President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt was assassinated by Muslims in 1981 and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel was assassinated by a Jew in 1995, but Karen Armstrong can explain that both of those politicians were victims of the same force: modern religious fundamentalism in its most virulent form.
A British former nun, Karen Armstrong writes engaging books about God and the peculiar ways of those who seek Him. A biography of Mohammed, a study of Jerusalem and A History of God are among her main accomplishments. She writes clear and attractive prose and she organizes large bodies of historical data with uncommon skill. She's not usually on top of the news, since her main subject is eternity, but the Sept. 11 crisis has made her most recent book, The Battle for God, as timely as comparative religion ever gets.
It first appeared last year, to good notices, and the paperback is now selling briskly. At my local Book City store in Toronto last week, it was right up at the checkout counter, among the cat books and the joke books.
The Battle for God demonstrates that Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists resemble each other far more than most of them would care to admit. Armstrong sees them as part of a single worldwide phenomenon that also includes Buddhist, Hindu and even Confucian forms of fundamentalism. She focuses on four communities: evangelical Christians in the United States, haredim ("pious ones") in Israel, Sunni Muslims in Egypt and Shii Muslims in Iran. She combines careful study of their histories with analysis of how each group reacts to contemporary society. A reader emerges with a fresh understanding of the reasons why fundamentalism has become a power in the world.
Armstrong probably finds most of her readers among secularists who believe in the separation of church and state, people whose religious feelings are complex, shaky, tentative or non-existent. Armstrong, no longer a Catholic, calls herself "a freelance monotheist" and finds religious excitement and nourishment in texts from many cultures.
While she could never join the fundamentalists, Armstrong feels she knows what motivates them. She understands they want "to resacralize an increasingly skeptical world." She sees their passionate beliefs as a reaction against a world that cannot easily accommodate the spiritual, and she appreciates their need for transcendent significance: "Human beings find it almost impossible to live without a sense that, despite the distressing evidence to the contrary, life has ultimate meaning and value."
But if she sympathizes with the needs of fundamentalists, it is hard to imagine fundamentalists sympathizing with her. While she sees various sects running on parallel lines, each of those sects claims more or less exclusive title to the truth. To the committed, the idea of someone judiciously studying beliefs as comparative phenomena will naturally seem repellent and blasphemous. This is a book that's unlikely to be read by its subjects. And Armstrong, no matter how generous her feelings toward the fundamentalists, can't avoid the condescension of the skeptic.
"These theologies are rooted in fear," she tells us. Fundamentalists defend their rigid doctrines and segregate the faithful because they believe a purely secular society will obliterate their religion and their communities. You cannot reason such fears away, Armstrong says, nor can you eradicate them by coercive measures. She suggests that "a more imaginative response would be to appreciate the depth of this neurosis ..." For all her good-heartedness, she seems not to realize that you can't create interfaith understanding by equating a religious belief with neurosis.
Armstrong classifies all of these movements as "modern fundamentalism." That sounds like an oxymoron, but she points out that these sects have all been created in the last two or three centuries. Each claims the justification of history and insists its practices reach back to antiquity. In that sense, they are all fraudulent. They have all arisen in response to various aspects of modernity; their techniques and styles of thought are characteristic of contemporary society.
The literal reading of sacred books, for instance, has no roots in ancient practice. Over hundreds of years, Jews, Christians and Muslims all embraced allegorical, symbolic and speculative interpretations of scripture. Protestant fundamentalists bring to the Bible a literal reading that was unknown in ancient times. This intense, detailed reading, almost a parody of scholarship, sets sharp limits to their understanding of the world. It leads directly to creationism, a hybrid, "neither good science nor good religion," as Armstrong says.
In Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini was hardly a traditionalist. He created a radically new version of Shiite doctrine when he founded a state led by a cleric. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, while claiming to reject the world and even the state of Israel, long ago learned to acquire subsidies by exploiting the Israeli parliamentary system. What could be more modern than using identity politics to acquire government funding of a culture?
It is our responsibility, Armstrong argues, to understand these forces. Secularists and fundamentalists don't speak one another's language or see things from the same point of view, but we need to try. The fact each side seems demonic and deranged to the other can hardly be healthy. "Fundamentalism," she concludes, "is not going away. In some places it is either going from strength to strength or becoming more extreme."
It is a melancholy truth that most of us are wrong most of the time about the way the world is going. We watch it, we hear about it, we experience it, and usually we don't know what it means. Of all the smug and foolish delusions that were part of conventional wisdom when I was young in the middle of the 20th century, two stand out in memory. One was the idea that nationalism was a 19th-century concept, on its last legs. The other was that religion, as a force in worldly affairs, was slowly but inevitably fading away. At times I was stupid enough to believe both of these preposterous fallacies; but then, so was nearly everyone else.