Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Fundamentalist Problem

The insane diatribe by a couple of zealots made to the comments section of my September 13th blog is in the past. I should certainly like to dialogue with those who made the fanatical comments—especially Anonymous and Nizkor911, who respectively promised to kill me/us and wished that I/we “rot in hell—but experience has taught me that dialogue and reason are not high on the list of skills of religious fanatics. The best that I can do is to continue writing as my mind and conscious dictate: thus this post number 501.

To make sure that we are on the same wave length, as those who have been reading my blog may remember, although I am an ordained Christian minister and my parents and grandparents and (I think) my great-grandparents were Christians—at least in claiming a religious preference, which I believe is true for many who claim to follow one faith or another—there is some indication that at least some of the ancestors of my German-born grandmother were Jewish. I told that story in my blog of May 11, 2005, Auschwitz Continued.

After much study, reflection and prayer, I have concluded that the escalating terrorism of the contemporary conflict between Islam and modernity [i] that the Bush Administration has dubbed The War on Terrorism cannot be “won” by force of arms. No amount of military force and technology can ever defeat terrorist cells spread around the world. When I was commissioned as army officer in Armor Branch, I felt myself lucky that I would have 52 tons of steel between me and any enemy. I believe that that steel would protect me from any enemy infantry and that the M60 tank had enough firepower to defeat any enemy armor. Then, at the Armor School, one of my instructors said, “Any single solder who is willing to sacrifice his life can destroy a tank." So much for the M60’s 52 tons of steel between me and my enemy.

So I say that Islamic terrorism cannot be defeated by military force. I do not believe that it can be overcome by the West. I do believe that this so-called war may last many generations—and that doesn’t provide the world with a favorable future.

There is one chance, however. Islamic fundamentalists—as do Christian, Jewish, Hindu, etc. fundamentalists—fear Western-style modernity, which they interpret as being in opposition to their “traditional values.” Karen Armstrong makes that point extremely well in her brilliant book, The Battle for God. She writes in the Introduction to her book:

One of the most startling developments of the late twentieth century has been the emergence within every major religious tradition of a militant piety popularly known as “fundamentalism.” Its manifestations are sometimes shocking. Fundamentalists have gunned down worshippers in a mosque, have killed doctors and nurses who work in abortion clinics, have shot their presidents, and have even toppled a powerful government. It is only a small number of fundamentalists who commit such acts of terror, but even the most peaceful and law abiding are perplexing because they seem so adamantly opposed to many of the most positive values of modern society. Fundamentalists have no time for democracy, pluralism, religious tolerance, peacekeeping, free speech, or separation of church and state.

My experience is that fundamentalists interpret every event in light of what they believe their religion teaches, whether it does or not. For example, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, which was a secular conflict when it began, is defined by Muslim and Jewish fundamentalists—and Christian fundamentalists, at least in the United States—exclusively in a religious manner. That leads to a major problem: it is my experience that a non-fundamentalist cannot dialogue effectively with a fundamentalist on religious matters—and, to a fundamentalist, all matters are religious matters.

If you accept my premise that a non-fundamentalist cannot effectively converse with a fundamentalist, then you realize how difficult it would be for a Christian mainliner to negotiate with a Muslim or Jewish fundamentalist. A Christian moderate or liberal cannot have a meaningful conversation with a Christian fundamentalist! I have tried—and failed—several times.

If this “War on Terrorism” cannot be won using military power and negotiating with terrorists in not possible, that doesn’t leave many alternatives. Yet, I cannot see consigning this bloody horror to future generations. The one alternative I can see if for each religious tradition to address its own fundamentalists. Moderates and progressive must begin to retake the power and authority back from the fundamentalists. And that will not be easy. As I said, I have tried conversing with Christian fundamentalists and we do not understand one another. However, I believe there are ways of dealing with fundamentalists that are both non-violent and loving. That will be the subject of my future blogs.

i See Islam’s Modernity and the interview with Karen Armstrong, Islam and the West


  1. What you call "Western-style modernity," I would call "excessive materialism," and that is a threat to traditional values.

    Terrorism has been around for millenia (wasn't Barabas a terrorist?), and it's silly to think it will ever be defeated. I think we can control it by doing two things: evening out the world's wealth, since poverty breeds fanaticism and violence, and leaving different cultures alone so they can live their own lives their own way without interference and meddling.

  2. fundamentalism caused hardships before also but it confined to its own territories. Now Islam fundamentalism is crossing borders, lighting up almost every country with its explosions. There is no sign that it is going to die down. So a blanket comment like fundamentalism is against modernity is correct? Western style modernity has not appeared in this world overnight. It is here for some time. But this world wide bombblastings by Muslim fundamentalists are rather a new phenomena

  3. THOMAS: From what I know of religious fundamentalists, “materialism” isn’t their issue. Most fundamentalists are extremely materialistic. They also use technology better than any other religious group: I suspect there are more fundamentalist websites on the Internet than any other religious group.

    The elements of modernity that fundamentalists”—whether they be Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, whatever—universally believe challenge their interpretation of their religious “values” relate to those Karen Armstrong delineated in the text I quoted: “democracy, pluralism, religious tolerance, peacekeeping, free speech, (and) separation of church and state.” I’ll add to that list the equality of women and rights of children.

    Yes, forms of terrorism have been around for thousands of years. The difference is that the modern version centers on the indiscriminate killing of non-combatants. Barabbas and the Jewish Zealots attacked and killed Roman soldiers, officials, and those Jews who supported the Roman Empire. The Irgun under the command of Menachem Begin, the 20th Century counterparts of the Zealots, attacked and killed British soldiers, officials, and those Jews who supported the British Empire; however, where terrorism came in, they also bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, indiscriminatelly killing and maiming non-combatants. Of course, both the Zealots and Irgun were fighting a political war, not a purely religious one.

    I don’t believe the redistribution of the world’s wealth would address the problem of fundamentalism. Many religious fundamentalists, especially Christian and Muslim, are among the wealthiest people on earth. Osama bin Muhammad bin 'Awad bin Laden is a multi-millionaire; likewise, so are the Christian fundamentalists who contributed to the campaigns of George W. Bush, who is himself a fundamentalist. (Read Stephen Mansfield's "The Faith of George W. Bush," which says that the president ”incorporates his faith and belief into every detail of life," and that faith is rooted in Christian fundamentalism).

    Where the “poor” of the world come in, for the most part they are more exploited by the fundamentalists than by the West. Western-style modernity, with its emphasis on democracy, pluralism, religious tolerance, peacekeeping, free speech, separation of church and state, the equality of women, and the rights of children does not really affect the poor as much as it threatens the powerful. However, the powerful (and their clerics) preach to the poor that these modern values undermine the traditional values of their religion and the poor then become, as Bob Dylan wrote of the guy that murdered Medgar Evers, “only a pawn in their game.”

  4. UNIVERSALHINDU: I believe that fundamentalism, at least the terrorist form, is a relatively new, 20th Century development. Before I went to seminary, I thought that Orthodox Judaism was the most ancient form. In seminary, in dialogue with Jewish scholars, I learned that Orthodox Judaism is the newest version, with Reform Judaism the oldest. The same is true for fundamentalist Christianity in the U.S.: it came into being in the late 19th Century. I am unsure about Islamic fundamentalism; however, I suspect that it, too, is a reaction to modernity.

    I agree that the terrorist nature of fundamentalism spreading beyond national borders is a new development. I also agree that it is going to be with the world for a very long time. The explosion of Muslim fundamentalist violence in recent years comes, I believe, from several sources. Modernity was born in Europe out of the Enlightenment and was seen as a victory for logic and reason over superstition and religion. Admittedly, religion still had a part to play, but it wasn’t all-powerful as it had been in the Middle Ages.

    In Muslim countries, especially the Middle East, modernization was critically different. It was not empowerment, autonomy, and innovation, as it had been in Europe, but a process of deprivation, dependence, and imperfect imitation because it was forced upon the people by Europeans, beginning with the British. Where the paradigm shift in Europe was spread over centuries, under the British Empire it was forced on colonials within generations. Following World War II and the beginning decline of Imperialism, the use of terrorism—indiscriminate killing of non-combatants—became a tool of those who sought to end colonialism. Now fundamentalists use the same tool to force retreat from the European ideals, which since the American and French revolutions, have been the ideals of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason—liberty, equality, fraternity, human happiness, and social justice—all of which are contradictory to the fundamentalists mythos.

  5. I look forward to your next installment.