Vali Nasr Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Islam and the State: Conversation with Vali Nasr, Professor of Political Science, University of San Diego; 10/3/02 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Islamic Fundamentalism

In your work I get the sense that it is the interface between the work of institutionalists -- that is, people who study institutions -- and the norms and codes of behavior, together with an understanding of the culture and history of a particular place, that offers insights to the kinds of problems we're facing in today's world.

You're absolutely correct. The fundamental question, which has been the case and still is the case today, is, "Is Islamic fundamentalism about religion, or is it a form of politics?" Most often, the knee-jerk reaction in academia, and the media as well, and policy-making environments, is that one has to just understand Islam as religious behavior. It's easier to do that. It's easier to dismiss Islam. But the problem is that that doesn't have much to do with reality. The reality is that fundamentalism is also about politics.

Fundamentalism consists of organizations or institutions of people who respond to political opportunities, or are trying to capitalize on political opportunities, or convey interests. And they behave in many ways in the same manner that any rational political actor behaves, except that they do so within a particular cultural environment. In fact, if we look at Islamic fundamentalism as a form of ideology, then [its] ideology is not religious ideology. It's more about politics and it's about society. Therefore, it is necessary, in order to understand Islamic fundamentalism, to say, "This much of it is about religion" -- this is the context, but a particular interpretation of religion -- and then, "this much of it is about politics."

After all, fundamentalists are not engaged in religious debates. They're engaged in political debates, whether it's al Qaeda or whether it's moderate fundamentalists. In fact, fundamentalists also in Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, are only peripherally interested in religious debates. Their prime area of concern is political issues.

Let's explicate that. Is it because it's an argument about politics within the religion? I mean, "which of you is more virtuous?" Is it that, plus they have to be concerned about politics because the whole religion may be affected by the politics of the national setting?

We have to understand that fundamentalism is a very, very recent phenomenon. If you looked at Islamic fundamentalism, it is a late twentieth-century phenomenon. The very first question you can ask is "Why now?" So, therefore, it is very much born of the circumstances that Muslims find themselves in today. These circumstances don't pertain to religion, because the religion has been the same religion for 1,400 years.

It is the worldly conditions of Muslims that have necessitated or created circumstances for ideological interpretations of their politics. And in the circumstances where communist ideology is not theirs, capitalist ideology is not theirs, some interpretations of Islam have come to fill that ideological void. But ideologies are always about explaining political and social reality to individuals. So Islamic fundamentalism is performing the same role. It is performing the role of providing a blueprint and a road map for worldly existence to individual Muslims.

Fundamentalists are keenly interested in politics. They view politics as the path to individual salvation. Politics is paramount in their thinking. When they make comparisons between fundamentalism (or their view of Islam), they don't compare it with Christianity and Judaism and Hinduism. They compare it with capitalism. They compare it with democracy. They compare it with communism. In other words, their point of reference is Western ideologies, not Western religions.

Fundamentalism is very much a phenomenon of making religion into a worldly ideology, and then operationalizing it in politics. There are different paths that that has taken, from al Qaeda's terrorism to more moderate Islamic parties in Turkey or Malaysia and the like, where they want to participate in elections. But by and large, the phenomenon is still the same. In other words, this is a use of religion in order to gain certain political ends.

Next page: Pakistan

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