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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .

Islamic Fundamentalism
Edited by Ahmad S Moussalli

(Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 1998).
348pp. Index. Hb.: ISBN 0-86372-232-6.

"Islam has been seen to be well suited to play the role of the bad guy after the cold war, for it is large, frightening and anti-Western and thrives on poverty and anger. It is spread over vast tracts of the world, and so the countries of Islam could be shown on TV as large maps of green, as the communist countries used to appear in red."(p. 6).

The fetishism of the West, and particularly the United States, with the creation of a new enemy after the end of the Cold War is an increasing point for international concern. On one hand there is a growing awareness in the international community of the fabrication of an enemy for a plethora of self-serving reasons. Yet, on the other, the overwhelming ignorance of the Muslim world, and the enormous publicity of extremist terror attacks, has fanned fears of a new Islamic 'green threat'. Ahmad Moussalli and his fellow contributors set out to rationally and systematically challenge the myths that perpetuate these anxieties.

The book begins with several complex theoretical chapters that cover a number of key debates. These range from the (ir)relevancy of Western social science in understanding the Muslim world, to the philosophical and political underpinnings of the views and ideologies of differing Islamic traditions on religion, state, democracy and human rights. These intricate theoretical chapters will be helpful to researchers with little understanding of Islamic fundamentalism, as well as those with a larger base of knowledge. They demonstrate that although any understanding Islamic fundamentalism cannot be easily conflated into the framework of Western thought, fundamentalism is "not beyond intellectual, economic, political and cultural analyses" (p.25). This is critical, as the remaining chapters all converge on the need to understand Islamic fundamentalism and its growth contextually.

The instructive and in-depth case studies of Algeria, Lebanon, the Occupied Territories, Saudi Arabia and Egypt clearly show that the resurgence of Islamic activism cannot be divorced from the local socio-economic and political context. The case studies convincingly demonstrate that most major fundamentalist groups, notwithstanding a few widely publicised groups that are engaged in exclusivist uncompromising revolutions, are not necessarily or inherently juxtaposed in thought and action to democracy and pluralism. The detailed and contextual analyses in the case studies implicitly challenges the Western myths (and consequent fears) of an all-encompassing hegemonic and extremist Islamic movement.

The book will be instructive to those not familiar with the theoretical foundations and historical context of Islamic conviction in the contemporary world. However, the book does not extensively explain, and that is not its purpose, why the West has chosen fundamentalism as its new enemy. Rather Ahmad Moussalli and his fellow contributors choose to demystify Islamic fundamentalism through developing a nuanced and contextual understanding. A refined analysis of this type is critical in moving Western conflict resolution practitioners, and the public, away from the reductionist view that the biggest threat to peace is the clash of irreconcilable civilisations rather than the socio-economic problems, and resultant opposition, created by rapid economic liberalisation.

Brandon Hamber, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johannesburg

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