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Fundamentalists over Wanaka

By Julia Stuart

Take a beautiful location, an innovative approach to faith issues, a caring community context and a challenging topic and you have the recipe for a satisfying and stimulating summer experience.

For the third time in four years, the Aspiring Faith Community’s five-day summer school at Wanaka in January hit the jackpot for those who want to explore faith issues in a satisfying and enjoyable way.

‘Fundamentalism: its many faces’ was the topic and, as before, the speakers were outstanding in their knowledge of their topic and generous in sharing their expertise.

Otago University Political Studies lecturer Dr Najibullah Lafraie was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the Islamic State of Afghanistan led by President Khatami after the downfall of the communist regime in 1992. He left in 1996 when the Taliban took over Kabul and found has way to New Zealand four years later.

Islamic extremism – root causes and remedy was Najibullah’s theme, and over five days he shared his unique perspective. His unassuming demeanour and gentle personality gave witness to his Islamic beliefs and reinforced his sometimes provocative ideas on the origins of the ‘war on terrorism’ and what he thinks can be done to get the world out of this disturbing polarization.

Najibullah teased out contemporary trends in Muslim societies. He outlined the different strands – the traditionalist/conservative elements expressed in Sufi and Salafi traditions, secularism (as in Turkey), Islamic modernism, revivalism and the radical, extremist and militant elements.

He was concerned to distinguish ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘extremism’. All practicing Muslims are fundamentalists, he says, because they believe in their sacred scriptures as the inerrant word of God and express this by practising the ‘five pillars of Islam’. In contrast, he said, extremism is characterized by bigotry and intolerance, religious excess, and violence.

Current Islamic extremism has both revivalist and traditionalist elements and draws heavily on Sayed Qtub as its ideological ‘godfather’. But there are socio-economic causes – dictatorship, tyranny, injustice, poverty, oppression and foreign domination. These are the real causes and they need to be addressed, Najibullah says.

The UN and the international community has to work on building capacity in weak nations vulnerable to extreme messages, and at the same time counter the ‘war on terrorism’ approach which fights symptoms not causes. US foreign policy has to be reformulated, he says. Equally, Islam needs to reintroduce the teaching of moderation and acceptance and not be trapped by the bin Laden agenda.

Contrasting in style but just as informed and speaking from his depth of experience was the second keynote speaker, Associate Professor of History at Massey University’s Albany campus Dr Peter Lineham. An expert on the history of New Zealand’s churches, Peter explored the evolution New Zealand conservative churches and fundamentalist beliefs. It was an invaluable opportunity to place one’s own experience of fundamentalism, helped by the workshops where we discussed the issue with people from a wide range of church backgrounds.

Dr Peter Callachor added Biblical reflections to the summer school. Whimsical on the surface, his short sessions which opened each day’s proceedings were a perfect foil for the ‘head’ work which followed.

Adding to the riches were the daily workshops and single full session by Christchurch teacher and art tutor Margaret Harvey, who explored Fundamentals to fantasy in her literally hands-on approach.

The local community’s warmth and hospitality, and the accommodation in the College’s senior student flats, enhanced the week-long intellectual and recreational activities.