Fundamentalism and democracy
I have been asked to serve on a panel in Prague at Forum 2000 (see last week’s column) to discuss the relationship between democracy on the one hand and fundamentalism and demagoguery on the other.
One of the other panelists is a former Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, and the other is the founder of an organization to help and protect Roma people, often called gypsies. The other panelists will speak to political and social dimensions of the issue. My role is to look at the issue from a religious perspective.
To state the obvious, although there are many types of demagogy and fundamentalism in the world today, the purpose of the panel is to consider conflicts among the three Abrahamic religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
At least in the West, most people see the dangers of demagogy and fundamentalism existing primarily in the Islamic world. However, that is a premise that demands careful scrutiny.
With the recent idiotic video about Islam that was a spark leading to demonstrations, attacks, and deaths, I not only must think carefully but also speak carefully. If the old adage “loose lips sink ships” states a truth, choosing words carefully is even more important in the age of social media and 24-hour news cycles and suicide vests.
Fundamentalists are essentially unwilling to engage in dialogue because they believe that everyone else is interpreting their sacred texts while they accept them as they are. This is a false assumption.
Fundamentalism is an interpretive scheme not different in kind from any other approach. But while Marxists and feminists and strict constructionists know that they are interpreting a text, fundamentalists do not understand that they start with certain premises too.
They assume, among other things, that the authorial intent is to state literal truths, scientific facts, and history. To me, this often a patently incorrect approach to a text. I do not believe that the beginning chapters of Genesis were meant to be read as science or history.
Demagogues tend to believe that only they are right and that therefore they must bring everyone under their physical and mental domination.
Consider Pastor Terry Jones, the Florida man who held a trial and pronounced a verdict of guilty on the Koran, the Muslim holy book, and then proceeded to burn copies of it. His view appears to be something like this: the Koran is an evil and wrong book, and as such it has no right to exist because it will poison the minds of people. Error, defined by the person issuing the decree, has no rights in this way of thinking.
There is a strain of thought today that considers monotheistic religions, those that believe that there is only one God, to be the great cause of intolerance and violence in the world.
To put it more concretely, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are responsible for much of the world’s intolerance and bloodshed.
The argument for this position is simple and on the surface compelling. However, I believe that it is incorrect.
Certainly, historically one can argue that the Conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews, the Christian crusades, and Muslim jihad and fatwa are the consequences of the intolerant nature of monotheistic religions.
However, I am willing to argue that violence and disregard of non-members’ rights are not intrinsic to these religions but instead are distortions of them.
The one God created us all, and God created us all to flourish. In fact, the calling of Abraham is the beginning of the announcement of God’s plan to bless all of humanity, despite human sin.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims disagree on how that plan has unfolded in time, but all believe that all the world’s people are to be blessed through that God-initiated plan. If someone persecutes those who understand the plan differently, is that not an attack on God’s plan for all to be blessed?
Each of the Abrahamic religions has its version of what Christians call the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. In the Muslim Hadiths and the Jewish Talmud are variants of the Golden Rule.
Well, I do not want anyone to burn my sacred book. Thus, I must not burn another’s. I do not want to be thrown in prison for speaking what I believe to be the truth; I cannot support the incarceration of those who speak what they believe. I do not want to be ignored by those in power because I practice a different faith. Thus, I must not ignore or marginalize others.
If we are going to live peacefully on our planet, we monotheists need to look more carefully at our tradition and how we have allowed ourselves to be hijacked by demagogues and fundamentalists.
There is an old joke about someone who asked whether Christianity works to make the world more peaceful and just. The answer: we really don’t know since Christianity has really never been put fully into practice. Muslims, Jews, and Christians should want to move closer to the proper implementation of their beliefs.
Of course, we need better education in our own texts and traditions. We need to listen less to the loudest and more to the meek, less to the warmongers and more to the peacemakers.
We are not going to change the attitudes of more than half the world’s people (Jews + Christians + Muslims) soon. However, a modern echoing of the views of St Augustine is appropriate here: Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
Shalom, Pax et bonum, Al-salam.