RFE/RL, Feb. 19, 2003
By Don Hill
Islam teaches that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all are children of Abraham, the patriarch of Jewish scripture. In Christianity, a central theme is Jesus’s command to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Yet both Christian and Muslim ideologues, who are often lumped together — some would say unfairly — as “fundamentalists,” seem to be increasingly advocating intolerance of others’ beliefs. In a three-part series, RFE/RL talks to theologians and a specialist in Islamic-Christian relations about what it means to be a fundamentalist.
Prague, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) — Jerry Falwell, a prominent U.S. Christian minister, recently ignited a firestorm in an interview on American television.
Citing his reading of texts by Muslim authors and others, he concluded that the Prophet Muhammad was “a violent man, a man of war.” He added, “I think Muhammad was a terrorist.”
Reaction was fierce. An Iranian cleric demanded Falwell’s death. A general strike in Bombay, called to protest against his words, turned into a riot in which five people died.
Falwell apologized and called his remarks a mistake. Some Muslim leaders publicly accepted the apology, and the incident appeared to blow over.
But the view he expressed is widespread in the United States among the Christian right, a body of politically active Protestant Christians. Franklin Graham, son and successor of the world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham, has called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion.” Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition — which is influential in President George W. Bush’s Republican Party — has said that “to think that Islam is a peaceful religion is fraudulent.”
In the Muslim world, some ideologues have likewise been preaching and acting out intolerance for other belief systems. The Al-Qaeda terrorists of 11 September 2001, the former Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, and many followers of the Saudi Arabian Wahhabism movement are cases in point.
Increasingly, writers and other commentators have been labeling the literal-minded, exclusivist adherents of both faiths as “fundamentalists.” The label is imprecise.
John Esposito is founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He said that fundamentalists of differing religions tend to have one conviction in common. They are sure they are right. “I think that where there is a comparison — if we look in practice at, let’s say, Islamic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, and Jewish fundamentalists today — is that they often tend to have a world view that is, relative to their tradition, very conservative, on the puritanical side. The world view tends to be one that is very exclusivist: ‘I’m right, and if I’m right, then other people are wrong,’” Esposito said.
A newspaper reporter in 1922 first applied the word “fundamentalist” to a Christian religious movement that developed in the United States. Since then, Christian fundamentalism has come to be associated with a fervid religious certainty so absolute that its proponents carry the conviction that the holder of any other belief is wrong.
Now, the term “fundamentalism” has expanded to cover religious movements in other faiths — notably Islam — that are distinguished by their strict adherence to ancient or fundamental doctrines with few concessions to modern developments or customs. With the advent of the war on terrorism, the term has come to take on a pejorative sense. But self-described Muslim fundamentalists argue that, to the contrary, it is a testament to their pure interpretation of Islam.
David Beale — author, and professor and doctor of theology at a bastion of U.S. Christian fundamentalism, Bob Jones University in South Carolina — described the Christian movement as he and his colleagues see it: “Ideally, a Christian fundamentalist is one who desires to reach out in love and compassion to people, who believes and defends the whole Bible as the absolute, inerrant, and authoritative word of God and stands committed to the doctrine and practice of holiness.”
One trouble with the way fundamentalists of any faith see themselves, Esposito said, is that their exclusivity leads to intolerance, which is incompatible with their avowal of compassion.
Not all fundamentalists are activist, extremist, or militant, said Esposito. But to a degree, he said, they all are dangerous. They espouse what he calls an “exclusivist, antipluralist, intolerant world view.” He says that even if they are well-meaning and moderate, other fundamentalists can seize their ideas and develop, in Esposito’s phrase, “a theology of hate.”