Wednesday, August 03, 2005

On fundamentalism

Being of a secular disposition, I usually enjoy pieces like this one from Polly Toynbee - and regular readers of this space will know that I heartily agree in particular with what she says about faith schools.

However, I've been thinking that the present situation provides a temptation for us secularists to have a pop at everything about organised religion we don't like but that it's a temptation that perhaps should be avoided because there's a real danger of conflating issues in the process.

Critics of religion point to the pusillanimous attitude of supposed liberals and socialists when it comes to Islam; the previous strong opposition to power based on religion appears to melt away all too easily when confronted with the accusation of racism or Islamophobia and long-held causes of the left - such as women's emancipation and gay equality - are compromised to avoid this accusation.

Now, while I largely agree with this analysis, I'm concerned that this sort of thing now runs the risk of missing the point. Or to put it more plainly, just because someone has an obscurantist religious attitude and has frankly medieval attitudes to women, it does not follow that this mentality leads to the desire to blow oneself up.

I think what should be emphasised in this present time is that fundamentalism is an understanding of the Koran or Bible that arises from specific religious traditions, rather than the other way around - and how the Holy book in question is interpreted depends on the social context.

To give a Christian example, it's often assumed that fundamentalist Christians believe every word of the Bible and this gives rise to bizarre religious practices. I'm not sure that's so. For instance, American fundamentalists tend not to drink alcohol but think nothing of being divorced whereas in the New Testament we find Jesus gave men and women equal non-rights to divorce but there is no Biblical prohibition against drinking alcohol per se. The reason why evangelicals get it the wrong way round should be immediately obvious - it has nothing to do with what the Bible actually says and everything to do with the history and customs in the United States.

I really doubt Islam is very different. Looking for blood-curdling passages in either the Koran or the Bible misses the point, I think. Take the story of Abraham, which Judaism, Christianity and Islam share. Abraham is commanded by God to offer his son (Issac in the OT; Ishmael in the Koran) as a sacrifice. When Abraham shows willing, God intervenes and replaces Issac with an animal at the last minute - but Abraham is rewarded for his obedience. Now, on any given day, Muslims, Christians and Jews must read this story and it appears a large number think it's literally true. But I've no doubt at all that if I told either a Christian, Muslim or Jew that I planned to sacrifice my son, even those who are fundamentalist would think I was insane and try to restrain me.

Rather, it's the social context that mediates the text that matters and the crucial aspect of this when we are talking about the Islamofascists is the social context in question is a cult, rather than an ecclesia. This is crucial if we're to combat this properly. While I do not think the religious should be immune to criticism over their attitude to women or gays, this specific phenomenon should be understood as an aberrant murderous sect that is cut off from the mainstream religious piety of most Muslims and how it's dealt with needs to be done more carefully.

I say this because I'm increasingly concerned at some of the things that are being said. I do not, for example, believe that a state-sponsored mono-culture is the solution to the problem of integration. It is also very important, more so now than ever, for people to understand that this whole thing is a conflict within Islam. I said in my previous post that Muslims are more likely to be killed by Al-Qaeda than anyone else.

This has be be hammered home because at the present time, with anti-Muslim attacks on the increase, there are sick morons out there who are literally blaming the victims.

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