Letter: Islam's fundamental beliefs

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The Independent Online
As an unbelieving westerner who has lived peacefully and happily for many years in various Muslim countries, I am astonished and dismayed at the argument put forward by Conor Cruise O'Brien in his article on the crisis in Algeria (6 January). Dr O'Brien argues that "Islamic fundamentalism", as exhibited in Algeria and elsewhere, should not be considered as distinct and separate from Islam, as the intolerance and political militancy that characterise it are - both historically and canonically - b uilt into the religion itself. Islam is "indivisible", claims Dr O'Brien. Furthermore, he says, there is a revival of this intolerant and militant religion afoot in the world As regards the "indivisibility" of Islam, the facts do not bear this out. A religiousculture that has developed over 1,400 years and that comprises nearly 1 billion people across the globe is unlikely to be particularly unified, let alone "indivisible".

Quite apart from the great divide between Sunni and Shia, there are a whole host of differences, legal and otherwise, to be found in each of these two branches. Then there is Sufism, the esoteric strain, to be found in a wide variety of forms in various parts of the Islamic world, all of which are dismissed as heretical in Wahabi Saudi Arabia.

Rather than adopt attitudes and policy on the basis of reified concepts, the industrialised world and its governments would do much better to respond to living realities. Speaking personally, I have scores of friends of various nationalities, all of whomare tolerant, friendly and peaceable, and all of whom are devout Muslims. Were I to adopt Mr O'Brien's stance, I would have to assume that these people, and the millions of others like them, were not in fact true Muslims (Islam, by definition, being intolerant and politically militant, according to Mr O'Brien). This is patently absurd, as is the notion that they are about to have their religion revived.

Secondly, as regards "Islamic fundamentalism" (political militancy, armed insurrection, wars of national liberation, terrorism and the like, in the name of religion, whether in Algeria, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya or the urban slums of Egypt), the phenomenon is far too complex simply to be categorised as "Islamic". Volumes could be written on this subject.

I shall limit myself to stating that I once had an hour-long interview with a leading spokesman of the Hizb-i-Islami in Afghanistan (generally considered the most extreme of the "fundamentalist" parties) in which the ideals propounded were those of democracy, an end to ethnic and tribal divisions, the mixed economy and social justice, all of which were described as "Islamic".

Yours faithfully, ALAN PIMM-SMITH Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex 6 January

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