Karen Armstrong – September 11th 2001, Islam and the West

Karen Armstrong argues that there is no inherent incompatibility between the Western and Islamic world, but sees economic and political factors as the main reasons for increasing tensions in recent decades.

Armstrong’s arguments can be used to criticise Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civlizations’ thesis, which sees increasing conflict between different cultures/ religions as an inevitable outcome of globalisation brining ‘incompatible’ civilizations into closer contact with each other.

Islam and the failure of modernisation

Armstrong points out that in the late 19th and early 20th century, most Muslim intellectuals looked up to the process of modernisation occurring in the West at that time, and wanted Islamic countries to become more like Britain and France.

Some Islamic scholars even claimed that Britain and France were more Islamic than Islamic countries: Islam advocates the sharing of resources, and there was a trend towards this in so countries in early 20th Europe.

Armstrong characterises modernisation as consisting of:

  1. Technological evolution moving countries beyond being agricultural, and making people less dependent on nature.
  2. Increasing productivity and innovation.
  3. Higher levels of education for the general populace. 
  4. Greater inclusion of people from diverse religious backgrounds
  5. The development of the ‘modern spirit’ which involves more people engaging in politics, science and intellectual pursuits more generally.

Western imperialism and human rights

Western countries occupied most Muslim countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Libya and Algeria. There were attempts to introduce democracy in many countries, the historical record of Western occupation of Muslim countries has not exactly been conducive to ‘positive modernisation’ –

in many countries, the West backed autocratic leaders when it suited them (in return for access to oil supplies for example) and these leaders tended to deprive people of their human rights, suppressing freedom of speech for example.

In Iran for example, the Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi was installed in power in 1953 in a coup supported by the American and British. He was a particularly ruthless leader who ordered a massacre in Tudeh Square in 1978 in which nearly 900 people were killed. He was overthrown the year after in the famous Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Then in 1979 In Iraq, the British and Americans supported the installation of Saddam Hussein as a dictator, because he was hostile to Iran.

A further effect of Western occupation was to increase divisions and inequalities: money derived from British oil companies for example tended to go to the minority of autocrats, and very little trickled down to the ordinary people. In fact there is something of a history of exploitation of poor workers by wealthy corporations operating in Islamic countries.

In Iran for example, the British and then the Americans backed the Pahlavi shahs as dictatorial leaders. These turned out to be particular

The Causes of Fundamentalism

Armstrong argues that the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism is a reaction against the nationalist and secularist ideologies imposed on them by the West, which basically failed the average citizen in Muslim countries.

Fundamentalists believe they are fighting for their survival against a Western Imperialism that wants to wipe out Islam from existence.

Future Prospects:

Armstrong believes that there is no reason why Islam cannot co-exist with the West, because most Muslims are not Fundamentalists and there is plenty of room for interpreting Islam as ‘being all about peace’.

Like Lowkey does in this video:

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Armstrong isis thus more optimistic about the prospect of peaceful co-existence between religions when compared with Huntington.

Sources:

Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives edition 8.

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The causes of Fundamentalism

Steve Bruce argues that the main causes of Fundamentalism are modernisation and secularisation, but we also need to consider the nature of the religions themselves and a range of ‘external factors’ to fully explain the growth of fundamentalist movements.

Modernisation has undermined religion in at least three ways:

  • Social life has become separated from religious life (linked to the process of differentiation)
  • Rationalisation means that people are more likely to seek scientific explanations for behaviour rather than religious explanations
  • Bruce argues that in certain societies ‘religious traditionalist’ feel as if their way of life is under threat, and so they take steps to defend their traditions against the erosive influence of modernisation.

However, Bruce also argues that the existence of a group of traditionalists who feel threatened is not sufficient to explain the rise of Fundamentalism, a number of other factors are also important:

Other factors which explain the rise of religious fundamentalism:

Bruce argues that the following factors make it more likely that Fundamentalism will emerge:

  1. Where there is ‘ideological cohesion’ – around a single God and/ or sacred text for example. Fundamentalism seems to be stronger in Christianity and Islam, not so strong in Hinduism and Buddhism.
  2. When there is a common enemy to unite against – Bruce notes that Islamic Fundamentalism is often united against the USA.
  3. Lack of centralised control (ironically) – It might be that Catholicism has not developed fundamentalist strains because the Pope and the Vatican tightly control dissenters. However in Protestant Christianity and Islam, there is more freedom for individuals on the fringes to claim to have found a ‘more authentic’ and fundamentalist interpretation of those religions.
  4. The existence of marginalised individuals facing oppression – Fundamentalism needs recruits, and if a Fundamentalist group emerges with claims that it can provide a better life for people if they just adhere to the faith, it is more likely to grow
  5. Bruce further argues that the nature of Fundamentalism is shaped by how the political institutions deal with Fundamentalist movements: where they are blocked access to political representation, movements are more likely to turn to violence.

Further Analysis

Bruce argues that both the external factors above and religious beliefs themselves are important in explaining the rise of Fundamentalism.

He also points out that the specific histories of Christianity and Islam have affected the way the see politics. Christianity spent much of its early life as an obscure sect, on the political fringes, so is more concerned with ‘day to day’ (non-political) life, whereas Islam quickly came to dominate states in its early history – thus Islam is more concerned with politics than Christianity.

Bruce also argues that the nature of religion affects the way Fundamentalism is expressed – Christianity tends to emphasise the importance of belief, while Islam emphasises the importance of actions, thus Islam is more likely to develop violent forms of fundamentalism compared to Christianity.

Finally, Bruce argues that Fundamentalism has no chance of succeeding in the West, but it might in the less developed regions of the world.

Sources

Haralamabos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives edition 8.

What is Religious Fundamentalism?

The early 21st Century has seen the rise of various Fundamentalist groups, for example:

  • The increasing influence of the New Religious Right in the United States
  • The rise of Zionism in Israel
  • The rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Steve Bruce: Communal and Individual Fundamentalism

  • Communal individualism is that usually found in less developed countries and is primarily concerned with defending communities (or nations) against what are perceived to be ‘modernist’ threats such as western materialism, individualism, multiculturalism, and human rights. These are typically seen by ‘communal fundamentalists’ as secularising forces which undermine religion.
  • Individualist fundamentalism is more likely to be found within developed nations and is mainly associated with the New Christian Right in the United States – it is concerned with maintaining traditional values within the context of a stable liberal democratic nation state.

Five Key Features of Fundamentalist Movements

According to Chapman et al (2015) Fundamentalist movements share the following characteristics:

  1. A literal interpretation of religious texts, which are seen as infallible – they take their ‘moral codes’ straight from their sacred texts. A good fundamentalist is supposed to lead their life in accordance with the original sacred text of the religion, and there is little room for flexibility in this. However, one of the major criticisms of Fundamentalism is that religious texts are often obscure and they have been interpreted at some point by whoever is in power, so there is no such thing as a ‘literal interpretation’.
  2. They regard all areas of social life as sacred – Fundamentalists tend to impose their views on others in a society, and police people’s day to day behaviour closely to make sure that day to day life is being lived in line with their interpretation of the sacred text.
  3. They do not tolerate other religions – they have a monopoly on truth, and when Fundamentalists take power, they tend to purge the symbols of other religions from their area and persecute people of other faiths.
  4. They have conservative beliefs – Fundamentalists tend to support traditional gender roles and are against ‘progressive’ liberalisation, such as women playing a greater role in work and politics and they tend towards tolerance and even celebration of sexuality diversity.
  5. They tend to look at past religious eras with nostalgia, and sometimes want to change society back to how it used to be, before secularisation, when society was more religions

 Sources

Chapman et al (2015) Sociology AQA A-Level Student Book 2