The Tribune - Spectrum

Special Issue: countering terrorism
Special Issue
Countering terrorism

Views of eminent experts and thinkers on countering terrorism

Hari Jaisingh

Kanti Bajpai

Asghar Ali Engineer

Owen Bennett Jones

Shelley Walia

G. Parthasarthy

T. V. Rajeswar

Gen V N Sharma

Ashok K. Mehta

Prakash Singh

M. J. Akbar

Sunday, January 5, 2003
Tribune special

Fundamentalism & terrorism
Politics of religion and religion as politics

Communalism is all about political or economic interests of a particular community, while fundamentalism is enforcement of sectarianism for the political mobilisation of a community with the aim of achieving the power-goals of its elite. Fundamentalism invariably leads to terrorism, says Asghar Ali Engineer.

FUNDAMENTALISM and terrorism are widely used but loosely-defined terms in the media as well as academia. Many people describe any thing religious as fundamentalism and any act of killing as terrorism. It is necessary to define these terms properly. In fact, the term fundamentalism is hardly applicable to Indian religions on the one hand, and to Islam on the other hand. It is American media, which started using ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ when the Islamic revolution was taking place in Iran in the late 1970s. Our media too started using the term and very soon it was being very widely used.

The term ‘terrorism’ too has its origin in American media after 9/11. We have had violence from across the border since 1990s but never used ‘terrorist violence’ for it. We called it either extremism or militancy. But now, we call it ‘cross-border terrorism’ after 9/11. Thus, American rulers and American media set the term for us to be used. America devises terms to reflect its own interests and not to make any academic sense. We should resist the temptation to use the terms loosely.

Let us try to define fundamentalism. It should not certainly be confused with fundamentals of religion. Even in America this term was not used in that sense in the early twenties of the last century. Those who believed that every word of the Bible is literally a divine word were called fundamentalist. One, it did not refer to fundamental teachings of Christianity and second, it was never used in a derogatory sense. Now the term, especially ‘Islamic fundamentalism,’ is used in a derogatory sense and since it is used in a derogatory sense, we must separate it from religion per se.


To follow either Islam or Hinduism should not be described as ‘fundamentalism’. Even to follow orthodox traditions of religion should not be dubbed as ‘fundamentalism’, even though one may not agree with orthodox practices. There are millions of people in every religious tradition who follow these orthodox traditions without being a nuisance to any one in the society. Their practices could be quite harmless.

Therefore, one must distinguish between orthodoxy and fundamentalism. Fundamentalism in the sense in which it is being used in the media is, in fact, a political misuse of religion in a narrow sectarian manner. In this sense, there is not much difference between communalism and fundamentalism. Both the phenomena are based on political interests. Still there is a subtle difference between the two. While communalism is all about political or economic interests of a particular community, fundamentalism is enforcement of sectarianism with all rigidity for political mobilisation of a community for the power-goals of its elite. While communalism is the exploitation of sentiments of a religion-based community for a secular goal (i.e. political power) fundamentalism is enforcing narrow sectarian practices for strengthening religious orthodoxy as well as achieving political power.

While the BJP will be closer to communalism in this sense, while the VHP-Bajrang Dal will be closer to fundamentalism. However, it must be said at the same time that the distinction is getting more and more blurred of late as VHP is setting the agenda for the BJP. Similarly, the pre-Partition Muslim League was closer to communalism and the Jamat-e-Islami was closer to fundamentalism.

Communalism is more about secular interests (mainly political) of a religion-based community. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is enforcement of narrow sectarian religion by misusing political power and that too with a view to consolidate political power.

Now let us define terrorism. One must admit, while defining terrorism that it is very difficult to reach any consensus about it. Even the UNO failed to evolve one despite great deal of debates. It is often said, and rightly so, that one’s terrorist is the other’s freedom fighter. Those who are freedom fighters for the Palestinians are ‘terrorists’ to be killed and eliminated for the Israelis. In Kashmir, those who are ‘terrorists for us are freedom fighters for Pakistanis and even for some Kashmiris,

Even though it is difficult to define ‘terrorism,’ those who kill innocent and non-combatant people on a large scale could certainly be categorised as terrorists. Many Pakistan-based organisations like Lashkar-e-Toiba who kill innocent citizens not only in J&K but also in other cities of India are terrorists.

Let us see whether fundamentalism necessarily leads to terrorism and what is the link between the two. Though logically fundamentalism should not necessarily and inevitably lead to terrorism, it often does. Fundamentalism involves enforcement of narrow sectarian practices using political power. In order to consolidate political power, extreme coercion becomes necessary and extreme coercion involves violence.

People do not easily accept such enforcement willingly (except a few) while the authoritarian forces use violence. Also, when it involves political power, political rivalries and secessionist movements, violence is inevitably used since democratic alternatives take far too long and test out patience. It should also be noted that all terrorist movements are not fundamentalist in nature though fundamentalism may also lead to terrorism. For example, the LTTE movement is a terrorist one but not a fundamentalist one.

Another important thing to be noted is that terrorists may use religion or religious terminology like jihad or Dharma yuddh or holy war but their objective may have nothing to do with religious teachings as such. It would, therefore, be wrong to describe a terrorist act as religious terrorism just because of religion of a terrorist and his use of religious terminology. Thus, Osama bin Laden’s being a Muslim and his attack on the WTC twin towers, New York, does not become an act of ‘Islamic terrorism’.

Osama bin Laden has his own agenda and his acts by no means represent Islamic teachings. No religion in the world, much less Islam, teaches terrorism or inspires any one to kill innocent people. Though some Muslims may have expressed sympathy for Osama, so did some non-Muslims who resent America’s policies and it’s pro-Israeli stance. Osama never had any official sanction from any Islamic establishment. There is no priesthood or church in Islam and no fatwa, howsoever eminent the institution issuing fatwa be, cannot be binding on any Muslim.

And in case of Osama no such institution has issued any such fatwa supporting his act of terrorism. It is, therefore, not justified at all to describe 9/11 attack by Osama’s men as an act of Islamic terrorism. Even if any eminent Mufti (one who issues fatwa) had issued such an opinion, it would not have been binding on all Muslims. And in this case no one issued such a fatwa

Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaida organisation does not pretend to have any mass base. No terrorist organisation, as a matter of fact, has a mass base anywhere in the world. It would otherwise seem to be a terrorist organisation. Osama does use Islamic terminology to gain the sympathy of Muslim masses but use of such a terminology does not make it an Islamic organisation. It remains basically a terrorist organisation. The religion practised by masses of Muslims is more spiritual than political and religion practised by likes of Osama is more political than spiritual.

The Koran clearly lays down that killing any person without a just cause amounts to killing whole humanity and saving one person’s life amounts to saving entire humanity. This is truly humanistic and spiritual dimension of Islam and of any religion for that matter. Killing hundreds of innocent people can not qualify for being a religious act by any stretch of imagination.

In fact whether fundamentalism and terrorism m (in the sense in which they have been defined above) are linked together or not both are curses for humanity. No truly religious person should approve of such a gross misuse of religion. A religious attitude has to be of humility, distance from political power and of non-violence. The Sufi Islam which was truly spiritual Islam always maintained its distance from power centres and believed in the doctrine of what is called sulh-i-kul i.e. peace with all. True religion is one, which does not get politicised. Political Islam or political Hinduism became a great danger for peace and tranquillity in the society. It is political Hinduism (Hindutva) which caused havoc in Gujarat and many other places and it is political Islam which has resulted in bloodshed in New York or in Kashmir or in Algeria, for that matter. Muslims and Hindus should fight against politicisation of their respective religions.