Fundamentalism Raises Its Head

Syed Akhtar Ehtisham, USA

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In the late 20th century AD, militant piety dubbed fundamentalism emerged in every religion in varying degrees. Fundamentalists are intolerant of everybody else. Without a qualm they kill coreligionists and followers of other creeds while praying, suicide bomb girl’s schools, hospitals, shrines of coreligionists, abortion clinics and facilities for handicapped children. They reject evolution and theories on the origin of life.

The ground workers are deluded dupes or pathetic agents.

Secularists had assumed that with education and enlightenment, humans would keep religion in mosques, churches, temples and synagogues, but they had reckoned without the historic collaboration between religion and establishment. As capitalism found its feet again after the near defeat at the hands of fascism in WW II and faced the challenge of socialism, it harnessed religion to reverse the social welfare and egalitarian steps the governments in Europe and less so in the USA had had to take.

Humans had passed through a similar period from 700 BC to 200 BC, which has been dubbed the Axial Age, as it was pivotal in human intellectual development. Starting in Sumer (Iraq) and Egypt, it was the essence of thousands of years of social evolution.

In fourth and third millennium BC, humans entered the agricultural age and started producing surplus, which they could trade and increasingly needed organized life to function effectively. That led to division of labor-peasants, equipment makers, traders, warriors and priests. Villages, cities, and regions and states and empires evolved in due course.

Local cults no longer satisfied people.

Organized religion was initially polytheistic. Natural phenomenon could not be so easily explained, so mankind fell to the ultimate unknown, the monotheistic God. Prophets were inspired to offer a transcendent being, reacted to social and economic injustice and prescribed codes of behavior suitable for the time. Confessional faiths emerged like Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Zoroastrianism in Iran, Confucianism and Taoism in China and monotheism in Middle East.

All civilizations reach a zenith, run out of steam and decline over varying periods of time. It happened to Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Iranian, Roman and Arab civilizations. Europe inherited a bit from all, went through renaissance, reformation, enlightenment, and the rational age. Religion would, it seemed, become marginal.

But the news of its demise was premature.

Starvation and religious intolerance led Europeans to Americas and religion found new, and more hospitable habitat. Till not too long ago, nine out of ten Americans regarded themselves as religious. Statistics are not available for South America and other continents, but the proportion of believers should be comparable. Europe though hosts a substantially larger percentage; 35 to 40% of non-believers.

Industrial revolution transformed mercantile Europe to a capitalist-colonialist society. The indigenous populations, which the colonialists could not reduce to unsustainable numbers because of comparatively larger size and technological development, became the captive market. The losers attributed their downfall to loss of faith, an idea promoted and reinforced by the clergy.

The initially secular independence movement in India was gradually undermined by the religious element.

In the Post-colonial age, the grip of capital on the former colonies did not slacken. Struggle for cutting the bonds was followed by covert subversion and overt aggression. Starting with Greece, followed by Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, 1967 Arab-Israeli war, civil war in East Pakistan, sabotage and aggression in Central and South America, Iraq I and II, Afghanistan I and II, all led to emergence of fundamentalism, which finding itself impotent, degenerated into terrorism.

Large number of Muslim expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia and nearby Gulf states brought back militant orthodoxy which infiltrated like a virulent virus in the home countries. The Western imperialist power found it a handy tool, with connivance of Zia ul Haq of Pakistan, to undermine the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Spiritual lives of the people of the past were, according to Karen Armstrong, different from ours. Their ways of acquiring knowledge, thought and speech were Mythos and Logos.  Mythos was primary, it was timeless, looked back to origin of life, culture and deepest level of human mind, concerned with meaning and sense of life, and rooted in unconscious mind.

In pre-modern world, history tried to bring out the eternal dimension. Logos is, on the other hand practical and looks ahead rather than backwards. Thus we do not really know what happened when ancient Israelite escaped from Egypt, but Jews experience this myth every year at Passover Seder (and Muslims celebrate the ascension of the prophet of Islam to heaven with ecstatic ardor). Pope Urban II ordained the first crusade to stop the internecine conflict, channeling it instead to Muslim countries and plunder from the region. They did well till they got entangled with apocalyptic fantasies when they met disastrous defeats and committed atrocities.

Though essentially distinct, Mythos and Logos were regarded as complementary to each other. Logos could, however, not ameliorate sorrow, nor could it give meaning to life.

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