“Don’t debate religion with fundamentalists: what they need is rehabilitation”

by Saad A Sowayan

Fundamentalism is a cultural phenomenon, though it dons religious garbs. It is a mode of consciousness shaped by cultural values, not religious principles. Thus we can understand it only if we examine it in its cultural context as a sociological rather than a theological question.

So, I will begin by taking a close look at the social incubators most likely to hatch fundamentalism.

I understand by fundamentalism strong adherence to an archetypal point of view and a fierce conviction of its fundamental truth, to the exclusion of any other alternate idea. Any alternative is resisted by a fundamentalist and treated not as a legitimate substitute stemming from a rational free choice, but as a detrimental antithesis of the fundamental truth of the archetype. The archetype is a model to be emulated and reproduced, not dissected or scrutinized.

Fundamentalism is an emotional, collective phenomenon in that it gives room neither for rational choice nor for individual freedom. No matter what your mind tells you, you are not allowed to leave the fold or swerve from the ‘right path’ followed by the community of the faithful.

Such a mode of thinking and behaving is typically characteristic of archaic, rural and peasant societies, which are generally small, isolated and homogeneous. In such societies, collective sentiments embrace the greater part of the individual sentiments and they have an extreme force as manifested in the severity of the punishment inflicted on those who violate them. Violation of the social imperative arouses strong indignation. To insure conformity and avoid violation, social acts, especially sacred rituals, are characterized by particularization and extreme precision.

Repressive laws, which stress punishment, reveal the force and extent of common sentiments, as well as the particularization of such sentiments. The stronger and more widespread and particularized the collective sentiments, the more crimes there will be, crime being defined simply as the violation of social norms. A crime is viewed as an offense committed by an individual against the collective sentiments, which must be avenged. It is a breach that demands reparation, and the punishment of the guilty is the reparation offered to the feelings of all. This is in contrast to restitutative laws, which aim to restore order rather than avenge the deed.

In pre-industrial, pre-scientific societies – or what anthropologists and sociologists call folk societies – the predominant mode of thinking and behaving is traditional and conservative. The society is held together not so much by complimentary associations and mutual interdependence, but by binding sentiments and common beliefs. It is based not on utilitarian and expedient considerations, but on shared moral principles, on the organization of human sentiments into implicit convictions and judgments as to what is right and wrong.

Submergence of individual personality in the group in traditional societies limits the possibility of free choice and individual preference. Variation is suppressed and any deviation from social norms is condemned. All persons in the community are supposed to be exact replicas of one another, not only in feelings, beliefs and values but also in dress and personal appearance. If any one ever makes the slightest attempt to assert his uniqueness or individuality, he will be subject to censor and derision. This unitarian view is manifested not only in the ethical and religious sphere but also in the social, political and economic spheres.

Traditional societies are characterized by a unitarian and static conception of the universe. Not only do they censure individual variation but they also do not tolerate temporal change. Social change is equated with personal aging. It is not progress and evolution. It is decay and degeneration, always for the worst. According to this conception, the further we go back in time the closer we get to the ideal golden age of pure innocence. It is this nostalgic view of history, which gave rise to the worship of ancestors in religion, as well as the romantic movement in literature.

We have to keep in mind that the idea of cultural evolution and social progress, as well as the idea of individual liberty, are late discoveries in the intellectual development of mankind. The Greeks had their golden age; the Hebrew prophets from Amos to Hosea decried the lavish civilization of David and Solomon; and the Rechabite movement sought to return to the rustic simplicity of nomadism and life in tents. Until two centuries ago, Europeans were still debating the merits of the ancients versus the merits of the moderns. Individual liberty and freedom of choice are the products of the principle of laissez-faire, which is concomitant with capitalism and market economy, themselves products of the industrial revolution, itself a product of the scientific revolution.

If we take a close look at the Muslim World, where fundamentalist thinking predominates, we find that this World consists mostly of pre-industrial, pre-scientific countries which, until recently, were mostly rural, illiterate communities with traditional cultures and conservative values.

Fundamentalists in these countries confuse their pre-scientific, peasant modes of thinking and behaving and propagate them as Islamic dogmas. They want to stop the march of history at the time of the Prophet and his companions, and to force everybody to live as if we were still riding donkeys and living in mud huts. They do not realize that had the Prophet and his companions enjoyed all the modern amenities and conveniences we have at our disposals today they would have made full use of them.

Most of the prejudices and insular ideologies of the fundamentalists are the products of their peasant mentality and rural values, not Islamic teachings. They express their subordination to the past and their frustration with and rejection of present urbanism and modern civilization – with which they cannot cope – through religious discourse.

For a fundamentalist, the real purpose of religion is not to deal with earthly concerns or achieve success and happiness in this world, but to turn away from the transitory world and turn to God to worship Him and please Him and maintain good relations with Him in order to deserve His grace and guarantee a safe passage to heaven after death, which will compensate the devotee for all the self-denials he imposed on himself in this life.

Fundamentalists lay undue stress on the minute details of rituals and overlook the humanitarian and philanthropic message, which had given Islam its universal appeal.

According to the fundamentalist all events in this world – no matter how big or small – are pre-destined by God. No human effort, no matter how great, could change the course of destiny or exercise any control over this material world. The only thing one can do is to submit completely to the will of God and put one’s full trust and faith in His providence. Life on earth has no meaning or value except as a testing ground for religious virtue. One should turn away from the material snares of this evil world and devote oneself completely to the worship of God. The only mission worth pursuing in this worldly existence, for which one could get great dividends in the hereafter, is to bring the lost sheep of the Lord back to the fold, by hook or crook.

You rarely hear fundamentalists talk about programmes to relieve human suffering or to improve health or education or the economic and material conditions of people’s lives. They justify human suffering in this life and explain it away either as testing of faith or as punishment for sins. Their sole purpose for aspiring to rule the world is to stone adulterers and cut the hands of thieves.

Fundamentalism is a form of socio-cultural maladjustment, which, sometimes, becomes a compulsive obsession and may take bizarre manifestations. For an extreme fundamentalist, a difference of one or two inches in the length of your beard or the lower hem of your garment could be the critical criterion that would decide your fate in the hereafter, whether to go to hell or to heaven. This reduces fundamentalism to an aberrant social – rather than religious – phenomenon.

In many cases, what fundamentalists need in order to readjust is social rehabilitation, not to engage them in theological dialogue. The way to deal with fundamentalism is not to kill fundamentalists or throw them in jail. Fundamentalism is like grass, mowing encourages it to grow quicker and thicker. Only through giving them hope and a fair chance to succeed and to realize their ambitions and fulfill their aspirations in this world can we turn fundamentalists into worldly creatures.

The means to achieving this objective is through equality before the law, justice in courts, equity in the distribution of wealth, improving health and education, and other amenities in this life, which would make it worth living – for everybody, not just the privileged few.

Islam has relapsed into a backward state in our times because the whole Muslim World had regressed into backwardness within the last few centuries. During the zenith of the Muslim Civilization, Islam was much more tolerant and accommodating, with much room for intellectual pursuits and material progress. Religion is a social product and a social institution; it must be in tune with its social milieu and address the needs of the time, otherwise it looses its force and becomes an obstacle to human happiness and wellbeing. Islam will regain its vitality and universal appeal only when the Muslim World regains its lost role as a leader in historical progress and a builder of civilization.

[This post was originally published on Saudi Debate, June 11, 2007.]

[Tabsir Redux is a reposting of earlier posts on the blog, since memories are fickle and some things deserve a second viewing.this post was originally made on October 7, 20o7]