Fundamentalism Part 1: The war in Syria

This is a follow-up post to the one I put up a few days ago, in response to Karen Armstrong’s new book which tries to separate religion and violence. Specifically, I’m looking here at the link between fundamentalist religion and violence.

There are several definitions of ‘fundamentalism’ , but I’m going to define it as “an insistence on strict conformity to sacred scripture and a moral code ostensibly based on it.” I will address this question with reference to two violent circumstances prevailing in the world today: the civil war in Syria and (in my next post) the recent war between Israel and Gaza. 

The civil war in Syria began as a political struggle between a governing secular dictatorship and protesters seeking democratic change as an offshoot of the ‘Arab spring’ of 2011. As the Assad government’s repression became more violent and the opposition militarised, Islamic fundamentalist elements became attracted to the war in the form of an Al Qaeda offshoot and, more recently, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). With the Syrian government being led by an Alawite (Shia Islam) elite and the fundamentalist forces in the rebellion being Sunni, another fundamentalist group – the Shia Hezbollah group from Lebanon – have entered the war on the side of the government. Thus, a political struggle has devolved into an intractable sectarian war between the two strands of Islam, with the opposition forces now dominated by Sunni fundamentalists (who are also fighting each other!) and the government buttressed by Shia fundamentalists.

The violence in Syria is arguably more a marker of identity than a fundamentalist reaction against perceived moral decline. Whilst it is true that the Assad government is relatively secular, and the conflict began as political rather than religious, it now appears to have devolved into a Sunni/Shia war, particularly since its recent spread into Iraq. Arguably, this is a war of religious exclusivism, but not fundamentalism. Sunni and Shia Islam share the same basic beliefs, creed and the Koran as sacred text. They differ as to tradition only: who were Mohammed’s rightful successors and whose testimony was valid (in certain hadith) as to Mohammed’s observances.

If Westerners are targeted by such groups, it is very easy to label that attack “fundamentalist” – a reaction against modern values and mores driven by an ancient Islamic mindset. However, when Hezbollah battles ISIS – or even more perplexing, when Al Qaeda battles ISIS – to what degree is this a war over traditions from nascent Islam (arguably, exclusivism or fundamentalism), rather than base tribalism (i.e. neither exclusivism nor fundamentalism)? One might further break down the analysis by questioning whether – to the limited extent that the war in Syria is about Islamic tradition – does this qualify as violence born of fundamentalism, since the warring parties would barely differ over texts or morality? Probably not.


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