Now bring on the big boo-word

March 5, 2004

Home was Windsor Castle, school was Eton and Freya Stark was his godmother, so how did Malise Ruthven get his fascination with Islam and fundamentalism? Anthony Freeman finds out

No religion, no politics. A wise rule of thumb maybe for the average evening at the pub, but not if Malise Ruthven is there. Getting to grips with these two subjects, especially the synergy when they interact, is the driving force of Ruthven's writing, and not to discuss them in his company would be a treat missed.

Born in Dublin of Anglo-Irish-Scottish stock, Ruthven had evidence on his own doorstep of the charge religion gives to politics, especially nationalist politics. And in the plot of his latest book, Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning , nationalism is a key player.

Although he started his life in republican Ireland, Ruthven is no stranger to the icons of British national identity. His childhood home was Windsor Castle, living with his grandfather Lord Gowrie, who as lieutenant-governor had lodgings in Norman Tower; schooldays were spent at Eton (thanks to a War Memorial bursary - his father was killed in action in 1942 when Ruthven was only six months old), followed by Trinity College, Cambridge, and a degree in English literature.

For some people such a background might have resulted in a blinkered outlook, focused on pedigree and establishment. Not in Ruthven's case. By the time he left school, his curiosity had already been aroused about the Middle East, an interest that would later lead to such books as Islam: A Very Short Introduction (1997) and A Fury for God: The Islamist Attack on America (2002). The ambassador who introduced him to the Muslim world was his godmother, the traveller and writer Freya Stark. She had worked on the Baghdad Times between the wars, and during the second world war was employed by the Ministry of Information, first in Aden, Yemen, and later in Cairo. Ruthven's mother was her assistant at that time.

Stark's influence led to Ruthven spending what would now be called a gap year working in Jordan for Oxfam and the Save the Children Fund. After studying at Cambridge, he spent a further year learning Arabic, this time in Lebanon, and thus qualified he joined the BBC External Services. This launched him on his first career in journalism and taught him how to write.

"A year in the newsroom at Broadcasting House helped me to focus on the need for speed, clarity and succinctness," he says. "I guess it was the nearest thing we had to a professional writing academy in Britain."

His own style is a credit to that training, and to his determination to maintain a high quality of writing when he embraced academic life. Most academics, he says, write in a way that is "pretty atrocious". The evidence to back this up accumulates daily on my desk as the editor of an academic journal.

So to religion and politics. His background in the former was traditional public-school Anglican, leading to adolescent agnosticism, a common enough evolution and one hastened in Ruthven's case by the efforts of an evangelical housemaster to steer him in the opposite direction.

His political education came later - "forged while I was writing my book about torture" - and was heavily informed by the writings of Hannah Arendt and Norman Cohn. Finding news and current affairs intellectually unrewarding, he returned to Ireland to probe more deeply into events behind the headlines. The result was his first book, Torture: The Grand Conspiracy (1978).

His interest in the subject was initially inspired by human rights abuses in Ulster and Israel, but a new approach was prompted by his awareness that the literature on the topic lacked any kind of analysis of the torturers' motives. Under the influence of Cohn, his research took him into the mindset of Stalinist investigators and medieval inquisitors, and from there it was a small step to the study of religious ideologies. Given his knowledge of the Arabic world and its language, Islam - which was becoming increasingly politicised during the 1970s - was the obvious choice.

His highly acclaimed Islam in the World (1984) was the fruit of this period. Ruthven cites two major influences on his understanding of the Islamic world. One is Marshall Hodgson, author of The Venture of Islam , and the other is Ibn Khaldun, a great philosopher of history whose life spanned the greater part of the 14th century. At the time he was writing Islam in the World , Ruthven was back with the BBC, and the tensions between the demands of journalism and those of serious research were evident.

Then came the offer, thanks to a recommendation from the late historian Albert Hourani, of a visiting professorship at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. Hourani's approval meant much to Ruthven, a pleasure cemented when his publishers invited him to write a new "afterword" to Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples when it was reissued in 2002.

The US in the 1980s offered more evidence of how important religion can be, even in a western democracy, as a force in politics. Fundamentalism originated in Protestant America in the first quarter of the 20th century.

It was a specific response to the application of critical scholarship, both historical and literary, to the Christian scriptures. The term derived from a series of tracts titled The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth . These pamphlets were written by a group of conservative theologians and distributed free to church leaders and educators. Their aim was to stop the erosion of "fundamental" Protestant beliefs, such as faith in the direct creation of the world by God.

Sixty years after the word "fundamentalist" was coined in 1920 in this precise and narrow context, it had become, as it still is, a promiscuous boo-word for any and every religious extremist, especially if they are conservative and doubly so if they are violent. Ruthven does not waste energy decrying this debasing of the term, but he does point out the irony and the inconsistency of many of the stereotypes.

For instance, Christian fundamentalists are often portrayed as biblical literalists. But inerrancy, not literalism, is their watchword, and to avoid admitting that the Bible contains errors or inconsistencies, they will happily resort to allegorical or symbolic interpretations. It is their liberal opponents' critical scholarship that seeks the plain meaning of the text.

Even more surprising, Ruthven points out that Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution and the archetypal "Muslim fundamentalist" in most western eyes, was actually a radical innovator. In the first place, he stood in the minority Shia tradition in Islam, which - like Catholicism - balances adherence to scripture with an emphasis on current religious leadership. And on top of that, within Shiism he belonged to the usuli school, which champions an independent rational approach to scriptural interpretation against the more conservative akhbari dependence on earlier authorities.

Another feature of fundamentalism in all its forms is its self-consciousness. Fundamentalists know they stand "for" one set of values or beliefs or practices and "against" the other. Although they often think of themselves as "traditionalists", with this us-and-them attitude, Ruthven says, they stand in stark contrast to the innocence associated with genuinely traditional societies, which do not know they are traditionalists because they do not consider alternative ways of life.

So how does he see the conflicting fundamentalisms and nationalisms of Bible-belt America, Zionist Jewry and Arabic Islamists being resolved? Ruthven does nothing to hide from us "the great danger we are in by reason of our unhappy divisions" (to quote a prayer inspired centuries ago by the divided state of Christendom), especially given the stress on exclusivity found in all the Abrahamic faiths: "In a globalised culture where religions are in daily contact with their competitors, denial of pluralism is a recipe for conflict."

Ultimately, however, he remains hopeful about the outcome of that conflict.

In the short term, he foresees that "Muslim nationalists will no doubt continue to resist American global hegemony, along with Russian imperialism in Transcaucasia and the Israeli conquest of Palestine". But the end is not yet. "In the age of satellite broadcasting and the internet, pluralism and diversity of choice are no longer aspirations. They are hard existential facts."

Does Ruthven believe his writing has made any difference to anything? "My hope would be to clarify rather than influence," he says. "I do not see myself as a writer who changes people's outlooks, although I suppose one always hopes that people with influence might be informed by what one has written." Amen to that.

The Reverend Anthony Freeman is managing editor of The Journal of Consciousness Studies . Malise Ruthven's Fundamentalism: The Search for Meaning is published by Oxford University Press in April, £12.99.

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