“To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.”
A New Oxonian Oldie
I’ve been puzzling about this recently: whether there is anything that Christian and Muslim fundamentalists have in common. I’ll leave the Jews and the Sikhs and Hindus to one side for a minute. Just because I want to.
First of all, you have to have a book to be a fundamentalist. It’s no good trying to say you take your religion seriously if you don’t have a page to point at or a verse to recite.
Theoretically, various gurus can exert the same sort of control that a book can exert over the mind of a true believer. But usually gurus begin by pointing at books as well.
That’s what both Jim Jones of People’s Temple, Inc., and David Koresh of Branch Davidian fame did. They were just the messengers, albeit the ones you had to sleep with to get the keys to the kingdom.
They became convinced that they were the fulfillment of texts they’d read one too many times. In the same way, the music of rote repetition seems to inspire Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar and the late and invidious Baitullah Mehsud as well. Fundamentalists read texts written 1000 years ago as though they were hot off the press–like this from the world’s most famous MIA:
“Praise be to God, who revealed the Book, controls the clouds, defeats factionalism, and says in His Book: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)….The Arabian Peninsula has never–since God made it flat, created its desert, and encircled it with seas–been stormed by any forces like the crusader armies spreading in it like locusts, eating its riches and wiping out its plantations. All this is happening at a time in which nations are attacking Muslims like people fighting over a plate of food.” (1998 fatwah)
It’s so easy to forget the Crusades, isn’t it? Especially since the last one ended in 1291 with the interlopers in full retreat, barely managing to keep the booty in their saddlebags as they galloped away.
But to review, two things pop out at us immediately when you think of fundamentalism: you have to have a book that you take deadly seriously, and you have to forget that the book has a history.
The second point is massively important, because it permits the fundamentalist to ignore science, cultural change, and prevents the possibility of seeing the book as being, in any sense, out of date, irrelevant, or out of touch with current political or ethical contexts. If people had prophets then, who’s to say they can’t have prophets now?, say the David Koreshs and Dale Barlows of this world. We say so, say the Omar Bakri Mohammeds and Abu Izzadeens right back. After all, we’re reading different books. We can’t all be right. Fundamentalism is always particular to the truth claims of a group: one man’s fundamentals are another man’s pornography. Both responses to books written a long time ago are manifestations of historical illiteracy.
Another thing, an important feature: fundamentalists have to be right. Not in the sense you and I might be right if we scored a Daily Double on Jeopardy. Right in the sense that there has to be a slope-shouldered, humiliated wrong sitting next to it. Right in the sense that there can’t be a middle way between good and evil.
Fundamentalists have no trouble doing this because the world of late antiquity where their ideas were forged in an atmosphere of petty monarchic rivalries and mythic theomachies–mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, by the way–was an easily divisible cosmos. Us and Them, equated easily to good and evil, in political and hence in religious terms. That’s what Mani taught, what Zoroaster taught before him.
It’s also what Muhammad and his followers preached, what the Qumran War Scroll is all about (1QM, 4Q491-496) and (no good trying to wriggle out of it: read Mark 13.13) what Jesus taught, in his eschatological rhapsodies at least.
The notion that in the end, “all of Darkness is to be destroyed and Light will live in peace for all eternity” is very appealing. But there’s a good chance the person next to you belongs to the other side. At least that’s what you’ve been taught. To be a fundamentalist is to have the religious equivalent of a teenager’s fear of vampires.
That’s what makes the next two characteristics of fundamentalism so important: extermination (in two forms) and conversion. The People’s Temple, the Yearn for Zion (YFZ) Mormons and the Branch Davidian “cults” created or were ready to create manufactured mini-holocausts to vindicate their beliefs.
When the sheriffs’ cars rolled up on the edge of their compounds, the sacred boundary between purity and corruption, they were ready to go home. Everything about the outside world was smutty, dirty, and unchaste–huge horrible spaces swarming with unbelievers who mocked them and raced home in a satanic frenzy to watch smutty, dirty and unchaste television shows.
They had a point of course. The culture is filled with crap and we do tend to regard people who wear gingham dresses (and worry so much about chastity that they will only have sex and babies with a purified leader) as a bit off the beam. It’s a tired observation, I know, but fundamentalism is self-marginalizing:the blessings of secular culture and the contempt of its protagonists for nonconformity serve as proof to every child eight and up that daddy and mommy are “right” because difference is the ultimate distinction.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, self-extermination, a form of martyrdom, is a way in which Christian crazies can vindicate their readings of sacred writ.
Homicidal martyrdom is the trademark of Islamic fundamentalists, a much messier way to do business. You begin with the same premise as the one quoted above from bin Laden, the exemplary coward who has caused the deaths of tens of thousands of his fans, as when he sings the praises of young men who behead unbelievers:
The youths also reciting the All-Mighty words of Quran: Smite the necks…(Muhammad; 47:19). Those youths will not ask you for explanations, they will tell you, singing, there is nothing between us that needs to be explained, there is only killing and neck smiting….They have no intention except to enter paradise by killing you. An infidel, and enemy of God like you, cannot be in the same hell with his righteous executioner. (bin Laden, 1996)
Pleasure to know, moreover, that the martyr-fundamentalist does not experience the excruciating pain of his bleeding or burning infidel victims; they have the word of no less an authority than Saheeh Al-Jame’-as-Sagheer, who lived “in the seventh generation” after the Prophet and attributes the saying to Muhammad. “A martyr will not feel the pain of death except like [sic] how you feel when you are pinched.”
The idea that the martyr dies painlessly while others are screeching around him is meant to be reassuring to the half-hearted volunteer, whose rational soul tells him that he has never witnessed a death free from agony and that comrades who have been wounded in engagements with the unbelievers suffer immensely. Still, they have the word of as-Sagheer ringing in their ears: “With the first gush of [your] blood, [you] will be shown thy seat in paradise, decorated with jewels.”
Finally, fundamentalism is all about conversion, heavily infatuated with growth. It isn’t enough that the fanatic kingdom-comers of the world erect temples. They want to put people in them. That requires a recruitment program.
The statistics speak for themselves. In our stunningly up-to-the-minute culture where we can instantly communicate mathematical solutions and the latest groundbreaking article in medical research from The Lancet around the world with the flick of a key, people who think death can be like a loving pinch or noogie are clocked (in terms of percentage increase since 1989) as follows:
Islam in North America, +25%
Islam in Africa: +2.15%
Islam in Asia: +12.57%
Islam in Europe: +142.35%
Islam in Australia: +257.01%
This is not all “conversion,” of course; but conversion is a geographical and cultural mandate in Islam, and conversion from more lenient to more literal forms of Islam is also on the rise. According to an October 2009 estimate, Taliban numbers of fighters alone–those who are attracted mainly by martyrdom rather than philanthropy and virtue, went from 7,000 in Northern Afghanistan to 25,000. (Reuters, Saturday Oct. 10, 2009).
By comparison, it is becoming more difficult to define what a “fundamentalist” Christian is, potentially because the ground under his feet is more prone to cultural shift. But if we think of biblical literalism, an intolerance of “soft” forms of Christianity (often equated to a kind of mainstream liberal heresy), the importance of conversion (in this case, evangelism), and prophetic fulfillment as the non-negotiables of fundamentalism, the following statistic is, you should pardon the expression, revealing:
Pentecostal and charismatic denominations have grown by 37% since 2001; the Churches of Christ by 48%; the Assemblies of God by 68%. (United) Methodists and Northern Baptist by 0%, Jews, -10% and Catholics, through a healthy infusion of Hispanic and Latino votaries, a mere 11%. The undeniable appeal of taking God’s word seriously is unslaked by contemporary life.
Which causes me to muse: Did you ever stop to think that no matter how many times you read Peter Pan as a child you could never quite persuade yourself that you could jump out of a third story window and fly, just by thinking wonderful thoughts? Maybe you tried launching yourself from the top bunk–just once, but never the window.
I hope I make my point.