Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East

Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East

by R. Scott Appleby

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Behind the bloody acts of terrorism, the mobs chanting with upraised fists, the backroom and front-page politics in the Middle East, stand powerful religious leaders cloaked in mystery and fanaticism. Spokesmen for the Despised lifts the veils, presenting eight vivid portraits of fundamentalist leaders who have turned their charismatic religious authority to

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Behind the bloody acts of terrorism, the mobs chanting with upraised fists, the backroom and front-page politics in the Middle East, stand powerful religious leaders cloaked in mystery and fanaticism. Spokesmen for the Despised lifts the veils, presenting eight vivid portraits of fundamentalist leaders who have turned their charismatic religious authority to powerful political ends.

The deeds of the men profiled in this book make history and headlines, whether through the anti-American rhetoric of the late Iranian revolutionary, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini; the violent acts of Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shi'ite movement headed by Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah; or the group of Jewish rabbis who appear to have inspired the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. No one better exemplifies this history-making than Shaykh Ahmad Yasin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, who from his Israeli jail cell continues to influence Hamas's efforts to eliminate both Israel and the PLO. Also featured are the spiritual guides of the radical Jewish settler movement Gush Emunim, the Sudanese sponsor of "the Islamic Awakening," the preacher who inflamed Upper Egypt, and the ideological leader of the Zionist International Christian Embassy.

These riveting biographies include interviews with true believers and bitter opponents, and in several cases with the subjects themselves, carefully placing the lives of these charismatic leaders in the contexts of their religious traditions and their varied social, political, and religious settings. Spokesmen for the Despised is an essential volume for anyone wishing to understand the relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East.

Contributors: Ziad Abu Amr, Gideon Aran, Yaakov Ariel, Daniel Brumberg, Patrick D. Gaffney, Samuel Heilman, Martin Kramer, and Judith Miller

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Appleby's (coeditor, Being Right, Indiana Univ., 1995) collection of essays, produced under the sponsorship of the Fundamentalist Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, focuses on religious orthodox movements in the Middle East. Some of the selections from scholars exploring well-known and less-popular Islamic movements include Daniel Brumberg's "Khomeini's Legacy: Islamic Rule and Islamic Social Justice" and Ziad Abu-Amr's "Shaykh Ahmad Yasin and the Origins of Hamas." Gideon Aran's "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Land" covers the Jewish component of Gush Emunim (the Bloc of the Faithful), while Samuel C. Heilman's "Guides of the Faithful" discusses the current extreme right wing and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. Yaakov Ariel rounds out the Christian element with "A Christian Fundamentalist Vision of the Middle East." A major conclusion is that religious fundamentalism has become an increasingly important geopolitical factor. 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, Catawba Coll., Salisbury, N.C. Stovall, Tyler. Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light. Houghton. Dec. 1996. c.347p. photogs. bibliog. index. LC 96-24566. ISBN 0-395-68399-8. $24.95. In this significant social and cultural ory, Stovall (The Rise of the Paris Red Belt, Univ. of California, 1990) takes on jazz, literature, and interracial relations in Montmartre and Montparnasse from 1918 to the present. Highlighting a detailed and balanced account of African Americans in Paris are the triumphs and tenacity of Josephine Baker; the careers and failed friendship of Richard Wright and James Baldwin; and the lives of Sidney Bechet and other jazz greats. Such personal accounts stand out from a more general story of how African Americans found respect, affection, and equality accorded to them by French people, who often preferred them to white Americans or African blacks. Stovall explores in this context French tastes for exoticism and interracial relationships. Stovall's work is substantive enough for scholars and vivid enough for the general reader. An essential purchase for libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 8/96.]R. James Tobin, Univ. of Wisconsin Lib., Milwaukee
Jeffrey T. Kenney
The contributors to this edited volume deserve high marks for steering clear of the all too common shoals of comparative studies on fundamentalism — superficiality and tendentiousness.... these biographical case studies make an important contribution to the study of fundamentalism and religious leadership. They will no doubt capture the interest and imagination of academics and non-academics alike.
Nova Religio, The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions

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Spokesmen for the Despised

Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-02124-6

Chapter One

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 nonfundamentalistMuslims, 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

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

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
himself.... 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
Ausserallatglichkeit, the emancipation from routine. Yet the
fundamentalist leader is not antinomian; rather, he introduces "a pattern
of conformity with ... a definite duty ... and 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 orders ... [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.


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Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
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