The Challenge of American and Arab Fundamentalism

Some charismatic churches have gone wild in offering believers celestial, guilt-reduction products for this life and the hereafter.

In the ongoing tension between the United States and the Arab world, religious fanaticism plays a major role: religious zealots are on the militant front-line in Arab countries and on policy boards in America.

Cultural context plays a role in the development of fanaticism. In America, a number of people are attracted to extreme religion to help them deal with the alienation of living in a rapidly changing society; in contrast, some Arabs are mobilized by extreme religion in order to change a stagnant political culture. In the West, original ways of worship evolve to calm down society in an over-stimulated environment; in the Muslim world, radical religious movements are often formed to agitate people politically.

Moderate, mainline churches in the United States are losing membership to conservative, mega-churches that operate to soothe people’s nerves. Why? In America, family structure has been weakening from generation to generation, divorce and remarriage are frequent, neighborhood communities are in flux, job stability is rare, and houses are bought and sold as casual commodities. People are desperately trying to cope with the constantly accelerating pace of life.

Nevertheless, many of these conservative churches are able to serve people with honesty and authenticity. Millions of Christians in America and abroad find spiritual healing and wholesome worship in fundamentalist churches. There are no easy ways to screen fake from genuine pastoral care or to distinguish the spiritual agency from the business-oriented, televangelical station. There are no easy ways to decipher politically-driven, xenophobic ecclesiastical structures from ecumenical churches oriented towards social justice.

In this hyper-achieving society, too many conservative churches in the United States are exploiting the congregations’ growing needs for programs that will provide quick and easy comfort to the troubled mind and the anxious soul.

Some charismatic churches have gone wild in offering believers celestial, guilt-reduction products for this life and the hereafter. These exclusive religious institutions deliver recipes on how to access “God’s Kingdom” by accepting specific doctrines as medicine or insurance policies. They render arbitrary judgment on good and evil, using the scripture selectively and outside its original context. They offer exclusive guidelines for marriage, divorce, family and friendship. They issue fatwa-like policies, or edicts, on abortion, scientific research and sexual orientation. They are aggressively prescriptive on family values, on government intervention, on taxes and on foreign policy. More significantly for today’s world, they reject the validity of other religions, particularly Islam.

In America, fundamental churches tend to stimulate fear and guilt in society and then claim to supply stress-relief products. Watching the televangelical, fundamentalist church advertisements on TV, one can learn slick marketing skills and appreciate the art of changing the attitudes of vulnerable audiences.

As for Muslim extremists, both good and evil exist side-by-side in the practice of religion both in open and closed societies, though Arabs generally live in politically closed societies. Mainline religion in the Middle East is on the decline, whereas radical Muslim movements are on the rise. But make no mistake about it, the majority of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims live in peace and remain faithful to authentic, mainline Islam. Indeed, without the integrative force of religion, the Middle East would be a political volcano.

Arabs want change in response to the worsening of many socioeconomic indicators, such as the decline of living standards, demographic density, urbanization, rising unemployment and dislocation from rural living. In addition, Arabs mostly face oppressive rule, political humiliation (in successive wars) and Western colonial intervention. The growing agony of the people cannot be ignored forever.

Leaders of mainline religious institutions are often unable to speak the truth openly to oppressive Arab political rulers. On the other hand, radical religious groups are able to organize underground. Their leaders target both ruling regimes and colonial powers. Muslim fanatic groups are popular because they are expressing the people’s frustrations.

However, despite their popularity, Arab extremist groups lack the political maturity to innovate democratically. The Arab world’s religious fanatics follow what they perceive as tradition obsessively, literally and coercively. In particular, such Arab groups are not concerned with the empowerment of women in society. They demonize the West, and blame their ills on the outside world.

Fanatics frequently rely on brute force and ignore human investment. They expect Islam to condone suicide killing, but authentic Islam will never give them the moral license to disregard universal rules of combat and insurgency. When Arab extremists become deeply self-critical, they may eventually find their way to real reform.

Western and Arab fundamentalists are trapped in a cycle of mutual demonizing. As the world becomes a global village, extremists across cultures and borders are waging ethnocentric wars. Arab fundamentalists demonize Western modernity, whereas American fundamentalists demonize Islamic ideology.

In each society, the future of extremist religion is tied to the future of mainline religion.

In the Arab world, where economies worsen and politics deteriorate, fundamentalism thrives and often becomes extremist and even violent. As long as moderate religious institutions are inhibited by their own autocratic states, there is little hope in containing fundamentalism.

And in America, as long as mainline churches are losing their relevance to a rapidly changing and competitive society, the fundamental church will continue to grow in size and in political impact. In an age of growing anxiety about the future of the world — and in particular, the future of Western civilization — fundamental churches seem to be able to respond with concrete, albeit over-simplistic and palliative answers, for which people are thirsty.

Ghassan Rubeiz is former Secretary for the Middle East of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. This article was originally published on the Common Ground News Service.