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Understanding Muslim Identity: Rethinking Fundamentalism

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 Understanding Muslim Identity
  • Book Author:
Gabriele Marranci
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‘Another book on Islamic fundamentalism?’. I can hear the question echoing among friends, colleagues and readers. Since 2001, more than 100 books and 5,600 articles have been published on Islamic funda- mentalism.

Broadening the research to agnate labels – such as Islamism (about 200 books and 243 articles), political Islam (345 books and 4,670 articles) and Islamic extremism (only 16 books and 1610 articles) – w can appreciate the amount of scholarly publication pressed into the past seven years. The reasons behind such abundance are multiple.

Surely, after September 11 the demand for books and academic articles on religious fundamentalism increased, reinforcing a pre-existing market focused on the Middle East.

Two military campaigns (in Afghanistan and Iraq) under the banner of ‘the war on terror’, as well as terror- ist attacks in different parts of Europe and in non-Western countries such as Bali and Saudi Arabia, have further increased the number of publications, both academic and popular, to an unprecedented level.

 Said (1978, 1981) and Said and Viswanathan (2001) may have even suggested that Western writers and publishers exploited the morbid Western orientalistic curiosity about the violent Oriental man combin- ing the divine with the political, and the political with holy violence.

Nonetheless, money and latent or manifest orientalistic aims, though they may have an important part, are not the only reasons, or the main reasons, behind such a high level of academic – and sometimes pseudo- academic – publications. Since the 1960s (see, for instance, Hiskett 1962, Berger 1964), and particularly after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the study of political, sometimes radical, extreme or violent, actions of some Muslim groups – more rarely of individuals – has offered a fertile, both theoretically and empirically, vivid discussion.

As you may expect, disagreements and diatribes mark any academic discussion; but in this case, the very labels used to describe the ‘phenomenon’ remain highly contentious. Nonetheless, in the past ten years, we can observe that aca- demic discussion about what has been labelled as ‘fundamentalism’ – and Islamic fundamentalism in particular – has enjoyed a great degree of homogeneity (see Chapter 2, and more specifically Chapter 3, in this book).

Among various reasons for this, we can acknowledge that Appleby’s monumental work The Fundamentalism Project (1991–5) has made a significant contribution. Appleby’s main argument emphasises that all religious fundamentalisms possess certain characteristics as part of a ‘family resemblance’.

Appleby’s volumes are interdisciplinary, with contributors offering analysis from perspectives such as political science, history, religious studies, sociology, psychology and anthropology, just to mention a few. Despite this diversity in disciplines and approaches, the conclusions of the project suggest that all ‘fundamentalisms’ are the consequence of conservative religious groups and leaders who reject modernism and secularism, which are seen as ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ of the Enlightenment, in a desperate attempt to preserve traditional ways of life and religious beliefs through scripturalism

In the first two chapters of the present book, we shall observe that the antithesis between what have been described as the products of Enlightenment – such as secularism, modernism, democracy and liberal freedoms – and the products of religious tradition – such as support for theocratic models of society and human life – does not represent a neu- tral analysis of the respective positions.

 Rather, certain academic analyses show an etic struggle between representation and condemnation; between science, as a quest, and politics, as a plan for action; between endorsement and rejection; between essentialism and relativism; between accusation and absolution; between ideology and Utopia.

Despite the few attempts to explain it from, for instance, psychological (for example Hoffman 1985, Hood et al. 2005) and anthropological (for example Gellner 1981, 1992, Antoun 2001, Nagata 2001) viewpoints, Islamic fundamentalism has been analysed and understood mainly through ‘Culture Talk’ (Mamdani 2004).

In extreme forms of ‘Culture Talk’ analysis, not only do the holy texts, through its symbols, provide the blueprint behind the actions of Islamic movements and individuals, but it also dictates them. In other words, the ‘fundamentalist’ becomes the embodied tradition (Bruce 2000).

We can say that, from a ‘Culture Talk’ viewpoint, culture shapes a person’s identity as a bottle shapes the water it contains.2 In our case, the bottle was often described as the sacred text or a religious tradition from which the ideology and worldviews of fundamentalists (all of them!) derive.

To understand this phenomenon as a cultural and symbolic discourse is surely a powerful, and apparently convincing, way of explaining it. Yet this kind of approach has raised legitimate questions when not open criticism.

Mamdani is surely among the most critical. In his renowned book Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (2004), he has observed, ‘Culture Talk assumes that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it, and it then explains politics as a consequence of the essence. Culture Talk after 9/11, for example, qualified and explained the practice of “terrorism” as “Islamic”. “Islamic terrorism” is thus offered as both description and explanation of the events of 9/11’ (2004: 18).

Mamdani has pointed out how the practice of ‘Culture Talk’ has divided the world between moderns and pre-moderns, with the latter being only able to conduit rather than make culture. He has particularly criticised the essentialist approach that much of ‘Culture Talk’ has shown towards Muslims and Islam in the aftermath of September 11.

According to him, the ‘Culture Talk’ reasoning argues that Islam and Muslims ‘made’ culture at beginning of their history, but in the contemporary world they merely conform to culture 4 Mamdani, therefore, has concluded, According to some, our [Muslim] culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates, so that all Muslims are just plain bad.

According to others, there is a history, a politics, even debates, and there r good Muslims and bad Muslims. In both versions, history seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom of an antique people who inhabit antique lands. Or could it be that culture here stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity with rules that are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and mummified in early artefacts? (2004: 18, italics in the original)

Mamdani has rightly expressed his concerns about the political and social consequences of understanding Muslims, and their religion, as merely a product of culture because it reduces religion not just to politics, but to a political category. This process, in the best of the cases, facilitates a Manichean sociological and political division between good and bad Muslims.

Mamdani has no problem in telling us why such a division, which is a soft version of the more radical stance of ‘Islam is the problem’, has been emphasised in the aftermath of September 11. He has argued that this reasoning has helped to justify the belief in a clash between modern and pre-modern people, or, in other words, civilised versus civilisable, which was very much a part of the history of colonialism; Mamdani has so observed that ‘this history stigmatizes those shut out of modernity as antimodern because they resist being shut out’ (2004: 19).

He has further argued for the epistemological fallacy of ‘Culture Talk’. He has rejected the idea that political behaviours and ideologies can derive solely from cultural (religious or traditional) habits and customs, and rhetorically asked, ‘could it be that a person who takes his or her religion literally is a potential terrorist?

And that someone who thinks of a religious text as metaphorical or figurative is better suited to civic life and the tolerance it calls for? How, one may ask, does the literal reading of sacred texts translate into hijacking, murder and terrorism?’ (2004: 20). Mamdani has stated that what we witness today and we call terrorism is born not from religious extremist views, but from a ‘modern political movement at the service of a modern power’ (2004: 62).

Nonetheless, Mamdani’s final conclusions do not explain why, if ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘Islamic extremism’ is the expression of a mod- ern political movement, serving the Machiavellian needs of ‘modern power’, people who are not interested in politics are, however, strongly attracted to what scholars have defined as fundamentalists’ ideas and ideologies.

 Mamdani (2004), like, for instance, Piscatori (1983), Esposito (1991, 1999), Nazih (1991), Hafez (2003) and more recently Adamson (2005) and Devji (2005), has not noticed that, similarly to those authors who relied upon ‘Culture Talk’, they have described ‘Islamic fundamen- talism’, and other Islamic-isms, as a ‘real thing’.

They have reduced the phenomenon to a utilitarian political talk, manipulative and uniform in its religious rhetoric. Religion, they tell us, does not really matter (Tibi 1998, Ruthven 2004, Milton-Edwards 2005); or if it matters, it is because ‘evil’ opportunistic Muslims (Halliday 1994, Choueri 2002, Kepel 2002) have hijacked it.

When studying those phenomena that today are being identified as ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, or ‘Islamic radicalism’, scholars seem forced towards two analytical deadlocks: on the one hand, the phenomena can be interpreted as the product of culture, or the misreading – or even the correct reading, as Bruce (2000) would argue – of the holy text.

 On the other, it can be interpreted as a Machiavellian use of religion for power, political opportunism within a larger power struggle between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic views of society. However, should we really settle for choosing the lesser of the two evils?

As I discuss in the next two chapters of this book, some other scholars have tried to avoid the trap of both ‘Culture Talk’ and political essen- tialism. They suggest that the phenomenon is deeply rooted in the dynamics of social identity.

Of course, culture matters and religion too, but they are not the essential ingredients. The final answer, Herriot has recently argued (2007), could be found in the ‘us versus them’ attitude that underlies the conflict between religious values and secularism. Identity (role identity) theory, directly or indirectly, has shaped the discussion of ‘fundamentalism’.

Indeed, social identity theory simplifies the explanations of group conflict into an uncomplicated, often transformed into a simplistic, dualistic dynamic. Much of what has been said in social science about Islamic fundamentalism (and the other Islamic-isms) has been based upon manifest or latent forms – and some- times drastically simplified versions – of it.

Starting from the mutual interdependence between society and the personal self (Strauss 1959, Blumer 1969), which Goffman would systematically theorise in his masterpiece The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), McCall and Simmons (1978) have developed what they have called ‘role-identity theory’.

The core theory argues that ‘the character and the role that an individual devises for himself as occupant of a particular position’ (1978: 65, emphasis added) within society, forms what we call identity. From this viewpoint, personal identities are the product of society and identities cannot exist beyond the social role.

McCall and Simmons’ theory, however, left a question open that required an answer to avoid that thesis remaining extremely vague. Role-identity theory indissolubly links the individual to the social group.

However, the same individual needs the social group to express his or her own individuality; this is clearly a tautological position. Stryker  (Stryker and Serpe  1994) noticed  it and tried  to correct the tautology by arguing that because societies are complex and ruled by difference, though organised, in the same way the human self must be equally complex and ruled by differences, though organised.

People, according to Stryker, have complex and differentiated selves that are expressed through different identities according to the social context in which people find themselves (Stryker and Serpe 1994).

Individuals, according to him, select their personal identities to satisfy their personal interests, so that among the different identities that individuals can form, the one that in a certain context better fulfils his or her interests would be the most likely to be activated. Hence, ‘interest’ is what pre- vents people rejecting the identity that the social context has imposed upon their  personal self.

Instead  of Stryker resolving  a weakness  of role-identity theory, he ended in an even worse tautology. Indeed, somebody may ask the fatidic question: who controls whom here? Is it the individual that, through his identity selection, based on his interest, controls the social group or actually the opposite – the social group in which the individual takes part controls him because it controls his desires? Stryker has no answer.

He resorted to the postulation of a continuum in which self, society and personal identity should shape each other in an endless process.

Tajfel’s ‘social-identity theory’ has attempted to resolve such a tautology. Tajfel has observed two important facts: first, that self- esteem, as James (1890) had suggested, has a paramount relevance for identity formation; second, that people categorise social and non-social stimuli in order to self-identify with others and to form ‘in-groups’, which differentiate themselves from ‘out-groups’.

Differentiation allows groups to form a group identity (for example in-group A feels itself to be A because it is not part of the out-group B). Tajfel has therefore suggested that personal self-esteem can only be achieved through in- group membership (Tajfel 1979). In other words, personal identities depend upon the social identity of the in-group, and the self-esteem of each member of the group depends upon the self-esteem of the others involved within such an in-group.

If now  we observe,  as we shall  do in  the next two  chapters, the available theories, and more often theorems, of ‘fundamentalism’ (and particularly Islamic fundamentalism), we can easily recognise the influence that Tajfel’s understanding of social identity – and indi- vidual identity as the result of social group dynamics – has had upon them.

The ‘family resemblance’ that defines fundamentalism has an epicentre: Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic radicalism, Islamic extremism, political Islamism and Islamism are the result of a defensive, or for some scholars aggressive, rejection of modernism and the consequent secularism.

 They reject, in other words, the essence of what the scholar understands as modern civilisation (see Chapter 6 in this book). Here is where ‘Culture Talk’ meets ‘social identity’ theory. Indeed, many of the theories we shall discuss see ‘fundamentalists’ – in reality, as Varisco (2007) has argued an epithet for radical, fanatical and extrem- ist Muslims – as individuals who wish to enhance their self-esteem.

To achieve this, they undertake a process of depersonalisation in order to become part of a group, in this case the fundamentalist group, which provides prototypes through the stereotype of the other, which in this instance is the modern and secular, in other words the West. This would explain, according to some of the theories we shall review, why funda- mentalist groups decide to adopt the most anti-modern tool available: a strong belief in an inerrant and divine scripture (Hood et al. 2005).

As I  have mentioned, I  agree with Mamdani  and others that  the phenomenon labelled as ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ has strong political connotations and that activists aim for social change. Yet I also think that people become involved in those activities for reasons beyond politics.

 Nonetheless, the way in which social identity theory has been applied to Islamic fundamentalism has, in my opinion, confused rather than clarified the dynamics behind it. Surely social identity theory may appeal in this case because it reflects a certain common sense; but in reality it reduces the individual to a cultural–social object and the group to a cultural tool of social conformity.

 I recognise that society and culture have an important function; but they cannot constitute the whole explanation of human actions and behaviours (see Marranci 2008b). Social identity theory, despite its supporters having provided adjustments to its original version, is flawed by tautology: individuals form their identity through groups, which however are formed by the very individuals to whom groups should provide the identity needed to join the group in first instance.

 In other words, your identity is not exactly yours; yet the identity of the group is derived from yours! Without any sarcasm, we may say that social identity theory has yet to answer the ‘chicken and the egg’ riddle.

As an anthropologist, I have met individuals (my friends and respondents) in the flesh, and as Rapport has argued (Rapport 2003), for them individuality was a physical and psychological reality, whereas ‘society’ and ‘groups’ were the abstraction (Marranci 2006, 2008b).

 While spending time with them, living with them, speaking to them and following their lives, I could clearly see that their selves, their identities and feelings did not conform to the above pictures of passive cultural processes.

While answering the question of what religious fundamentalism might be, social scientists – like their col- leagues in the agnate disciplines of religious studies and political sciences – by over focusing on society and culture, have left behind an essential third: nature.

However, before we move towards this point, it is extremely relevant to address another ‘hot potato’: terminology.

When the term ‘fundamentalism’ became like a car

My feeling is that academics protest too much about language. If in our ordinary lives we manage to deal with the complex meanings of terms such as ‘car’, I do not see why we should not be able to find words that allow us to say something useful about a range of religious political movements. (Bruce 2000: 13)

Understanding Muslim Identity

Although I can see how my grandfather while attempting, as usual, to repair his old Fiat 500 did find in his ordinary life the term ‘car’ to carry a meaningful complexity, the above attempt to justify the term ‘funda- mentalism’ wins both a trophy for its originality and a ‘wooden spoon’ for its misleading simplicity. Steve Bruce here is doing nothing more than dismissing as irrelevant the heated academic discussion about the term ‘fundamentalism’.

 Yet the debate around the use of this fourteen- letter word has implications not only for an understanding of the phenomenon, but also for the ethical and political features involved. Ruthven has noticed, ‘“Fundamentalism”, according to its critics, is just a dirty fourteen-letter word.

 It is a term of abuse levelled by liberals and Enlightenment rationalists against any group, religious or otherwise, which dares to challenge the “absolutism” of the post-Enlightenment outlook it professes to oppose’ (Ruthven 2004: 6–7). Indeed, some scholars have argued that it cannot be extended beyond evangelical Christian movements or even, in a very restrictive view, beyond its historical use (Varisco 2007). Others, who privilege a strict emic position, consider any etic analytical imposition of the ‘F-word’ (Ruthven 2004) to non-Christian movements as ethnocentrism (cf. Appleby 2000: 79–83).

In the case ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, it is not so much the accusation of ‘ethnocentrism’ that resonates but rather that of a more or less latent ‘Orientalism’ (Said 1978).

Varisco has noticed that ‘fundamentalism’ has a clear Christian legacy, which makes it unsuitable to explain Muslim movements. Then, he has also observed, ‘“Fundamentalism” as a term should be of interest to scholars who study the phenomenon not only because of what it is said to represent, but also because it is “our” term – a word coined almost a century ago within American Protestantism’ (2007: 209).

Finally, he has suggested that alternatives, such as Islamism, have gained more popularity than ‘fundamentalism’, ‘which is now commonly bracketed to the dubious terminological limbo of quotation marks’ (2007: 211).

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