Spokesmen for the Despised

"Using biography and interviews with followers of these leaders, the contributors to this volume paint riveting and insightful portraits. . .These essays, masterful works of contemporary religious history, give insight into the lives and times of these religious leaders."—Publishers Weekly

"This book is a useful guide to the varieties of fundamentalist thinking and practice in the Middle East."—Foreign Affairs

"As a guide to radical (mainly non-government) leaders in the Middle East, [this book] serves its useful purpose all the better for being impartial . . . . this objective account deserves a place on the bookshelves at quaking chanceries throughout the Middle East."—The Economist

"This is a fine contribution to the comparative study of religion and necessary to understanding the relationship of religion to politics in the region."—Sanford R. Silverburg, Library Journal

"This collection of writings on Muslim, Jewish, and Christian 'fundamentalist' leaders presents the latest scholarship on the topic. Individual pieces are well researched and informative. . .good reading."—Virginia Quarterly Review


An excerpt from
Spokesmen for the Despised
Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East
Edited by R. Scott Appleby

From the Introduction by R. Scott Appleby

To suggest that certain Muslim religious scholars, Jewish rabbis, and Christian preachers have something substantial in common beyond a zealous dedication to their own particular religious traditions and communities, is not to imply that they share the same worldview, much less that they are allied against the irreligious forces they confront in the modern world. Why, then, apply a North American Protestant term to Muslim and Jewish activists of the Middle East? Might not this decision induce careful scholars to engage in a form of cultural imperialism, interpreting indigenous movements and individuals through the distorting lens of Euro-American sensibilities? Certainly it would be a mistake were we to insist that all "fundamentalists" exhibit the characteristics of North American Protestants. If we claimed, for example, that a belief in scriptural inerrancy is the defining mark of the fundamentalist, the category would become virtually meaningless. How could we hope, in the case of Islam, to distinguish fundamentalist Muslims from the far greater number of nonfundamentalist Muslims, who also believe the Qur'an to be the infallible word of Allah? The shared characteristics or "family resemblances" of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim fundamentalists must be found elsewhere.

The actual resemblances are found not in specific doctrines or religious practices, but in a shared attitude toward religion itself, and in a specifiable process of using religion to construct ideologies and organize movements. As a distinctive attitude or habit of mind, fundamentalism divides the world into realms of absolute good and absolute evil, claims exclusive possession of divine truth, and thrives on the identification and unmasking of the enemy. In particular, religious fundamentalists deeply mistrust secular or "godless" ways of knowing. And they oppose the ideas and practices that gain favor as a result of secularism, including pluralism (the acceptance of the existence of many different types of belief and practice, religious as well as nonreligious), relativism (the conviction that no belief is inherently superior to any other), and radical individualism (the idea that the individual rather than the community is the final arbiter of belief and practice). Finally, fundamentalists see revived, militant religion, characterized by absolutism and moral dualism, as the best defense against the threatening encroachments of secularism.

As an ideological and organizational process fundamentalism entails the selective retrieval of religious doctrines and practices for the purpose of building a viable political movement. Politics is the organized pursuit of power, and fundamentalists seek power over, variously, the family's reproductive practices and child rearing, the school board, the seminary, the religious endowment, the denomination, the political party, the military, the government, and "outsiders," however the latter are defined. In this process fundamentalists reveal themselves to be quite at home in the modern world; indeed, they are instrumental if not philosophical modernists, appropriating (or even inventing) the latest technologies and employing the most sophisticated political stratagems.

To state this point another way, religious sensibilities animate the fundamentalist use of modern instruments and processes. If Shi'ite fundamentalists are to form a modern political party in Lebanon, it will be the "party of God." If Jewish fundamentalists are to justify the assassination of the prime minister of Israel, it will be through condemnations of the traitor or "pursuer" (rodef), a concept taken from Jewish religious law. If Protestant fundamentalists are to establish a diplomatic outpost in Jerusalem, it will be the Christian Embassy, the political contrivances of which are shaped by the biblically derived, apocalyptic system of thought known as dispensational premillennialism.

The word fundamentalism, therefore, aptly describes the basic method of the modern religious leader who reaches into the sacred past, selects and develops politically useful (if sometimes obscure) teachings or traditions, and builds around these so-called fundamentals an ideology and a program of action. What we mean by fundamentalism, in other words, is the blending of traditional religion and its politicized, ideological defense.

It should be clear that fundamentalism is traditional religion only in a qualified sense. But we should be equally clear as to where the qualification lies. The process of treating the contents of sacred scripture or religious doctrine as the raw material for a new synthesis with elements of contemporary society is not unique to the twentieth century or to fundamentalists. Students of religion have long recognized that tradition is a dynamic and fluid process, not a static "essence," in every historical period. "Traditional," in short, is not synonymous with "unchanging" or "timeless." If fundamentalists adapt inherited teachings and practices to the needs of the day, this hardly disqualifies them from being traditionalists. Yet fundamentalist leaders want their followers—who include university-educated doctors, lawyers, and engineers—to believe that the political message they preach is also grounded in unchanging and absolute authority and that the leader holds this authority from God. The particulars of his message may change according to the concrete circumstances; but if the source of religious authority is secure, the act of adaptation will not undermine the leader's status.

The contradictions of fundamentalist leadership

Thus the presentation of religion as immutable truth, as a solid rock in a sea of uncertainty, is the key to the fundamentalist leader's worldview and political ambitions. In times of political, economic, or religious crisis, the leader answers the call for certainty. He provides a stable foundation, immune from the terrifyingly rapid changes and dislocations meted out by seemingly random historical processes; he offers hope for the reintegration of personal and social identities.

In some settings fundamentalism is closely related to nationalism, as in the case of Hamas's rivalry with the secular nationalist forces of the Palestine Liberation Organization. But the fundamentalist leader—in the case of Hamas, Shaykh Ahmad Yasin—brings more than the usual political considerations to the situation, emphasizing also a distinctive religious content. (This too is a political consideration, of course, in that Yasin's "constituency" is made up of true believers who evaluate political realities according to spiritual imperatives.) Indeed, it is precisely their allegiance to a transcendent source of knowledge that causes fundamentalist leaders to be, or at least appear to be, uncompromising absolutists.

Yet fundamentalists practice a politicized form of religion and play religiously informed politics. And because politics is the art of compromise, the leader's dramatically proclaimed allegiance to God must be a coded allegiance. The divine will may be unbending, but the fundamentalist leader—or his operatives in the field—must be flexible in their pursuit and wielding of power. This tension between the absolutism of religious devotion and the calculation and compromise of politics, means that the fundamentalist leader will move uneasily back and forth between his dual identities, attempting to negotiate their competing universes of discourse and moral responsibilities. How is one to balance fidelity to a source of truth immune to historical change, on the one hand, and the constantly shifting demands of temporal political leadership, on the other?

The charismatic leader

The fundamentalist leader of the Middle East is usually a charismatic figure. If fundamentalist is a useful but broad label constantly in need of nuancing, the term charismatic comes equally laden with misleading stereotypes. As Martin Klein notes:

The popular press has deprived the word charisma of much of its meaning by using it to refer to any politician who is either handsome or articulate or any chief of state with an efficient propaganda machine. Used precisely, however, it remains an important analytic concept. Charismatic authority is religious or revolutionary. It emerges in response to social crisis or a perception of social crisis. When legitimacy is called into question, the charismatic leader is a new source of legitimacy. There are no rules, but to persist the charismatic authority must transform itself or must create a structure of rules.
Like fundamentalism the term charisma is a Western construct with a revealing history. The ancient Greek word kharisma—meaning "grace," "favor," or, in certain contexts, "a free gift"—was adapted by the sociologist Max Weber and given a new application. In his 1930 translation of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Talcott Parsons explained that "charisma is a sociological term coined by Weber himselfà.It refers to the quality of leadership which appeals to non- rational motives." The Weberian charismatic leader, sociologist Luciano Cavalli explains, "brings about a new order, a new social and personal integration. In principle, he lifts people from a state of regression towards the dimension of the extraordinary and the divine, from where true values and norms guide both the individual and social life, endowing them with complete meaning." For Weber, Cavalli says, a charismatic leader is "the source of law, in a sense that includes the moral principles as well." He liberates his followers from any sense of guilt towards the old laws and principles that he has discarded, and "gives them new laws and principles, arousing a sense of obligation and of moral duty toward them."

Weber's concept of charisma, Parsons adds, "focuses on the individual person who takes responsibility for announcing a break in the established normative order and declaring this break to be morally legitimate, thereby setting himself in significant respects in explicit opposition to the established order." In this respect charismatic authority differs from both rational-legal and traditional authority. The charismatic leader makes "a kind of claim to authority which is specifically in conflict with the bases of legitimacy of an established, fully institutionalized order. The charismatic leader is always in some sense a revolutionary, setting himself in conscious opposition to some established aspects of the society in which he works."

In the contemporary Middle East, we have seen what happens when a charismatic leader announces "a break in the established normative order." Under particular kinds of conditions he thereby unleashes forces beyond his control. This is certainly one of the lessons of [Sayyid Muhammad Husayn] Fadlallah. As a scholar of Islamic law, the spiritual mentor of Hizbullah followed a very precise legal formula in justifying suicide bombings (normally, suicide is a clear violation of Islamic law), and he studiously imposed religiously derived restrictions on the use of violence in general (insisting, for example, that Hizbullah avoid the death of innocents whenever possible). But Fadlallah found that his young, undisciplined Shi'ite followers, inflamed by the religious zeal he and others had helped to kindle in their hearts, had little use for the fine distinctions of the religious lawyer.

In other words, the dynamic of religious violence, once set into motion, follows a logic of its own; and this fact places the fundamentalist leader in a quandary. Charismatic authority depends on what Weber called Ausserallätglichkeit, the emancipation from routine. Yet the fundamentalist leader is not antinomian; rather, he introduces "a pattern of conformity withàa definite dutyàand he claims moral authority and hence legitimacy for giving orders to his followers, or whoever falls within the scope of the pattern." The authority of the charismatic leader is recognized by his followers and not, as in a democracy, derived from their consent. The salient element is therefore not the will of the followers, but their duty or obligation. Accordingly, the charismatic leader's claim to authority involves the ability "to impose obligations in conflict with ordinary routine roles and status." In short, the fundamentalist leader must use his charismatic powers not only to unleash revolutionary energies in his followers, but also to contain and channel those energies toward the rebuilding of the social order.

Weber's concept of routinized charisma is therefore particularly useful in explaining Khomeini's struggle to ensure that the Islamic republic would be sustained in a fundamentalist mode long after the revolutionary period (and his own life) had ended. Because it is "a revolutionary force, tending to upset the stability of institutionalized ordersà[charismatic authority] cannot itself become the basis of a stabilized order without undergoing profound structural changes," Parsons writes. The original force of the revolutionary charismatic authority involves the assertion of "an individual against the established order," but if the movement grows and gains recognition, becomes an organization or institution in its own right, successive leaders cannot base their claims to authority on the same grounds. Charisma then becomes part of the normative order, as in hereditary succession or the succession of an office. While a "process of routinization" is therefore unavoidable, "the charismatic element does not necessarily disappear." Khomeini's goal was precisely to routinize his authority without losing its charismatic force.

Other leaders exude charismatic authority by virtue of different kinds of personal qualities. Hamas's Shaykh Ahmad Yasin injured his spine in a boyhood accident and was left partially paralyzed but spiritually unbowed; his moral courage and faith-filled endurance of suffering is perhaps more striking than his rhetorical skills or the originality of his message. Rabbi Moshe Levinger captivated his followers by his intense zeal and fearless pursuit of his religious convictions: he led the first illegal settler's band to Hebron and has seemed indifferent, throughout his career, to the personal price exacted by his pioneering initiatives. The ideological mentors of Gush Emunim, the Jewish "Bloc of the Faithful," who pioneered the West Bank settlements, suggest that there is a charismatic quality to ideas themselves. The rather eccentric ideas of Rabbi Abraham Kook—the kabbalistic notion, for example, that every Jew harbors a "sacred spark" in his soul, leading him to support God's plan of redemption—were personalized and "operationalized" by his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook. In a similar vein, the charisma of the Christian fundamentalist Jan Willem van der Hoeven [can be located] in the power of an idea: the conviction that Israel will be the site of Armageddon, the final battle prophesied in the Book of Revelation, and that Jews must regain every inch of the Holy Land in order for the events of the Last Days to unfold.

To say that a person has charisma, however defined, is also to say that he or she has an audience. Charisma does not exist in isolation from human relations; it is essentially interactive, called into being and sustained through constant contact with the expectations, hopes, and fears of other human beings. The cultural and social horizons of the audience constitute the framework within which a charismatic person becomes a social leader. In this general context the sociologist Edward Shils famously discussed the decidedly nontraditional ends to which charismatic power could be turned.

Writing in the late 1950s of the so-called third world, Shils observed that the charismatic authority of local tribal chieftains was being transferred to the political leaders of the developing nations. These new national leaders spoke of "the sacredness of the nation" and used their quasi-religious authority to pursue solely secular, economic ends. The lack of economic ambition in these developing countries, and their socialist economic orientation, was a function, Shils argued, of "ancestral sensitivity to charismatic things" and the muted individuality fostered by traditional societies." Thus, when the political leadership fostered support for state-directed economic goals among the peasantry, it appealed not to individual interest or ambition, but to the glory of the nation.

A cultural policy designed to undermine traditionalism, Shils advised, "might help to create more favorable conditions for economizing action." Such a policy might destabilize these societies, he admitted, but "the very situation which stimulates anomie also releases creative potentialitiesàThe loosening of the hold of the ties of the extended family which is the chief bearer and mediator of tradition is essential, if any of the potentialities are to become economically productive." In short, the deliberate disruption of tradition is "a necessary precondition for the dispersion of charisma."

In this view, which Shils later elaborated, the force of charisma, if channeled properly, could liberate underdeveloped societies from a passive traditionalism and move them toward a creative engagement with nature and with the world outside the tribe. Shils had in mind a creative engagement that would take the form of capitalism at the expense of traditional patterns of life centering on the family and kinship network. Contemporary fundamentalist leaders, however, "come after" the manifest failure of such Western-inspired schemes of development. They place charismatic authority at the service of reconfiguring traditional society both to liberate it for greater productivity and to protect it from the kind of globalizing, homogenizing forces Shils anticipated. Shils's stated goal—to discredit the authority of the elders in order to free the individual's "libido," thereby encouraging "individual differentiation andàindividual attachments to objects"—is precisely the kind of vision of society denounced to such effect by fundamentalist religious leaders of the Middle East.

The fundamentalist leaders claim to speak for the dispossessed and despised masses—the generation that modernizing economies and Westernizing cultural revolutions failed to liberate. In the case of Islam, the despised are "millions of the unhappily ruled, the educated-but-unemployable, futureless young, the poor, the dispossessed—those whom Muslims call 'the disinherited' and whom they recruit by the tens of thousands." In the case of Israel's radical Jews, the despised are the religious Zionist rabbis and their brilliant young yeshiva students who refuse to accommodate the Israeli government's plans for peace with the Arabs and who seek a Jewish theocracy in the Holy Land.

Each of these groups of religious fundamentalists provokes outrage on the part of their coreligionists who prefer moderation in the pursuit of societal and political reform, or who do not share the exclusivist religious vision of the fundamentalists. In the face of such widespread scorn, the fundamentalist leader's charismatic authority binds together the true believers in solidarity against the outside world.


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 3-11 of Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East edited by R. Scott Appleby, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1997 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of University of Chicago Press.

R. Scott Appleby, editor
Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East
©1997, 438 pages
Paper $24.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-02125-6

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