Repeatedly recently, newspapers have labelled as extremists people whom many Muslims consider to be voices of moderation. So who are the moderates? Week after week, just before the radio phone-in host denounces the alleged actions of another extremist amongst us, we hear the tired refrain, ‘The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people…’
But who are the vast majority of Muslims and what do they believe? How are they defined and who defined them? In many senses I find my belief in Islam a continuation of my upbringing, not a rejection of it, and I have hardly suffered an identity crisis because of my beliefs. Yet with the use of undefined phrases such as ‘the vast majority’ and ‘moderate Muslims’, and the claims that are made on our behalf – if indeed we are the people intended – our place in society does seem to be in question. The history teacher may well have seen this before when he lamented, ‘Now I know how the Jews felt in the 1930s’.
Not even a century ago, Jews were forced by the frenzy of state and media to debate their place in society; would it be integration or isolation, tradition or reform? Were they moderates, or fanatics obsessed with a law which should have no place in a modern secular society? Today, for all the lessons that were supposed to be learned from history, little has changed. Like the good moderate Jews before us, we too must become secular. If not, then once more the talk will be of parasites on society, of an ungrateful community burdened by their religious law and plotting the nation’s downfall from ghettoes in its midst.
Too often discussion about Islam starts – and sometimes finishes – with the topic of fundamentalism, writing off any dimension of spirituality amongst the community’s faithful in the process. Generous authors often concede that fundamentalism is common to all faiths, but it must be acknowledged that what is meant in each case is actually very different. In the Christian context it is generally used to signify conservative Protestantism characterised by a literal interpretation of the Bible as God’s unadulterated word. In the case of Islam, by contrast, all Muslims believe the Qur’an to be the word of God, but the term fundamentalist is not generally used in this sense. Instead, fundamentalism when speaking of Muslims is more often aligned with ideas of extreme militancy, although this wholly depends upon who is using the label.
What is meant by a term needs to be specified from the outset. If Muslim fundamentalism is viewed in the same light as conservative Protestantism it becomes not a radical reaction against other forces, but merely a manifestation of accepted dogma. However this is clearly not what is meant; the idea of Muslim fundamentalism has entirely different connotations. We are not witnessing different expressions of the same concept, but rather different concepts given one name. Only once the term is wrested back from journalists and employed by members of a faith themselves does it take on a more authentic meaning which crosses community lines. Hugh Goddard has one of the definitions of fundamentalism as ‘the conviction that the authentic version of their faith is to be found in the earliest period therefore an emphasis on a return to “fundamentals”’ (Hugh Goddard, Fundamentalism, p. 148). This best describes the common ground for the term when used for both Christianity and Islam.