Fundamentalism: A dialogue with Karen Armstrong, Susannah Heschel, Jim Wallis, and Feisal Abdul Rauf
- Fundamentalism and the Modern World:
A return to the Dark Ages? Or a modern rebellion against secularism?
Either way-as we've so painfully learned-we ignore this phenomenon at our
A dialogue with Karen Armstrong, Susannah Heschel, Jim Wallis, and Feisal
It's long had a bad reputation, but fundamentalism has become an especially
dirty word since Sept. 11. But does fundamentalism necessarily equal
violence? Four experts on the subject, from all three Abrahamic traditions,
gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City on Nov. 17
for a conversation on the religious and political roots in Christianity,
Judaism, and Islam.
Karen Armstrong: Fundamentalism has erupted in every single major faith
worldwide, not just in the Islamic world. The term "fundamentalism" was
coined here in the United States, at the turn of the 20th century, when
Protestant Christians said that they wanted to go back to the fundamentals
of their faith. Sometimes Jews and Muslims, understandably, find it slightly
offensive to have this Christian term foisted upon them, because they feel
they have other objectives. It also suggests that fundamentalism is a kind
of monolithic movement expressing the same kind of ideas and ideals.
Nevertheless, the term has come into popular parlance and tends to stand for
a group of militant pieties that have erupted in every single major faith
worldwide during the 20th century, first in Protestant fundamentalism. But
also we have fundamentalist Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, Confucianism, Hinduism.
Fundamentalism is not simply extremism. Fundamentalism is not simply
conservatism. Billy Graham, for example, would not be accepted as a
fundamentalist by those who call themselves fundamentalists, nor would he
call himself one. The Saudis, in Saudi Arabia, may be traditionalists but
they're not, strictly speaking, fundamentalists.
We often see the words "fundamentalist terrorism" or "fundamentalist
violence" put together. But only a tiny proportion of the people who might
be called fundamentalists actually take part in acts of terror and violence.
That's a very important distinction to make. Most people are simply
struggling to live a religious life, as they see it, in a world that seems
increasingly inimical to faith.
So what is fundamentalism? Fundamentalism represents a kind of revolt or
rebellion against the secular hegemony of the modern world. Fundamentalists
typically want to see God, or religion, reflected more centrally in public
life. They want to drag religion from the sidelines, to which it's been
relegated in a secular culture, and back to center stage.
Susannah Heschel: For some people fundamentalism is about bigotry and
rigidity. For others, it's about nostalgia and more. One of the reasons an
ultra-orthodoxy has been created in the Jewish world today is because so
much of liberal Judaism betrayed some of the central religious principles of
Jewish life. That is, they turned Judaism into something rational and
removed the element of emotion that's so important in religion. Instead of a
life of prayer, a striving to create a holy life, they talk about
ceremonies, customs, and rituals in a very distant way. Often in
non-orthodox settings, prayer is undertaken by the rabbi and the cantor. The
congregation doesn't pray. Prayer is vicarious, through the rabbi, and
that's a problem.
I come from an extended family that's Hasidic, what we call ultra-orthodox.
I'll let you in on a secret: The head of Agudas Israel, the ultra-orthodox
organization in the Jewish community, is my cousin. His grandfather and my
grandmother were twins. I'm drawn to that life because it is a life of
religiosity. If I take my Jewish religiosity seriously, I find that it's
exemplified in that community. It's incumbent upon us who are not part, or
not willing to live in an ultra-orthodox setting, to find ways in the world
in which we too can experience religiosity and express it as fully as those
who are ultra-orthodox.
Armstrong: Typically, fundamentalists have proceeded on a fairly common
program. Very often they begin by retreating from mainstream society and
creating, as it were, enclaves of pure faith where they try to keep the
godless world at bay and where they try to live a pure religious life.
Examples would include the ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York
City or [Christians at] Bob Jones University or Osama bin Laden's camps.
In these enclaves, fundamentalist communities often plan, as it were, a
counteroffensive, where they seek to convert the mainstream society back to
a more godly way of life. Some of them may resort to violence. Why? Because
every fundamentalist movement that I've studied-in Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam-is rooted in a profound fear. They are convinced, even here in the
United States, that modern liberal secular society wants to wipe out
religion in some way or is destructive to faith.
In some parts of the Muslim world, the modernization process has been so
accelerated and so rapid that secularism is very often experienced not as a
liberating movement, as we have in the United States, but as a deadly
assault upon faith. For example, when Ataturk was bringing modern Turkey
into being, he closed down all the madrasas, the colleges of further
education. He abolished all the Sufi orders and forced them underground, and
forced all men and women to wear Western dress.
In Iran, the shahs used to make their soldiers go through the streets with
bayonets, taking the women's veils off and tearing them to pieces in front
of them. These modernizers wanted their countries to look modern. Never mind
that the vast majority of the population, because of the rapid pace of the
modernization process, had no understanding of modern institutions or modern
ideals. Very often in these countries, only an elite had the benefit of a
In Egypt, the chief mentor of Osama bin Laden, a man called Sayyid Qutb,
developed the form of fundamentalism that tends to be followed by most
fundamentalists in the Sunni Muslim world. President Nasser had incarcerated
thousands of members of the Muslim brotherhood, often without trial, and
often for doing nothing more incriminating than handing out leaflets or
attending a meeting. Sayyid Qutb went into the camp as a moderate. But after
15 years of hard labor, watching the brothers being executed, or being
subjected to mental or physical torture, and hearing Nasser vow to relegate
religion to the purely private sphere, he came to the conclusion that
secularism was a great evil. Qutb was executed by President Nasser in 1966.
Jim Wallis: I was raised in an evangelical church in the Midwest-some might
have called it a bit fundamentalist. Sometimes there are blurry lines
between "evangelical" and "fundamentalist." When I was in high school, I was
interested in a girl in our church. My family was more evangelical, and hers
was very fundamentalist. I offered to take her to a movie, which was often
forbidden in my church culture. But I chose The Sound of Music. Who could go
wrong with Julie Andrews? I thought. I was wrong.
As we left the house, her father literally stood in the doorway blocking our
exit and said to his daughter, "If you go to this film, you'll be trampling
on everything that we've taught you to believe." She fled downstairs to her
room in tears.
The man knew that his religion was to make him different from the world,
which is a fair point. I wished he would have chosen to break with America
at the point of its materialism, racism, poverty, or violence. But he chose
I don't think his kind of fundamentalism results in what happened Sept. 11.
That takes a turn to theocracy, a turn to violence, a reach for power.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the antidote to religious fundamentalism
is more secularism. That's a very big mistake. The best response to bad
religion is better religion, not secularism. The traditions we are looking
at are religions of the book, and the key question is, how do we interpret
the book? In Christian faith, we have the interpretation of Martin Luther
King Jr. and also that of the Ku Klux Klan. Better interpretation of the
book, in my view, is a better response to fundamentalism than throwing the
Fundamentalism, it is often said, is taking religion too seriously. The
answer, in this view, is to take it less seriously. That conventional wisdom
is wrong. The best response to fundamentalism is to take faith more
seriously than fundamentalism sometimes does. The best response is to
critique by faith the accommodations of fundamentalism to theocracy and
violence and power and to assert the vital religious commitments that
fundamentalists often leave out-namely compassion, social justice,
peacemaking, religious pluralism, and I would say democracy as a religious
Fundamentalism betrays true faith by its devotion to an easy accommodation
to the state. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The church must be reminded that
it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience
of the state." That is often missed by this move to theocracy, particularly
to a theocracy that is intended to enforce the dictates of the faith. In my
view, al Qaeda, the Taliban, and American fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell
and Pat Robertson are indeed theocrats asking that their religious agenda be
enforced by the power of the state. That is primarily a religious mistake.
Fundamentalism too easily justifies violence as a tool for implementing its
agenda. Genuine faith either forbids violence as a methodology or says that
violence must always be limited and lamented, never glorified or celebrated.
Genuine faith always seeks alternatives to violence that seek to break its
deadly cycle. Fundamentalism, instead, offers what Walter Wink calls "the
myth of redemptive violence"-that somehow violence can save us after all.
Some will say that after Sept. 11 we must keep religion safely relegated to
the private sphere. That again is a mistake. The question is not whether
religious and spiritual values should inform public discourse, but how.
Separation of church and state does not require the removal of religious
values from the public square.
Armstrong: When people feel that their backs are to the wall and they're
fighting for survival, they can, very often, turn to violence. So
fundamentalism often develops in a kind of symbiotic relationship with a
modernity that is felt to be aggressive and intrusive.
Fundamentalism is not going back to the Dark Ages. We often treat
fundamentalist movements as though they're harking back to some impossible,
archaic, distant golden age. This is not true. These are essentially modern
movements that could have taken root in no time other than our own.
The great changes of modernity mean that none of us can be religious in the
same way as our ancestors. We are, all of us, having to develop different
forms of seeing our faiths. Every generation, ever since religion began, has
had to reinterpret its traditions to meet the challenge of its particular
modernity. But the challenges have been particularly great, especially
during the 20th century. Fundamentalism is simply one of the attempts to
rethink faith. The Ayatollah Khomeini was essentially a man of the 20th
century. Instead of harking back to the Dark Ages, he was really introducing
a revolutionary form of Shi´ism that was, in fact, as innovative as if the
pope had abolished the Mass. But most of us didn't understand enough about
Shi´ism to appreciate that.
Fundamentalist movements can also be modernizing. We're seeing in Iran the
Islamic revolution-which seemed to us to throw off modernity-introduce into
the country representational government, which Iranians were never allowed
to have before. The institutions are highly flawed and imperfect but, under
President Khatami, who sees himself working within the tradition of
Khomeini, they are moving towards something democratic and modern.
It's no good ignoring fundamentalism with secularist or liberal disdain, as
unworthy of serious consideration, hoping that it will somehow go away.
Fundamentalism is an essential part of the modern scene and will be with us
for some time. The fact that it is so ubiquitous, that it has erupted in
almost every place where a modern, secular-style society has tried to
establish itself-that again tells us something important about modernity. It
suggests a great disenchantment that we must take seriously or ignore at our
Feisal Abdul Rauf: It is difficult to try to look at Islam through the lens
of fundamentalism. It's important to imagine what it sounds like within the
We in America have as our social contract our Bill of Rights, our
Constitution, and the preamble to the Constitution. When we feel our
personal rights are violated, we tend to react by saying, this is
unconstitutional. The Muslim's social contract is his or her faith. So when
we feel that we have been violated at some level, that our social rights
have been violated, we respond by saying this is un-Islamic. To a Muslim,
the term "un-Islamic" is not a translation of "un-Christian"-which tends to
mean uncharitable-but more like "unconstitutional" in the language of a U.S.
Much of what we call fundamentalism today in the Muslim world is less
accurately described by that term. It's more a psychology, a reaction to a
perceived attack. I do not see it as a fear of modernity. Within the Muslim
world, if you go back a century, we find the great intellects like
al-Afghani and Mohammed Iqbal, who studied in the West and came back to the
Muslim world and talked about how we, as a Muslim people, ought to modernize
ourselves as Muslims. There was active intellectual fermentation of ideas on
how we, as a modern Muslim society, should emerge. So I don't see a conflict
between Islam and modernity. It is rather a reaction to a militant
secularism-a militant attack against us based upon our self-definition as
Armstrong: I went to the United Nations recently and was told that this was
the first time that they'd had a discussion of religion in the General
Assembly. They've kept it out on grounds of principle. This is part of the
reason we're in this kind of mess. Of course we value the separation of
church and state, but religion is nevertheless a fact out there to be
reckoned with. Whether the United Nations or the pundits or the politicians
like it or not, fundamentalism worldwide has shown that people want religion
reflected more clearly in their polity. This secularist disdain in
government has got to end. It's just a matter of sheer common sense now to
gain intelligence about religion; not just a quick crash course in
fundamentalism or Islam, but a real understanding of the emotions,
sensitivities, and aspirations that go along with faith.
Wallis: Fundamentalists often feel attacked by what I call "secular
fundamentalism." At Harvard a couple of years ago I gave a talk on religion
and public life to a group of Harvard's "best and brightest," the left
intelligentsia. After I finished, the first question was, "But, Jim, what
about the Inquisition?" I said, "Well! I was against it at the time. And I'm
still opposed to it. But how about if every time you talk about national
health insurance, I don't raise Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge? Instead, let's
have a good conversation here."
Religion is not as undemocratic as the secular fundamentalists want to make
it out to be. But fundamentalists need to learn that bringing faith into
public life doesn't happen by the takeover of the mechanisms of the state.
They have to learn the dynamics and disciplines of prophetic religion.
I think prophetic faith is, finally, the best counterpoint to fundamentalist
religion. You bring your faith into the public square in a way that says
your political conviction is because of your faith. But to win, you have to
win a democratic argument about why the policies you propose are better for
the common good. That's the discipline religion has to be under when it
brings its faith to the public square. Some fundamentalists haven't learned
that yet. But they shouldn't be told to be quiet or to take over. They
should be told to win in a democratic arena by offering their faith as their
Rauf: The source of all conflict is always an identity differentiation
between the "I" and the "you," however we might define it. It could be Arab
against Jew, it could be black against white, it could be Hutu against
Tutsi, it could be Harvard against Yale, it could be man against woman.
I don't believe religions really contribute to conflict. I think people
themselves are subject to conflict. They fight for power-whether it's within
a university administration, within a church, within a mosque board; we know
these clashes for power-then we use whatever we want to justify it. A lot of
war has been done in the name of freedom, in the name of many principles
that we have.
One of the things that has been bothersome to many of us in the Muslim world
is the so-called "clash of civilizations" [language] that was fostered by
Samuel Huntington. His paradigm was that when people engage in conflict,
they do it along civilizational lines. But it's become a very catchy phrase.
People say civilizations clash, and the next big clash is the West against
Islam. We've been demonized in that way. You have to have a dialogue amongst
civilizations rather than speak of it in terms of a clash. Because the
United States is the sole superpower today, we have the power of the bully
pulpit. How we frame the dialogue will frame the future. If we frame the
dialectic in terms of a dialogue among civilizations, we will create
harmony. But if we foster the dialectic as a clash of civilizations, we will
actually perpetuate the clash.
Heschel: Fundamentalists of different religious communities often come
together and speak. And liberals in communities come together and speak. I
can speak to liberal Christians much more easily than I can to
ultra-Orthodox Jews. Why don't we have that ability to speak within our own
community? How can we develop the language so that I can speak to my cousin
who is the head of Agudas Israel? The question I would ask myself is what do
I have to offer to that community, to that part of my extended family that's
Hasidic? What do I have to give?
On the other hand, they often missionize me. They would like me to become a
Hasidic like them. I tend to turn away, or I smile and pretend that I'm
interested in listening, perhaps out of nostalgia. That's not very honest on
my part. I speak now on behalf of other liberal Jews-what can we do to
respond fully with honesty about what we reject?
Wallis: The future of politics is less and less about ideological categories
of left and right, and more and more about what kind of people we want to
be, what kind of community, what kind of world. It's going to be a
conversation about values-religious values, moral values, spiritual values.
I don't think the real issue anymore is going to be between belief and
secularism. That's the wrong juxtaposition. The real conflict now is between
cynicism and hope. The principal vocation of religious communities in the
public square is not to bring their dogma, but to bring the one thing you
must have if you're going to change your neighborhood, your city, your
nation, or your world. That's the dynamic and power and promise of hope.
Armstrong: What we must all be striving for, whether we are religious or
secularist, is the compassion that our religions teach us and that our own
Western society prizes so highly. We regard ourselves as a compassionate,
tolerant society that respects the rights of others. We got this from the
Abrahamic religions, from all three of these faiths.
Fundamentalism has achieved some successes. At the middle of the 20th
century it was widely assumed by pundits and intellectuals that never again
would religion play a major part in world affairs. But now we know, to our
cost, that that has not proven to be the case. There has been a crying out,
not just in the violence, but by those Muslim fundamentalist movements that
work for better social justice within an Islamic society. Those Christians
that are demanding that religion play a great centrality in public life. The
extraordinary struggles that Jews have made to reconcile the terrible
assaults that they suffered in the 20th century, and to rebuild faith and
hope again in a world which seems to want to get rid of God.
There has been a religious resurgence. Fundamentalism has been part of that
resurgence. But ultimately fundamentalism represents a defeat, because when
people are so fearful, so threatened, they tend to accentuate those
aggressive aspects of their faith or their scripture and downplay those that
speak of compassion and justice. But, in our response too we must also
stress compassion, the importance of reaching out, understanding even those
forms of religiosity or ideology that we find abhorrent. Because in that
struggle to understand, I am convinced we'll find a deeper sense of the
Karen Armstrong is a former Catholic sister who teaches at Leo Baeck
College, a seminary for reform Judaism in London, and author of many works,
including A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam; The Battle for God; and most recently Buddha.
Susannah Heschel holds the Eli Black Chair in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth
College and is the author of numerous books, including Abraham Geiger and
the Jewish Jesus and Insider/Outsider: American Jews and Multiculturalism.
Feisal Abdul Rauf is imam of the al-Farah mosque in New York City and
founder of the American Sufi Muslim Association. He teaches Islam and Sufism
at the Center for Religious Inquiry at St. Bartholomew's Church and at New
York Seminary. He's the author of Islam: A Search for Meaning and Islam: A
Sacred Law: What Every Muslim Should Know About the Shari'ah.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.
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