I do run, run, run; I do run, run, run

Name the country with the following traits:
A female Olympian with medal hopes in marksmanship.
Queen – the band with an openly gay lead singer – is highly popular.
Has a very successful family planning program.
Allows abortion – albeit in limited circumstances.
Transsexuals are accepted as part of society.

Hopefully the first thought that came to your mind was an Islamic state described as fundamentalist. A state where women are supposed to wear hijab and the state is theocratic. Perhaps a state that is part of the Axis of Evil, and has had no diplomatic relations with the US for the last 25 years. Hopefully you thought of Iran.

I have serious issues about using the term fundamentalist when discussing Muslim traditions. The term enters usage in the early 20th century when discussing a particular Protestant understanding of faith, particularly the inerrancy of the Bible. However, all Muslims believe in the Qur’an as the revealed word of God, and therefore in its inherent inerrancy. More importantly, the term fundamentalist has become a catch-all that obscures very real differences in religious interpretation.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are often lumped together as being fundamentalist Islamic states. However, according to the documentary Adventure Divas: Behind Closed Cha-dors, 60% of the university population in Iran is female; women have important government positions. The educational system is based on a what we would call a liberal arts model and one of the biggest vigils on September 11, 2001 outside of the US was in Tehran. The lead off articles also demonstrate an engagement, although in a highly circumscribed way, with modernity. Oddly enough, none of the above can be said for our great friend and ally Saudi Arabia.

What I’ve said above should not be construed as an endorsement of the notion of vilayat-e faqih, rule by the jurisconsult; I believe Khomeini’s theory of the state is a perversion of the role the Ithna’ashri ulama are too play in the absence of the Imam. However, to assume that countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran are equivalent, misses very important realities on the ground. Iranians are interested in an engagement with the US, yet as a matter of policy we isolate them, and indirectly support the theocracy. Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabians, have demonstrated a deep and abiding hatred of the US, yet we continue to give them as much as they need. Why? The very things we say we find distasteful about Iran are to be found in Saudi Arabia, but too a much greater degree. The things we hated in the Taliban have their origin in the Wahhabi faith.

A study of Iran is instructive both in terms of breaking down this term “fundamentalist” and in terms of own foreign policy.

8 thoughts on “I do run, run, run; I do run, run, run

  1. You’re forgetting about their nuklar wepons capabilities; that’s their membership card into the Axis of Evil.
    Homosexuality and Abortion Rights would be cause to further alienate them in the eyes of the current US administration.

  2. Southy, you seem to forget that the illustrious group of countries that have nuclear weapons includes: Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States. All of these countries including us should then also be included into the Axis of Evil.
    Iran and North Korea are aiming to become nuclear states, but are not there yet. The lesson from Iraq is that you had better go nuclear to keep the US from invading and occupying you. Thus Iraq, with no weapons is attacked, and North Korea is left alone.

  3. A point of information. Fundamentalist is an inexact term, but so is the phenomenon that the term attempts to describe. It’s true that historically, fundamentalism referred to a Protestant movement in the US that included, among other things, belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, and a “list of fundamentals” that one must believe to be a good Christian. I take your point about Muslim belief in the inerrancy of the Qur’an.
    However, I think the hallmark of fundamentalism is not so much a belief in the inerrancy of one’s scripture (although that’s a prerequisite), but a devotion to a literalist understanding of that scripture. Literalist interpretations are always exclusivist and narrow, and intolerant of alternatives (ignoring for the moment that one word in English can have multiple literal meanings; that goes double for Arabic in my non-native speaker understanding). In the Sunni Muslim experience, that literalist approach extends to the problematic world of ahadith, and a very selective reading of fiqh (how many Salafis understand or even recognize the difference between Shari’ah and fiqh). In that sense of a literalist, exclusivist, and intolerant approach to religion, I think the term fundamentalist is appropriately applied to some Muslim perspectives.
    To return to premise of your post, I don’t know enough about the Iranian experience or Shi’a Islam to say whether fundamentalist is an appropriate term for Iran.

  4. You know Tony, I used to think about literalism as being a good alternative way of describing what we call fundamentalism with respect to the Islamic tradition. However, someone pointed out to me that a literalist reading of the Qur’an actually gives the widest latitude in formulating laws because less than 5% of the Qur’an actually deals with legislative details. A literalist reading would be more liberal than conservative. I think with the Islamic tradition what’s going on is both a selective reading of the texts and ignorance of history and interpretative framework. I’m not sure that falls into the realm of fundamentalism. I would argue from a Sunni perspective, it is much more bida (innovation) than a return to “fundamentals.”

  5. Would that the Qur’an were the only source for laws. A literalist Qur’an-only approach perhaps would justify a wider reading, but what do we do with hadith and the reams of juridicial writing? I do agree with you that what’s going on today is bida and thoroughly modernist.

Comments are closed.