Volume 16 Number 4
Is Fundamentalism the Problem?
01 August 2003

In each period of history, words or expressions have appeared that have stirred, excited and polarized people. The classic examples are ‘liberty’, ‘equality’, ‘fraternity’—the watchwords of the French Revolution.

Pierre Spoerri reads a book which sheds light on one of the key issues of our age.

In each period of history, words or expressions have appeared that have stirred, excited and polarized people. The classic examples are ‘liberty’, ‘equality’, ‘fraternity’—the watchwords of the French Revolution. Such words can motivate people to mount the barricades.

In the ideological world of the 1930s and 1940s, the words were ‘fascism’, ‘communism’, ‘nazism’. At the beginning of the 21st century there are two words which leave few people indifferent. The first is ‘globalization’, the second ‘fundamentalism’.

To the difficult subject of fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong brings an amazing collection of qualifications. She spent seven years as a nun. After leaving the order, she took a degree at Oxford University and is now one of the most highly regarded commentators on religious affairs in Britain and the United States. She teaches at a Jewish College and has received the Muslim Public Affairs Council Media Award. Her published works—the titles are a programme in themselves—include Holy War, Muhammad, A History of God and A History of Jerusalem.

Karen Armstrong’s Battle for God* is probably her most ambitious project. In some 400 pages she tries to analyze not only the present fundamentalisms in the Christian, Muslim and Jewish worlds, but also how they came about. She concentrates on American Protestant fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt (as a Sunni country) and Iran (where the majority is Shiite). She starts in 1492 and ends in the 1990s.

While in many books the introduction is a light starter, in The Battle for God it is the main dish of the menu. Without it the reader would find it difficult to follow the line of thought of the later chapters. For Karen Armstrong there are some basic historical facts which lie at the root of what we now call fundamentalism.

The term was first used by American Protestants in the early 20th century. ‘Some of them started to call themselves “fundamentalists” to distinguish themselves from the more “liberal” Protestants, who were, in their opinion, entirely distorting the Christian faith. The fundamentalists wanted to go back to basics and re-emphasize the “fundamentals” of the Christian tradition, which they identified with a literal interpretation of Scripture and the acceptance of certain core doctrines.’

She finds the way the word has been applied to reforming movements in other faiths ‘far from satisfactory’. ‘It seems to suggest that fundamentalism is monolithic in all its manifestations. This is not the case. Each “fundamentalism” is a law unto itself and has its own dynamic.... Muslim and Jewish fundamentalisms, for example, are not much concerned with doctrine, which is essentially a Christian preoccupation.’

However, while ‘the term is not perfect’, she sees it as ‘a useful label for movements that, despite their differences, bear a strong family resemblance’. What unites them all is that ‘they are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis’.

One of the key developments in the relationship between Europe and the other continents and cultures came at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. Then, just as today, Europe was going through a period of transition. ‘The people of Western Europe began to evolve a different type of society, one based not on an agricultural surplus but on a technology that enabled them to reproduce their resources indefinitely....’ The economic changes led to the ‘development of an entirely different, scientific and rational, concept of the nature of truth’. All over the world, people were finding that in their dramatically transformed circumstances, the old forms of faith no longer worked for them.

Karen Armstrong goes on to introduce two terms that accompany us through the whole book, ‘mythos’ and ‘logos’. Both are necessary for human society to function, and they complement each other.

Mythos is concerned with what is thought to be timeless and constant in our existence, providing a context which make sense of our day to day lives. Logos, on the other hand, is the ‘rational, pragmatic and scientific thought’ that enables men and women to function well in the world. Unlike mythos, logos must correspond exactly to facts and external realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the mundane world. ‘We use this logical, discursive reasoning when we have to make things happen, get something done, or persuade other people to adopt a particular course of action.’ The difficulties happen when either logos or mythos take the upper hand and want to rule exclusively.

Armstrong chose 1492 as her starting point because of three important things which happened in Spain in that year. On 2 January, the armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered the city-state of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Christendom. Then, on 31 March, the king and queen signed the Edict of Expulsion, which gave Spain’s Jews the choice of baptism or deportation. 80,000 Jews crossed the border into Portugal, while 50,000 fled to the new Muslim Ottoman empire where they were given a warm welcome. The third event was the departure from Spain of Christopher Columbus.

The conquest of Granada completed the unification of Spain. The ethnic cleansing which resulted was a tragedy. The loss of Spanish Jewry was mourned by Jews all over the world as the ‘greatest catastrophe to have befallen their people since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.... Exile now seemed an endemic and inescapable part of the Jewish condition.’

The author then leads us through developments in the Muslim, Jewish and Christian worlds up to the end of the 20th century. The chapter which describes the split between the Sunnis and Shiites and later, in the 18th century, the birth of the Wahabite movement (which still controls Saudi Arabia today) throws an interesting light on present developments in the Middle East. Another chapter charts modernization attempts in the Jewish and the Muslim worlds, mainly between 1700 and 1870.

More than half the book is devoted to the period since the end of the 19th century. Of special interest are the chapters devoted to the attempts of Egyptian fundamentalists to revolutionize their country, and to the story of the Iranian revolution. Reading the book four years after Armstrong wrote its last chapter, one realizes how quickly things can move, in any part of the world, but especially in the Middle East. But her main concern—that ‘we need to understand how our world has changed’—remains more valid than ever.

What captures the reader is Armstrong’s deep understanding of—and even sympathy with—both the fundamentalists and their opponents. This shines through in the last lines of her book:

‘If fundamentalists must evolve a more compassionate assessment of their enemies in order to be true to their religious traditions, secularists must also be more faithful to the benevolence, tolerance, and respect for humanity which characterizes modern culture at its best, and address themselves more empathetically to the fears, anxieties, and need which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience but which no society can safely ignore.’
It seems to me that there is no book that I have read in recent months that has such relevance to understanding what is happening in the world today.

*Karen Armstrong, ‘The Battle for God—fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam’, HarperCollins, London 2001, ISBN 00063-834-8-3

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