Cries of Rage and Frustration

By Armstrong, Karen | New Statesman (1996), September 24, 2001 | Go to article overview

Cries of Rage and Frustration

Armstrong, Karen, New Statesman (1996)

The US is the true home of religious extremism, which begins not as a crusade against outsiders, but as hatred of those of the same faith.

Fundamentalists of all faiths have convinced themselves that militant piety is the only way to save religion from annihilation in an increasingly secularised world. If we are to stand any chance of beating terrorists after the attacks on the United States, we must try to understand their motivation and fears.

This is not a centuries-old phenomenon. Fundamentalism actually began in the US early in the 20th century. Today, it is by no means confined to the Muslim world, but has erupted in every major faith as a reaction against rational, secular modernity. It did not become widespread in the Islamic world until a degree of modernisation had been achieved in the late 1960s, after secular solutions such as nationalism or socialism seemed to have failed.

Wherever a westernised secular state has established itself, a religious fundamentalist movement has developed in conscious rejection. Fundamentalists typically withdraw from mainstream society to create an enclave of pure faith, from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York to the training camps of Osama Bin Laden. Surrounded by a world that they perceive as hostile, fundamentalists often plan a counter-offensive, resolved to drag God and religion from the sidelines in secular society and bring them back to centre stage.

In their sacred enclaves, fundamentalists often build a counterculture in conscious opposition. They overemphasise the traditional role of women, for example, because women's emancipation has been a hallmark of modernity. Often, these movements can be seen as the shadow-self of modern society, its distorted mirror image. As a result, many countries find that they are split into hostile camps: those who enjoy and value the ideals of secular humanism, and those who regard it with visceral fear and dread.

This is true of American fundamentalists as well as those in the Middle East. In the US today, about 8 per cent of the population can be described as fundamentalists, but they command widespread support from more conservative Christians in many denominations, as became evident during the rise of the Moral Majority in 1979.

It was American Protestants during the First World War who created the first fundamentalist movement, and who gave us the word "fundamentalist". Their aim was to respond to the liberalisation of their churches by returning to the "fundamentals" of the faith. The word has since been applied to Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and even Confucian groups, which resent this Christian nomenclature, since they feel that they have quite different aims. Nevertheless, the term applies to movements that, for all their differences, bear a strong family resemblance.

As the primordial, archetypal fundamentalism, the American case reveals important aspects of this religious rebellion. First, it always begins as an assault on co-religionists, and is directed against foreigners and outsiders only at a later stage. American fundamentalism began as a battte for the control or the Protestant denominations, which were being controlled by more liberal Christians. It remains primarily an intra-Christian conflict.

Islamic fundamentalists initially directed their efforts against their own countrymen. Thus the movement that eventually gave birth to Hamas began as a revolt against the Palestine Liberation Organisation; members were fighting for the Islamic soul of Palestine, and wanted to give the Palestinian struggle a Muslim, rather than a secularist, identity. Israel recognised this and, at first, funded Hamas to undermine the PLO; it was only after the outbreak of the 1987 intifada that Hamas began to target Israelis.

Bin Laden's early offensive was directed against the regime of Saudi Arabia, which, he believed, had corrupted the Islamic ideal. …

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