shibli Nomani, again an eminent Muslim theologian and a noted Islamic historian had condemned the formation of Muslim League in 1906 in an essay written by him in 1911. He had questioned in this essay the claimed representative character of the League.

Among the Hindus too it was the educated class and persons like the founder of the Benaras Hindu University Madan Mohan Malviya who provided leadership to the Hindu right. Veer Savarkar who pronounced the theory of Hindutva and thought that Jinnah's separatism was justified was not a religious leader. Like Jinnah he also advocated modern reforms in the Hindu society.

This might appear baffling to many but it is not. The educated classes and modernists are directly involved in power struggle and on account of this that the modernists get involved in rightist or separatist or fundamentalist movements.

In contemporary India the leadership of BJP, VHP , Bajrang Dal and RSS (i.e. that of the Saffron family) is by no means provided by the orthodox Hindu priesthood. Some of the Shankracharyas who are the highest Hindu religious authorities are even strongly opposed to the VHP usurping the issue of Ramjanambhoomi which is essentially religious in character.

The Shankracharya of Dwarka and Jyotimath Swami Swarupanand who is very proud of his heritage as a Sanatan Hindu leader said in an interview to The Times of India that "finding a solution to the Ramjanambhoomi issue should be left to the Dharmacharyas of the two communities. It is a universal principle that if a man is ill he seeks a doctor for a cure. If there is a problem involving the religious sentiments of people then the religious leaders have to take the leadership in providing a remedy. Post independence India is a democratic polity where political leaders have to accept that there is a limit to their authority and power.....The divisions and the problems have been created by politicians interfering in religious matters. Orthodox Hinduism does not believe in disrespect for any religion. We believe that it is only through respect and sacrifice that a solution can be found to the Ramjanambhoomi issue." This statement is truly a religious and not a political statement.

Swami Swarupanand would very much like a temple to be built in Ayodhya which for him is the Ramjanambhoomi but not by launching aggressive political movement but through dialogue with the Muslims. Thus an orthodox Hindu leader who would not like to compromise on his religious belief would like to solve the problem in religious manner not by spreading extremism and violence.

The entire Ramjanambhoomi movement in the late eighties was launched by politicians for political purposes. It was the educated Muslim middle class which provided the support base for Jinnah's Pakistan movement in its own political interest. Similarly it was the educated Hindu middle class which provided the main support base for the BJP movement for Ramjanambhoomi to serve its own interests.

I would like to make it clear that I am not at all justifying religious orthodoxy in any way. I am myself involved in the reform movement in the Bohra Muslim community and have been advocating certain essential changes in the Muslim personal law which impinge upon Muslim women's rights. I am only trying to explain the social and political implications of religious orthodoxy on one hand, and, of modernist project on the other.

There is again very thin line between fundamentalism and communalism. These two terms have become almost synonymous in India. The Saffron family is being described both as communalists and fundamentalists. Similarly some Muslim leaders also are described both as communalists and fundamentalists simultaneously.

The important difference between fundamentalists and communalists is that while fundamentalists are also religiously orthodox, the communalists are not. The communalists are mainly modernists as already pointed out and not religiously orthodox. A careful academic or journalist should always bear these differences in mind while using these terms or categories and should not apply them loosely as is often done.

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