Chapter 4: How do we Respond?

Fundamentalism: the Challenge to the Secular World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 4: How do we Respond?

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:

  • Western secular influence is undermining the vitality of Islam.
  • The western powers continue to dominate the Islamic world.
  • The West has given unqualified support to Israel’s displacement of the Palestinians.

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.

Jewish dissent

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 conclusion

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."





Historical interest:

Gabriel Hebert, Fundamentalism and the Church of God, SCM Press, 1957.

J.I.Packer, "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1958.

John A.T.Robinson, Honest to God, SCM Press, 1963.

John A.T.Robinson & David L.Edwards, The Honest to God Debate, SCM Press, 1963.

James Barr, Fundamentalism, SCM Press, 1977.

Grace Halsell, Prophecy and Politics, Lawrence Hill & Company, 1986.

John Bowden, ed., Thirty Years of Honesty, SCM Press, 1993.


Current interest:

John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Peter Cameron, Fundamentalism and Freedom, Doubleday, 1995.

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000.

Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God, Granta Books, 2002.

Tariq Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, Verso, 2002.

Rohan Gunaratna, Inside Al Qaeda, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2002.

Roane Carey and Jonathan Shainin, eds., The Other Israel, The New Press, New York, 2002.