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Coming to terms with fundamental Islam

Can we as Americans come to terms with what is characterized as a resurgence of fundamental Islam? Perhaps the best place to begin is with our own political perceptions. They are in sharp contrast with those of most Muslims.

Our politics depend on a network of abstractions that we seldom encounter in the real world. In our society we have conjured a plethora of highly impersonal mass institutions in which each individual senses that his life is spent in marginal functions conducted in near anonymity. We fragment personality to permit the individual to be depicted unidimensionally as a "voter," a "consumer, " or a "worker." We even perform this sleight of hand in perceiving others. Now , for example, we have invented the "militant Muslim."

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Within Islam, perceptions are different. A Muslim's identity is firmly embedded in an immediate, intimate, and real social setting. He is not comfortable with our abstractions. He is ever mindful of the past -- a real phenomenon -- and finds a reference point in tradition. In contrast, we are guided by an abstraction -- some concept of scientism by which alternatives are assessed in a presumably value-free examination of evidence.

Whereas the Muslim grounds political activities in his religious faith, for an American or European the idealized basis for politics is reason, often derived from self-interest.

The political actor in an Islamic society is some corporate body (usually the extended family) that has as its purpose the protection of the group's members. In a Western polity, the individual undertakes action in his own name for the benefit of himself and perhaps for associates who may be linked to him through a contract. Our politics are usually directed toward enhancing purposes drawn from the individual's role as an economic producer. The protection of the individual is a responsibility that is supposedly assumed by society as a whole.

The idea of political action originating with the individual is itself highly abstract insofar as it relegates a secondary station to the social environment within which the individual acts. In our system, in fact, escape from social reality is the means for allowing individual freedom, even to the point of sanctioning inequality. this idea cannot be found in Islam.

We are prone to consider anyone who is different from us as being "unusual." In fact, we are probably the unusual ones. If we reap any benefit from the manipulation of abstractions within the constructs of our polity, it is in our administrative effectiveness which depends largely upon the uniformity generated by such thinking. Other peoples may never be able to equal us in our ability to manage society's economic activities.

The concept of the state is another of our abstractions, and because Muslims do not approach politics in these terms they sometimes have difficulty identifying with the state in the same way we do or contributing to the common but impersonal objectives of the government which embodies that state. As a community of faith, Muslims have not developed a strong sense of what we call "civic responsibility" -- another abstraction. Their society seems to us to lack cohesiveness -- the forces of social integration for which we strive. Their countries appear to suffer a great deal of confusion over political allegiance.

To our growing list of political abstractions can be adde pluralism, and its various embellishments -- the weighting and intensity by which an individual supposedly sorts through his political priorities and by which our society accommodates specific wishes of determined minorities. With a community premised on God-given law, Muslims see the world differently. Pluralism is not pursued. Muslims are more at ease with a single community consensus predicated on the common pursuit of God's will. They see the factions which pluralism sanctions as being destructive of community. Because of their inability to appreciate our pluralism, Muslims see the same potential for conflict and turmoil in Western countries that we observe in theirs. There are, of course, contradictions and what they would consider misperceptions on both sides.

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During the past hundred years Muslim reformers have attempted to strengthen their societies by reconciling the differences between their political perceptions and those of the West. It is a process which we refer to as "modernization." Now it appears that they might have changed course. The sense of power obtained from their control of oil reserves is permitting them once again to elevate their traditional values and to resist the cultural dominance emanating from the West.

The siezure of the hostages in Tehran is symbolic of this outlook. It is not so much the American captives as individuals who are characterized as the antithesis of Islamic goodness. Rather it is the American presence itself and the evils which many Iranians attribute to it.

Even in the Muslims' expression of horror over Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, there is a warning to the West: Don't attempt -- under the guise of the old saying, "Your enemy's enemy is your good old friend," to embrace us too closely.

Muslims are determined to test their political will. They no longer view their differences from us as evidence of social or cultural inferiority. Whatever we may think of Khomeini, he has contributed to this attitude, and it is important to all Muslims. In political Islam we are confronted by a force which is new to our age. Some readjustments will have to be made in accommodating it within the spectrum of political power that is distributed globally. We will do ourselves a service by undertaking this task with equanimity and keeping in mind that there is nothing that is inherently hostile or aggressive in Muslim society as long as Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis, and other Muslims can conclude that we are no longer dedicated to the mission of controlling their destinies.


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