On Wednesday, February 22, 2012, the Brookings Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World hosted a discussion with Karen Armstrong, author, most recently, of The Case for God and Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and the Rt. Reverend John Bryson Chane, the eighth Bishop of Washington. The discussion focused on the history of religious fundamentalism, the tensions that have arisen between modernity and so-called traditional values, and the role that religious leaders can play in alleviating those tensions. Stephen Grand, director of the Project and fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, moderated the talk.
Karen Armstrong began the talk by saying that the term “fundamentalism,” a western concept, is often misunderstood and used incorrectly. She noted that most fundamentalists are not violent and that fundamentalism, in all religions, represents a push back against some form of external imposition and a profound fear of “annihilation,” often at the hands of modern secularists. Armstrong added that the separation of religion and politics may seem natural to western society, but that this is not the case in many other cultures. But even in the West, the relationship between religion and politics has historically been a very violent one, and one that took centuries to sort out. For this reason, Armstrong said that when other cultures have not had time to secularize, at their own pace, secularism has often had negative consequences. For example, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s idea of separating religion and politics in Egypt was quite violent, evidenced by the number of Muslim Brotherhood members he placed in torture prisons. Therefore, it is important to understand the consequences of certain actions toward religious movements. Armstrong said that when fundamentalist groups feel under attack, they tend to become stronger and have more influence. Under attack, they often retreat from the outside world, creating a “world unto itself,” with their own education systems, publishing houses, etc. After the Scopes Trial here in the United States, for example, Christian fundamentalists became much more extreme and much less interested in engaging with other factions of society. Using this historical account as an example, Armstrong concluded her talk by saying that being hostile to fundamentalist movements tends to have negative consequences and that the way to ease these tensions is by engaging with fundamentalists on equal terms.
The Rt. Reverend Chane reiterated Armstrong’s point that the term “fundamentalism” is a western invention, noting that in the late 19th century, American revivalists such as R.A. Torrey compiled The Fundamentals and emphasized a literal interpretation of scripture that relied heavily on the writings of Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin. Chane said that modern Christian fundamentalists, influenced by the early revivalists, believe holy texts to be inerrant and often see the world from a Manichean perspective (i.e., good vs. evil, light vs. dark). He added that the fundamentalist narrative is often framed as a reaction to modern economic and cultural changes. The challenge, therefore, is in reframing the narrative in order to have productive conversations, even among those who may disagree vehemently on theological grounds. Being able to have these conversations would clear up many misperceptions, especially with regard to Islam. Chane cited a survey that showed that a large majority of Protestant pastors think Islam is a violent religion. He stated that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, has many examples of violent and destructive events. Although many of these may not have actually happened, it does show that people should not rush to judgment based on either holy texts or the actions of a few. Chane added that the Qur’an has close to 200 verses about mercy or forgiveness and only about 20 about judgment or wrath. The Rt. Reverend concluded his remarks by saying that, along with reframing the narrative about religion, there needs to be more attention paid to the power of compassion in religion, including in conflict management.
In the question and answer session, when asked about why political Islam has become more prominent in the last few decades, Armstrong answered that there has been a lot of frustration with secularism in the Middle East, especially after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Armstrong reiterated her earlier point that imposing secularism in a region that had had no history of it was bound to produce negative consequences. Political Islam, therefore, was a manifestation of people’s hopes of going back to something more authentic than what had been imposed on them by secular leaders. When asked specifically about Islamic fundamentalism, Armstrong said that this current phenomenon is not necessarily about going back to fundamentals, as it has been for some Christian fundamentalists. Instead, some of the most prominent examples of what many consider Islamic fundamentalism—notably Sayyid Qutb’s writings and the Iranian revolution—were actually in response to violent state repression. In that sense, fundamentalism is very much a modern movement, one that is against any form of imposition, including secular governance. Another participant asked whether people can be more than just mere observers of these phenomena and whether there are commonalities among the religions that can help build bridges. Chane answered by saying that to be an observer is to take a stance on the situation, adding that there is in fact a lot of yearning for highlighting commonalities and engaging in interfaith dialogue. Another participant concluded the discussion by stating that there needs to be a distinction made between fundamentalists and fanatics or exclusivists. He added that it is imperative for religious leaders to be more inclusive, even if they disagree with people of different faiths or who hold different views.