In this timely and highly interesting book, Karen Armstrong, a former nun who labels herself a ‘spiritual freelancer,’ examines contemporary fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Broadly speaking, ‘fundamentalism’ has come to mean any harsh, conservative movement within these great religions that originated in the Middle East, but the nature of fundamentalism among the three faiths has some intrinsic differentiation as well as a common ground.
Armstrong’s central thesis is that fundamentalism is very much a modern phenomenon and has no meaning inside either a medieval or ancient context. It is not the revival of ‘ancient’ religion, but can be traced no further than the late eighteenth century, acquiring its highest degree of energy in the second half of the twentieth century. In essence, it arose in response to ‘external threats’ perceived by its followers, and to fully understand fundamentalism, one must understand the nature of these ‘threats.’
The term ‘fundamentalism’ originated within Christianity, and it is here that it has its clearest denotation. A dictionary will define ‘fundamentalism’ as a belief that everything within the Bible must be taken as literal truth and that valid Christianity is dependent upon this tenet. The external threats that generated this conviction have been the growth of ‘secular science’ and ‘secular humanism,’ particularly since the appearance of the Theory of Evolution and philosophic agnosticism, atheism and scepticism in the mid nineteenth century. These secular developments have not simply been ‘differences of opinion’ in the eyes of fundamentalist Christians but open attacks upon the heart of true Christianity. These attacks have been strongest in the public school system, where the teaching of Evolution has become a compulsory part of the science curriculum and public prayer has been banned. One response to these secular onslaughts has been the development of ‘mainline’ or ‘moderate’ Christianity, which retains certain core Christian convictions but upholds that much of the Bible can either be understood symbolically, not literally, or consists of ancient, nonessential customs and notions that can safely be discarded by contemporary Christians.
To Christian fundamentalists, mainline Christianity is as disagreeable as secularism itself, and fundamentalists have responded by such things as vigorous evangelical campaigns, highly effective in the modern media, the founding of ‘Christian schools’ and a serious attempt to gain a foothold in American politics. In fact, Armstrong points out, Christian fundamentalism is mostly a phenomenon in the United States. In Europe, most conventional Christianity is mainline and moderate.
In Islam, ‘fundamentalism’ has little to do with the finer points of belief and has a much more directly political character. One can scarcely be any kind of Muslim without believing that the holy Quran was literally a divine transmission to the prophet Muhammed. The external threat that has generated fundamentalist Islam has been the incursion of Western interests into the strategically important and oil-rich areas of the Middle East. The onslaughts of foreign ‘infidels’ have either been openly imperialist, beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1799 and culminating with the partitioning of Ottoman Empire after World War I, or more subtle, such as the close economic ties between the Saudi royal family and the American administration.
To the Muslim extremist, the ‘degenerate’ modern regimes that have allied themselves with Western infidels have been as great an evil as the foreign infidels themselves, and Islamic fundamentalism has targeted such individuals as Anwar Sadat of Egypt, the Saudi royal family, and the Shah of Iran. Armstrong’s book antedates the disaster of 9/11 and focuses especially on the Iranian Revolution of the early 1980’s, the first triumph of Islamic fundamentalism against its opponents. One hopes that Armstrong will soon exppand her thesis into a detailed examination of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the ‘insurgency’ in post-Saddam Iraq.
In Judaism, Armstrong focuses on Zionism, and ‘fundamentalism’ in Judaism has been much more subtle in certain ways than it has been in either Christianity or Islam. It cannot be closely linked with the traditional forms of ‘conservative’ Judaism because conservative Jews, to begin with, regarded the movement of Theodor Herzl as essentially nationalistic, secular and ‘modern.’ Instead, conservative Jews of the Great Diaspora had long tended to regard the ancient land of Israel as a kind of idealized place that should be kept pure of nationalistic defilement. However, Judaism has had its own obvious external threat in the form of Anti-Semitism that reached its horrific climax in the Nazi Holocaust of the Second World War. After the founding of the state of Israel, even the more conservative sects of Judaism have come to support the return of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland. Perhaps as a great irony, the modern state of Israel has received its strongest contemporary support from the ‘external’ West, particularly, in the last four decades, from the United States.
Karen Armstrong has been a prolific writer on religion and its interrelationships with human culture. ‘The Battle for God’ is one of her notable contributions. Christian fundamentalism is hardly a strange phenomenon to any of us who live in North America, but such violent phenomena as the Iranian Revolution have been viewed as somewhat strange to westerners who have been immersed in an essentially secular political culture since the end of the Thirty Years War three and a half centuries ago. To give only one example, she makes the Iranian Revolution lucidly clear to us.