Monday, June 26, 2017

The Term "Fundamentalism" Confuses Religious Contents

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[Regarding Islam] I should look critically at one of the catchwords in the present debate, which is often offered as a general key to understanding today's course of events: "fundamentalism". If we begin by ascertaining briefly the basis of the contemporary renaissance of the Islamic world, two causes strike us at once. First, there is the economic, and thereby also the political and military, strengthening of the Islamic countries through the importance that oil has attained in international politics. But whereas the economic advance in the West has led in general to a dilution of religious substance, in the Islamic world, the new economic strength is linked to a new religious self-awareness; it is of course true that religion, culture and politics stand together in Islam in an inseparable unity. This new religious self-awareness and the attitudes resulting from it are often termed "fundamentalism" in the West today. In my view, this is the inappropriate transfer of a concept from American Protestantism into a wholly different world, and this does not help us truly to understand what is going on. Fundamentalism, according to the word's original meaning, is a tendency that arose in  Protestant America in the nineteenth century as a protest against evolutionism and biblical criticism. It attempted to supply a firm Christian foundation against both of these through the defense of the absolute inerrancy of Scripture. There doubtless exist analogies to this attitude in other spiritual worlds too, but one falls victim to a false simplification if one changes analogies into an identification. This catchword has been made into an all-too-simple key that permits us to divide the world into two halves, a good half and a bad half. The series of supposed fundamentalisms has in the meantime passed from the Protestant over the Catholic to the Islamic and the Marxist fundamentalisms. The differences in content go utterly unheeded; one is a fundamentalist if one has firm convictions, for this is viewed as something that provokes conflicts and is opposed to progress. In contrast, the "good" is the doubt that takes up the battle against old certainties--that is, every modern undogmatic or antidogmatic movement.

But one cannot truly give an explanation of the world while bypassing the contents so simply, merely using a formal division into categories. In my view, one ought to abandon completely talk of Islamic fundamentalism, because it does more to conceal very different processes under a simplifying label that to shed light on them. It seems to me that one must make a distinction between the starting point of the new Islamic awakening and then the different forms that this takes. As for the starting point, it seems to me very significant that the first indications of the turning point in Iran were attacks on American movies. The Western way of life with its moral permissiveness was felt to be an attack on their own identity and on the dignity of their own way of life. At the height of its power, the Christian world had evoked a sense of underdevelopment and of doubt in the Islamic way, at least in the educated circles of the Islamic world; but now contempt grows at the sight of how morality and religion are relegated to the merely private sphere, at the sight of a public life that is shaped in such a way that only religious and moral agnosticism counts as acceptable. The power with which this way of life was officially forced upon them, above all through American cultural exportation, so that it should appear to be the only normal thing, was experienced more and more as an attack on the depths of their own being. The reason why it was the atheistic Soviet Union but rather the religiously tolerant America, which has indeed a strongly religious character, that was seen and combatted as the personification of evil is connected with this collision between a morally agnostic culture and a structure of life in which, nation, culture, morality and religion appear as an indivisible totality.

The concrete forms taken by this new self-awareness are varied. An obsession with the letter of religious traditions is often bound to a political and military fanaticism in which religion is seen directly as a path to earthly power. The Islamic tradition itself could easily suggest this instrumentalization of the religious energies for the political field. In connection with the phenomenon of Palestinian opposition, a revolutionary interpretation of Islam has developed that comes very close to Christian theologies of liberation and has facilitated the coalescence of Western European, Marxist-inspired terrorism and Islamic terrorism. What is superficially called Islamic fundamentalism found no difficulty in associating itself with socialist ideas of liberation: Islam is presented as the true bearer of the struggle of oppressed peoples for freedom. It is along this line that R. Baraudy, for example, found his way from Marxism to Islam, in which he sees the bearer of revolutionary forces against the dominant capitalism. In contrast, as deeply religious a ruler as King Hassan of Morocco has recently expressed his profound anxiety about the future of Islam: one understanding of Islam  that sees its essence in devotion to God struggles with a political-revolutionary interpretation in which the religious element becomes part of a cultural chauvinism and is thereby ultimately subordinated to the political. The confrontation with this many-faceted phenomenon should not be taken too lightly. The Islam that is sure of itself has to a large extent a greater fascination for the Third World than a Christianity that is in a state of inner decay.

Turning Point for Europe?, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1994, 166-170. (Plinthos emphasis)
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