by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand
He is the author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002).
On September 11, 2001, the most powerful nation on earth was shaken to its psychological foundations. It was attacked by a new method, devised by an unexpected force: Islamic fundamentalism. The devastating destruction of the Twin Towers in New York took not only the United States by surprise. By medium of television the whole world looked on aghast. The whole operation seemed unreal. It had been so cleverly planned and efficiently executed that the intelligence network of the CIA and the military might of United States had no inkling of what was coming.
Yet it was immediately attributed to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network, an international organisation of Muslim fundamentalists. After the first shock subsided, the symbolic character of the onslaught was realised. The attackers were aiming to knock out the power centres of the United States: the Twin Towers were known as the World Trade Center, the Pentagon controlled the US military, and the White House contained the administration. Al Qaeda had planned to strike a mighty blow against what they took to be the Great Satan. Whatever we may think of this shocking act, it demonstrated in the most dramatic way possible that fundamentalism can no longer be ignored, whether in religion, society or world affairs.
We had actually been warned, at least in a general way, that fundamentalism could be very dangerous. As far back as June 1982, James Barr, a Scottish Old Testament scholar and lifetime investigator of fundamentalism, wrote these words in The Current Affairs Bulletin:
Fundamentalism has suddenly become a matter of concern for everyone, whether or not they are personally religious. It affects education in science and history; it affects political elections in some countries, and through this it affects international relations; it may affect the question of whether mankind survives into the 21st century. Therefore, if people want to understand the world in which they live, they may find it necessary to understand something about fundamentalism.
We were not far into the 21st century when fundamentalism gave us a wake-up call. So what is fundamentalism? Why is it so dangerous? What motivates it? And how did it all begin?
First, let us look at the origin of the term. It derives from a series of 12 booklets entitled The Fundamentals, which were published between 1909 and 1915. By courtesy of two oil millionaires in the United States, about three million of these booklets were distributed free to every minister and Sunday School superintendent in America.
The booklets were intended to counter the spread of liberal religious thought in the churches of America, which the publishers believed to be undermining the eternal Christian truths – "the fundamentals". The booklets reaffirmed what the writers took to be the fundamental and unchangeable doctrines of Christianity: the infallibility of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, miracles, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the substitutionary view of the Atonement.
Actually the booklets expounded a rather narrow form of Protestantism, which was far from constituting the beliefs common to all Christians. This is shown by the fact that they attacked not only liberal Protestantism but also Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Science. However, they were chiefly concerned to condemn the new biblical criticism and the Darwinian theory of evolution, both of which had emerged in the 19th century. The booklets did not cause as much stir at the time as might have been expected, and failed in their primary purpose of immediately checking the spread of liberal Christian thought.
But they did give rise to the term "fundamentalist". This was coined by a Baptist journalist in 1920. As a result of the booklets, he deemed the word "conservative" to be too weak to refer to Christians who were now setting out, as he said, "to do battle royal for the Fundamentals". The term was intended to be worn as a badge of honour, like "loyalist", "crusader" or "republican". But it was not long before the liberals were using the word as a term of abuse. It became a synonym for blind ignorance and obscurantism.
The reason for this is that fundamentalists were rejecting what was fast becoming common knowledge, based on scientific evidence. For what received more publicity than the booklets was the infamous American trial in 1925 when a school teacher, John Scopes, was tried and convicted for teaching biological evolution in a Tennessee school. Thereafter, fierce theological battles broke out between the fundamentalists and the liberals in seminaries and churches. For example, the fundamentalists withdrew from the prestigious Presbyterian Theological Seminary at Princeton and founded the conservative Westminster Seminary. In New Zealand, conservative Christian students withdrew from the Student Christian Movement to form the Evangelical Union: to join, they had to sign a document indicating belief in the infallibility of the Bible.
Thus, having started as the name of a Christian phenomenon in America, the term "fundamentalist" began to spread throughout the world, for what it pointed to was by no means confined to the Christian West. Today we speak of Jewish fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, and Hindu fundamentalists. Some even speak of certain political and economic ideologies as fundamentalist. George Soros in America and Jane Kelsey in New Zealand have both referred to "market fundamentalists", by which they mean those who reject all modern forms of socialism and government interference in economic issues, and who seek a return to the free market and private enterprise of pre-modern society.
A remarkable prediction
Here, however, we shall confine our attention to religious fundamentalism. It is within religious commitment that the term originated, and that is where it properly belongs. At first, liberals widely assumed that the rise of fundamentalism was but a temporary phenomenon which would soon fade away. This has not been so, and there was at least one liberal who foresaw what would happen. It was in 1925, the year of the Scopes trial, that the internationally famous New Testament scholar Kirsopp Lake wrote a book entitled The Religion of Yesterday and Tomorrow.
In his view, the denominational divisions of the church had already become obsolete; he believed the real divisions cut right across the denominations and consisted of the following:
Then Lake made this striking prophecy: "The fundamentalists will eventually triumph. They will drive the Experimentalists out of the churches and then reabsorb the Institutionalists who, under pressure, will become more orthodox . . . The Church will shrink from left to right."
That is a remarkable prediction, for it generally describes the state of affairs in the mainline churches today. In 1925 the Protestant churches were much more liberal, relative to the society around them, than they are today. The Fundamentalists were a minority in 1920 and had to fight hard to maintain their position. As late as 1948, one of them said to a staff member in the Theological Hall at Knox College in Dunedin: "All we ask is to be left alone." Fifty years later it is the liberal wing of the mainline churches which finds itself in the minority. This is because many of the liberals have been disengaging themselves from the institutional church since it showed so little sign of change, leaving the conservatives in the majority. The membership of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, for example, has shrunk to less than half of what it was even 30 years ago, and is much more conservative.
In Australia the more liberal section of the Presbyterian Church joined with the Methodists and Congregationalists to form the Uniting Church of Australia. The continuing Presbyterian Church of Australia consequently consists of the conservative rump of the earlier church. This is now controlled by fundamentalists, as Peter Cameron found to his cost. A Church of Scotland minister, he was appointed principal of St Andrew’s College, but now stands convicted of heresy. He has published his experiences, first in Heretic, and then in Fundamentalism and Freedom.
The fact that fundamentalism was not a short-lived reaction but, on the contrary, has continued to spread and is now manifesting itself in a wide variety of forms throughout the world, shows that fundamentalism is a powerful force which has deep roots.
Thus the booklets which gave rise to the term turned out to be only one tip of a very large iceberg. I use this simile because it was while the booklets were being published that an unexpected iceberg sank the Titanic, a ship regarded at its launch as one of the wonders of modern engineering. Something like that was to happen to 20th century Christendom. In 1900 the Christian world of the West entered the new century with highly optimistic hopes of where modern science, coupled with an ever more liberal Christianity, was leading. The sky was the limit.
Shock of World War I
World War I came as a tremendous shock to this blind optimism. It was a shock not only because it occurred at all, but also because it was not a war among the unenlightened nations outside of Christendom – it was a war initiated by the Christian nations themselves. Something had gone seriously wrong in the state of Christendom. All through the 19th century these European nations had been extending their empires by colonising the world, chauvinistically regarding themselves as the bearers of light to a world in pagan darkness. What had gone wrong?
Even worse was to follow: the Great Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the Russian gulags, the construction of nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction, ethnic cleansing, to say nothing of the breakdown of many marriages and increase in petty crime – and all within the nations of Christendom. All these features of the brave new world served only to strengthen the convictions of those Christians who believed that Christianity had lost its way and needed to be brought back to its true path. Such people were no longer content to watch passively while Rome burned. They resolved to go on the offensive against modernism. That is the motivation which lies behind fundamentalism.
Fundamentalism is not one movement but a collection of movements, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and so on. Fundamentalists often find themselves bitterly opposed to one another. But they do have one common enemy and it is that which leads us to the heart of all religious fundamentalism. It believes the modern secular and humanistic world is the enemy of religion and hence injurious to humankind.
Long before President George W Bush initiated what he called "the war on terrorism", fundamentalists had launched a war on what they called modernism, secularism and humanism. The journalist who coined the term "fundamentalist" actually spoke of "doing battle". Christian fundamentalists are doing battle against liberalism, humanism, and secularism. Muslim fundamentalists are doing battle against the secularisation of Islam and the evil West which has caused it. For reasons we shall explore in a later lecture, they have singled out the United States in particular as the Great Satan. It is a serious error of judgment to dismiss fundamentalists in any cavalier fashion.
Challenge of the secular world
To understand the modern phenomenon of fundamentalism, it is not sufficient simply to explain the origin of the term. We must go back further and examine the origin and nature of the modern secular world, to which fundamentalists are so violently opposed.
Humankind is currently caught up in the most radical cultural change which has ever taken place. Human culture, of course, has always been undergoing slow evolutionary change. In the past 200 years, however, cultural change has suddenly accelerated. It is now overturning beliefs and institutions which, in some cases, have lasted for millennia, and which are judged by some to be absolutely essential or fundamental to the meaning of people’s lives and the welfare of society. In particular, within the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, modernity appears to be threatening the very foundation of all truth and meaning, namely the being and authority of God. Religious fundamentalists condemn the modern secular world as humanistic and godless.
The modern secular world has emerged in part because of the knowledge explosion. We know so much more than people of the past – not only scientific knowledge about the physical world, but also historical knowledge about our cultural origins. The modern study of history has brought to light earlier periods of sudden cultural change. One of them, rather similar to our current one, has been termed the Axial Period. It occurred in the relatively short space of a few hundred years before and after 500 BCE, and it gave rise to the great world religions.
Before that Axial Period, each ethnic group had evolved its own culture and language, with its own distinctive way of understanding the world and worshipping the forces of nature. These ethnic cultures survived in Africa, South America and Oceania until recent times. But on the continent of Asia, where the Axial Period occurred, the nature religions were eliminated, marginalised, or submerged within what we now call the great world religions. The previously independent ethnic cultures became superseded by supercultures, such as Christendom. By the year 1900 the three most successful supercultures had divided up the world among them. They were the Christian West, the Islamic Middle East and the Buddhist Orient.
A new wave of change
But already, some two centuries before 1900, a further wave of cultural change had begun in Western Europe. Some now call it the Second Axial Period. It has been even more radical and more widespread than the first, and it is spreading faster. As the First Axial Period gradually subordinated ethnic cultures to religious supercultures, such as Christendom or the Umma Muslima, this Second Axial Period is in turn subordinating the religious supercultures to a new and still emerging culture. This new culture, increasingly global in extent, does not look to supernatural causes but to natural causes. It is not based on divine revelation but on the human enterprise of empirical science. It is not religious in the traditional way but humanistic. It is secular in the sense that it focuses on this world and this time.
At the first Axial Period, the ancient nature religions reacted strongly against the rise and spread of the new world religions, just as the Maori tohungas, for example, strongly resisted the message brought by the Christian missionaries. Nowhere is this ancient conflict more clearly documented than in the Old Testament itself. There is described the bitter cultural war between the prophets of the Baalim and the Israelite prophets.
In a similar way, in this Second Axial Period, the religious cultures arising from the First Axial Period feel threatened by the new secular and humanistic culture. Jews, Christians and Muslims are today in some disarray over how to respond. In each of these faiths there are some who strongly support the change and are even pioneering the way forward. There are many who find themselves ambivalent and do not know what to make of it all. Some who believe the change to be fundamentally evil are resisting it to the point of waging war against it. Convinced that they must remain loyal to the fundamentals of the past, they condemn secular humanism as the work of the devil.
As 500 BCE marks the central point of the First Axial Period, so the 18th century Enlightenment marks the irreversible threshold of change by which the Second Axial Period brought us into the modern world. The theistic foundations of Christianity were challenged by the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. Theism, or belief in a personal God, was replaced by deism, or belief in an impersonal First Cause. Dependence on divine revelation was replaced by human endeavour and discovery.
The Enlightenment not only heralded radical cultural change but also, quite understandably, brought the first signs of sharp reaction to it. The religious trend taking place at the Enlightenment is made clear by the very titles of some of its most important books: The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures (John Locke, 1695), Christianity Not Mysterious (John Toland, 1696), and Christianity as Old as the Creation (Matthew Tindal, 1730). The books of the latter two authors aroused such indignation that Parliament ordered them to be burned.
But such fierce reaction to the new thinking did not stamp it out. Indeed, the new virtues of personal freedom and human equality being promoted by the Enlightenment led to the French Revolution, followed by much social change and radically new thought in Europe in the 19th century. It is hardly surprising that not only fundamentalists but also even some fairly traditional thinkers and theologians look back to the Enlightenment with grave concern. Yet to the Enlightenment we owe many features of modern culture which most of us now take for granted and would not dream of surrendering – the freedom to think for ourselves, the freedom to ask questions and to hold up cherished beliefs to critical examination, the freedom to express our opinions and doubts, the assertion of human rights, the acknowledgement of human equality, to name but some.
Thus the Enlightenment was a very liberating period. It replaced the divine right of kings with democratic self-rule. It gave rise eventually to many new freedoms – the emancipation of slaves, the emancipation of colonies from imperial control, the emancipation of women from male domination and, more recently, the freedom of homosexuals to "come out".
As the continuing debate over the last of these so well illustrates, however, the ideas generated by the Enlightenment were so innovative that they were not readily acceptable to church authorities. Those who embraced the new thinking from the Enlightenment often found themselves forced out of the church establishment. The most severe reaction was in Catholicism. Papal authority, having already suffered a severe blow from the Protestant Reformation, now took the opportunity to condemn the fruits of the Enlightenment. Pope Pius IX in his Syllabus of Errors (1864) condemned the new freedom of thought then emerging.
This was followed in 1869 by the calling of the ecumenical council now known as Vatican I. Among other things it made the infallibility of the papacy a mandatory dogma. This move attempted to protect Catholicism from modern thought by building a protective wall of authority around it. The Vatican had long forbidden the faithful to read books thought to be injurious to their spiritual health, by placing them on the Index. Even so, the new thinking still managed to gain a tiny foothold in Catholicism in what was called Catholic Modernism. It had a short life between about 1890 and 1908, and then it was severely crushed by papal authority. Its leading lights were condemned and expelled from the church.
The impact of modernity did not show itself again in Catholicism until Pope John XXIII called Vatican II, when Catholicism took a sudden but cautious leap into the modern world with its policy of aggiornamento (updating). The impact of this change began to lose momentum under Paul VI and Catholicism has been retreating to the pre-Vatican II mode under John Paul II, called by some Catholics "our fundamentalist Pope".
The Protestant response to the Second Axial Period was more complex than that of Catholicism. This was because, first, it was out of Protestantism that the pioneers of Enlightenment thinking emerged, and secondly, because Protestantism did not have the organisational unity and central authority to crush it in the way the Vatican dealt with its Modernists. A positive response manifested itself in what became known as Protestant liberalism.
This began with the revolution which took place in our understanding of the Bible. This had long been regarded as the receptacle for the divine voice: it was the Word of God in written form. By using the tools of historical and literary criticism, however, biblical scholars such as Reimarus, David Strauss and Julius Wellhausen revealed the human origin and character of the Bible. The doctrine of divine revelation had come to its end, even in respect to the Bible. Bishop Stephen Neill did not exaggerate when in 1962 he referred to Strauss's Life of Jesus (1835) as a "turning point in the history of the Christian faith".
This biblical revolution was accompanied by a radical shift in Christian thought, as it endeavoured to accommodate itself to the new intellectual climate. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), sometimes known as the first modern theologian, shifted the base of theological thinking from divinely revealed dogma to human religious experience. This was a very radical change which cannot be overestimated. By the end of the 19th century the scholars of Protestant liberalism had fully accepted the humanistic origins of the Bible, come to terms with the scientific notion of biological evolution, and were completely confident that the essential core of Christian doctrine could be salvaged intact and re-expressed in terms relevant to the modern age.
This is shown by the popularity of Adolf von Harnack’s lectures of 1900, The Essence of Christianity, in which he presented the most liberal interpretation of Christian thought to date. Harnack reduced what he called "the essence of Christianity" to something very simple: the love of God, the love of one’s neighbour, and incorporating into human society whatever Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God.
This was taken a stage further in America in an address given in 1909 by a progressive educationalist, Charles Eliot (1834-1926), who had been President of Harvard University for 40 years. Harvard is not only the oldest university in the United States but, being a Unitarian foundation, had long been known for progressive thought. At the age of 79 Eliot sketched what he called "the religion of the future". He said it would consist of practical service to others. It would no longer need churches, scriptures, and dogmas but would promote education, social reform and preventive medicine. No wonder the people who would soon become known as the fundamentalists took fright. Such ideas might be acceptable in educated circles in the cities, but churchgoers in small-town America were shocked by what was becoming known as "the social gospel". That brings us back to the publication of The Fundamentals, but now we can appreciate the deep-seated causes which led up to it.
Although the chief impact of the Enlightenment has been on the Christian West within which it emerged, eventually it began to influence other cultures. In the latter part of the 19th century a small but influential group of leading Muslim figures became known as the Muslim Modernists. It prompted Muhammad Iqbal, who later played a leading role in the foundation of Pakistan, to write The Reconstruction of Islamic Thought. He noted that there was a time when European thought received inspiration from the world of Islam, but conceded that "for the last 500 years religious thought in Islam had been practically stationary". He believed the younger generation of Muslims in Asia and Africa were demanding a fresh orientation of their faith. So he set out to provide this, discussing the basic ideas of Islam in the light of such Western thinkers as Kant, Whitehead, Bergson, Einstein and Carl Jung.
Another Muslim Modernist, Muhammad Abduh of Egypt, even rose to the office of Grand Mufti. Such people were confident that Islam could absorb the full impact of scientifically based modern thought coming from the West. But what happened to these modernists? I put that question to the lecturers of the Department of Islamic Studies in the University of Jordan when I visited them in 1980. I was told: "The modernists were not true Muslims!" Modernism disappeared in the Islamic world, just as it had done in Catholicism and, to a lesser extent, as it has done in Protestantism.
Thus, in both the former Christendom and the Islamic world, religious thought has becoming polarised. The only alternatives seemed to be either a return to the pre-modern form of the religious tradition that ends in fundamentalism, or the radical shift to secularism which, seeing no possible re-interpretation of the tradition, rejects the tradition in toto. Either way, religion has been losing its public face. It has become a matter of personal choice, to be practised privately within an increasingly secular state.
This is best illustrated by Turkey which, until World War I, was the leading Islamic state. After its defeat, Kemal Ataturk turned his country into a modern secular state by means of a far-reaching cultural revolution. This abolished the Caliphate, replaced Shari’a law with a western constitution, and even adopted the Roman alphabet. Ataturk made no attempt to undermine the importance of the Islamic heritage, but left Turks free to practise Islam as a personal option. In a very short time he effectively privatised Islam, in much the same way as Christian allegiance has become slowly privatised in the West.
The effect of the Enlightenment on Judaism has been quite different. Initially it was a great boon, bringing a release from the severe restrictions Jews had long lived under within Christendom. They were now free to leave the ghettos and register as normal citizens of whichever country they lived in. Moses Mendelssohn, grandfather of the celebrated composer, not only strongly encouraged his fellow-Jews to follow his lead but he embraced many of the Enlightenment values.
But this led to a new crisis in Jewry. In becoming hyphenated Jews – German-Jews, Dutch-Jews, French-Jews – they ran the risk of losing their Jewish identity by assimilation. The new freedoms and atmosphere of cultural change entered so much into German Judaism that many converted to Christianity, including, for example, the father of Karl Marx. Others changed their day of worship from the Sabbath to Sunday to be more in keeping with their Christian fellow citizens. A widely publicised conflict broke out in one of the synagogues between a conservative elderly rabbi and a radical young rabbi who was all for change. Surprisingly, the council of rabbis sided with the young rabbi on the grounds that it was not true to the spirit of Judaism to be opposed to all change.
In the long run Judaism found it easier to come to terms with the changes of the Second Axial Period than did Christians or Muslims, partly because each synagogue is democratically ruled and is relatively independent. This has meant that Jews have been free to make a wide variety of responses to the modern secular world. Many have assimilated to the secular world and largely lost their Jewish identity. The synagogue-going Jews are divided into orthodox, conservative, liberal or reform, and reconstructionist.
It is largely because the traditional anti-semitism did not disappear as a result of the enlightenment, as it was expected to, but rather intensified in Russia and Poland that the Zionist movement was formed in 1897. This has been secular and nationalist, rather than religious. The Nazi Holocaust served to spread Zionism among nearly all Jews, with the result that since the modern State of Israel was founded in 1948, its strongest supporters are now often referred to as Jewish fundamentalists.
Religious fundamentalists see themselves as the champions and faithful guardians of the ancient truths and moral commandments which constitute the essence of their particular faith. In other words, they claim to be the true exponents of the religious tradition they represent. They often speak of themselves as Torah-true Jews, born-again Christians or true Muslims.
I wish to show that fundamentalism, while appealing to the past, is actually a new and modern religious phenomenon, and one that does not faithfully represent the faith in the way it claims to. It is new because it is a reaction to the advent of the modern secular world, and this is something which none of the great religious traditions has had to encounter before. That is why the term "fundamentalism", as we have seen, is less than 90 years old.
Far from being the loyal defence of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, fundamentalism is a religious aberration. For the fundamentalist Jew, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has been replaced by the Torah. For the fundamentalist Christian, God has been replaced by the Bible. For the fundamentalist Muslim, Allah has been replaced by the Qur’an. Their respective Holy Scripture has become their object of their faith – their God. This was not so in the pre-modern world.
This may be illustrated by a remark made by a perceptive Muslim to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, an authoritative western scholar of Islam: "Muslims no longer believe in Allah in the way our forebears did. Today Muslims believe in Islam". This subtle but important difference is reflected in the fact that Muslim fundamentalists are rightly referred to today as "Islamists" rather than "Muslims". In this age when the culture of modernity has been fast eroding the traditional belief in God, along with the transcendent spiritual world supposedly surrounding him, the conservative devotees of the religious past hold ever more firmly to the most tangible form of the past: Holy Scripture. And that makes them fundamentalists.
So fundamentalism may be described as a modern religious disease, for it distorts genuine religious faith in the same way as cancer distorts and misdirects the natural capacity of body cells to grow. Instead of bringing spiritual freedom and the realisation of a spiritual goal, as all sound religion should, fundamentalism imprisons people into such a rigid system of belief that they find it difficult to free themselves. Fundamentalism takes possession of human minds and blinds them to the realities which most others accept as self-evident. Fundamentalism fosters a closed mind, restricts the sight to tunnel vision, hinders mental and spiritual growth, and prevents people from becoming the mature, balanced, self-critical persons they have the potential to become.
Deceptive appeal to Scripture
The fact that fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon is not at all obvious at first, simply because it makes its claim on the basis of something which has long been central to the religious tradition in question: the appeal to Holy Scripture. This claim, by its very subtlety, often deceives even non-fundamentalists. They sometimes feel themselves at a disadvantage, for the fundamentalists appear to have claimed the high moral ground. They are able to claim support for their case from the very words found in the Torah, the Bible or the Qur’an.
What is novel about fundamentalism is not the honouring of Holy Scripture, but the way in which it is done. Fundamentalists treat Holy Scripture as the starting point of their faith tradition when in fact it is the product: it gathered its authority only after the tradition had started. This is especially so with Judaism and Christianity, both of which existed long before they had Holy Scriptures. It is rather less so with Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam each evolved out of an initially fluid faith tradition, in which there was still much freedom for creative change and development. As each produced its Holy Scripture, there certainly was a tendency for that creative spirit to diminish and for the living faith tradition to become frozen into a static and lifeless form. This was overcome, however, by devising a variety of methods of interpretation to accommodate the text to the changing circumstances in which people lived.
Up to the advent of the modern world, Jews, Christians and Muslims certainly gave their respective Scriptures all due respect and honour – but they were not fundamentalists, even though there was the potential to become so. They felt free to interpret their scriptures in the light of new knowledge and fresh experience. Moreover, they were reading and interpreting their Scriptures in a cultural and religious context which, while not the same as that in which they were written, was at least in reasonable harmony with it. For example, even in the 16th century Protestants and Catholics, in spite of their differences, were both closer to the world view of primitive Christianity than they were to that of the modern world.
A new world view
Till the advent of the modern world it was relatively easy for Jew, Christian and Muslim to acknowledge the words of their respective Scriptures to be self-evidently true, as well as being divinely revealed. This is no longer the case. The advent of modern culture, with its accompanying knowledge explosion, has changed all that. The task of interpreting the Holy Scriptures in a way which is relevant to the changing cultural context and self-evidently true began to reach breaking point from the 19th century onwards. It was this that led to the modern religious aberration of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists reject much of the modern world view and insist, somewhat blindly, on remaining within a world view consistent with their particular Holy Scriptures.
What all fundamentalists have in common is not a set of specific beliefs but an attitude of mind. It is the conviction that they possess a knowledge of absolute truth of which they have become the divinely ordained guardians. This conviction then gives them a feeling of extreme confidence and of inner power in relation to all who differ from them. They become crusaders, bent on defending and spreading the truth as they see it.
Fundamentalism breeds intolerance for it makes people absolutely sure they know the mind and will of God on any subject which particularly concerns them. Fundamentalists see no value in tolerance, one of the new values which emerged as a result of the Enlightenment. They regard tolerance as a form of moral weakness, an unjustifiable compromise with falsehood and evil. Intolerance, in turn, quickly leads to fanaticism. It is salutary to remember that the word fanatic is derived from the Latin word fanum, meaning a temple. The fanatic was a person who believed himself to be wholly inspired by divine power. Fanatics are impervious to reasoning and will stop at nothing to achieve their ends, passionately believing them to be not their own ends but God’s.
Judaism, Christianity and Islam each have a history which shows how, at their best, they have accommodated themselves to changing circumstances. Each was a living, evolving tradition. Each can proudly point to its saints and stalwarts in the past – but these were not fundamentalists. On the contrary, some of them, such as the Jewish Maimonides, the Christian Thomas Aquinas and the Muslim al-Ghazzali, were creative and controversial figures in their own day before they were later revered as great authorities. By contrast, today’s fundamentalists stifle religious creativity and deny their faith the opportunity to continue on its evolving path as it responds to the challenges of newly emerging knowledge. Like King Canute, ordering the waves to retreat, fundamentalists reject the modern world and command it to go away.
Fundamentalists tend to have a static view of reality: they have not come to terms with the ever-changing and evolving character of culture, religion and life itself. Just as they reject the biological evolution of species, they fasten on particular beliefs and practices and regard them as absolute and fixed for all time. This is what constitutes the very nature of superstition. By its etymology a superstition refers to any belief or ritual which has survived long after the circumstances in which it was appropriate have passed away.
It is sadly ironic that fundamentalism, which prides itself on being Scriptural, turns out to be in complete conflict with one of the chief themes of Holy Scripture, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. In the ancient world in which these paths of faith came to birth, it was not unbelief to which the founding prophets directed their attention but overbelief. The ancients, they asserted, believed in far too many gods. So the founding Jewish, Christian and Islamic prophets were iconoclasts. They destroyed the idols or tangible things which people put their trust in. The Christians of the ancient world gained a reputation for being atheists. Muhammad uttered dire threats of divine judgment against polytheists. This iconoclasm stemmed from the second of the Jewish Ten Commandments: "You shall not make for yourself any graven image, or any likeness of anything which is heaven, or earth or under the earth, you shall not bow down to it or serve it."
When one gives unconditional worship to any visible, tangible thing, even though it is Holy Scripture, it is this commandment which is infringed. As John Calvin shrewdly observed, the human mind is a veritable factory for the forging of idols. Fundamentalism is the modern phenomenon by which people, perhaps afraid of the uncertainties of the future, and certainly distrustful of the modern world, have raised their Holy Scripture into a tangible idol. They are doing what Aaron is said to have done by forging the golden calf when they were afraid Moses was leading them to a disastrous unknown future and they longed to return to the fleshpots of Egypt.
Christian fundamentalism and literalism
So far I have been speaking of fundamentalism generally. But fundamentalism has taken different forms in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, partly because of that which is unique to each, and partly because of the different ways in which they relate to the coming of the modern world. So from here on I shall discuss them separately. I begin with Christian fundamentalism since the Christian tradition, as we shall see, has a special relationship with the modern secular world.
As we saw in the first chapter, Christian fundamentalism first became evident when one section of Protestants, sharing a particular set of dogmatic convictions, unconsciously imposed these on the Bible. As James Barr pointed out, "Fundamentalism is the imposition upon the Bible of a particular tradition of human religion, and the use of the Bible as an instrument of power to secure the success and influence of that religion." This is illustrated by the way fundamentalists can violently disagree with one another over how particular passages are to be read and understood. Most Christian sects which emerged in the 19th century can now be judged as fundamentalist in their use of the Bible, yet one of the booklet series on the Fundamentals was directly specifically against them.
Christian fundamentalism has sometimes been equated with biblical literalism. In other words, fundamentalists are said to take the Bible literally. Indeed, they themselves often speak of being committed to the literal inerrancy of Bible. But literalism is not a very satisfactory term. It is clear that, when the Bible refers to God as Father and Jesus as shepherd, the words are intended to be taken metaphorically and not literally. Fundamentalists have no problem with metaphorical language in that regard.
It is true that up to the 19th century the six days of creation in the biblical myth of origins were taken literally as 24-hour periods. But when the immense age of the earth became clearly evident on geological grounds, most fundamentalists tried to defend the "truth" of the biblical story by interpreting the six days as six geological ages, thousands or even millions of years in length. Thus, in order to defend the Bible as true in everything it says, fundamentalists keep shifting between literal and non-literal interpretations. Fundamentalists in America have turned this mode of interpretation into an elaborate art form in what is called "Creation Science". This enterprise sets out to reconcile the sciences of cosmology and geology with the Bible, either by rejecting some scientific findings as unproven or false, or else by re-interpreting the words of the Bible to fit the new facts. Their purpose in doing so is to defend the fundamentalist dogma that the Bible, being the Word of God, is literally inerrant.
So fundamentalists are not consistently biblical literalists. They are literalists only when and where it suits them to be so. They are usually literalists when it concerns the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of Jesus as an historical event, the existence of eternal punishment in hell. But when Jesus says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God they go to great lengths to interpret this in such a way that they do not themselves have to "sell all that they have and give to the poor", as Jesus directed the rich young ruler who wanted to follow him.
When fundamentalists come to the words, "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell", fundamentalists are content with a figurative interpretation. Then there are whole sections of Holy Scripture which fundamentalists conveniently ignore. Yet if every part of the Bible is the Word of God and divinely inspired, then people claiming to be Bible-believing Christians should give equal attention to it all. On the contrary, fundamentalists are very eclectic in their appeal to the Bible, fastening on those passages which particularly interest them. In other words, quite unconsciously, they are looking at the Bible through the tint of their own glasses, and these effectively eliminate from sight what they do not want to see.
Questions for Dr Laura
This has been humorously illustrated in something which recently did the rounds on the Internet. It is a letter addressed Dr Laura, who provides "biblical advice" to TV and radio audiences:
Dear Dr Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from you, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how best to follow them.
a. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Leviticus 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?
b. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery as it suggests in Exodus 2l:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
c. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Leviticus 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.
d. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify?
e. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
f. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?
g. Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s Word is eternal and unchanging.
This is humorous because of its apparent absurdity. The examples taken show how far we have moved from the cultural world and social mores in which the Bible was written. To attempt to observe them in today’s world is to become involved in superstition. But if it is valid to ignore these particular instructions in our day and age, why is it not equally valid to ignore the ancient prohibition of homosexuality, now that we have clearer knowledge of how sexual orientation can vary from person to person?
When one selects from the Bible just what one wishes and ignores the rest, one ceases to be a Bible-believing Christian. Instead, as Barr said, one is using the Bible as an instrument of power, by claiming apparent divine authority to support one’s own prejudices. That is what happened, for example, when people appealed to the Bible to defend slavery, to oppose the entry of women into the priesthood and, currently, to prevent practising homosexuals from being appointed as bishops.
The claim of fundamentalists to be the true guardians of their particular faith must be strongly rejected. In fact, fundamentalism is fast becoming one of true religion’s chief enemies.
The meaning of true religion
But what can be meant by true religion? Since the advent of the modern world, the term "religion" has taken on a variety of meanings. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, it commonly means "human recognition of a superhuman controlling power, such as a personal God entitled to obedience". But there are religions, such as Buddhism, which do not acknowledge such a controlling power, so this definition becomes inadequate. We need to return to the original meaning of the word "religion". The Latin word religio, from which it is derived, meant devotion or commitment, "a conscientious concern for what really matters". To be religious in any culture is to be devoted to whatever is believed to matter most in life. Thus religion has been succinctly defined as "a total mode of the interpreting and living of life". And because human cultures are always changing and evolving, the "conscientious concern for what really matters" comes to expression in widely different forms.
Just because the Second Axial Period has led to the growth of a new kind of culture which is global, humanistic and secular, it does not mean it lacks any conscientious concern for what really matters. Indeed, the modern concern for basic human rights, for the abolition of slavery, for the liberation of women from male domination, for the eradication of racism, for the realisation of international peace are a few examples of today’s conscientious concerns. Moreover, they often reveal the inadequacies of the conscientious concerns of our pre-modern ancestors, Christians though they were. Indeed, it is just here that Christian fundamentalism reveals some of its basic faults. It has often found itself on the wrong side of the new issues of social justice which have been brought to light by the conscientious concerns of secular humanism.
Above all, Christian fundamentalism fails to understand how and why the new secular humanism has evolved out of Christendom in much the same way as Christianity evolved out of Judaism. In other words, the humanistic and secular world is to be seen as the legitimate product of the ever-evolving Christian culture of the West. It should not therefore be regarded as foreign to Christianity, far less the enemy of humankind. (I have described this in more detail in Christianity Without God.)
The roots of the Second Axial Period can be traced as far back as 14th century Christendom, where it was already being called the "via moderna" or modern way of thinking. (I have written more fully about them in a book published in 1981, Faith’s New Age.) The initiators of the Second Axial Period had no intention of attacking or undermining their Christian heritage. They came in successive waves – the Franciscan nominalists, the Renaissance humanists, the Protestant reformers and the leading lights of the Enlightenment. They all regarded themselves as genuine and devout Christians. Only later did it become progressively clear that the modern way of thinking was on a collision course with some of the traditional Christian dogmas, now being stoutly defended by fundamentalism. Thus in condemning secular humanism, fundamentalism is actually opposing the legitimate evolution of the very faith it sets out to defend.
Certainly there are some distinct differences between modern secular culture and the state of Christendom out of which it has come, just as there are great differences between traditional Christianity and the Judaism out of which it emerged, and of which it claimed to be the fulfilment. In each case there has been continuity as well as discontinuity.
Since every culture is a living, changing entity, we may use an analogy from biology to help explain the relationship between the modern secular world and its Christian past. Just as a butterfly develops from a larva, growing inside a shell which was once the skin of a grub, so out of the chrysalis of Christendom there is currently emerging a new kind of society – a global, humanistic and secular society. The ossified structure of Christian dogma may be likened to the hard shell which protected the growth of the larva. Having fulfilled its role, this hard shell is now increasingly becoming dispensable. Perhaps that is why the great ecclesiastical structure known as the holy, catholic and apostolic church is now fragmenting. Having brought forth the modern world, it has completed its work and is now only the redundant shell case of the chrysalis.
Certainly the global, humanistic and secular world looks very different from Christendom, just as the butterfly looks so different from the grub out of which it sprang. There is both continuity and discontinuity between the Christian past and the secular present. We see signs of continuity in the way we still number our years from the supposed birth date of Jesus Christ, and we still preserve the Christian holy days as our holidays. Even Christendom reflected its own pagan past by continuing to name the days of the week after pagan gods, though we have long since forgotten why. Much more importantly, the modern or post-Christian age reflects values and aspirations which stem from its Christian past. The modern secular and humanistic world still shows the marks of the matrix out of which it has come.
Fundamentalism is blind to the fact that the modern secular world is the logical development of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. This affirmed the enfleshment of the divine within Jesus of Nazareth. But this Jesus was then said to be the new Adam, namely the new type of humankind, in which was to dwell thereafter attributes such as love, justice and compassion – attributes which constituted the very being of God. Jesus himself is reported to have said: "You must be just as completely mature as God is." As he once castigated the Pharisees for being "blind guides", so fundamentalism fails to see in the secular global world genuine signs of what Jesus once talked about in terms of the Kingdom of God. It is sadly ironic that fundamentalism, which sees itself as the guardian and preserver of Christianity, now constitutes one of Christianity's chief obstacles to its natural and logical development.
When we turn to Muslim fundamentalism, we find that it has rather more justification for rejecting the modern secular world than does Christian fundamentalism. First, Islam has always totally rejected the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. It affirmed the absolute and unbridgeable gulf between Allah and humankind. Muhammad believed that Christianity by its doctrines of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity had reverted to pagan polytheism. He found evidence for this in the Christian veneration of icons and believed he was restoring religious faith to its pristine purity, as first practised by the Israelite patriarchs.
Secondly, Muslim fundamentalists concede and deplore the weakness and cultural decadence into which the Islamic world has descended in the last few hundred years, but they believe that the chief blame for this rests on the Christian world of the West. In expanding their empires, the nations of Christian Europe invaded and colonised nearly the entire Islamic world, except the Turkish Empire. They dominated the Islamic world from Algeria to Indonesia. It was during this period and continuing into the present, as Muslim fundamentalists see it, that Islamic spirituality was undermined by the evil influence of the secular West.
Just as Christian fundamentalists seek to restore the secular West to its original form of Christendom, so Muslim fundamentalists are motivated by the goal of restoring the Islamic world to its pristine purity. Both groups see the modern secular world as a materialist, consumer-driven society which has lost whatever spirituality it had in the past. One of the chief differences between the two fundamentalisms is that Christian fundamentalism is fighting against something which has its seeds within Christianity, whereas Muslim fundamentalism has set itself the task of eliminating all the evil influences which have come from the outside. Muslim fundamentalists began their fight against their fellow-Muslims, who in their view had succumbed to the West. But more recently this has brought them into conflict with the West itself.
Fuelling tribalistic nationalism
Fundamentalism, whether Muslim, Christian and Jewish, is currently having the effect of reviving tribalistic nationalism. This is something which Christianity and Islam, at their best, were always seeking to overcome. This is another way in which fundamentalism is in direct opposition to the faith tradition it claims to be defending. Rampant nationalism, when supported by fundamentalism, all too quickly turns into the fanaticism that leads to violence, terrorism and war. It constitutes one of the most serious obstacles to the evolution of a harmonious global society, both within national societies and on the international scene.
The internationalism of the coming global society calls for flexibility of thought and practice, for empathy with those who differ, for compromise in a spirit of goodwill; it requires mutual co-operation for the common good. Since fundamentalism encourages people to become blindly loyal to specific fundamentals, whether it is a Holy Book or the overcoming of a perceived injustice, all forms of fundamentalism are socially and globally divisive. Thus fundamentalism is to be judged socially and internationally dangerous. I shall discuss this more fully in the next chapter.
When the term "fundamentalist"’ first came into use in America in the 1920s, it would have seemed absurd to suggest that fundamentalism could be dangerous. The people to whom it referred seemed a harmless lot, even if they seemed to be living in the past. The Christian liberals could afford to treat them somewhat patronisingly, regarding them as people who would eventually come to see the light, as they themselves had done.
Some 80 years later the scene is altogether different. The term "fundamentalist" is now associated with people as different from one another as Pope John Paul II, Jerry Falwell and Osama bin Laden. Fundamentalism has become associated with power struggles and terrorism. We are strikingly reminded of it every time we board a plane, because of the extra security measures to which we must submit. So how did this change come about?
The evangelical divide
That is a complex story, only the main threads of which we can hope to unravel here. Let us start with Christian fundamentalism in America, since that is where the term originated. Because of the opprobrium which soon became attached to the word, most of those opposed to liberal Christian thought preferred to call themselves "evangelical". They were more moderate than the fundamentalists, and did not put so much emphasis on the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming.
In 1942 people from this group formed the National Association of Evangelicals – and found themselves attacked by the hardline fundamentalists just as they attacked the mainstream moderates and liberals. Yet they largely agreed with the fundamentalists on such questions as biblical inerrancy, the Virgin birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus. So theologically, there was only a fine line between the evangelicals and the fundamentalists. They were, however, more concerned with the emotional experience of salvation by a sudden conversion than they were with theological dogmas. That applies to this day.
So whereas the fundamentalists tended to form their own churches and set up their own Bible schools, the evangelicals stayed within the mainstream churches and gradually spread their influence there. They were more ecumenical, forming international alliances designed to bring conservative Christians of many nations together. The public face of evangelicalism became most evident in the Billy Graham campaigns, by which the converts made at the mass rallies were redirected back into the denomination of their choice. The general effect of all this was to make the mainline denominations more theologically conservative and closer to the original fundamentalists. The more liberal denominations began to decline while the more conservative ones kept growing. It was in this way that fundamentalism, under the guise of evangelicalism, was becoming more dominant in the churches at the very same time as academic theology and biblical scholarship were becoming more radical.
This is why Bishop John Robinson’s little book Honest to God caused a sensation in 1963. It marked a watershed in western Christianity, becoming one of the most widely read Christian books of the century. Its popularity, and the fierce theological debate which ensued, took both author and publisher by surprise. It made the general public aware, for the first time, of such radical Christian thinkers as Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rudolf Bultmann.
Robinson himself raised such alarming questions as: Have we come to the end of theism? Do atheists have a point after all? Must we now move to a secular or non-religious understanding of Christianity? The book was excitedly read by some and heartily condemned by others. The Christian West polarised even further into a moderate form of fundamentalism at one end and, at the other, into a Christian humanism which showed decreasing interest in supporting the ecclesiastical institution.
Televangelists and the nuclear promise
In the United States the evangelical/fundamentalist forces were discovering that television was just the direct medium of communication they needed to win back a biblically illiterate populace to the fundamental Christian truths. This became the age of the televangelists, some of whom now appear on our own TV channels. The best-known were Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker, and Oral Roberts. They reached an estimated 60 million Americans. Billy Graham became a spiritual adviser to the United States president. Pat Robertson even ran for president.
This was also the period of the Cold War. The televangelists not only gave whole-hearted support to America's policy of stockpiling nuclear weapons, but encouraged people to look forward to the expected nuclear war with joyful expectation. They preached that communist Russia was the great Satan: it would invade the Middle East and initiate a nuclear war which would be the prelude to the return of Christ. They believed this to be foretold in Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39. It was fully expounded in Hal Lindsay's book The Late Great Planet Earth, which was read by an estimated 18 million people.
The nuclear holocaust held no fears personally for fundamentalists, for they firmly believed that they would be "raptured", that is, taken up into heaven to join the Lord, as described by Paul in I Thessalonians 4:17. Thus, from the heavenly dress circle, fundamentalists were to be provided with the best view of the destruction of all others during the war of Armageddon. So convinced of this were they that each year three jumbo jets of fundamentalists were going to Israel to visit the historical site of Megiddo, where they believed the final battle of Armageddon would begin. Journalist Grace Halsell, a Texan fundamentalist turned agnostic, joined one such expedition and wrote up her alarming findings in Prophecy and Politics (1986).
Not only was it dangerous to have a significant body of Americans giving virtual support to an imminent nuclear war but, worse than that, these beliefs were to be found among people in high places. Grace Halsell devoted a whole chapter to the beliefs of Ronald Reagan, who had not only been impressed by reading The Late Great Planet Earth, but also frequently mused on the issue himself. In 1981 he said to Falwell: "Jerry, I sometimes believe we’re heading very fast for Armageddon right now." Two years later President Reagan invited Jerry Falwell to attend the National Security Council briefings to discuss with top officials how America was to plan its nuclear war with Russia.
Support for Zionism
Even after the Cold War was over, the interest of the fundamentalists remained focused on the Middle East. They have become staunch supporters of Jewish Zionism. This interest goes back a long way – it actually started with Lord Shaftesbury in England in the 1840s. He was the first to urge the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, in the belief that it would hasten the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. (This is more fully covered in Chapter 3 of my book Who Owns the Holy Land?) As Christian fundamentalism spread in the 20th century, so also did this intense interest in the Jewish return to the Holy Land with the hope it gave of the early return of the Jesus Christ.
In 1985 Benjamin Netanyahu, then the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, acknowledged with gratitude the relationship between Christian and Jewish Zionists. He said: "The writings of the Christian Zionists, British and American, directly influenced the thinking of such pivotal leaders as Lloyd George, Arthur Balfour and Woodrow Wilson. These were all men versed in the Bible. Thus it was the impact of Christian Zionism on western statesmen that helped modern Jewish Zionism achieve the rebirth of Israel."
When Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem (i.e. the Old City) and made it a permanent part of Israel, foreign embassies protested by moving their embassies to Tel Aviv. The Christian Zionists tried to counter this rejection of Israel by establishing in Jerusalem what they call the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ). This receives moral and financial support from fundamentalists around the world, including New Zealand.
All this needs to be remembered as we try to understand the present conflict in the Middle East. Christian fundamentalists, of course, give solid support to Israel against the Palestinians for reasons quite different from those of Jews. The Jews acknowledge this difference but are nevertheless grateful for their support. The Zionist Organization of America said: "Christian fundamentalists are by and large supporters of Israel and we are not selective when it comes to mobilising support."
As Christian fundamentalism focuses its attention on the so-called Holy Land, so also does the Islamic world, where it has served to strengthen and spread Islamic fundamentalism. But to understand the rise of Muslim fundamentalism we must go as far back as the 18th century, when Muhammad al-Wahhab founded the Wahhabi movement in Arabia. He advocated a strict return to the original teachings of Islam as found in the Qur’an and Hadith (authoritative traditions of Muhammad). This move was very like that of the first Christian fundamentalists with their slogan of "Back to the Bible". Wahhabism could be described as the first manifestation of Muslim fundamentalism.
Islam lends itself to fundamentalism even more than does Christianity, for the strength of fundamentalism lies, as we have seen, in its appeal to Holy Scripture. Islam possessed Holy Scripture from the beginning. As the words of the Qur’an continued to be uttered by Muhammad during his lifetime, they were accepted by Muslims as coming direct from God. Whereas it is the figure of Christ which is central to Christianity, it is the Qur’an, not Muhammad, which is central to Islam.
Al-Wahhab and his followers set out to purify Islamic society by cleansing it of all Muslim practices not in keeping with the Qur’an, the very utterances of Allah. As Muhammad had destroyed the idols and polytheistic rituals of Arab culture which were current before him, so the Wahhabis followed suit, almost re-enacting the initial spread of Islam, first in Mecca and Medina, and then throughout Arabia. In spite of various setbacks to the movement the majority of Muslims in Saudi Arabia are Wahhabis to this day, and it enjoys the powerful support of the Saudi family which rules Arabia.
Politics, force, jihad
There are several aspects of the Wahhabi movement for Islamic reform, and they set the pattern for the later types of Muslim fundamentalism.
It was politically active from the beginning. This is because in Islam there has never been the division between religion and politics which has sometimes asserted itself in Christianity. Islam is primarily concerned with the ordering of society, and only secondly with the spirituality of the individual. So for the Muslim, religion and politics are virtually one and the same.
It had no qualms about using force to attain its goal. Wahhabism soon gathered sufficient military power not only to capture Mecca and Medina, but to take over the whole of Arabia and move into Iraq, where it captured and partially destroyed the mosque in Karbala, so sacred to the Shi’ites.
It was sectarian. Muslims who did not accept Wahhabi principles were judged to be not true Muslims and were sometimes even treated as infidels. Since they set out to abolish such later innovations as the venerating of Islamic saints and visiting their tombs, the Wahhabis came into direct conflict with the Shi’ites, who focus so much attention on the mausoleums of their imams. This served to reinvigorate the long-standing hostility between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites.
It revived the practice of jihad. Though often incorrectly translated in the West as "holy war", jihad literally means "struggle". It can refer to the internal struggle which may take place in a Muslim in trying to be whole-heartedly obedient to Allah. But it can also mean the external struggle, not only to defend the boundaries of Islamic society but also to extend them to include unbelievers. (Jihad had its Christian counterpart in the spirit of the medieval crusades, which set out to defend the Christian places and to incorporate them into Christendom.) It was always the ultimate aim of Islam to incorporate all nations into the brotherhood of Islamic society, sometimes called dar al-islam, or "the house of Islam". Everything outside of this was referred to as dar al-harb, which literally means the "house of the sword". These terms reflect the normal relations of war which were expected between Muslims and non-Muslims. So the concept of jihad is not only in the Qur’an but has played an important role in Islam from the beginning.
In these ways, then, the Wahhabis are to be seen as the forerunners of today’s Muslim fundamentalists. Indeed a direct link can be traced from the Wahhabis to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and from it to such groups of Muslim fundamentalists as Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and Al Qaeda.
Charismatic leaders in the Arab world
Behind all these movements lies the influence of a number of charismatic leaders whose thinking has inspired the current Islamic resurgence. One of them is the Pakistani Sayyid Abu ‘Ala Maududi (1903-79), who has been described as the most systematic thinker of modern Islam. On observing the rise of totalitarianism in Russia, Germany and Italy, Maududi believed Islam to be the answer to humankind’s woes. "Islam is not just for certain people," he contended, "it is for the entire human race. There is only one way of life which is right in the eyes of God and that is Islam. So Islam wants and requires the entire inhabited world." Maududi was expounding what may be now called Islamism.
Another influential thinker was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66). He was a sensitive, intelligent and highly articulate person, brought up in a devout and well-educated Muslim family in upper Egypt. His later experiences, first in Cairo and later in New York, filled him with horror at where modern civilisation seemed to be going. After his simple rural upbringing, he was so shocked by the unveiled women he met at work in Cairo that he remained celibate for the rest of his life. Sent to New York by the Government to study education, he was disgusted by what he regarded as the lack of real spirituality in the churches. As he observed them, they were competing for adherents in much the same way as stores and theatres competed for customers.
After a period in California, where his convictions about the lack of genuine spirituality in the West were further confirmed, he returned to Egypt and immediately joined the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in which he became a born-again Muslim. In 1954 the Muslim Brotherhood was involved in a botched attempt to assassinate President Gamal Nasser. After being tortured, tried, and convicted of alleged conspiracy to overthrow the regime, he was sentenced to 25 years’ hard labour, along with dozens of other Muslim Brothers. Although his frailty and ill-health secured his release 10 years later, he was soon arrested for another alleged plot and this time he was put to death. Some have claimed that his execution was chiefly due to what he had been writing; it was too dangerous because of its power to incite rebellion against the current secular government.
During his imprisonment, Qutb wrote a multi-volume commentary on the Qur’an and a tract for the times, Signposts on the Road. This has been compared with the Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx, in the effect that it was to have in arousing Islam. "Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice, not because of the danger of complete annihilation which is hanging over its head . . . but because humanity is devoid of those vital values for its healthy development and real progress," he wrote.
To meet this danger Qutb expounded the virtues of Islam. Like Christian fundamentalists, he was strongly critical of the European Enlightenment for opening the way to individual freedom to choose one’s religious beliefs and way of life. He treated the Enlightenment as a new attempt by the old enemy, Christianity, to destroy Islamic society by secularising it. So in the struggle against western imperialism and neo-colonialism Qutb proved to be exceedingly influential, not only because of his writings but because his unjust execution turned him into a martyr. As Christ was believed by Christians to have voluntarily surrendered his life on the cross for the salvation of humankind, so Qutb was believed to have deliberately chosen to die rather than opt for an alternative which could have brought his release. He died for the sake of Islam and the future of humankind. By setting such an example, Qutb put his official stamp on the role of the Muslim. We in the West call them suicide bombers. That is not how Islamists see them, for suicide is forbidden in the Qur’an. Islamists call them "shahids". It means "a witness" to the faith (shahada), just as our word "martyr" is derived from the Greek word for witness to the faith.
From fundamentals to fanaticism
I shall now briefly sketch the rise of some of the Muslim fundamentalist groups. It will show how a religious conviction which begins with an almost spiritual commitment to religious principles or fundamentals soon descends into fanaticism and violence.
In 1928 an Egyptian school teacher, Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It was a natural term to choose, for Muhammad had declared that Islam had the effect of making all men brothers. Inspired by the success of the Wahhabi movement, Hasan also was motivated to promote the return to the Qur’an and Hadith as the guidelines for a healthy, modern Islamic society. "My brothers," he said, "you are not a benevolent society, nor a political party . . . you are new soul in the heart of this nation to give it light by means of the Qur’an . . . to destroy the darkness of materialism."
The spectacular growth of the Muslim Brotherhood soon made it a political force to be reckoned with. In less than 20 years it had a quarter of a million members. It spread rapidly throughout the Sudan, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, and North Africa. In order to reject the western influences of secularisation and modernisation it soon became politically active, and even organised a terrorist arm. Between 1945 and 1948 it unleashed a campaign of terror which involved assassinations, the bombing of theatres and, following the birth of Israel, the dynamiting of Jewish businesses.
The Islamism being promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood was not the only reaction to colonialism and British rule in Egypt. There was also communism and Arab nationalism. President Nasser was a champion of Arab nationalism, and even succeeded in uniting Egypt and Syria for a time. But the Muslim brotherhood believed the loyalty of Muslims should not be to nation states but to the Umma Muslima – the worldwide community of believers. Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, famously remarked: "Just as Islam is a faith and a religion, it is also a country and a citizenship." So Nasser was seen as an enemy of Islam, and the Islamic Brotherhood attempted to assassinate him in 1954. For this the Brotherhood was outlawed and its activities muted.
Six-Day War fuels Islamism
Israel’s defeat of the Arab nations in the Six-Day War of 1967 proved a turning point. It showed that Arab nationalism alone could not fulfil its promise of political and economic progress, and it had proved too weak in the face of Israel. The Islamists contended in response that "Islam is the solution", and in the 1980s built up networks of grassroots support, becoming a political threat to governments in North Africa, Egypt and the Gulf.
In 1989 Islamists in Sudan came to power on the back of a military coup, and for a time Sudan became a magnet for militant Islamists of many countries. The issue of Islam and democracy was thrown into sharp relief by the crisis in Algeria in the early 1990s. A well-organised Islamist opposition party came within a whisker of winning power through the ballot box. But the military stepped in, cancelled the elections and outlawed the main Islamist party. Had it won, the Algerian Islamists would have electrified the Muslim world, providing an example for others to emulate. Instead, their movement became a kind of martyr. The Islamists concluded that the region's secularists would stop at nothing to keep them from taking power. They became disillusioned with what they saw as the hypocrisy of the West. By taking the side of the Algerian generals, western leaders had shown that they defended democracy and human rights only when it suited their cause.
In 1979, the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave rise to a fresh and stronger wave of Islamism, manifesting itself in more than 100 movements worldwide. A number of small groups in the occupied territories of Palestine began to call for jihad, or holy war, against Israel.
The Muslim Brotherhood suddenly revived in Egypt, Jordan and Syria. It established a network of charities, clinics and schools, and became active in many mosques and universities. It infiltrated the army and became vehemently anti-western and anti-Israel. In 1981 it showed its hostility to the Egyptian regime by killing President Anwar Sadat.
The Muslim Brotherhood was strongly opposed to the socialists who ruled Syria and Iraq as the Ba’ath Party. It was responsible for an uprising in the Syrian city of Hamah in February 1982, severely crushed by President Assad at a cost of 10,000 lives. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was equally oppressive of Muslim fundamentalists, even though he shared with them the goal of dismantling Israel.
Palestinian terror campaign
In December 1987, at the beginning of the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) against Israeli occupation, members of the Muslim Brotherhood established Hamas (Arabic for "zeal"). Hamas affirms in its charter that Palestine is an Islamic homeland that can never be surrendered to non-Muslims, and that waging jihad to liberate Palestine is the duty of all Palestinians. It began a campaign of terrorism against Israel, which retaliated by imprisoning the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yasin, in 1991 and arresting hundreds of Hamas activists. Hamas also came into conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, since from 1988 the latter recognised Israel's right to exist. Hamas denounced the 1993 peace agreement between Israel and the PLO and, along with the Islamic Jihad group, intensified its terror campaign by the use of suicide bombers. Hamas needs to be clearly distinguished from the Hizbollah, which operates in Lebanon. These are Shi’ite fundamentalists who are also committed to the liberation of Palestine, but who operate differently from those of Sunni background.
Thus the many groups of fundamentalist Muslims not only differ from one another, but are also at variance with the more moderate or secular Muslim governments in whose territory they operate. That is a feature of fundamentalism everywhere, both Christian and Muslim. However, they are united in their hostility to the West in general, and to the state of Israel in particular. Moreover, they share this attitude even with the more secular Muslim governments of Egypt, Syria and Iraq which have often persecuted them.
Behind all these movements, and to some degree linking them, has been an organisation whose success to date has depended partly on its remaining in the shadows. Its official name is Al Qaeda Al-Sulbah, which means "The Solid Base", yet until September 11 its name was hardly heard of. Its ideological father and first charismatic leader was Sheikh Dr Abdullah Azzam (1941-89), a Palestinian and a staunch member of the Muslim Brotherhood from his youth. He was a Muslim scholar who, having graduated in Islamic Law from Damascus University, was forced to leave Palestine for Jordan when Palestine was conquered by Israel in 1967. He went on to gain his doctorate from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and there came under the influence of Sayyid Qutb. He returned to teach at Amman University, until he was expelled along with the PLO. He was teaching in Jeddah when Russia invaded Afghanistan. That event decided him to devote all of his energies to the jihad, and he moved to Pakistan. As he saw it, the struggle against Russia was only the prelude to the liberation of Palestine and all other lands which had once been ruled by Islam: "Jihad is now incumbent on all Muslims, and will remain so until Muslims recapture every spot that was Islamic." Central to his preaching were the themes of martyrdom and sacrifice.
The rise of Osama bin Laden
In Pakistan Azzam set up the Afghan Service Bureau to recruit, indoctrinate and train tens of thousands of Muslim youths from all round the world to become mujahidin (those actively engaged in the jihad). His deputy was the now well-known Osama bin Laden. It was out of this enterprise, during 1987-8, that Azzam conceived the idea of Al Qaeda. It was to be a rapid reaction force ready to defend Islam anywhere and immediately. Although Azzam had been the mentor of Osama bin Laden for 10 years, a power struggle between them ended in 1989 with the death of Azzam and his two sons in a bomb blast in Peshawar on their way to Friday prayers. This left Osama in command of Al Qaeda.
Osama hails from Saudi Arabia, where he was the seventh son of 52 children, his father having had four wives and many concubines. Osama’s father, who had become a wealthy businessman, discouraged his children from engaging in political and religious debate. But Osama, even while working for the family business, became converted to Islamism, having been taught by the brother of Sayyid Qutb. A month after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan he left for Pakistan and there met Azzam.
The strategy of Al Qaeda has been to develop a decentralised, regional structure, operating through a network of cells, terrorist groups and other affiliated associations. It even transcends the Sunni-Shi’ite division, and has ties with Hizbollah as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The American Central Intelligence Agency estimated it can draw upon six or seven millions of Muslims worldwide, of which some 120,000 are ready to take up arms. Saudi Arabia seems to be its strongest base; of the 20 hijackers involved in the September 11 operation, 15 were from Saudi Arabia.
Al Qaeda has been behind terrorist acts around the world for about 15 years, both before and after September 11, 2001. The dramatic destruction of the Twin Towers in New York so grabbed world attention that it has been referred to as the clash of two civilisations. It is better described as the clash of two fundamentalisms – Muslim fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism. Tariq Ali, a Pakistani writer and film-maker now living in London, was already writing a book on Islamic fundamentalism before September 11. It was to be called Mullahs and Heretics but he changed the title to The Clash of Fundamentalisms. He contends that the most dangerous fundamentalism today is American imperialism, spurred on as it is by Protestant fundamentalism, which he calls "the mother of all fundamentalisms".
Twin dangers to humanity
It is easy for us in the West to acknowledge that Islamic fundamentalism is a danger to humanity; it is not so obvious to us that Christian fundamentalism is also dangerous. This is partly because Christian fundamentalism does not resort to violence and terrorism in the same way as Muslim fundamentalism does.
There is no need for Christian fundamentalism to use force (except perhaps to assassinate doctors in abortion clinics, as it has occasionally done). This is because it chiefly lives within, and influences, the most powerful nation on earth. As Al Qaeda has been working secretly behind the scenes in the Islamic world, Christian fundamentalism has become a powerful lobby force in the United States. Anyone running for president must take notice of it. By way of example, the Republican Party is already preparing for the re-election of George W Bush in 2004 and is soliciting support from the Bible Belt. Two of the leading fundamentalists, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell recently thought the Administration's policy on Palestine to be too soft, so they organised for 500,000 emails to be sent to the White House. In two days there was a change of policy.
Christian fundamentalists do not need to resort to force, for the nation they belong to does it for them. Not only is there a US military presence in 120 of the 189 member states of the United Nations, but its Central Intelligence Agency has long been at work behind the scenes promoting political change in the interests of the United States. It is a secret network more highly organised and better financed than Al Qaeda. The invasion of Iraq is only the latest and the most blatant of American interventions. It is not referred to as terrorism, for powerful nations have the weapons to wage war and only the weak have to resort to terrorism. But the innocent suffer in war just as they do from terrorism. That certainly is how the Islamic world sees it.
Of course, Christian fundamentalism is not the only lobby force helping to determine American foreign policy, but it is a significant one because of its focus on the chief area of difference between the West and the Islamic world – the Israeli-Palestinian clash. Osama bin Laden himself said: "There can be no peace between the Islamic world and the western world until the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is healed." Islamic fundamentalists are in whole-hearted support of the Palestinians and are united by the goal of winning back the territory which they believe has been unjustly taken from them by the West. Christian fundamentalists are in whole-hearted support of Israel, because they wish to hasten the return of Jesus Christ, and not because they want peace. For them, as one televangelist declared, "any preaching of peace prior to the return of Christ is heresy; it’s against the Word of God".
Clash of two fundamentalisms
The establishment of the state of Israel, involving as it has the dispossession of the Palestinian people, is the chief bone of contention between the Islamic world and the West. What is preventing wiser and calmer minds on both sides from resolving this tension is fundamentalism. The East-West conflict has become a clash between two fundamentalisms, each of which is allied to a resurgence of nationalism. Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists are not only at enmity with each other, but they endanger the world’s peace because of what they have in common – their fundamentalism.
Both groups reject the modern secular world and desperately wish to restore the traditional Christendom or the Umma Muslima, as the case may be. They live and think in terms of the dualistic world view of heaven and earth which is embedded in their respective Holy Scriptures. So Christian fundamentalists regard "the earth as merely a temporary way station on the road to eternal life. It is unimportant except as a place of testing to get into heaven". Those words were uttered by the American fundamentalist James Gaius Watt, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, when he was trying to give developers unlimited access to the parks and natural resources of America. It is because fundamentalists still think in such other-worldly terms that they can welcome the prospect of Armageddon in the Middle East.
It is because Muslim fundamentalists also think in other worldly terms that they can encourage the mujahidin to sacrifice themselves as suicide bombers, utterly convinced they will immediately experience the bliss of heaven. The manual handed to the September 11 hijackers contained the promise: "You will enter heaven, you will enter a life of eternity."
Thus fundamentalism, in its reaction to the coming of the modern secular world, has reverted to a now outmoded world view. Its rise and spread has not only tragically distorted both Christianity and Islam, but it now constitutes a very real danger to the well-being and peace of humankind.
September 11, 2001, has become a significant day in the historical calendar. The world-shattering events of that day were the most dramatic demonstration so far of the danger which fundamentalism poses for the future of humankind. The immediate response was very illuminating. United States President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair described it as an attack on civilisation. They failed to notice it was not aimed at the Guggenheim Museum of Art or Carnegie Hall. This was not an act of callous vandalism, nor was it aimed at random. The target in New York was the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the most vivid symbol of America’s economic domination of the globe.
America’s fundamentalists, on the other hand, were almost gleeful, at least at first. Jerry Falwell saw it as a divine judgment and blamed it on the presence of "the abortionists, the feminists and the gays and the lesbians". Pat Robertson said: "We have sinned against Almighty God. The Supreme Court has taken his Bible away from the schools and forbidden little children to pray." Hal Lindsay, author of The Late Great Planet Earth, feeling sure he had got it right at last, announced the beginning of the end-times with the words: "The Battle of America has begun."
George Bush caught this apocalyptic mood of the public and loaded his speeches with religious end-time language, proclaiming that "good will prevail against evil". He then proceeded to declare "war against terrorism". This response of America, soon to be followed by Great Britain and others, was understandable because from time immemorial, whenever a nation found itself attacked by another nation it retaliated by declaring war. No thought at all was given to the question of whether terrorism can actually be overcome by waging war. So war it was to be, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, with the result that these two countries have now been torn apart. But although the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein has been displaced, Al Qaeda and other groups of terrorists remain intact.
War not the answer
The plan to stamp out terrorism by waging war is like trying to cure measles by attempting to wash the spots off by using the most powerful detergent available. The spots are simply the symptom of the disease. Terrorism is the symptom of a deep malaise, a malaise which lies behind the current responses to terrorism as much as behind terrorism itself.
It is a grave error of judgment to assume that terrorism can be stamped out by war. For one thing, there is no military enemy defending a clearly defined piece of territory as there is in conventional warfare. Neither can terrorism be eliminated simply by planning to kill or imprison all terrorists. The state-ordered assassination of terrorists, as currently practised by Israel, simply aggravates still further the hostility, hatred and sense of injustice, which were the original causes for the rise of terrorism. For every one killed, five more may appear somewhere else. In the spread of disease we have to look for the bacillus or virus responsible; similarly, we must penetrate to the motivating cause behind terrorism and deal with that.
In the previous chapter I attempted briefly to show that the current wave of terrorism around the globe is the product of fundamentalism. The western world encounters the face of Islamic fundamentalism in the terrorist acts of suicide bombers who are determined to kill and destroy. The Islamic world encounters the face of Christian fundamentalism in the trigger-happy fundamentalist cowboy from Texas who, as president of the most powerful nation on earth, is ready to wage war against any nation that stands in the way of America’s economic interests.
Of course it is wise to take security precautions to limit the damage that can be done by terrorists, but a policy of waging war on terrorism is likely to lead the world into an ever deeper quagmire of hostility and global chaos. The real question we face is this: How is the secular global world to respond positively to the phenomenon of fundamentalism? This will depend partly on the particular form in which it is found – Christian, Islamic or Jewish. But first we shall look at that which applies to all fundamentalisms.
Some criticisms are valid
Fundamentalism, as I have tried to show, is a reactionary challenge to the modern secular world. Fundamentalists find the secular world severely wanting. So those of us who value the freedoms it has brought must pause and engage in reflection and self-criticism. We must ask ourselves whether fundamentalism has some valid points to make in its reaction to the secular world. Have we been too ready to welcome its gifts, and failed to realise what we have unthinkingly given away?
Even allowing for the danger of looking back to the past through rose-coloured spectacles, we may have to concede that, along with the new freedoms, we have also lost something. We have lost the feeling of security that our forebears experienced when their society was still permeated by the social and moral values provided by the religious tradition concerned. Christian and Muslim societies of the past enjoyed a healthy and peaceful cohesion that is no longer there to the same degree.
For example, at the beginning of the 20th century we in New Zealand commonly left our houses unlocked, for there was no fear of burglary. Today we not only keep everything under lock and key, but we can no longer even allow our young children to walk to school unattended. One is safer on the streets of Damascus and Shiraz than in those of Paris or Rome, for the corrosive potential of secularism has eaten more deeply into the social fabric of western society than in Islamic society.
Fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim, are staunch promoters of the traditional morality which provided that sense of personal security in society, and are severe critics of the modern softening of the former absolute moral demands. Christian fundamentalists have been strong supporters of family values, the preservation of the nuclear family, the prohibition of sex outside of marriage. Islamic fundamentalists have gone to extreme lengths to preserve their own traditional mores, which in some respects differ significantly from those in the Christian West.
A particular concern of Islamic fundamentalists is one with which all morally concerned liberals have much sympathy, and that is the traffic in drugs. Muslim fundamentalists have a special interest in this because Islam is the only major religion that, from its foundation, declared an absolute ban on the consumption of alcohol. This means that it is fundamentally opposed to the modern drug traffic. Perhaps in no country are the penalties so severe as in Iran, now controlled by the mullahs of the Islamic revolution. It is somewhat ironic that the fundamentalist Taliban was doing its best to stamp out the production of opium in Afghanistan, but their defeat by American forces has allowed the opium trade once again to flourish.
"Spiritual famine" in western culture
Another aspect of the modern world that concerns all fundamentalists is the loss of belief in a fundamental authority undergirding the value system. In the monotheist traditions this consisted of belief in a ruling deity. Fundamentalists claim that the erosion of this opened up a spiritual vacuum in society. This is how one fundamentalist puts it: "A great spiritual famine has taken hold of western culture. The new ‘freedoms’ it has acquired have failed to bring satisfaction to the human soul. Humankind in general is in a stage of chronic anxiety and despair. Man longs to believe in a purpose behind his existence. He is finally beginning to understand the real need for a belief in God, for nothing else can take its place – not a faith consisting of mere words and rituals, but religion that includes every aspect of humanity: the mind, the body and the soul." That sounds as if it came from a Christian fundamentalist. Actually it was written by the Islamic fundamentalist Muhammad Qutb, who went on to say: "The only religion on earth that includes and satisfies all these requirements is Islam."
The reason why Muslim fundamentalists have become so judgmental of western secular culture is well described in a book by Benjamin Barber, entitled Jihad versus McWorld. He coined the word "McWorld" to refer to the secular world of junk food and junk culture, as exemplified by Michael Jackson and Madonna. One Pakistani religious scholar complained that this was ruining the lives of thousands of Muslims and leading them to destruction.
This critical assessment of the modern secular world, made by both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, cannot just be brushed aside. They have a point to make which must be listened to. The West is still living on cultural and moral capital inherited from the past. This has remained part of the fabric of society for some generations after church practices and beliefs ceased to engage the whole of society. But it is now wasting away, revealing some serious lacks in secular culture.
The fundamentalist reaction, both Christian and Muslim, is drawing our attention to the fact that the secular world is becoming spiritually bankrupt. (I have discussed this problem in Does Society Need Religion?) It is because of this deficiency in the secular world that fundamentalism has been able to attract those people who, out of personal experience, have become aware of their own spiritual needs. If it were not for the fact that fundamentalism requires people to abandon their critical faculty, and trust their emotions rather than their minds, fundamentalism could even be admired for what it is attempting to do. Certainly we should acknowledge that one of the values in the rise of fundamentalism is that it keeps drawing our attention to our cultural origins, to the matrix out of which the modern world emerged. Those who ignore or forget the lessons of history are destined to relive its struggles all over again.
It cannot be stressed too strongly, then, that if we wish to make any headway in our encounter with fundamentalism, we must make a genuine attempt to understand and listen to its protest. This is particularly true when that protest takes a violent form, as it did on September 11, 2001. Since the Bush Administration was convinced from the outset that the attack pointed to Al Qaeda, it would have been a smart move for President Bush to invite Osama bin Laden to meet him on neutral ground for frank dialogue and guarantee his safety in doing so. Then he would have got the answer to the question so many Americans were asking: "Why do they hate us so much?" The refusal of George Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even to meet with the terrorists who attack them is to refuse to take seriously the reasons that lie behind fundamentalist terrorism. It took Britain nearly 30 years to learn how to dialogue with the Irish Republican Army.
This brings us to the point where we must discuss how to counter some of the specific forms of fundamentalism that pose dangers for us. I offer no simple solutions. There is no quick fix to the problems posed by fundamentalism. The best we can do is to dialogue with fundamentalists and proceed with the relatively slow process of mutual growth of understanding.
Challenge to churches
There are two main areas in which Christian fundamentalism endangers our human future: its domination of the churches by what may be called "the fundamentalist captivity of Christianity", and its uncritical support of the "axis of power" exercised by America and Israel. I shall discuss these in turn, leaving the second till we deal with Muslim fundamentalism.
In Chapter 2 I said: "Christian fundamentalism, by capturing the mainline churches as it has been doing, is preventing Christianity from playing a positive and creative role in the shaping of the modern global society." How can this be countered?
The liberal voices in the churches have long been reluctant to say anything too critical about fundamentalists, on the grounds that they have every right to live by the beliefs they feel most comfortable with. In view of the obvious devotion and commitment displayed by fundamentalists, liberals have often leaned over backwards to accommodate their viewpoint. That tolerance continued even after fundamentalists became more assertive from the 1960s onward.
Although tolerance is always commendable, it unfortunately slows down the educative process. A great gap has opened up between biblical and theological scholarship on the one hand, and what went on at the parish level on the other. The ordained ministry, on the whole, failed the churches by not passing on to their congregations what they themselves were learning at their seminaries. Because they did not wish to upset their more conservative parishioners, they often left the churches in ignorance of the radical changes taking place. The time has come, and is indeed overdue, for the liberal voice to be heard loud and clear in the churches, even if it does lead to some controversy. In fact, the churches have always been at their strongest when they have been engaged in real debate, either internally or externally.
There are some signs of more assertive liberalism today. Twenty years ago a leading New Testament scholar in the United States, Robert Funk, took the bold step of moving out of the university institutions to establish what he called the Westar Institute. This is a community of scholars who set themselves the task of researching the origins of Christianity, unhampered by the controls they encountered in seminaries and universities. The scholarly Fellows of Westar are supported by the much larger community of Westar members. These are lay people who attend the meetings of the institute and listen to all the debates. One of the aims of the institute is to spread what they call biblical literacy. When invited to do so, it sends representatives to congregations to conduct weekend seminars.
More recently some liberal church leaders in Canada have established the Snowstar Institute. It aims to counter the rise of Christian fundamentalism by means of holding conferences and seminars that will bring church congregations up to date with biblical scholarship. American Bishop John Spong has taken on his own Anglican communion almost single-handedly, writing such books as Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. Next year the Westar Institute is planning to hold a mass meeting in New York to publicise its work and challenge the churches. These are a few ways in which liberal voices are making a positive response to the dangers they observe in the rise of Christian fundamentalism.
Voices within Islam
Islamic fundamentalism also originated as a call to its own community to return to the fundamentals of its faith. This is not an area where it is appropriate for non-Muslims to comment. It must be left to Muslims to refute Islamic fundamentalism by showing how Islam can best come to terms with the challenge of modernity. There are such people, though we have hardly heard of them in the West. They have met with strong condemnation. Some examples:
● Nasr Abu Zaid, Professor of Arabic at Cairo, caused uproar in Egypt when he advocated the use of modern methods of linguistics for the understanding of the Qur’an. A fatwa (legal opinion) was issued against him. There were threats on his life and he and his wife had to seek exile in the Netherlands.
Abu Zaid may be said to have revived an ancient Muslim tradition, that of the Mu’tazilites, who flourished in the 9th century. They were Muslim thinkers who came under the influence of Greek philosophical enquiry and adopted a more rationalist understanding of Allah and the Qur’an. They argued, for example, that the attributes of Allah were not things attached to the essence or being of Allah: they were the essence of Allah, since he is not a personal being who sees, thinks, knows and plans. (That is very like what radical Christian theologians like Don Cupitt are saying about God today.) The Mu’tazilites further argued that the Qur’an was not the eternal utterance of Allah: it was something created, and so it reflected the time and circumstances in which it came into being. So the Mu’tazilites may be seen as early pioneers of the modern critical study of Holy Scripture. But they were too far ahead of their time and were eventually overthrown by the traditionalists. Muslim modernists have suggested that their defeat in the face of popular pressure was the chief reason for the subsequent decline in Muslim intellectualism.
It was bold of Abu Zaid to resurrect this ancient strand of Islamic thought. His knowledge of modern linguistics led him to assert: "Language is a human invention, in that it reflects social convention regarding the relationship between the sound and the meaning. That is why the Mu’tazilites maintained that the divine word was a fact that adjusted itself to human language in order to ensure the well-being of humankind."
● Another who revived the Mu’tazilite tradition was Anwar Shaikh. He was born in the Punjab and brought up as an orthodox Sunni Muslim. But having read Spinoza and other pioneering spirits of the European Enlightenment, he challenged the divine origin of the Qur’an. He argued that the Semitic tradition of divine revelation has created more problems than it solved. Having learned to recite the whole of the Qur’an in his youth, he has been able to quote chapter and verse to counter the condemnations of his fundamentalist enemies. "My arguments are like a dagger pointing at the heart of fundamentalism," he said. Although Muslim clerics have branded him an apostate, more dangerous than Salman Rushdie, he claims to speak for millions of Muslims.
Grievances against the West
While we must leave it for Muslims to deal with the threat of fundamentalism to the faith of Islam, we cannot avoid becoming involved when Muslim fundamentalism affects the relationships between the Islamic world and that of the Christian West.
The chief grievances of Muslim fundamentalists are:
These grievances are shared to some degree by the whole Islamic world, but the third has become the most urgent. The whole of the Islamic world sees the establishment of the State of Israel as an invasion by the West and believes the Palestinians have been unjustly deprived of their land. It is this which lies behind the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and manifests the clash of fundamentalisms par excellence. Muslim fundamentalists give unwavering support to the Palestinians, while the claims of Israel are strongly defended by Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. (I have discussed the Israeli-Palestinian situation more fully in Who Owns the Holy Land?)
Disquiet and recklessness
The foundation of the modern state of Israel was not planned by Jewish fundamentalists, though it was given considerable early support by Christian fundamentalists in England. The originating Jewish Zionists were quite secular. Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, never even bothered to have his only son circumcised. What they planned to create was a secular state. At first they did not even assume it should be the land of their ancient fathers. When they did turn their attention to Palestine, Herzl proposed that Haifa should be the capital, believing Jerusalem should be internationalised. He felt Jerusalem reeked of fanaticism and superstition. Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, shared Herzl's feelings, and was revolted by the way the rabbis were trying to impose their religious aspirations on politics. He thought this was playing with religious fire.
Weizmann expressed such thoughts in a letter written in 1937, at the very time brown-shirted members of a right-wing paramilitary Jewish youth movement were clashing with Arab fundamentalists in Jerusalem near the Wailing Wall. Sigmund Freud referred to these clashes in a letter to Einstein in which he said he could muster no sympathy "for the misguided piety that makes a national religion out of a piece of the wall of Herod, and so challenges the feelings of the local natives".
From the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 until the war of 1967, all the energy of the Israelis was directed towards establishing and defending their new state. It has been chiefly after Israel conquered and occupied the whole of Palestine that Jewish fundamentalism has increasingly played a role in determining Israeli policy.
Jewish fundamentalists lay claim to the whole of what has been commonly called Palestine, on the grounds that it was given to them by God more than 3000 years ago. This is why they have been so insistent on establishing new settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Jewish fundamentalists even entertain the hope of rebuilding the Temple on its ancient site. This idea suddenly surfaced after the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem. In the Six-Day War in 1967 Israeli paratroopers hoisted the national flag over the sacred rock, now enclosed within the famous Dome of the Rock; but the Defence Minister, Moshe Dayan, wisely ordered that it be removed, the sacred enclosure evacuated, and handed back to its Muslim attendants. Yet that same day, Shlomo Goren, the chief rabbi of the Israeli army with the rank of major-general, demonstrated how difficult it was going to be to keep Jewish fundamentalists in check. He strode on to the Temple Mount, accompanied by singing acolytes and blowing a ritual shofar, asserting it was time to put high explosives under the Dome of the Rock and get rid of it once and for all. He was reprimanded, but it illustrates the dangerous steps which fundamentalists are ready to take.
Some Christian fundamentalists have been equally reckless. In 1969 an Australian fundamentalist Christian successfully set fire to al-Aqsa mosque, causing extensive damage. He claimed that the removal of the mosque would bring about the millennium. I remember the occasion well for I happened to be in Iran at the time. There was widespread response from the Iranian Shi’ite community calling for an immediate jihad against the West. Muslim protesters took to the streets in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem
In 1982, a "born-again" American Jew named Alan Harry Goodman, wearing an Israeli uniform and armed with an automatic rifle, shot his way into the Dome of the Rock in order, he said, to "liberate". Riots over this bloody deed spread to faraway Muslim countries in Asia and Africa and lasted intermittently for several weeks. Jewish fundamentalists continued to assert Israel's historical "sovereign rights" to the Temple Mount, even though the higher courts refused them access.
Jewish fundamentalism and Israeli nationalism have become so increasingly intertwined that each has become dependent on the other to achieve its own goals. For example, Ariel Sharon, a nationalist and not a fundamentalist, knew exactly what he was doing on September 28, 2000, when he marched on to the Temple Mount, a little like Shlomo Goren 33 years before. He arrived guarded by 1000 armed soldiers. This provocative act triggered the second intifada. He later claimed that his sole purpose had been to test "the freedom of access and of worship" on the Mount. His real motive was to win over the support of the Jewish fundamentalists and foil political rival Benjamin Netanyahu's bid to return to power.
The reason for the present conflict is very simple. It is the attempt by one people to rule another against its wishes. So the Palestinians have been protesting about their plight in the only ways open to them – the throwing of stones and acts of terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists. Israel retaliates by exercising increasing military power. Eight thousand Palestinian homes have been bulldozed, rendering their occupants homeless. For every Israeli killed, three Palestinians have perished. Israel experiences increasing insecurity.
Fundamentalists and nationalists
The extremists on both sides are the fundamentalists. The Jewish fundamentalists, though a minority, insist on retaining control of the whole land. Effi Eitam, leader of the National Religious Party and a member of Sharon’s cabinet, refers to all Palestinians as a "cancer that must be rooted out", and claims that Arabs must never be given any political rule or sovereignty within the Land of Israel. The Islamic fundamentalists, also a minority, want the Jewish State of Israel dismantled, and they intend to proceed with acts or terrorism until they achieve that end.
But behind each group, and providing a considerable degree of moral support, is a much larger body of nationalists. Jewish nationalists and Palestinian nationalists are reluctant to condemn their own fundamentalist extremists, in much the same way as the mainline churches have been reluctant to condemn Christian fundamentalists.
The supposedly neutral western world, while ready to condemn Palestinian terrorists, has been reluctant to criticise Israel openly for fear of being judged anti-Semitic. There has been a strong feeling throughout the Islamic world that it is western guilt over the Nazi Holocaust that has caused the West to give such uncritical support to Israel and to be blind to the plight of the Palestinians. There is much truth in this. But just as criticism of Saddam Hussein does not mean one is anti-Iraqi, and criticism of the Bush administration does not mean one is anti-American, so criticism of Israeli policy does not mean one is anti-Jewish. We must learn to distinguish between criticism of Israeli government policy and anti-Semitism.
There is no better way of showing this distinction than by pointing to the devastating criticism of Israeli policy that is increasingly coming from within Israel itself. Philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovitz was one of only three prominent members of the Israeli academic community who protested when Jerusalem was unilaterally annexed to Israel. An Orthodox Jew himself, he ridiculed the cult of the Wailing Wall as pagan stone-worship. He refused the highest awards Jewry could offer him and charged his fellow-Jews with becoming "Judeo-Nazis", who were fast turning Israel into a police state because of their treatment of the Palestinians. He warned that the continued occupation of Gaza and the West Bank would eventually spell the end of the State of Israel and bring a catastrophe to the Jewish people as a whole. The historians Yehoshua Arieli and Yehoshua Talmon followed suit, warning that Israelis would become brutalised and corrupted as they tried to rule over an alien people against its will.
Baruch Kimmeling, professor of sociology of the Hebrew University, wrote in a Hebrew weekly in 2002: "I accuse Ariel Sharon of creating a process in which he will not only intensify the reciprocal bloodshed, but is liable to instigate a regional war."
There has recently been published a little book entitled The Other Israel. It contains articles, essays and statements by 37 dissenting Israeli academics and professionals, said to be only a sample of the many more within Israel who feel a sense of "helplessness in the face of the uncaring, cruel, and supremely self-righteous system of oppression" that Israel has become. Neve Gordon, who teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva, says: "Israel’s gravest danger today is not the Palestinian Authority or even Hamas and Islamic Jihad but the one it faces from within: fascism."
The Palestinian/Israeli impasse is easily the most serious conflict in the world today and it is being continually exacerbated by the fundamentalists of all three monotheistic faiths. Just as it needs Christian liberals to protest against the Christian fundamentalists, so it needs Muslim liberals to protest against the terrorist acts of Muslim fundamentalists, and it needs Jewish liberals to protest against the madness of Jewish fundamentalists. In all cases liberals must take the risk of being condemned as heretics, apostates, and traitors to the cause. But only by their speaking up will fundamentalism be countered and its dangers overcome.
In this book I have tried to sketch the rise, nature and extent of the modern phenomenon of fundamentalism and to deal with it as sympathetically as possible. We cannot ignore it, even though it is difficult to know what to do about it. As James Barr warned 20 years ago, "Fundamentalism as a movement will last a long time and will constitute a powerful influence upon religion and society for many decades to come."