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.