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From 1990s Algeria to 9/11 and ISIS: understanding the history of "Homo islamicus fundamentalensis"

Today’s brutal jihadists like “Islamic State” follow in the footsteps of fundamentalists who have afflicted Muslim majority societies since the 12th century. Algerian anthropologist Mahfoud Bennoune revisited that history in order to strategize against jihadists - a task which remains essential.

Mahfoud Bennoune
11 September 2014

This is the second of a three part series of articles. Read part one. Read part three.

On this thirteenth anniversary of the Islamist atrocities of 9/11, as the international community ponders how to respond to  the now unfolding orgy of theocratic killing by the entity claiming to be Islamic State, it is instructive to revisit this study by Algerian Anthropologist Mahfoud Bennoune. Written in 1994 while Bennoune’s country weathered a similarly nihilistic jihad of doom, the questions he asked then about how such violence had been unleashed, and about the history of the Muslim fundamentalist ideology behind it, have, sadly, never been so relevant.  Originally published in Algeria by the newspaper El Watan (No. 1245, 7 November 1994) after Bennoune had received repeated death threats, and the paper’s editor had survived an assassination attempt, this three part article is a testament to the determined struggles -  which continue today from Iraq to Nigeria -  of many people of Muslim heritage to speak out, whatever the cost, against the terror of those claiming to act in the name of God.  It is also a reminder that today, as Algerian terror victims’ rights activist Cherifa Kheddar has said, “instead of just battling terrorism, we must fight fundamentalism. Fundamentalism makes the bed of terrorism.”

Part two: What factors have determined the savage nature of fundamentalist terrorism?

How could a son of Algeria, who was carried in the womb of an Algerian mother, nursed and raised by her, and born into a family immersed in both Muslim and universal values, become a killing machine who destroys, pillages and rapes…? Is he simply the product of violence inherent in Algerian society and culture, as claimed by some, or the product of a brain-washing to which he was subjected by fundamentalist groups whose goal was to create a “homo islamicus fundamentalensis”?   

In fact, the nucleus of the Algerian terrorist groups is estimated to be made up of between 600 to 900 men who fought in Afghanistan in the 80s and early 90s, and have gone through extraordinary military training, made available by the US army at the request and under the control of the CIA, in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. In addition, this terrorism has also been shaped by a kind of thorough brainwashing. This indoctrination rests on ideas developed by the founders of Muslim fundamentalism like Sayed Kotb and his successive disciples, whose historical roots go all the way back to the 12th century when a wave of fundamentalism swept across the Muslim world. It resulted in a substitution of faith and belief for knowledge and Averroesian rationalism.

The historical roots of fundamentalism

According to Iranian writer Fereydoun Hoveyda, “From the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean, the fundamentalist sheikhs proceeded to destroy systematically the works of Muslim philosophers and scientists. While science and philosophical research succumbed at the beginning of the 12th century in the Mashrek, they would be denounced, condemned and banished at the end of that same century in the Maghreb, especially in Andalusia, and at the beginning of the 13th century in Egypt.  In the Middle East, the works of philosopher/physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1027) and philosopher/musician Al Farabi (870-950) were burned. In Syria, mystical philosopher Sohrawardi was executed for heresy, in Aleppo. In Cordoba, they destroyed manuscripts that had been collected in the great libraries established by the Omayyad Caliphs.”

In 1192, they burned the library of a great doctor in Cordoba who was accused of atheism. A sheikh publicly presided over this rampage. A witness described the scene: “I saw in the ‘sheikh’s’ hand an extremely rare work of astronomy by Iraqi-born Ibn El Haythem ( 965-1040) which depicts the circle the author used to represent the celestial globe. The sheikh exclaimed: ‘Here is a huge disaster,’ and as he said that he ripped up the book and threw it into the fire.”

Even the great scholar Ibn Rushd  (Averroes) was a victim of triumphant fundamentalism in the 12th century. The prediction that a hurricane would wipe out all of humanity had become widespread across Muslim lands. Terrorized, the populace even contemplated taking refuge in caves. The Sultan of Cordoba gathered all the scientists and theologian-philosophers to seek their advice about this matter. Ibn Rushd expressed his doubts, and said that they should examine this prediction in the light of physics and the natural sciences.  A sheikh shouted a question at him: “Do you not believe in the destruction of the tribe of Ad by a hurricane as was related in the Qur’an?” The philosopher replied that it was only a myth. This answer was used by the sheikhs of the day to accuse the greatest thinker of the era of heresy. They forced him to appear before an actual inquisition which condemned him to exile and to the burning of his books.

According to the great Iranian historian and writer Hoveyda: “Overcome by a veritable anti-intellectual fury which was encouraged by the authorities and theologians (fundamentalist) from one end of their world to another, Muslims hastened to throw their own scientific and philosophical achievements into the rubbish bins. The religious fanatics shouted, 'the Qur’an contains all the truth necessary to guide believers in this world and to open the doors of paradise for them'". This fundamentalist frenzy led to the decline of the Arabo-Muslim world, which made it vulnerable, and in the long run colonizable.

The role of fundamentalism in the decline and colonization of the Muslim world

From the 12th century onward, the Muslim world, closed to all new influences and stripped of its intellectual and scientific riches, did not stop regressing, with rare exceptions such as the work of physician Ibn Nafis in the 13th century, and the founder of sociology Ibn Khaldun in the 14th. century. The fundamentalists, in alliance with despots, pushed the Muslim world into an intellectual hara kiri. As Hoveyda notes, “Never before had we seen the people of a civilization reject all their own advances achieved over four centuries. While the party (of endogenous purity or fundamentalism) savored its victory, science and philosophy flourished in Europe, where they would lead to the most tremendous scientific and technical revolutions. In the Middle East and North Africa, on the other hand, underdevelopment took hold of the societies and pushed them backwards. We witnessed a true brain drain” (a pattern of flight that recurs with each new rise of fundamentalism).  Indeed, the fundamentalist victory of the 12th century contributed to the flight of both books and brains from the Muslim world to Europe….

Between the 12th century and the advent of national liberation movements in the 20th century, and under the negative influence of fundamentalism, Muslims largely gave up the search for the truth and for knowledge, and both artistic and scientific creation, and they lived for seven centuries preoccupied exclusively with the hereafter. Thus, the triumph of fundamentalism reduced the Muslim world to an easy prey, and one that would be the victim of the spirit of enterprise, the worship of knowledge and the wild accumulation of capital by the West. Later, the national liberation movements of the 20th century tried in vain to achieve a beneficial synthesis of faith and belief with science and technology, in other words the realization of the Averroesian philosophy whose results were at the root of the Western renaissance.

Since the decolonization of Muslim majority countries, the founders of post-colonial fundamentalism concentrated their theorizing toward the goal of refuting that Averroesian synthesis that has been enriched and perfected by the great Western thinkers and scientists. According to Sheikh Sahnoun, one of the founders of Algerian fundamentalism, “our Arabo-Muslim heritage ( with its rationalist elements - as represented by Iraqi mathematician/physician El-Kindi, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd ) is good enough for us.”  Some have gone so far as to reject Western science and to suggest that we should only keep its “Islamic” aspects!, sometimes with the encouragement of certain Westerners themselves… who supported intellectual inertia and torpor among Muslims.

The obsession with protecting endogenous purity against all exogenous subversion is a shared feature of all religious fundamentalisms: Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu…  Thus, like Calvin, the theoretician of fundamentalist Protestantism who believed that Ottoman conquest of certain European countries was at the origin of the corruption and defiling of Christian Europe in the 16th century, the supporters of contemporary Muslim fundamentalism ascribe sin and debauchery - which in their eyes is widespread in the post-independence states of Muslim majority countries - to colonialism and a cultural invasion. They attribute the root of this evil to the influence of foreign cultures and institutions. 

For the Muslim fundamentalists, the problems of Muslims are, in part, produced and nourished by the materialist and secular West, as well as by a Zionism they consider satanic and subversive. They believe that Muslim maladies are due to the values introduced through modernization in the Muslim world, a world that was awakened from its centuries’ old lethargy by the destructuring and restructuring that went along with the exploitation and humiliation inflicted on it by imperialism.  At its root, the rejection of modernization and Westernization is nothing more than a continuity of the refusal of the Averroesian synthesis that reconciled faith and religious belief with reason and scientific logic.

This article has been abridged and annotated for English-language readers by the translator, Karima Bennoune.  A compilation of the full original text of  'How Fundamentalism produced a terrorism without precedent ' is available in English and in French.

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