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The “logic” of fundamentalism

Analysing Jewish, Christian and Islamic fundamentalism

Last update: 2018-04-10 10:55:51

Book review of Karen Armstrong, Los Orígenes del fundamentalismo en el Judaísmo, el Cristianismo y el Islam, Tusquets editores, Barcelona






The importance of this book's subject is more than obvious. It is however necessary to highlight its objective value: we find ourselves facing a voluminous synthesis of the diverse currents of the three religions of the Book, which have, especially after the XV century, taken up the way of fundamentalism. It would be impossible for such an ambitious attempt not to contain errors, even grave ones, such as the affirmation that Saint Teresa of Avila was a converted Jew, or that the Inquisition began in XV century Spain. Even if these are grave errors - let us not forget that erudition always pays those who care to cultivate it - they do not damage the impressiveness of the attempt and the author's surprising equanimity, especially if one keeps in mind her personal story (Karen Armstrong was a nun who abandoned religious life and the Catholic Church and who currently belongs to no religious group). A specific key to her reading is clearly not missing. We could describe it as the conviction that throughout history, men and women have lived by conforming to the mythos (beliefs inherited from their ancestors), while continuously searching for the logos (reasons which explain things and allow the elimination of the mythos). Therefore this is not an idealization of rationalism. Rather the author recognises that rationalism has Christian origins which, paradoxically, have developed to the point of agnostic irrationalism in the XX century. Furthermore she recognises the existence of spiritual spaces closed to consciousness and to the explanations of human reason (logos). And she does not regret it, she simply states the fact. In this volume we must not look for theological reflection - doubtless fundamental - but rather an ordered and imposing mosaic made up of the fundamentalist movements of the last five hundred years. The limits of the author's reading, apparently logical, become clear when she confronts the historical origins of fundamentalism. Yet we historians know that rarely do events take place "in a logical manner". In the first place because men and women do not usually act logically. Then because the historian, when attempting to explain past facts, can only count on a few variables. For this reason his logic is necessarily reductive. Karen Armstrong recalls that the "Catholic Monarchs" - Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, who united the two crowns of Spain and therefore in the XV century created political unity in the nation - created the first "State" in the true sense and began the first attempt at a "rationalisation of the State". The attempt however, was premature: it was put in motion before the logos had reached an acceptable level and, consequently, the monarchs were obliged to create the Inquisition, that is, to have recourse to the irrational in order to repress the mythos of the dissidents. This fact provoked the fundamentalist reaction of the dissidents: Jews and Muslims. Later the rationalist philosophers, especially protestants, came into play and the problem grew worse, reaching an extreme. The conclusion reached by the author is that fundamentalism is the collection of movements which claim to defend the mythos to the bitter end and arise from the fear of seeing one's own beliefs disarmed by political and philosophical rationalism. But with one nota bene: this is not just a simple regression towards the past but, like every reaction, fundamentalism takes part, consciously or not, in the newness that it is trying to fight. In this sense fundamentalist movements are essentially and paradoxically modern. And worse yet, after 1978 these movements have become violent. The author is referring to Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism, not Christian fundamentalism, which is mainly linked to North American protestant movements. The author knows Catholicism well and does not affront the Catholic world, nor does she confuse the phenomenon of fundamentalism with integralism, which arose in the XIX century. The original American edition was published in 2000, that is, before September 11th. Fundamentalist crimes had previously been selective and in this sense the author does not explain the reasons why we have arrived at indiscriminate mass slaughter. But the volume's main point could make us think that the adoption of the modern in order to combat the modern has led fundamentalists to the use of modern means, to the use of the highly developed instruments of modern technology. And especially two of them: financial technology, which allows them to operate in the environment of capitalist speculation, and then the war technology purchased by such economic means. The result of this combination is well known. In the introduction to the Spanish edition, published after Sept. 11th, the author adds an observation: many of the leading actors in the terrible Islamic attacks of the last few years were not observant zealots of the religion they invoked, but rather drunkards and womanisers who did not follow the most elementary norms of their religion. The author does not know how to explain this fact. The only suggestion she makes is that maybe this is a form of "holy sin", even a self-destructive one, whose objective is to force God to enter into history once again to straighten it out. Even if this is not to be refuted, it does not seem like a sufficient enough explanation. The fact in question contains several different elements. Surely we are dealing with individual and collective psychological problems rather than with religious beliefs, and in this sense we could ask how far these problems represent a sort of revival of Christian irrationalism in Islamic and Jewish form. This is just a simple hypothesis, but in my opinion it is fundamental: has contact with the West contributed, throughout history and in an unconscious manner, to pushing Jews and Muslims towards Western attitudes which paradoxically have their roots in nihilism, be it Nietzschean or Heideggerian? Karen Armstrong herself classified recent Islamic fundamentalism as nihilistic. Even if the use of this term in reference to Islam can be reductive: nihilism as self-destruction, self-destruction which eventually provokes God's intervention. My question has to do with the question of the foundation for this interpretive key: is this fundamentalism originally Muslim or is it the fruit of a new syncretism with the West?