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.
This is so good it takes my breath away! What has been missing so much from the public debate. is this historical context which I was aware of, but hadn’t fully researched. You are creating a series of great importance and I’ll be avidly waiting for the next instsllment.
One aspect of all religious fundamentalism is that its followers assume that it derives from its historical prophets, while the reality as you are illustrating is that it is a relatively a recent phenomenon. After all how many people know that the Santa Claus they know comes from a 1931 soft drink ad? While this is a simplistic comparison it clearly delineates the fact that “that old time religion” isn’t that old time.
The movie Malcolm X told the story about Malcolm,but at that time 60s 70s I saw what the Muslim faith did to guys who I knew from the streets and some really rough neighborhoods here in Jersey,Newark in particular who became Muslims and followed the teachings of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.I saw guys who back in those days the word thug meant just that woman who were street folks I mean hard core sisters all turn their lives around.The brothers wearing suits and bowties and ties.the woman wearing their Muslim garb and all had turned their lives completely around some I didn’t even recognize for the turn around was that great.
That is why today when I hear the word Muslim I can only think about those times,and I do know there was a crumbling of that movement and the splintering of that movement but it was something to really see at the time.I may have wandered a bit here but I think it may be okay.
Mark, it’s true that fundamentalists have a fear and loathing of what they consider idolatry. Growing up in the Pentecostal Assemblies of God church (Sarah Palin’s childhood church) we were taught from early on that the Catholisim was a false religion becauseof what was considered “idol worship”. I remember sermons calling the Catholic Chirch ” the whore of Babylon”. My father allowed no crucifixes in our home. No statues of Mary or Jesus were seen in AOG churches. I’m curious to know if the AOG churches have toned down this way of preaching the gospel.
In the 70’s they made a big effort to mainstream themselves, so the prohibitions against makeup, dancing, drinking, movie going etc. were somewhat softened. I think they were beginning to understand that by their outrageously strict interpretation of the Bible, they were ostracizing themselves in general society. That wouldn’t do, because they had aspirations to become a political force. Francis Scaheffer and his son Frank Schaeffer were instrumental in steering the fundamentalists into a political force, starting with their objection to abortion. I think Christian fundamentalism was snuck into the mainstream right under the noses of Americans.
With the advent of the mega churches that incorporated modern music and Broadway musical type sermons, they drew in many people who were disillusioned with their more childhood religions. I’ve questioned some acquaintances that converted to fundamental religions later in life and they mostly seem to be enameled with the “love and acceptance” and the “entertaining, not boring” sermons. When asked about certain aspects of their church’s doctrines they seemed to be at a loss. Either they didn’t know about them or they rationalized them and continued to claim the church was “accepting of everyone”.
*Enamored* Autocorrect is the devil.
Yes, it is past time to make fundamentalism a crime.
After we make willful ignorance and superstition crimes, it’ll follow.
Keepings the flock ignorant and afraid of damnation for rule violations is how Fundamentalists operate. The meg’s churches sell the same package, but as you point out hide it with showmsnship. Martin Luther believed that each Christian was responsible for their own personal Bible exegesis, yet many of. his successors prefer to spoon feed their flock with their own interpretations. How else could Jesus become a gun owning Republican entrepreneur?
This Mark Fiore political cartoon is from December 2013:
Malcolm X had the potential to have become one of the great humans of his time.He had the whole package and had pulled himself up by dint of his great intelligence. Had Elijah Mohammed not conspired with the FBI to kill him he might have changed history.
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
“Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.”
“Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a permanent attitude.”
The Muslims at Your Black Muslim Bakery, in Oakland, often wore suits and bow ties. Even while destroying alcoholic inventory at the local seven/eleven. They were clean-cut fundamentalists who abducted a store owner. They also had journalists and rivals assassinated, women kidnapped, and pretty much enslaved female members of their church.
Aside from that, they weren’t bad, for fundamentalists.
I can only speak to what happened here on the East coast at the time.
Jonathan Weisman @jonathanweisman 5h5 hours ago tweet
In Paris, slain cop was Muslim. Hero of Kosher supermrkt was Muslim. Commanding officer in final raid was Muslim. The perps were Muslim.
I believe you. I think that the Muslim fundamentalist movement started with sincere, well-behaved people, and some of it degenerated into sincere gangsters. But there is a follower mentality, that gets exploited.
“CAIRO (AP) — After gunmen in Paris killed 12 people, Saudi Arabia’s top body of Muslim clerics quickly condemned the attack and said it could have no acceptable justification. It was a signal from some of the Islamic world’s strictest voices that cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were not a reason to kill the artists.
Only days later, Saudi Arabia sent an opposing message: On Friday, a young Saudi was whipped 50 times in a public square in the city of Jiddah, the first of what will be 20 such weekly rounds of lashes. That, along with 10 years in prison, is his sentence from the kingdom’s religious-based courts for insulting Islam, based on posts on his blog criticizing prominent clerics close to the monarchy.
The contradiction points to the difficulties at a time of a growing debate within Islam about whether and how to reject a radical minority that some fear is dragging them into conflict and wrecking the faith.
Western critics are increasingly brazen about suggesting there is something inherent in Islam that is sparking violence by some of its adherents. Most Muslims reject this, arguing that the tumult of the post-colonial Middle East has created fertile ground for radicalism among people whose faith is fundamentally one of peace.”
My point in the piece I wrote this week about Fundamentalism is that by its nature it introduces a rigidity of thought that prevents a person from entertaining any facts that conflict with their belief system. Fundamentalism is also a system that appeals to people with an authoritarian mindset. Those who lead the pack though are usually not handicapped by an authoritarian mindset, though skillful in understanding and manipulating ther authoritarian followers. The really scary authoritarians though are authoritarian leaders who are also true believers, like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot.
While I might think that the Islamic leaders point about this being a reaction to colonialism there is a log in their eyes. That log is the nature of most ME goverments having the archaic model of rule by absolute monarchy and accepting the inferiority of women and Sharia Law as givens. By their nature these governments such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are Fundamentalist in nature. The natural result of Fundamentalism is intolerance. This is the only conclusion since if you believe “Your God” and “His” rules are inerrant than you are unable to tolerate others who don’t share your belief system.
“The Islamic Leaders point about this being a reaction to colonialism Has Merit,”
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This whole subject is like going to a play or reading a book,that never ends.
The message here is everyone has their own definition of Fundamentalist – therefore first order of business is to know what you are talking about – that should not require an elite education or a 501(c) membership
Well Buck had you read my piece earlier last week, I at least presented my definition of Fundamentalism, which most seem to agree with. You don’t need an “elite” education, or a 501(c) which I’ve never had, to understand it. Paying attention and a high school diploma would help since I don’t really write all that well.
“The message here is everyone has their own definition of Fundamentalist” – buckaroo
No. Not really. Words have meaning. The problem arises when people try to make up their own definitions instead of taking the time to learn and understand the true meanings of words. It fouls up my friend Bron all the time.
According to the OED:
1. A person who believes in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture in a religion:
1.1. A person who adheres strictly to the basic principles of any subject or discipline:
1. Relating to or advocating the strict, literal interpretation of scripture:
1.1. Relating to or advocating strict adherence to the basic principles of any subject or discipline:
That doesn’t require a fancy education and has nothing to do with taxation, but rather ones willingness to use a dictionary and perhaps peruse some relevant literature to make sure you understand the word within the proper context of a relevant discipline. However, when someone wants to tell you that something means something it clearly does not by definition or claims that the word means different things to different people, usually they are trying to sell you some industrial grade bullshit.
It seems as if buckaroo is trying to negate the negative aspects of fundamentalism by creating a side issue, which seems to be his obsession with the tax code, education and status. It’s got the smell of that industrial grade bullshit Gene speaks of above.
I grew up in a fundamentalist church, as I said before. Describing fundamentalism isn’t difficult at all. It’s very straight forward. Belief in a literal Bible, inspired by God himself, thereby being inerrant. With these fundamental beliefs comes authority given by God himself. Whatever a fundmentalist does they feel they have a Divine imperative to do it and to make others conform, because it’s “for the saving of their soul”. It’s a duty for a born again Christian to save souls, to bring them to Christ and to bring our nation’s laws into compliance with religious law, because they believe it trumps man’s law.
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