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Theology Thursdays: Islamic Fundamentalism by By A. Salari

This paper argues that the root cause of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, to a large extent, has been foreign interference in domestic politics, which affected the other aspects of societal life in Muslim countries, as it is the case in Iran. The industrial countries, particularly the US have had crucial interests in the region especially in protecting the flow of oil and controlling its price. Hence, for national governments of oil producing countries, being independent, pursuing their national interests, and having cooperative relations with the West have always been controversial. In Iran for instance, foreign manipulations in the central government level, have always led to chaos in the society. It is a common saying in western politics that 'left and right fight and moderate wins'. This is because the majority of people prefer a peaceful settlement between the two extreme wings and vote for the middle. In Iran, during the cold war, the right was supported by the US against the communist left backed by the USSR. Therefore, both superpowers were in agreement against any moderate liberal or nationalist democratic settlement. This was evidently the case in the coup led by the CIA and the British intelligent service in 1953 against Mossadeq who was a democratically elected prime minister (Risen, 2000). Surprisingly, the Todeh Party at the time, as the biggest political organisation under the Kremlin's influence, run campaigns against Mossadeq as well. Consequently, in the absence of a strong liberal democratic political movement, right wing took control of the 1979 revolution and established a religious fanatic regime.

This paper argues that the only strategic solution to Islamic fundamentalism in Iran is political reform and democracy. The September 11 terrorist attack, perhaps gives us this simple lesson to realise that the cost of reform and democracy in the Muslim world is far less than the destructive issues created around fundamentalist movements. To explore the complexity of this argument a multiple research methodology is used based on normative choices, with two basic assumptions.

First, 'what is the Islamic fundamentalism' and 'where it has come from', and second 'how this happened in Iran' and 'how it can be resolved'. A multilevel of analysis is used to analyse the historical, ideological, political, economic, and socio-cultural sources of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and Khomeini in Iran.

The effort has been made to be selective among the numerous explanations and simplify them. As the selected explanations could be affected by personal barriers, any type of self-reference criterion is strongly avoided. The theoretical explanations, developed in the first part, will be elaborated broadly and supported evidently in the case study, which brings to light the chronological sequence of important events in Iran since 1950. Finally, the urgency of reform in Iran and the chance of reformers for success will be discussed.


According to Wikipedia (2002), fundamentalism:
"refers to a Protestant Christian movement which originated in the United States in the early 20th century, opposed to the teaching of evolution and modernism. This movement called themselves 'Fundamentalists' because they sought to return to what they viewed as the 'fundamentals' of their religion. The term has since been extended by analogy, to include similar movements in other religions, especially Islam".

Armstrong (2002) contends that "fundamentalism is a kind of monolithic movement expressing the same kind of ideas as ideals". In short, religious fundamentalists are adhering to absolute ideas and ideals which are almost irrelevant to the real world (of relativism) that everything is relative.

George Joffe (1998), a British scholar of Islamic fundamentalism, believes that it is a much misunderstood phenomenon. He contends that Islamic movements have been depicted by media reports of revolutions and bomb attacks around the world. Therefore, as Young (1998) writes:

"You only hear about these movements when in fact they do something which catches the media eye. Therefore, perhaps, the image we have of the Islamist movements as being solely violent is in itself misleading".

Defining fundamentalism should be explored through multi-principle analysis.

Multilevel of analysis:

To comprehend the concept of fundamentalism, it should be discussed within five different human science principles of historical background, ideological, political, economic, and socio-cultural contexts. Fundamentalists across all nations and faiths are likely to follow the same patterns, but depending on the above mentioned circumstances, in different time.

Historical Background

After the World War One, British Empire divided the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence. Hence, colonisation brought profound changes in both political and social structures and gave rise to different responses from the local Muslims, like - some organised armed resistance, some used political pressure, some attempted to adapt western influence by copying the west, modernising the economy and reforming the state. But all these strategies ended with failure. Islamic revitalisation was part of that resistance, first started by Jamal-al-Din Asad-Abadi who outlined the basis for radical Islam or Islamic fundamentalism. He strongly argued against the idea of Muslim national states and called for a pan-Islamic state and the unification of all countries within the Islamic world. This was an absolutely utopian approach towards the problem facing the colonial countries and then followed by the establishment of Ikhwan al Muslimin (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna in 1929. (Bland, 1994).

Modern fundamentalism is rooted in the writings of Mawlana Mawdoodi of Pakistan and Sayyid Qutb of Egypt in the 1960s calling for the return to the traditions of Islam. (Joffe, 1998). The same dreams of establishing an Islamic Empire was then followed by Khomeini. He rejected a parallel between his doctrines and the fundamentalism propounded by some Muslim dissidents. He never described himself as fundamentalist and often said that Islam is not for 14 centuries ago but for all time. (Viorst, 1989)

Ideological context:

Fundamentalism has been a process of religious resurgence (Armstrong 2001). But fundamentalism was the matter of defeat, because when people are fearful and threatened, they tend to accentuate the aggressive aspects of Islam and disregard those that speak of compassion and justice. This type of reactionary reference to religion by fundamentalists can be understood when one considers the disaffection of millions of Muslims in the Middle East, whose grievances extend from hating to see their natural resources and much of their wealth go to the Western countries, to seeing their culture has been despoiled by the world wide influence of American culture. For Muslims, where the cause and cure of even domestic issues are out of their hand to act upon through democratic process, they end up with extreme response which takes the form of violence.

Armstrong (2001) says "when people feel that their backs are to the wall and they're fighting for survival, they can, very often, turn to violence". This type of violence has been institutionalised by fundamentalist regime of Iran. Ayatollahs, for instance, say to the person who is being asked to blow himself up with dynamite that they will go straight to heaven. As people only under the name of higher cause are ready to kill one another, by characterizing their enemies as satanic, Mullahs can justify hatred and even mass slaughter. Fundamentalist terrorists, hence, at the extreme end, seek to wash the impure world with the clean blood of innocent victims. Despite the fact that taking the life of others is against the tenets of most religions including Islam, terrorism has become the state backed as a tool of expanding the influence and shielding the power. Fundamentalists receive huge benefits from war in which they can pretend terrorists as freedom fighters. (Ogivie, 2001)

In real world, however, religion is not all about hating but also loving each other. The main conflict has always taken place between the two phases of most religions: love and hate. Wallis (2002) calls it the conflict between cynicism and hope. Armstrong (2001) argues that "we in western societies regard ourselves as a compassionate, tolerant society that respects the rights of others". We have this because of "the Abrahamic religions, from all three of these faiths" (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen (2002) claims that 'Western detractors of Islam have little to say about Islam's traditions of tolerance, which has been at least as important historically as its record of intolerance.' In the case of Iran, the main forces of opposition to the fundamentalist regime (both liberals and left wing) have been Muslim themselves.


Islam as a religion embraces one billion nominal believers in around thirty nations. During the last decade, the idea of creating the Islamic state through reviving the caliphate or Imam, where the religious leader is the ruler, was attractive in Muslim countries. This was partly due to the historical failure of secular political programs, distrust of the US and the collapse of communism. This has been clearly the case in countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Turkey, and Egypt. But as a dominant power, fundamentalist regimes can only be found in a few countries like Iran and Sudan (Young, 2001).

Fundamentalism, like the twentieth-century fascism, rejects liberal democracy and proposes a clergy ruling class. Fundamentalists have been described as authoritarian proclaiming a loyalty to sacred texts and to the goal of creating a religious state. Fundamentalist regimes are tied to political conservatism, and prejudice. Some may describe them as totalitarian, because religious laws should be applied to all aspects of life. If secularisation calls for the separation of religion and politics, here we have the resacralisation of politics and the politiscation of religion. (Young, 2001)

The September 11 terrorist attack has brought to light this serious lesson that religious fundamentalism is a global issue and requires a collective solution. After the attack there were many references to 'attacks on freedom and democracy', something that few people in the Middle East have experienced much of, worth to remind us Palestinian refugees who have had no home for the last fifty years (Young, 2001).

It is a common saying that democracies do not fight each other, hence promoting peace and democracy can be an optimal response to Islamic fundamentalism and global terrorism. This has been the dream of the majority of Muslim, specially the younger generation who are inspired by the Western democracy and its achievements but criticising its foreign policies of 'double standard'.


Radical Islamic movements have also been nourished by economic globalisation. The experience of over-exploitation by colonial powers has been extended through economic globalisation. This has widened the gap between rich and poor with consequent increase in class conflicts. For many industries in Islamic countries the world economy is too big and competitive to operate efficiently and survive without state protection. This has intensified by many states attempting to join free market that has resulted in many socio-political problems. The majority of Muslim countries spend more than 30 percent of their export earning on debt servicing (Azad, 2001). The impact of the privatisation of state-owned enterprises has created growing resentment among workers and middle class youth who are deprived of jobs and career prospects. The growing spread of poverty, fatal disease, civil crimes, drug trafficking and corruption are also among the major incentives that Islamic fundamentalists groups are provoking reaction and public support.


Fundamentalist movements also present a persuasive critique of late capitalist culture. They criticise the Western values of materialism, selfishness, tolerance for uncontrolled sexualities, demoralisation, decline of family ties, and urban crime. The fundamentalism rejection of modernity is not necessarily of modern technology but of the ideals of individualism, voluntarism, pluralism, and the equality of women. For instance, under fundamentalist regimes, specific regulations have been issued to control the public appearance of women through dress codes and the segregation of the sexes in public. Further it formally limits women's legal rights and their freedom in public life (Hallahmi, 2001).

In the West, conversely, religion, which once used to be uniform, collectivistic, public, ascribed and inherited is now pluralist, individualistic, privatized, achieved and often freely chosen matter. The possibility of choice and preference is a modern phenomenon and interpreted as a result of privatisation. Modernisation, however, does not occur accidentally and cannot be copied from the west over night. In many Muslim countries, with traditional culture and economy, religion is still a matter of birth rather than choice.
Meanwhile, in some parts of the Muslim world, the modernisation process has been so rapid that secularism was often experienced not as a liberating movement, but as an assault upon faith.

For example, when Ataturk was bringing modern Turkey into being, he abolished all the Sufi orders and forced them underground. Hence, all men and women were obliged to wear Western dress. In Iran, Reza Khan (the father of the shah) used to send soldiers into the streets with bayonets, taking women's veils off and tearing them to pieces in front of their eyes. In Egypt, President Nasser had imprisoned thousands of members of the Muslim brotherhood, many without trial and often for handing out leaflets or attending a meeting. Sayyid Qutb went into the camp as a moderate. But after 15 years of hard labour, watching the brothers being executed or being subjected to mental or physical torture, he came to the conclusion that secularism was a great evil. Qutb was executed by President Nasser in 1966.

These happened in societies where the vast majority of the population had no idea of modern institutions or teachings and only a few elite had benefited of Western education (Armstrong, 2001). Some scholars term this kind of approach to modernisation as "secular fundamentalism" (Wallis 2001).

It can be argued that religious pluralism and pursuing multifaith policies are the best social response to religious intolerance in the today's mainstream cosmopolitan society. Fundamentalist movements, like any other religious or ideological extremities, can also be modernized. Radical Islamic groups in countries like Jordan, Yemen and Egypt are gradually becoming absorbed into the mainstream of democratic politics. For Islamic governments now, it is a matter of survival to distance themselves from the radical ideology. This has been proved in the case of Iran, which once seemed to be thrown off modernity.

Case Study: Iran

The Rise and Decline of Islamic Fundamentalism in Iran

Iran is one of the world's few theocratic republics, in which the political system is under significant control by the dominant religious system of the country. Iran's leadership consists of three main elements: the spiritual supreme leader "faqih", with huge power including control of the Judiciary and commanding the Defence forces; the executive, consisting of the office of the President; and the legislature, consisting of the parliament (Majlis) and the Council of Guardians. This system is not a purely religious system rather it is a combination of Shiite tradition with the west-ministerial system of representative democracy.

This mixture has created unstable and inefficient ideological, political, economic, and socio-cultural arrangements. This further depicts the confrontation between opposing interpretations of Islam - fanatic fundamentalism versus a modern and democratic. These controversies have been the source of conflicts between the people and their religious rulers over the past two decades. This has been substantiated in the growing splits within the mullahs' camp and the recent defeat of hard liners in the presidential and parliament elections.

Over time, the power and influence of the mullahs has declined while the people and their democratic values and institutions have been empowered. Before addressing the process and causes of the rise and decline of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, we need to comprehend the similarities and differences of fundamentalist Islam in Iran and elsewhere.

Similarities and Differences between Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and its neighbouring countries:

The appeal of Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalism to other Muslim nations is limited because of two following reasons:

1. Iran is predominately Shia Muslim, unlike other fundamentalist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Libya, Sudan, or Pakistan which are predominately Sunni, thus, the Iran model does not represent all fundamentalist movements.

2. In Iran, the Shia clerics or mullahs assumed control of the government combined with the western style of representative democracy. While for countries such as Libya and Syria, the model of fundamentalism is combined with a model of socialism.

Despite these disparities, the movements share several characteristics and common grounds:

1. They all justify the movement and claim for power based on the principles of Islam. This helps them to strengthen their base of mass support;

2. They share the tendency toward economic and political isolationism, based on the rejection of Western influence;

3. Their antagonistic foreign policy and state sponsorship for exportation of the revolutionary ideology, notably in the form of terrorism. By advocating such a policy, fundamentalist states create a bond with other fundamentalist groups and states to create a political bloc that increases their capabilities to influence both regional and international relations (Etheridge, 2001);

4. They all reject modernity and its associated democratic values of individualism, voluntarism, pluralism, and the equality of women.

The process of Rise:

During the Cold War the Western powers welcomed the formation of an Islamic front against Communism through the creation of a "Green Belt" of Islamic allies in the Middle East. Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were major parts of such a belt and they had a variety of intelligence links with the U.S. (Azad, 2001). The religious sentiments and anti communism incentives were crucial measures, in these countries, when recruiting for their intelligent agencies. According to Bland (1994) the University of Salt Lake City, which is run by the fundamentalist Mormon Church has long been the favorite recruiting ground for both the CIA and the FBI. This is especially important for many of the Middle Eastern countries, in which intelligent forces play crucial role in making decision on national strategic issues. Nevertheless, the religious tendencies of intelligent agencies could have significant impact in the way they treated religious fundamentalism through out the region. For instance in the case of Iran, before the 1979 revolution, the Shah's secret police (SAVAK) arrested a large number of Islamic fundamentalists. But the regime always treated them much better than secular and Marxist political activists. Although many genuine democrats and leftists were killed by the SAVAK, the fundamentalists survived and were able to eventually bring down the Shah and took over the Iranian revolution.

The Shah's oppositions were sourced from three major ideological frameworks: Islamists (left and right), Marxism, and Nationalism Front ( or liberals). SAVAK's violent tactics prevented the left and the nationalism movement, from having a significant social presence especially after the coup launched by the CIA against Mossadeq in 1953. Hence, only fundamentalists' leadership survived.

The next political uprising was in 1960-61 following an economic crisis when the Shah introduced the White Revolution programme of agrarian reform combined with education and health measures. Land reform was viewed as a threat to vagf (endowed) property which served as an important source of income for the mullahs (Viorst, 1989). They joined with sections of the feudal landowners to organise a campaign against the reforms -not from a revolutionary standpoint, but rather from a purely reactionary one. Khomeini's first criticisms came to the surface when he accused the Shah of abandoning Islamic precepts in favour of imperialism, but his criticism remained within the confines of the establishment. He merely protested against the Shah's excesses. In 1964 he was banished to Turkey, but was then permitted to relocate in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf in Iraq, where for the next 15 years he shaped the 'valayate-faqih' (religious state) doctrine. In exile he delivered lectures on Islam and called on the whole religious establishment to move with him against the Shah. Only at this point Khomeini emerged as an anti-Shah leader.

From 1963-73 Iran politically and economically was relatively stable with steadily rising oil revenues enhanced economic growth. In 1973-74, oil prices quadrupled, and Iran's oil revenue increased from 5 billion dollars to 20 billion dollars a year. Rapid economic development was accompanied with the concentration of capital in a few hands. Forty-five families controlled 85 percent of the largest companies in 1974 (Azad, 2001). Capitalist development had also created a mighty working class in Iran, and thereby completely transformed the class balance of forces.

The Shah made the biggest political mistake in 1975 by establishing the Rastakhiz (Resurgence) party and compelled every individual, and the few remaining political parties to become part of it. From then on he completely closed down every rays of light in the landscape of Iran's politics.

The second wave of uprisings began in the early 1970s, which remarked with the armed struggle of guerilla groups including the two largest groups, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh-e Iran (Muslim) and Fada'iyan-e Khalgh-e Iran (Marxist). The majority of their members were from the intelligentsia and their main recruiting domain was the universities. Between 1971-1977, university students became increasingly involved in political activities and organized a number of large demonstrations. These activities popularized the anti-government culture and provided practical experiences that became important in the following years. In 1975 a large number of both group's members were arrested and their leaders were executed by SAVAK.

By 1977, the increasing number of street demonstrations finally forced the Shah to change his prime minister to liberalize the situation. This further radicalised the movement. The confrontations resulted in many casualties with mourning for each martyr precipitating another demonstration. Yet the more he did, the more isolated he became. In late 1978 huge street demonstrations were calling for the Shah's abdication. The strikes of the oil workers, in particular, paralysed the regime. The Shah had nowhere to go for help but to Washington. In January 1979 he fled to the West. Two weeks later, Khomeini returned home in triumph. (Viorst, 1989)

Fundamentalists in Power:

Khomeini moved very tactfully at first. He appointed Bazargan (the representative of the Liberty and National Fronts) as the prime minister.

Despite the boycott of the referendum by radical groups, the Islamic Republic of Iran was born in March 1979. Soon Khomeini used anti-America slogans to kill the revolution. In November, he sent his supporters to seize the U.S. embassy and held 52 hostages, which popularised anti-American feelings to mobilise mass forces behind the IRP (Islamic Republican Party).

He, at the same time, utilised some Bonapartist tactics to concentrate power at the top and to isolate liberals. On November 5, Bazargan who found himself in disagreement with the Council of Revolution and Khomeini over major issues such as human rights and foreign affairs -mainly with regard to the idea of exporting the Islamic Revolution and hostage crisis- offered his resignation to Khomeini.

On November 15, 1979 the final draft of the new constitution was published. The main objective was allocating the extreme power to the Faqih (the supreme religious leader) who is not an elected official. The faqih, as the political and religious leader of the country, is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and secret services and head of the judiciary. He further has the power to dismiss the President.

By the early summer of 1980 all political opposing groups had to go underground. Khomeini also launched a campaign to "export" the revolution to surrounding Muslim countries. His provocations of Iraq in 1980 helped start a war that lasted eight years (1980-1988) and cost a million lives. The war ended only after America intervened to sink several Iranian warships in the Persian Gulf. Khomeini described the seize-fire as "more deadly than taking poison." (Viorst, 1989)

The last event of this period, which delineated the antagonism between the ruling clerics and the opposition, was the explosion of two bombs in the headquarters of the Islamic Republican Party on June 28, 1981. The People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMO) accepted the responsibility. Most of the 74 dead were right-wing leaders. This event and the expansion of Iran-Iraq war were the government's main arguments to use institutionalized violence against the opposing groups.

After the war ended in 1988, Khomeini, in an effort to rally his demoralized supporters, issued the fatwa condemning to death the Pakistanian born British writer Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. Although Khomeini died a few months later the fatwa lived on and became a source of bitterness between Iran and the West.

The Khomeini regime backed the Hamas and Hizbullah fundamentalist wings as a means of diverting attention from the internal tensions in Iran and preventing peace in the Middle East. The irony is that before the revolution, this kind of organisation was financed by the CIA and the Israeli Secret Agency Mossad, in order to split the working class of the Middle East along religious lines. (Azad, 2001)

The Prospects of Reform:

Khomeini was succeeded by Ali Khamenei who also has rejected of modernisation continuing the country's economic isolation and resulting in a stagnant economy from which Iran has yet to recover. High levels of unemployment, a lack of foreign investment and low oil prices contributed to the decelerated economy. The country's antagonistic foreign policies limited foreign investment. In response, a faction within the regime created a prospect of reform. Led first by former President Rafsanjani and then followed by the current president Khatami, the movement aimed to attract foreign investment and recover the country's economy by moderating its fundamentalist principles and its support for foreign fundamentalism and terrorist groups.

However, Tehran's new focus on the economy has created tension between the regime's hard-line and moderate factions. The student demonstrations signified the beginning of a new stage in the Iranian revolution. The reformist faction led by Mohammed Khatami is afraid to tackle the reactionary mullahs represented by the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The factional fighting at the top reached a critical stage in the 1997, 1999, and 2000 presidential and parliamentary elections that led to huge losses for hard liners. The clashes between student protesters and security forces in July 1999 resulted in a wave of violence that threatened to topple the entire clerical regime. The chance for unrest remains high in the most notorious Islamic republic. (Etheridge, 2001)

Nevertheless, the regime of the ayatollahs, after more than two decades in power, has exhausted itself and entered into a state of terminal crisis. The split within the mullahs' camp and their recent defeat in elections indicates the beginning of a new process. The masses, once again angry with the mullahs' hypocrisy and corruption, are beginning to stir. The student demonstrations and the massive victory of the "reformers" in the general elections are indications of a fundamental change in the situation.

Contrary to the reactionary dreams of Khomeini, history has never proceeded in accord with any subjective plan or the preconceived ideas of individuals, least of all if these ideas have an entirely reactionary character. Although fundamentalists took advantage of the crying contradictions in the society and mistreated unconsciousness of the masses, the great majority of Iranians who have only just awakened are striving to find the road to either political reform or another progressive revolution. It is the task of the Iranians new generation to study the lessons of the past and draw the necessary conclusions, goals and objectives toward building their future.


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Note: This article was originally published on Thursday, September 19, 2002 at


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