Fundamentalism: the Challenge to the Secular World 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 author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by St. Andrew's Trust for the Study of Religion and Society, P.O. Box 5203, Wellington, New Zealand (http://www.standrews.org.nz/satrs/). Copyright 2003 by Lloyd Geering, used by permission of the author..
Chapter 3: Endangering our Future
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.
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.
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.
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.