From 1979 when militant Iranian students took 52 Americans hostages, through today, we still confused about the term religious fundamentalist. What does it mean and where does it come from? Who is and who is not? Does being religious automatically mean you will become fundamentalist? If you are a fundamentalist, are you connected with terrorism?
We have a hard time defining this concept which feels so foreign and instead often react in fear to events happening around us. In the 1950s-70s, there were many sociologists who predicted an increasing secularization of the world. Instead the world has become more religious.
The Fundamentalist Project began in 1987 as a project by the University of Chicago, produced 5 volumes of scholarly research to answer these questions. They found several factors which were common among Strong Religious groups. But they also found one of the hardest things to define is the difference between political ideology clothed in religious terminology verses a religious movement who uses religious values and law to define itself. I would like to offer a few commonalities or familial relations among these movements from a global perspective, only then can we begin the careful process of learning how to be both hospitable to Syrian refugees, discuss the boycott, sanction and divestment movement (BDS) and combat hateful actions committed in the name of God around the world and truly start to think about how to relate ourselves to fundamentalists in general.
Below are several commonalities:
- Fundamentalist come from all religious and faith traditions: Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Jewish and Muslim
- Fundamentalist are not all literal in their interpretation of sacred texts. In fact we devote study to the interpretation of our text and call it hermeneutics. This is how one group knows which of the 613 commandments to follow and say is more important in Judaism or how in Islam the Koran states that one must love their neighbor and not commit murder while also saying one must kill the infidel. Interpretation teaches how to read the texts and fundamentalist choose to interpret very specific ideas and elevate those concepts. They are very good at drawing a line in the sand and determining who is “in” and who is “out” of the faith. They tend to focus their attention on people who are seekers; who lack basic understanding of the meaning and context of their own sacred text.
- We often believe that fundamentalist are poor and uneducated , but this misconception blinds us from seeing who they are
- They are either highly educated, un or under employed person who seeks an answer to their challenges in life – not being able to provide for their family because of corrupt regime etc.
- Or they are gainfully employed but spiritually unfulfilled. These are people who are seen in this country, drive BMWs while listening to the bible channel and try and analyze the Bible like an engineering road map to understand “the Truth.” In other words, they are many people who we see supporting Trump for President.
- Fundamentalist are not necessarily always violent. They are at times because they feel particularly oppressed and live in the context of either authoritarian regimes or regimes which are failing – as in 1979 Iran or the Talban in Afghanistan. Many of these people advocate strongly for change and work in parliaments around the world advocating for their position.
- Fundamentalists are not opposed to change – they are the world’s specialists in making change happen. “…notice how they react. Not by yearning for the return of the golden age of medieval Islam, but by transforming the Prophet into an icon of global jihad who delivers modern nation-states to Islam. Not by hiding out in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Mea Sharim in Jerusalem, but by forming political parties and playing power politics in the Knesset. Not merely by invoking 16th-century Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, who defended the supreme authority of the Bible, but by inventing the concept of strict inerrancy.”
- astly, they are not like a cult driven by a charismatic personality, instead regardless of who is at the head, they tend to be authoritarian. They can appear anywhere and the use of technology helps spread this way of thinking and being around the world faster. They are modern and often feel as if society dehumanizes each other and therefore must return to a specific way of living to stop that.
When we start to look at Hamas or Hezbullah, ISIL, or any other group in this context perhaps it may start to make a little more sense. That is why comparisons to 1938 Nazi controlled Germany with the Jewish refugee problem does not hold up. Yes there are refugees and yes they need our help, but the context of today is very different. Understanding who religious fundamentalists are today helps us understand why there are more and more. We learn that not everyone is interested in violence. We learn the need to teach deeply our sacred texts so that our children can articulate why they believe what they believe and are not easily swayed.
Also, when looking at the refugee crisis, it is not simply about Syria. The majority of the refugees are from Syria, but many people are fleeing violence in Afghanistan, repression in Eritrea, extreme poverty in Kosovo or fleeing for safety from Nigeria. The problem is that the homes where people are leaving are so unstable that they are willing to risk their life and their children’s lives for a possible better future. There is no silver bullet to fix the problem. Yes these refugees need not just our help, but our compassion, love and support.
They need to be educated, provided with safe housing and a stable job. But the leadership around the world needs to wake up to the fact that permitting repression, the treatment of others as less than human or the exclusion of any member from functioning in society (like women or homosexuals or disabled for example) means that everyone will be excluded eventually.
These struggles that we are in today are because we have failed to do what we were supposed to – learn from our sacred traditions the eternal truth – we are all created in the image of God. We are all deserving of blessings.
Or in other words:
“Did you ever notice that the further people are from the truth, the more they consider someone who turns away from evil to be a fool? When there is no truth in the world. Anyone who wants to turn away from evil has no choice but to play the fool.” (The Empty Chair)
The world is not black or white, good or evil, pure or impure. The world is an imperfect place that demands that we work to perfect it. Yes we take in the refugees, while at the same time; we work to stabilize the area they came from so that we can stop the flow of refugees to begin with.
May we have the ability to soon end the violence and create a world where the wolf can lie down with the lamb.