Home > Politics > On Fundamentalism and Intellectualism

On Fundamentalism and Intellectualism

You may not have ever seen rural areas of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, but you’ve probably heard them described. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting fantastic cities in Jordan, such as Amman and Aqaba, as well as the experience of driving through Kabul, Afghanistan on one or two occasions. However, I have also experienced the rural areas that make up the space in between the aforementioned cities in Jordan and spent a few months in the desolation that dominates southern and western Afghanistan.

I wish I had some pictures to show of the rural areas, but in Jordan I saved my pictures for the many beautiful and interesting sites and places; and in Afghanistan, as soon as I saw Helmand Province I decided that this was a place I’d rather not remember (which sounds a bit more dramatic than it actually turned out for me).  The point is, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere else, to include the emptiness of driving across western Texas and the southwestern deserts in the United States.

In America, it’s fairly common to call the cultures that live in such places “backwards,” and to refer to the dwellings as “prehistoric,” or “from the stone age.”  “Biblical” fits better, I think. In fact, the 1977 movie “The Message,” which tells the story of the founding of Islam in the 7th century through the eyes of the Prophet Muhammad (without depicting his image of course) looks about like the villages I saw in Afghanistan. I’m not kidding. It’s easy to look at these places, at this culture and say, “Wow. Time, science, technological advancement… it all just stopped.”  But that wouldn’t be exactly true.

I want to tell a story as briefly as my wordy tendencies will allow of a partial history of Islam and the Arab culture. I’ll jump right to the key point here, being that from the time of its founding and rise to prominence up through the 13th century, the Arab culture and Muslim religion was a great bastion of knowledge, discovery, experimentation and advancement. We may all know that our number system is Arabic and that Algebra and Alphabet are derivations of Arabic words. (Though as the first recorded “hipster” act in history, Arabs ceased using their own numbers* after most of the world had adopted them.) Less known is the medical and biological advances made in the Arab world, along with a few neat inventions.

Yes, the Arab world was full of wealth and knowledge and a desire to continue to seek both. In fact, it was the teachings of the Islamic religion that guided its followers to be seekers of knowledge. This may very well have continued on unimpeded for quite some time, but in the 18th century (well after the “Arab golden age” had ended), someone came along determined to change all of that.

There’s a brand of Islam called Salafiism. It’s been around since the outset and is a very strict and literal interpretation of the faith. However, an offshoot called Wahhabiism (but don’t call them that, as they simply consider themselves Salafis) sprang up led by a man named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The basic idea was that Islam should be purged of its “impurities and innovations.” In essence, this movement decreed that Muslims should live as the Prophet lived, and any advancements or alterations from that lifestyle were sacrilegious. Heavily funded and empowered out of Saudi Arabia, this form of Islam set up a system of schools and universities and quickly spread throughout the faith. And thus, a culture of knowledge, advancement, and discovery was slowly replaced by a culture that intentionally moved backwards; turning back the clock to the 7th century to experience the world as had their Prophet.

This post is not about Islam, Afghanistan and Wahabbis. This post is about my fear for America. It may sound like I’m using a “slippery slope” fallacy of logic here, but I am not suggesting that America will return to the dark ages.  However, I look across the dialogue of our political and social discourse and I can’t help but see some similarities. It is not a problem of religion. It is a problem of fundamentalism. It is a problem of insisting that others live within the framework of a moral and lifestyle code written centuries ago.

I see it from some Evangelical Christians, certainly, when issues such as birth control somehow resurface. The issue here is not just about who pays for birth control; it is that according to many, sex is for the intent of procreation, and any other form is sinful. But I see it, too, secularly in the frequent reflections on the founding fathers’ intent and a desire to turn back the clock to live in the society that these men had in mind.

The fundamentalist outlook on life, regardless of what it is to which you fundamentally adhere, seems to me to be one that is in direct opposition to progress of almost any kind. It is in direct opposition to discovery and to advancement. It is a request to either stop things as they are–before they get really bad–or to actually turn back the clock.

Must every issue from birth control to evolution to climate change to gay marriage first win a battle with the word of God before it can be accepted and advanced in society? Should a sacred book assembled at a council 1700 years ago be referenced for scientific opinions and each contemporary social policy? Or can we as a society find a way to separate our personal religious beliefs, faiths, or even secular historical idols from the topics and issues of the present day? I even read an article recently debating which economic principles Jesus and the Bible support.

It seems to me that it is possible to believe that the Bible is, in fact, the true word of God without also thinking that the word of God is intended to be used as any sort of science lesson or civics textbook. It also occurs to me that the Earthbound form of God, Jesus, spoke and taught in parables and therefore the word of God in the Bible could also be speaking in parables with no erosion of faith, but that’s a whole different blog post.

I support the freedom of people to make whatever faith decisions they choose. I acknowledge that personal faith does, in fact, play a role in decisions made by policy makers.  I even admit that in some circumstances, the separation of church and state overreaches, often to “protect” people from being offended while offending even more. (I also contend that in many instances, the separation of church and state is too weakly applied or poorly understood). However, I do not accept the rejection of new ideas and discoveries and ample evidence contrary to your belief based on the need to have a fundamentalist interpretation of that belief.

Let us not become a culture that ceases to focus on seeking knowledge and discovery in exchange for one that yearns to return to a time long since passed, closing our minds to new ideas. Let us look forward, and not back. And let our advancements be celebrated rather than politicized, religiocized and debated to no end. If not we risk a future in which other cultures view our own as the “backwards” one.  The slope may not be quite so slippery, but it is indeed a slope we risk falling down.

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  1. April 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Reblogged this on Ponder.

  2. May 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    Your’e observation is most correct. These massive spiritual traditions evolved to meet spiritual needs in specific social contexts. When those contexts are changed, there is a tendency to see the agent of change as a threat to all the peace and contentment the tradition promises. Birth control is a perfect example. The notions of marriage and relationships that evolved in the absence of reliable birth control are now less relevant than they once were. Squeezing an aspirin between her knees is not as valuable a strategy for a young woman as it was a century ago. The irony is that birth control is seen as a threat precisely because it solves the same problem the religion does: it keeps your daughter from being straddled for life with unwanted pregnancies. If the religion was perfect and timeless a century ago, it’s perfect today and timeless today–so any social improvement outside the faith just serves to distance us from God… Fundamentalism.

  3. May 6, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    * I got this note from a friend of mine and wanted to post it to clear up my interpretation of “Arabic numerals.” Apologies if my account was misleading: “Arabic numerals originated in India, were adopted by the Persian Empire and made their way to Europe through the Middle East. They are more accurately referred to as Hindu-Arabic Numerals while the number system used in Modern Standard Arabic is called the Eastern Arabic Numeral system.”

  1. April 25, 2012 at 5:12 am

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