Fractured Fundamentalisms

Extremism exists in every major faith, and sometimes turns violent

BY: Karen Armstrong

 
British writer Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, is the author of a celebrated account of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, "A History of God," and "The Battle for God," on fundamentalism in the major religions. She teaches at Leo Baeck College, a seminary for reform Judaism in London.

  • How do Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism differ?
  • What kind of Muslim is Osama bin Laden?
  • Does fundamentalism inevitably cause violence?
  • What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
  • Why don't top Muslims reprimand terrorists?
  • Why are there so few Islamic democracies?


    How is Islamic fundamentalism different from the fundamentalism of Christianity and Judaism?
    The militant form of piety we call fundamentalism erupted in every major religion during the 20th century, and constitutes a widespread revolt against modernity and secular society. The first of these movements emerged in the United States at the turn of the 20th century; Jewish fundamentalism came to the fore after the Nazi Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel; and Islamic fundamentalism erupted in the late 1960s, after a degree of modernization had been accomplished and after secularist ideologies, such as nationalism and socialism, seemed to have failed. In all three faiths, there had been proto-fundamentalist movements before these dates, but this is the general pattern.

    Jews and Muslims often object to the use of the term "fundamentalism," and in truth it is not a very satisfactory term. It was coined by American Protestants to describe their reform movement led by William Bell Riley, A.C. Dixon, J. Gresham Machem and others. Anxious about Darwinism and harboring apocalyptic beliefs, their followers wanted to go back to the "fundamentals" of the tradition. But, like it or not, the term is here to stay and the widespread series of movements do bear a strong family resemblance.

    Obviously there are differences. Christians tend to be more concerned with dogma (particularly with the inerrancy of Scripture and such issues as how the Darwinian theory of evolution conflicts with Genesis) than either Jews or Muslims, who are more concerned with the practicalities of being religious in the modern world. But in all three faiths of Abraham, fundamentalism is highly political. Fundamentalists are determined to drag God and religion from the sidelines, where they've been relegated in secular culture, back to center stage.

    And in this they have achieved a degree of success. In the mid-20th century, it was widely believed that secularism was the coming ideology and that religion would never again play a major role in world events, but that is clearly not the case today.

    In all three faiths, fundamentalists see themselves engaged in a "battle for God." Every single fundamentalist group I have studied is convinced that secular or liberal society wants to wipe out religion. All are rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. The movements begin by opposing members of their own faith and their own people; it is only at a later stage that they turn their attention to foreigners.

    Because they believe that they are fighting for survival, fundamentalists tend to militancy, ignoring the more compassionate elements of the faith in favor of more ferocious theologies. In all three religions, including American Protestantism, fundamentalism seems to be becoming more extreme.

    Fundamentalist groups and ideologies all tend to follow a similar pattern of behavior. First, they withdraw from mainstream society to form sacred enclaves of pure faith. Obvious examples are Bob Jones University; the ultra-Orthodox communities in New York; and Osama bin Laden's training camps. These fundamentalist churches, colleges, yeshivas, communes, settlements, study groups are fortresses where the "faithful" can live what they regard as a true religious life. They create a counter-culture, in conscious reaction against the modern society, which fills them with such dread.

    But from these bastions, fundamentalists sometimes plan a political, military or social offensive. This was very clear at the end of the 1970s, when we saw the Iranian revolution, the emergence of the Moral Majority in the USA, and an upsurge of Islamic and Jewish groups in the Middle East.

    Christian fundamentalists in the United States have committed fewer acts of terror than the others for two main reasons: they live in a more peaceful society, which, until last week, was not at war or engaged in a deadly political conflict. Second: the more extreme Protestant groups believe that the democratic federal government of the United States will collapse without their needing to take action: God will see to it. The Christian Identity Groups, a very loose and small network (which seems to have influenced Timothy McVeigh) do sally out of their survival communities in such states as Montana and commit what they regard as acts of war against the godless government and society of the United States: abortion clinics and personnel are often targets.

    Continued on page 2: »

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