God was declared dead and religion impotent by some of the best minds of the 20th century. But in a post-9/11 world, Americans have woken up anew to the power of religious passions both edifying and destructive. "Fundamentalism" has become a catch-all term we use to explain things that frighten us, from the 9/11 attacks to the growing influence of religious thought in public life.
The theologian Karen Armstrong tells a story that I find important. She was once on a discussion panel for a large religious conference when a man stood up and began to scream and vilify the panel and the gathered assembly. He was a Christian fundamentalist, and he declared that the assembly's dialogue between faiths was a heretical, dangerous act. Armstrong describes how she sat there speechless, powerless to respond, while the man was dragged out of the room by security personnel. She was aware of the limits of dialogue and discussion in that moment. And she was surprised and chastened by her strongest impression of this man—his palpable pain and fear.
It's that humanity beneath the vitriol that interests me, and that seems a critical piece of the puzzle if we really want to understand, harness, or defuse the perils of fundamentalism.
The three people in today's program have known the seductive power of a fundamentalist world view in their own lives. Yossi Klein Halevi spent part of his youth dreaming of blowing up Soviet embassies to liberate Soviet Jews. Richard Mouw was raised in a deeply fundamentalist Protestant Christian home. Khaled Abou el Fadl, growing up in Egypt and Kuwait, joined an Islamic fundamentalist circle in his early teens. Each of these men practiced a discipline of self-questioning as they struggled to come to terms with their own identities in the pluralistic and, in many ways, secular world we inhabit now. They also delved deeper into their traditions of faith to develop meaningful responses to fundamentalism.
And they suggest pragmatic and spiritually exacting ways forward for the rest of us. First, we must differentiate between varieties of fundamentalism. The word itself is only useful in a limited way. Khaled Abou el Fadl prefers to speak of Islamic "supremacists"; Yossi Klein Halevi refers to Jewish extremism. The term "fundamentalist" has its origins and a long and varied history in Christian tradition. In this program, Richard Mouw describes the human dynamic of confusion and anxiety that he finds in much of American fundamentalism. Such anxiety belies a fear that seeks simple answers, and simple rules to pass on to one's children, in a world that has grown dizzyingly complex.
My question is this: How might non-fundamentalists reach out to calm that fear?
Karen Amstrong concluded after her interfaith panel was interrupted by an angry fundamentalist that dialogue alone could not address a screaming man's pain. Just as certainly, screaming back at him would not help. She began to sense that the challenge would be to extend the active compassion at the heart of the world's faith traditions to him, despite the fact that he seemed incapable of extending this himself. Her conclusion is eloquently echoed in this week's program, from three very different frames of reference and religious perspectives.
And because Halevi, Mouw, and Abou el Fadl have experienced fundamentalist thought and behavior from the inside, their critique of it is nuanced and sophisticated. They do not allow those of us on the outside to simplify and demonize entire swaths of humanity, just as we do not want them to simplify and demonize us.
From the painful, embattled vantage point of Jerusalem, for example, Yossi Klein Halevi has come to believe that the only way to combat fundamentalism is to acknowledge and transmute the very core of its power. In one of the many moving moments in the conversations of this hour, he concludes this:
"This is what I learned from the fundamentalists: It's not enough to talk. You
have to live it. You have to fully immerse yourself, you have to live your beliefs. So the way to resist fundamentalism is not through anger and hatred, because they will win. You cannot out-hate a fundamentalist. The only way to win against fundamentalism is by drawing on those divine qualities that we as human beings are called upon by every faith at its best to emulate. And those are the qualities of an open heart, of empathy, and peace."