By Mark Esposito
The following is the second installment in a multi-part series exploring religious fundamentalism and the means of checking its excesses. You can read the first part here.
The clash between fundamentalism and modernity was an inevitable historical fight but we probably should define just what is meant by religious fundamentalism. At its essence, it is about an unwavering attachment to a set of beliefs about the nature of the world and its purpose. As with all beliefs that are fully subscribed, it results in consequences through human agency that are motivated in large measure by a loyalty to its world view. It has both a dimension of reward (Paradise) and punishment (Hell) for believers and its precepts are rigidly enforced through aggressive and often-times violent means.
Fundamentalist derives from the very human need for order in a chaotic world and represents an attempt to create uniformity and hence predictability where there is none. Those goals–not evils in and of themselves — provide an irresistible siren’s song to those who would impose their will over others and thereby enhance their own standing. a religious “will to power” as Nietzsche might say. Thus, the lamentable perversion of a concept of generalized good in service to individual avarice and power mongering.
Fundamentalism is generally a reaction and not an action.* In the U.S., Christian fundamentalism began as a response to religious liberals questioning key elements of the doctrines of the Presbyterian Church. The first expression of the phenomena can be traced to the Niagara Bible Conference of 1910. Rev. James Brookes, the undisputed leader of the conference, was the driving force behind what is known as the Niagara Creed. It’s five unassailable tenets were:
- Biblical inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture as a result of this
- Virgin birth of Jesus
- Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin
- Bodily resurrection of Jesus
- Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus
The upshot of this philosophy was a break with notions of ecumenism that were beginning to take hold at the turn of the twentieth century in gatherings like the coincident 1910 World Missionary Conference. The conflict led towards an “us versus them” approach by the fundamentalists to other religious world views. To these Presbyterian fundamentalists, any commonality with the other Abrahamic faiths like Judaism and Islam or even other doctrinally different Christian sects was an apostasy and an unworkable compromise of the five tenets of the Niagara Creed.
Similarly, Islam’s version of fundamentalism began as a dispute between the true believers over the claimed heresy of idolatry. As we shall see below this notion of idol worship spawned the fundamentalist view that depictions of the Prophet were inherently an affront to Islam leading to the tragedy of Charlie Hebdo.
Wahhabism or fundamentalist Islam was founded by an obscure Iman in a remote province of Najd. In the 18th Century, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab ruled a plateaued desert enclave from which he controlled his sparsely populated church with an iron hand. He was particularly offended by common practices of other Muslims such as the popular cult of saints and shrine and tomb visitation which he considered apostasy.
To consolidate his movement he made a pact with Muhammad bin Saud, who would be considered the greatest leader of the House of Saud (as in Saudi Arabia), and promised fealty in exchange for protection from other contrary strains of the Islamic faith. That relationship continues more or less in the same form today though the violence of Wahhabism is downplayed or disputed by Saudi leaders.
Allied with the Saud dynasty and following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Wahhabism spread like a desert windstorm to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. When oil was discovered in 1939, money flowed to the Wahhabis in gushers giving them a preeminent power over other Muslims in the region. That gave the fundamentalists control over the institutions of power like the education and judicial systems.
Wahhabis do not consider the famed Muslim profession of faith,”There is no god but God, Muhammad is his messenger” exhaustive of the required beliefs of the religion as do other orthodox Muslims of the Sunni variety. Other shortcomings in a person’s behavior and performance of other obligatory rituals rendered them not merely “a sinner”, but “an unbeliever.”
[Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab] argued that the criterion for one’s standing as either a Muslim or an unbeliever was correct worship as an expression of belief in one God. … any act or statement that indicates devotion to a being other than God is to associate another creature with God’s power, and that is tantamount to idolatry (shirk). Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab included in the category of such acts popular religious practices that made holy men into intercessors with God. That was the core of the controversy ….
Faithful Wahhabi’s thus consider non-Wahhabi Muslims as apostates whose transgressions are punishable by the Q’uran’s sanction of death. Thus, bloodshed in defense of the faith finds a specific approval in the holy books of the faith which are literally applied.
Another tenet of Wahhabis is the absolute ban on idol worship which derives from its founder. According to CNN’s Daniel Burke,” [a] central tenet of Islam is that Mohammed was a man, not God, and that portraying him could lead to revering a human in lieu of Allah.” This is a direct reaction to the Catholic religion which specifically depicts Jesus and its other saints on religious icons. Thus the departing cry of the Charlie Hebdo killers that “We have avenged the Prophet!” is understood in the historical context of a religious permission to defend the faith from unbelievers through violent means.
This officially sanctioned permission to use violent means to defend the faith is the breaking point between fundamentalist Christians (though notable exceptions exist in the case of the assassination of Dr. George Tiller and the bombing of abortion clinics) and Wahhabism. The distinction would have world-altering consequences.
Next time we’ll explore the geopolitical aspects of religious fundamentalism and the West’s role in clumsily fulfilling the propaganda of the Islamic fundamentalists thus aiding their rise to power.
~Mark Esposito, FFS Contributor
* In this piece, I will only be exploring fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. I will reserve a discussion of fundamentalist Judaism for a later installment.