Politics & Policy

The Folly of ‘Fundamentalism’

When it comes to “religious extremism,” religion matters.

A few months ago, a nice and well-meaning lady handed me a stack of Christian literature, including a pamphlet authored by the despicable anti-Catholic/anti-Semite Jack Chick. I am a Catholic, but I do not think she really meant anything sour by it, and the pamphlet in question was daft and illiterate but free from the most obvious sort of hate-mongering associated with Chick and his work. I thought for a minute about talking to her about what she was handing out, but decided against it. I’ve spent enough time around fundamentalist boobs and their choose-your-own-adventure theologies to appreciate that it is a waste of time.

One thing that did not occur to me: shooting her in the face.

As the slaughter at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris reminds us, the phrase “religious extremism” is useless in that it is almost entirely devoid of content. It matters — and it matters a great deal — which religion is under consideration. The world does not have much of a problem with Quaker extremism, Mormon extremism, African Methodist Episcopal extremist, Reform Jewish extremism, Zen Buddhist extremism, Southern Baptist extremism, etc. We’ve seen, over the past few decades, scattered paroxysms of Hindu extremism and Sikh extremism (India), Buddhist violence (Burma), quasi-Christian cult violence (Uganda, Sudan), etc., but the big show in terms of violent extremism is the never-ending circus of jihad.

Juan Cole, in a particularly dopey moment, compared Sarah Palin, of all people, to the sort of people who just carried out a mass murder in Paris. “The values of [John McCain’s] handpicked running mate, Sarah Palin, more resemble those of Muslim fundamentalists than they do those of the Founding Fathers,” he wrote. “What’s the difference between Palin and a Muslim fundamentalist? Lipstick.”

Lipstick and 3,000 corpses in lower Manhattan, hundreds of thousands more around the world, and a dozen new ones in a Paris magazine office.

Cole goes on to castigate Palin for her anti-abortion views — views which are not, in fact, all that common in the Islamic world, which is relatively indulgent of abortion — and because she sometimes asked people to pray that good things should happen for the people of Alaska. Thomas Jefferson, skeptic though he was, would not have been scandalized by any of this, but a great many backward Muslim fundamentalists would — if not by Palin’s opinions then by the fact that a woman should be allowed to share them, forcefully and publicly.

That is the sort of thing that never occurs to masochistic multiculturalists in the Western world, those who cannot see — because they are committed to not seeing — what is good and distinctive about our own civilization.

Reality-television viewers know that, if she were so inclined, Sarah Palin has the skills to go mad gunman. But she apparently does not have such an inclination. Christians in the West are used to being mocked, but the last thing that Bill Maher or the producers of Saturday Night Live have to worry about is being shot up by angry, blue-haired church ladies. When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints found itself the subject of an unkind Broadway lampoon, The Book of Mormon, its leaders did not bomb the theater or even try to force the show to be shut down as “hate speech.” Instead, they decided — in a brilliant stroke — to offer theatergoers copies of their scripture through an advertisement in the show’s playbill: “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”

What’s an extremist Mormon going to do? Bake you a pie?

The contrast in headlines is astounding: At the same time the jihadists were carrying out their assault on a bunch of unarmed cartoonists — courageous souls that they are — Mercedes-Benz was showing off its plans for an autonomous, self-driving car, hoping to catch up with Google’s similar project. That’s where the world is: Stuff from science fiction coming out of Stuttgart and California, stuff from the Middle Ages coming out of Mecca, Riyadh, Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus, Karachi, Kabul, Cairo, Istanbul, Nairobi, Mogadishu, Lahore, Khartoum, Ankara, Algiers, Jakarta, Dhaka . . . 

In the past 60 years, the Western world has made remarkable advances. Evils such as plague and famine — which until the day before yesterday we assumed would always be with us — have been leashed, not only in Europe and the Anglosphere but consequently to a remarkable extent in places such as India and China, which were until quite recently the subject of clichés about starving children. Our cultural vector points at peace, prosperity, and purpose, and the people in the rest of the world who want to come along are more than welcome. (An intensely nationalist Indian politico once ruefully shared with me his observation that Indians do well in the United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia . . . “The only place you see poor Indians,” he said, “is India.”) In the United States, you can spend your weekends observing the sacred rites of the high priestess of the magical toad fairies, in a tutu if the liturgy calls for it, and the worst you’re going to suffer is the possibility of a little side-eye from your more traditional neighbors.

That’s how we do it here in the civilized world. But we are so intensely terrified of being thought of as bigots or rubes, so distracted by academic hand-wringing over the uppercase-O “Other” and — linguistic barbarism — “Othering,” that we cannot fully understand the difference between such fundamentalism as we experience — soppy, sentimental, and occasionally atavistic as it may be — and the cultural currents that produce such atrocities as the one perpetrated today in Paris. Unable to understand the difference, we are unable to act intelligently in response to it. It is not as simple as “Us and Them,” but there is an us, and there is a them, and one or the other is going to prevail.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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