Is It Time To Make Fundamentalism A Crime? Part 1

By Mark Esposito

imageThe horrific events that played out in Paris certainly will bring fundamental change to that society. Much like our 9/11, the massacres at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher deli have mobilized the French nation to  a new awareness of the threats faced by ordinary citizens from radicalized religionists with declared goals of  global caliphate and violence against any culture espousing Western liberal values. This clash is particularly acute in France where Europe’s largest Muslim population resides – many of whom are defiantly unassimilated into French society – and where, simultaneously, allegiance to irreverence to any form of authority creates is its own religion.

The French tradition of vocal disdain for hypocrisy and oppression spans centuries. In fact, the works of the magazine Charlie Hebdo have their roots in the Parisian scandal sheets of the 18th Century that skewered the pomposity of the likes of Marie Antoinette who famously offered the prescription for rampant poverty as a callous and obnoxious  invitation to eat cake. Few were sad to see her bow in homage before Dr. Guillotine’s machine.* Using ridicule as a weapon, these political  pamphlets galvanized support among the French literate population against the notion of the Divine Right of Kings – the fundamentalism of the day.

The tradition of Franco defiance of authority found its most ardent defender in playwright, poet, philosopher, and wit, Voltaire, whose ridicule was so searing it cost him a timeout in the Bastille prison where, as he would write later in his monumental work, Candide, he “was never incommoded with the sun.”

A detractor of religious and political oppression, Voltaire found his most arresting target in the Catholic Church which exercised power in both realms and to the furtherance of both. Understanding the power of an organization that claimed imprimatur from an unseen, unprovable, omniscient being responsible for  creation itself, and that ruthlessly protected and coveted that power, Voltaire employed the only power at his disposal:

It is characteristic of fanatics who read the holy scriptures to tell themselves: God killed, so I must kill; Abraham lied, Jacob deceived, Rachel stole: so I must steal, deceive, lie. But, wretch, you are neither Rachel, nor Jacob, nor Abraham, nor God; you are just a mad fool, and the popes who forbade the reading of the Bible were extremely wise.

Thus the tradition of French antipathy to both overbearing religion and hypocrisy has firm historical roots. In fact, the French are arguably the least religious population in all of Europe which itself has seen a waning of religiosity.

Against  this backdrop, the French Muslim population remains isolated economically and culturally. About 10% of the French population, Muslims number around 5-6**million souls. Just over 1/3 consider themselves “observant,” and about 20% regularly attend weekly services.  A recent poll found Muslim applicants for jobs about 2.5 times more likely to be turned down than Christian applicants. While France has enjoyed some success at integrating Muslim immigrants into French society (as compared to the  dismal results in the rest of Europe), the success is still blunted by the violent riots through the 1990s and culminating with the three-month calamity in 2005 in Clichy-Sous-Bois which spread to other nearby Parisian communes.  Unemployment in this eastern suburb of Paris remains at 20% with it ranging as high as 50% in the housing projects frequently housing  working age Muslim immigrants.

The disaffection of thirty-something French Muslims has been heightened by introduction of Wahhabism into the poverty. Seeking something to believe in, this fundamentalist version of Islam offers the same notions of hope and salvation  in the afterlife that fundamentalist Catholicism offered the economically trapped feudal peasants of Europe in Voltaire’s time. And it comes with the same terrible price – ruthless adherence to dogma and unquestioned allegiance  the infallible pronouncements of the ruling religious class of priests.

Political turmoil in Syria, Egypt and Iraq in the wake of the  Arab Spring in which secular dictators were overthrown in favor of religious ones save only in the case of Egypt, has led to a crusade-like exodus of young French Muslims into the MidEast to fight for fundamentalist groups like ISIS. Most experts place the number of young French Muslims on the desert battlefields at around 1000. Though an insignificant number of the entire population, these soldiers of Islam become further radicalized as part of  their military training thus representing a force worth many times their numbers.

The ominous question then becomes what will happen with these battle hardened jihadists return to their homes in the Western democracies like France and the U.S. and how can an open society address that problem?

That discussion will be held in Part 2 of this series.

~Mark Esposito, FFS Contributor

* Though credited in popular lore as the inventor of the execution machine, Dr. Guilliotine, in one of history’s ironies,  was a vocal  opponent of capital punishment and only endorsed the device created by Antoine Louis as a more humane way to die.

** French law prohibits surveying the population with questions about their religion so the figures are only estimates based on demographic analysis.

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32 Responses to Is It Time To Make Fundamentalism A Crime? Part 1

  1. swarthmoremom says:

    “While the Vincennes hostage siege was taking place and Paris resembled a war zone, some were comparing the panic to Kristallnacht. This was the night of broken glass in 1938 when the Nazis ordered attacks on Jewish properties and establishments across Germany and Austria.

    Let’s hope, as European leaders like Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Matteo Renzi come to Paris for tomorrow’s republican march for unity and peace, that Muslims and Jews can unite as French citizens mindful of the continent’s terrible twentieth century history. And determined to never let it happen again.

  2. Mike Spindell says:


    An excellent beginning to a topic that needs in depth discussion. As I listen to the punditry discussing this important issue on TV, I am bemused by the fact that when one tries to present an in depth analysis of the underlying issues they are given short shrift. Last night on Bill Maher (certainly no fan of Islam today), he tried to add context to the issue by stating how there are examples of this fanatical behavior in all religions. His guest a Republican political hopeful tried to stop him by saying that things like the Inquisition were in the pat and not in the present. Many seeking the approval of Christians in the US downplay current fundamentalist aggression because it has rarely reached the point of outright murder. Yet I would say that there are other forms of abuse that on a societal level can take equal billing on the stage with the murders this week. The attempt to inject “creationism” into the school system comes to mind. In addition the homophobic and misogynistic implementation of laws to control the sexuality and “bodies” of people by Fundamentalist legislators is in itself a pernicious for of violence. Were these Fundamentalists to gain more power the potential for their becoming even more extreme is great.

    This is not to downplay the horror of the week and I’m personally glad that the 3 murderers are dead, rather than being given a soapbox at trial, for their murderous hatred. My attitude is that these acts need be put into context of the bigger picture of how some religious leaders of all faiths, use their pious platforms to express their own love of power. It is also to point out that these preachers of hatred work hand in glove with politicians and wielders of wealth/power to exploit people in their thrall. You add much understanding to this problem, by showing the demographics and social situation of Moslems in France (and Europe). This goes far in explaining the alienation of some young people there and their susceptibility to indoctrination as terrorist troops. I would add that these efforts have been abetted by US actions like our last two unending wars in Islamic countries and the brutality with which we have prosecuted them. I must stop here though because knowing your mental acuity I have no doubt that your next chapter will encompass so much more of the complexities of thes issues.

  3. Mike Spindell says:


    Let us hope indeed. However, as a Jew it is hard to also forget that the French people have some history of Jewish hatred. The reality is that in France for the past number of years, the public sympathies for the Palestinian cause has raised a certain hatred of French Jews, to the point that many with the financial means have emigrated.

  4. mespo727272 says:

    Mike S:

    I couldn’t have written a better preview. I’ll only add I’m going to discuss criminalization of the Nazi party in Germany and use of RICO statutes in the US to model certain remedies to the problem.

  5. blouise17 says:

    This is a thought provoking essay. I wonder how the fundamentalist Christianity movement that seemed to take over the Air Force Academy got its start and why the institution was so susceptible to that particular school of thought. (The pun is not intentional)

  6. blouise17 says:

    On the other hand, as my thoughts meander, I wonder, is fundamentalism an inevitable reaction to authoritarianism? Is it a chicken/egg problem or does authoritarianism have to be present in order for fundamentalism to take root? If so, if authoritarianism is the dirt into which fundamentalism spreads its roots, shouldn’t we tackle the dirt problem first?

    I wonder what the Social Scientists have to say about it.

  7. Inga says:

    Fundamentalism is a scourge on any society. It’s terribly short sighted to claim Christian fundamentalism couldn’t commit the same types of atrocities. All it takes is a strong enough desire to return to the days of the Old Testament. I’ve heard Christians say that the New Testament pretty much negates the Old, but if one would sit in a truly fundamentalist sermon Sunday after Sunday, one would hear a strong recitation of the Old Testament. Going backwards to the bad old days is what Muslims did. They were at one time much more progressive, but the fundamentalists have now squelched that trend in so many Muslim countries. One huge danger zone is having a state religion, which allows religious laws to trump secular laws.

    We see Christian fundamentalists attempting to insert biblical laws into our secular government daily. How many times has that commenter over at RIL said he wants a Constitutional Amendment recognizing God? He always claims he’s not a fundamentalist, but he embodies Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has gotten a bad reputation in enlightened societies, but there are enough of them who will quietly, persistently push Old Testament teachings and try to incorporate them into our legal system. Heck how many ‘born againers’ are there in our US House alone?

  8. Inga says:

    And the fact that Christian Fundamentalism DID take root in the Air Force should be a huge wake up call to religious fence sitters. We can see what American Christian fundamentalists have done in Africa and even Russia regarding influencing heads of state and law making, scary stuff. I think we need to hear far more critisicm of Christian fundamentalism from mainstream Christians, as we should hear more criticism of Muslim Fundamentalism from the moderate Muslims. There have been some Muslims appearing on the news shows that last couple of days, strongly condemning Muslim fundamentalism, that’s a start.

  9. Mike Spindell says:


    I’ll take a quick stab at your question because I’m still waiting for my laptop and writing on my smart phone is tedious.

    I think the Authoritarian mentality is and admixture of genetic traits and societal training starting at home. Fundamentalism represents a longing for a non-existent past where life was “simple”. The Fundamentalist rejects the complexity of modernity, preferring simple answers to the eternal human question: “What to do?” These “easy” answers sit well if you are of authoritarian bent. We must remember too, that those who have people with authoritarian personalities in their power, rarely have an authoritarian mindset. Many are of sociopathic inclinations and know a good tool of manipulation when they see it.

  10. Pingback: Is It Time To Make Fundamentalism A Crime? Part 2 | Flowers For Socrates

  11. Pingback: Is It Time To Make Fundamentalism A Crime? Part 1 | Christians Anonymous

  12. buckaroo says:

    Is Christian Fundamentalism, as used here, the same as the belief that Jesus Christ is God ?
    Or is it a Private Religion masquerading as Christian ?

  13. Bob Kauten says:

    That’s a worthy question.
    I’d take a stab, and say, no, it’s not the same as believing that JC is a god.
    For this discussion, fundamentalism is believing that every word in some book is the word of a deity, and that we have the right/obligation to enforce it, in the name of the deity. And/or that pronouncements by some “representative of the deity” are sacred, and enforceable.
    My stance toward fundamentalism is that I don’t care what you believe, until it starts to affect my environment. If it affects my environment, it becomes my business.

  14. swarthmoremom says: “We’re at war, but not at war against a religion, not against a civilization, but at war to defend our values, which are universal,” he said in the wake of the terrorist attacks that rocked Paris this week, leaving 17 people dead. “It is a war against terrorism and radical Islam, against everything aimed at breaking solidarity, liberty and fraternity.”

  15. buckaroo says:

    In my day to day life, I find that I am more affected by our inequitable tax code, than about what anyone posit about religion. But then you educated elite school chaps with the big meetings and 501(c) membership have other concerns as noted.

  16. Inga says:

    Christian fundamentalism isn’t just a belief that Jesus is the son of God. That would describe Christianity in general. Christian fundamentalism is the belief that the Bible is to be taken literally and that it’s inerrant. Everything that happens in one’s life must be in accordance to these two beliefs.That’s my take on it and how I perceived it growing up in a fundamentalist church.

  17. Mike Spindell says:

    “then you educated elite school chaps”

    Bucky sounds like your sporting a major inferiority complex driven by your own personal insecurity. I wouldn’t want to snoop, or pry into personal lives as some do for a living, but I must say that your need to paint with a brosd brush of stereotypes seems motivated by a feeling of inadequacy in your personal relationships. I would suggest therapy to give you a better self image.

  18. Slartibartfast says:

    I suspect that the concept of inerrancy (it is a bad sign that we even need the word “inerrant”) is at the core of all fundamentalism. After all, once you exclude the possibility that something is wrong, you make it nearly impossible to be right.

  19. Elaine M. says:

    My “elite school” was a state college in a nearby community. I was a commuter student–and worked to help pay for my tuition and textbooks.

  20. Elaine,
    I can relate. I worked my way through undergraduate school. Had a full time job and it took me eight years to complete a four year program. That was at a State Teachers College, which is now a state university. I also paid my own way to my Master’s at Missouri.

    I have some writing skills, so paid my own way through the doctoral program on a fellowship…I wrote a Federal research grant myself and had a full ride but at a rate about 25% the minimum wage, considering the hours I put in. The Dean was really pissed during my last semester and was about to graduate. He discovered I had completed four years of doctoral level coursework in two years–with a 3.89 GPA–and held down a job at the same time. He was more than upset with me that I had sneaked my course load right past his nose without getting caught. I was enrolling in 21 hours a semester, and going over max in summer school as well. My secret was a strategically placed thumb over the box showing the hours enrolled when I held the card for him to sign. By that time I was sick of school and wanted out. The dean made me drop a couple of courses my last semester, which delayed my graduation to August instead of May.

    When I finally got my degree, I owed the princely sum of $12,500 in student loans. Paid them off in just a couple of years.

    Yup, elitist. Perfect description of me.

  21. Elaine M. says:


    My school was originally a State Teachers College, too. It is now a much larger university.

    BTW, I was the pampered child of an elitist immigrant peasant from Eastern Europe who worked in a leather factory much of his life.


  22. Bob Kauten says:

    “inequitable tax code”?
    So this is about money, not religion, or philosophy?
    I find that the only folks concerned about inequitable tax codes, are wealthy folks, who can never get enough. Sound familiar?

  23. blouise says:

    If a tree in the forest changes its quantum state, and no one is there to observe it, does it really change?

    Elitists may now break out in silent laughter.

  24. Pingback: Is It Time To Make Fundamentalism A Crime? Part 3 | Flowers For Socrates

  25. buckaroo says:

    OK Bob Kauten, now that you bring up the subject of only wealthy people are concerned about the tax code – lets hear your personal justification for that remark. I smell a lot of tax free/exempt income, perhaps. What no 501(c) associations ?

  26. blouise says:


    …The act of observing disturbs the observed …

    Writ large on a whiteboard

  27. Mike Spindell says:

    What happens when one’s sense of smell reeks of odiferous stereotypes and inane presuppositions?

  28. Bob Kauten says:

    My justification for saying that wealthy folks are the ones concerned with tax codes, is that’s who I hear it from, the most. Others who are pre-occupied with that subject, usually consider themselves temporarily-disadvantaged wealthy, or not beholden to society, or both.
    I have no idea what a 501(c) is. I’m not interested.
    I pay taxes to support society, and lots of other stuff I don’t approve of, like perpetual war.
    But I bitch about perpetual war, not about taxes. Taxes aren’t high enough to seriously inconvenience most of us.
    If you bring up tax codes in a thread that has nothing to do with the subject, I assume you’re obsessed with taxes.
    That’s just the liberal, educated elitist in me, talking. I can’t help myself.

  29. Pingback: Is It Time To Make Fundamentalism A Crime? Part 4 | Flowers For Socrates

  30. bigfatmike says:

    “Taxes aren’t high enough to seriously inconvenience most of us.”

    They are certainly not high enough to inconvenience the top 1% or top 1/10%. BTW the top 1% takes home about 20% of the nations income.

  31. Pingback: How I See the Way of the World | Flowers For Socrates

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