Fundamentalism is always the same

This is the best article on Islamism I have read in recent years. As a warning, it is incredibly long. As an encouragement, it is worth every bit of the time it takes to read it. It is the story of three ex-Islamist jihadists and one radically loyal Islamist, all of whom were raised in Great Britain, educated in Western schools, and most of them raised as only marginally religious. The article’s author wanted to know how-and why- these kind of men could become violent jihadists, so he wanted to hear their stories.

The crisis of Islamism seems to me such a microcosm of many of our world’s most pressing matters, and certainly of our country’s. I just may spend a few posts unpacking some of these one by one. To start, there is such an incredible similarity between all forms of fundamentalism. I’m sure fundamentalist Christians would balk at a comparison between their firmly-held beliefs and that of an extremist jihadist, but listen to either of them for five minutes and they are giving the same speech, using the same arguments, drawing the same conclusions under gods of different names. If you’ve ever been in a room with a fundamentalist of any religion, listen for parallels in this article excerpt. This was in the section regarding Anjem Choudhary, the one Islamist profiled in the article:

Taking any part of the Koran as metaphor will, [Choudhary] warns, cause the text to turn to dust in their hands. “I can’t pick and choose what I like from the scripture. This is not strawberry season, where you can pick your own strawberries. You abide by whatever Allah brought in the final revelation with the example of the Prophet. And if there’s something that you don’t like, then you need to correct your own emotions and desires to make sure they’re in line with the sharia.”

If I had a nickel…

Fundamentalism in every religion has the potential to bring about unthinkable harm and to threaten the very essence of the religion it claims. When you put the word “holy” in the title of any book, you are asking its readers to supply some form of allegiance to its contents. How they see that allegiance- or more specifically, how they interpret its contents and make conclusions about the allegiances they infer- can either make the world a more beautiful place (“Love one another as I have loved you”) or a place of sheer terror. The minute those of us in any religion believes our holy book to be above this kind of terrifying misinterpretation is the minute the bell tolls with sinister foreshadowing.

I think the problem is that fundamentalism invariably stems from fear that leads quickly to hatred. If a religious person feels threatened, then out comes the witch hunt to demonize anyone who believes differently. It is a terrifyingly strange way to prove your position. I’m not sure how many events in world history one must learn before realizing that this kind of proactive-belligerent-defense only ends up killing people. And any sane person will tell you that none of the world’s religions consider killing people as a sign of spiritual maturity. At the very least, this kind of isolating, us vs. them rhetoric damages our ability to see God’s image in one another…and if you can’t recognize that, what’s to keep you from attacking that person? How can you honor the sanctity of that person’s life?

The tragic irony of fundamentalism is that those who claim to be fundamentalists also claim to care MOST about their religion (they can judge these things and you can’t), but their fundamentalist beliefs are often the least effective at embodying their religion’s core convictions. And this is to say nothing about the public relations debacle they are causing. There are no worse poster children for religion than fundamentalists.

The way we read our holy books matters. It absolutely matters, as it’s literally a matter of life and death.

From the story in section I of the article, subtitled “The Imam”:
(Usama Hassan) says the 7/7 bombings (in 2005 in London’s subway system) detonated a theological bomb in his mind: “How could this be justified? I began to wonder if parts of the Koran are actually metaphor, and parts of the Koran were actually just revealed for their time: seventh-century Arabia.”

Once the foundation stone of literalism was broken, he had to remake the concepts that had led him to Islamism one-by-one. “Jihad has many levels in Islam – you have the internal struggle to be the best person you can be. But all we had been taught is military jihad. Today I regard any kind of campaigning for truth, for justice, as a type of Jihad.” He signed up to the pacifist Movement for the Abolition of War. He redefined martyrdom as anybody who died in an honourable cause. “There were martyrs on 9/11,” he says. “They were the firefighters – not the hijackers.”

Seeing the reality of the destruction in London in 2005 is what made Usama Hassan begin to question the radicalized, militarized, totalizing version of his own religion. Renouncing the literalism of the Koran saved his faith (he’s now a moderate Muslim) and saved lives.

If we are people who read a holy book, we would be wise to listen to our harshest critics, and to look with open eyes at the reality of the kind of world our religion is creating. In so doing we may just save our faith, and we may just save the world from undue violence.


  1. This is really good stuff. keep on keepin on… I’d be interested in your subsequent related posts. thanks for writing!

  2. Hi Danielle – Thank you for the interesting post and for giving us a taste of the longer article. However, I have some doubts about what you are saying. I wonder if “fundamentalism” is not a cliché that we throw at any extreme religious adherence that makes us (post)modernists uncomfortable? Not unlike the squirly terms “terrorist” or “insurgent.”

    It needs to be shown that “fundametalism” is such a solid thing as it is taken to be. Typically it is an outsider’s biased and superficial assessment of the faith of another person. You seem to suggest that people of any faith who read their texts “literally” are dangerous. But considering the millions of people around the world this includes I would like to know how we would go about demonstrating it. I am personally acquainted with many people who have that kind of a simplistic hermeneutic (though I do not) who are peace loving, society building believers and as far as you or I are from harming anyone in the name of their faith. I feel like we dismiss them too easily and too easily judge them from the perspective of a (post)modern ideological commitment which itself goes unchallenged.

    I suspect that you do not intend all the implications I see here, but they to seem to be inherent in your post. This is something I’ve been stewing about for a while, so I hope I’m not coming on too strong! But I thought it was worth mentioning. Blessings,

  3. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for your comment, as it helped me to think more specifically about the issue I’m raising.

    I would define fundamentalism as loyal adherence to a set of religious beliefs and rejection of any interpretations, theologies or practices that do not properly align with those religious beliefs. More simply, fundamentalists take the bumper sticker stance- “God says it, I believe it, that settles it.” If it is a solid thing to define or recognize, it is mostly so because its adherents tend to wear and profess the title proudly. I don’t personally think it is a cliche, although the term probably gets thrown around rather loosely from time to time. But in our current global position, the threat of fundamentalist ideology of this kind requires us to consider it more than just a cliche for postmodern theologians.

    Also, on a rather joking side note, I’m in Dallas, so I’m by no stretch an outsider to Christian fundamentalism. :)

    I wonder if the difference between your friends who hold a simplistic hermeneutic (most people do, I think- and I’d argue they are not fundamentalists even in the way I define it above) and those who cause me to lose sleep at night is that the latter group is not simply content holding their beliefs but will not rest until I hold them, too. Perhaps the critical difference is a matter of proselytizing. If part of one’s fundamentalist system is the requirement for everyone else on the planet to adhere to those beliefs, it will invariably become a violent quest. (See: Crusades.)

  4. Hi Danielle – Thanks for the follow-up. I think we could have a very fruitful discussion about this. You should come out to WA State, where the fundamentalist index is quite low. So yeah, maybe I live with a softer, gentler fundamentalism. But then this would argue for care with generalizations.

    I think there are many “fundamentalists” (even self-described) who would not really follow through on the extremist implications of their claims. Their bumper stickers are a sort of bluff. We had a discussion in my church a couple weeks ago where an older woman took a fairly conservative/fundamentalist position on culture, painting it as the enemy. Sadly, many in the room unkindly assumed that this implied she was judgmental, and directed their arguments at perceived implications of her position. However, this woman is extremely compassionate, level-headed and reasonable in her interactions with non-Christians. Her fundamentalist views do not translate into expected fundamentalist behavior.

    To me the ultimate risk here is this age-old tendency to categorize people based on perceived allegiances without individualizing them.

    BTW, i once heard a preacher criticize “God says it, I believe it, that settles it.” He said that was too subjective. The correct view is “God said it, that settles it, I believe it.” Naive epistemology? Every Blessing.

  5. Rob, I definitely think your WA state “fundamentalists” are a different breed than those in Dallas. Perhaps we should state geographical location as a further clarification of what we mean by the term? And yes, I do see what you mean about generalizations. As I read the article however I was truly struck by the precise similarities between the words of the ex-jihadist fundamentalists and the words of Christian fundamentalists I know. They are definitely similar in worldview, as much as that makes them odd bedfellows. That being said, certainly not every fundamentalist will sing the same tune. Maybe just the loudest ones?

    Grace and peace,

  6. Rob,

    I stumbled across this site and wanted to offer some resources on fundamentalism. I am a secular person, searching for answers that is leading me inexorably, it seems, towards Christianity, but I have not gotten there yet. In response to the nomination of Sarah Palin as vice-president, I started a blog to document my search and have accumulated a fair number of resources about fundamentalism and the religious right. If you are interested, please contact me. I am not including my blog address for public viewing at this time.

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