Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Cross-Cultural Fundamentalism

In the brewing conflict between the US and the Arab world religious fanaticism plays a role. Religious zealots are on the military frontline in the Arab world and on policy boards in America.

Cultural context has a role in the development of fanaticism. In America, people seek extreme religion in order to deal with the alienation of living in a rapidly changing society. In contrast, Arabs are mobilized by extreme religion in order to change a stagnant political culture. In the west, original ways of worship evolve to calm down society in an over stimulating environment; in the Muslim world, radical religious movements are formed to agitate people politically.

Moderate, mainline churches in the US are losing membership to radical, mega-churches that operate to sooth people’s nerves. Why? In America, family structure weakens from generation to generation, divorce and remarriage are frequent, the neighborhood communities are in flux, jobs are short-term, and houses are bought and sold as casual commodities. People are desperately trying to cope with the constantly accelerating pace of life.

Nevertheless, many of these conservative churches are able to serve people with honesty and authenticity. Millions of Christians in this country and abroad find spiritual healing and wholesome worship in fundamental churches. There are no easy ways to screen fake from genuine pastoral care or to distinguish the spiritual agency from the business- oriented, televangelical station. There are no easy ways to decipher politically-obsessed, xenophobic ecclesiastical structures from ecumenical churches oriented towards social justice.

In this hyper-achieving society, too many conservative churches in the US are exploiting the congregations’ growing needs for programs that will provide cheap and easy comfort to the troubled mind and the anxious soul.

Some charismatic churches have gone wild in offering believers celestial, guilt-reduction products for this life and the hereafter. These closed-system religious institutions deliver recipes on how to access “God’s Kingdom”. They render arbitrary judgment on good and evil, using the scripture selectively and outside its original context. They offer exclusive guidelines for marriage, divorce, family and friendship. They issue “fatwa”- like policies on abortion, scientific research and sexual orientation. They are aggressively prescriptive on family values, on government intervention, on taxes and on foreign policy. More significantly, they reject the validity of other religions, particularly Islam.

In America, fundamental churches tend to stimulate fear and guilt in society and they supply their stress-relief products. Watching the televangelical, fundamental church offerings on the TV screen, one can learn slick marketing skills and appreciate the art of attitude change with vulnerable audiences.

Now I turn to Muslim fanatics. Good and evil are side-by-side in the practice of religion, both in open and closed societies. Arabs live in politically closed societies. Mainline religion in the Middle East is also on the decline, whereas radical Muslim movements are on the rise. But make no mistake about it, the majority of the world’s billion Muslims live in peace and remain faithful to authentic, mainline Islam. Indeed, without the integrative force of religion, the Middle East would be a political volcano.

Arabs want change in response to the worsening of many socio-economic pressures: the decline of living standards, demographic density, urbanization, rising unemployment and dislocation from rural living. In addition, Arabs face oppressive rule, political humiliation (in successive wars), and Western colonial intervention. The growing agony of the people can not be ignored forever.

Leaders of mainline religious institutions are unable to speak the truth openly to oppressive Arab political rulers. On the other hand, radical religious groups are able to organize underground. Their leaders target both ruling regimes and colonial powers. Muslim fanatic groups are popular because they are expressing the people’s frustrations.

However, despite their popularity, Arab fundamentalist groups lack political maturity to innovate democratically. Arabs’ religious fanatics follow tradition obsessively, literally and coercively. In particular, Arab fundamentalist groups are not sensitive to empowerment of women in society. They demonize the West, and blame their ills on the outside world.

Fanatics rely on brutal force and ignore human investment. When Arab fundamentalists become deeply self-critical, they may eventually find their way to real reform. They expect Islam to condone suicide killing, but authentic Islam will never give these religious fanatics the moral license to disregard universal rules of combat and insurgency.

Western and Arab fundamentalists are trapped in a cycle of mutual demonizing. As the world becomes a global village, fundamentalists across cultures and borders are waging ethnocentric wars. They are busy canceling each other ideologically. Arab fundamentalists demonize western modernity; whereas, US fundamentalists demonize Islamic ideology.

In each society, the future of fundamental religions is tied to the future of mainline religion.

In the Arab world, where the economy worsens and politics deteriorate, fundamentalism thrives. As long as moderate religious institutions are inhibited by the autocratic state there is little hope in containing fundamentalism.

And in America, as long as main line churches are losing their relevance to a rapidly changing and competitive society, the fundamental church will continue to grow in size and in political impact. In an age of growing anxiety about the future of the world - and in particular, the future of Western civilization - fundamental churches seem to be able to respond with concrete, albeit superficial, answers for which people are thirsty.

What fundamentalists of all cultures share is the industry of fear and anxiety. Irrational fear is the renewable resource that fuels their theology and economy.

The author is former Secretary of the Middle East of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was very disappointed with this article. It shows the author's ignorance regarding evangelicals versus fundamentalists in the United States. I would have expected more from somebody who worked for The World Council of Churches. There is a vast chasm between the mega-church models being employed by evangelicals and the fundamentalist movement within the broader evangelical community.

Furthermore, this is typical of liberal Christianity (a.k.a "mainline churches). Rather than attempt to understand why people don't like their own brand of confused Christianity, they bash the enemy: the fundamentalist.

This article is filled with stereotyping, generalizations, and fundo-phobic religious bigotry. If this article were about any other religious group it would be considered hate speech. However, since it's about those fundamentalists it's "ok."

The statement, "In each society, the future of fundamental religions is tied to the future of mainline religion," is particularly revealing. Mainline religion is already dead in both Arab and Christian societies. Those that prefer "Mainline" thinking choose secularism.

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