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Lions Roar : January 2005
40 SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2005 physically. We need to recover a sense of the importance of the creative imagination in the religious quest.” IN A POST-AUSCHWITZ,post-September-11 world, a new spiritual quest is “the only thing that will save our world,” she says. The quest begins with an honest understanding of religion in the world today. Fundamentalism, she says, is the natural byproduct that follows establishment of a secular, liberal society. “So to every [secular advance] in society, there is a fundamentalist riposte. We have to be grown-up about it. All major social change is contested. It always has been, and whenever you try to suppress a fundamen- talist movement, you drive it to extremity.” It happened first in America, she says, where reli- gious fundamentalism was born (she acknowledges she doesn’t like the word, but it has become the short- hand symbol for what is transpiring in so much of global religious life). She cites the 1925 Scopes trial that pitted Biblical creationism against Darwinian evolution as the prime example of what happens when fundamentalism is attacked. “Before the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial—when the secular press ridiculed the fundamentalists and said they had no place in the modern agenda—fundamentalist Christians had been literal in their interpretation of scripture but creation science was the preserve of a few eccentrics. After the Scopes trial, they became militantly literal and creation science became the flagship of their movement. Before the Scopes trial, fundamentalists had often been on the left of the political spectrum and had been willing to work alongside socialists and liberal Christians in the new slums of the industrializing North American cities. After the Scopes trial, they swung to the far right, where they remained. They felt humiliated by the media attack. It was very nasty. There was a sense of loss of prestige, and, above all, a sense of fear.” The form of Islamic fundamentalism today espoused by Osama bin Laden, she says, was formed in Egyptian concentration camps in the middle of the last century when Nassar interned members of the Muslim Brotherhood for doing nothing more incriminating than handing out a few leaflets. They were imprisoned without trial, submitted to physical and mental torture, executed. Islamic fundamentalism took root in mod- ern Turkey when the Sufi mystic orders were abolished. It took root in Iran when the Shah ordered soldiers to tear the veils off women and had people shot in the street for protesting against the obligatory wearing of Western clothes at Muslim shrines. The common thread? Tyrannical Islamic leaders, who were supported and too often kept in place by Western governments, bent on playing catch-up with the West and bringing their countries into the same secular modernity, but trying to do in a few brief decades what in the West had taken three centuries. “With the way some of the Muslim rulers have tried to secularize,” she points out, “Islamic fundamentalists are not wrong to experience it as a dreadful assault, supported by the West.” With Jewish—and also Islamic—fundamentalism, she says, the crux is the State of Israel and the Palestinian question. “That is the focus. It is the same syndrome: fear of secular modernity.” And the perceived puppet-mas- ter’s hand of the United States: “Osama bin Laden was not particularly interested in Palestine when he started on this. His main focus was Saudi Arabia. But he knew his audience. He knew that if he wanted to call on large numbers of supporters, he need only draw attention to the plight of the Palestinians. “And now Iraq is going to become like this. Those pictures from the U.S. military prison will become iconic in the same way as the pictures every night on Al-Jazeera of Israeli tanks bulldozing Palestinian homes. “If warfare and violence becomes endemic in a soci- ety, religion gets sucked into that. Religion comes from where our dreams come from, and if our dreams become disturbed, everything about us becomes dis- turbed in times of war and violence.” This is a world, says Armstrong, where more and more small groups are nearing the capability—if they haven’t already achieved it—of mass destruction that was formerly the prerogative of the nation-state. “When I say we don’t have much time, I mean that the chance of an extremely alienated group getting hold of some appalling weapon and using it is increasing every day.” Religion in America, she says, is “in the balance.” Fundamentalists in the U.S. are following the pattern of fundamentalists elsewhere in the world, absorbing the violence from the culture in which they exist. Says Armstrong, “They want a male religion where Jesus ain’t no sissy. The gun lobby is important to them.” She says American fundamentalists, like fundamentalists else- where, see themselves as fighting a war—a war against secularness, against a liberal modernity that is perceived as bent on erasing religion from U.S. public discourse. ARMSTRONG’S CONCERNS are echoed by Luis Lugo, director of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, who spoke at the same Couchiching Conference as Armstrong. He says religion has become a systemic, hard-wired feature of U.S. presidential elections, driv- en by a new coalition of conservative Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants and fuelled by fear that