The meaning of fundamentalism
The Holy Post, 28 June 2011
The Holy Post, 28 June 2011
One frequently comes across the term “fundamentalist” to describe someone who believes in the strict maintenance of religious doctrines, according to literal interpretations of scripture. It is used to establish a continuum of religious belief that has atheism on one side and religious extremism on another, with varying degrees of moderation in between. However, people are often misidentified on this spectrum, which profoundly effects the way in which we discuss religion.
There are several obvious examples of public figures that fit rather incontestably into the qualifications of “moderate” and “extremist.” On one side, it would be very difficult to argue against the fundamentalist label for Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps and Mel Gibson. Meanwhile, authors Tarek Fatah, Reza Aslan and Irshad Manji, and theologian Hans Kung do deserve credit for their genuine attempts to reconcile their religious beliefs with the modern West through critical examination of both holy texts themselves and interpretations of them by contemporary believers.
However, it seems to me that these clear-cut examples represent a minority of such cases and that we tend to identify believers as moderate or extreme on an ad hoc basis, which is absent of clear principles and is thus condemned to inconsistent application. The way in which we use these terms is not, as the definition may suggest, informed only by judging the degree of certitude that a person has about the literal and inherent truth of holy texts. Instead, our labelling of belief systems as moderate or extreme is also influenced by other perceptions we have about religious people, such as their attitude toward Western countries, our perceptions about their likeability and their contributions to society.
Take, for example, the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was unquestioningly revered by even most non-Catholics as an example of ideal human kindness and generosity. Irrespective of what one thinks of her operation’s goals and methods, the only term that our language has to describe the nature of her personal religious beliefs is fundamentalist. Teresa’s views on contraception, traditional gender roles and the virtue of suffering were more reactionary than even those of her own Church, and to suggest otherwise would only further weaken the already-diluted label of religious extremist.
Staying with Roman Catholicism, one should also consider the views of the current pope, Benedict XVI, a traditionalist by any standard, who has opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s throughout his career as an academic and church official. This attitude is personified by the readmission as a bishop of Richard Williamson in 2009. Williamson was excommunicated in 1988 for his membership in the Society of Saint Pius X, a breakaway sect of Catholicism that opposed the liberalizing policies of Vatican II. In accordance with traditional Catholic interpretation, Benedict has also reaffirmed the Holy See’s dangerous prohibition of condom use.
The best candidate as the face of sophisticated Islam is the Swiss-born intellectual Tariq Ramadan, who presents himself as a modernizer of Western-style Islam and as a champion of political rights for Muslims in Western countries, especially France. Despite his acclaim, Ramadan’s beliefs are not as compatible with Western ideals as he would lead one to believe. For example, Ramadan defends the Islamic prohibition of homosexuality and a patriarchal societal structure. While he has stated that stoning of women should not be allowed, he has qualified this by making it seem only a temporary prohibition. (He would only go as far as to suggest that there be a moratorium on the practice). Additionally, Ramadan believes in the literal truth of the Legend of Banu Qurayza, in which a seventh-century Jewish tribe in Medina is slaughtered at the order of the Prophet Muhammad. While the evidence for the historical validity of this story is specious, it is widely believed in the Muslim world and doubtless contributes to theological tensions between Jews and Muslims.
While these people are quite clearly less dangerous than Islamist jihadists who physically threaten the West by targeting civilians, it would be a very serious mistake to lend their actual beliefs any respectability for this reason alone. Ultimately, the willingness to believe in the literal truth of translations of translations of translated texts is only the beginning of the problem, but it is — dare I say it — the fundamental one. The weighing of faith against evidence and interest is itself a very important exercise when considering the reliability of religious claims to moral authority, and our positive impressions of some religious people should not obstruct these efforts.
Most importantly, when an author, journalist or commentator applies such labels to both clerical and non-clerical figures, he or she must take care to ensure that the terms are being used properly. The words fundamentalist, moderate and extremist are very useful and important in the context of interfaith and secular dialogue, and are worth using with consistency. However, if we instead use these words arbitrarily, they will cease to have any real meaning and will no longer be of any practical use.
|Jackson Doughart||jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com|