In February 1998, Osama bin Laden issued an edict. "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it, in order to liberate the Al Aqsa mosque [Jerusalem] and the Holy Mosque [Mecca]," he explained. "This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God… We call on every Muslim who believes in God and wished to be rewarded to comply with God’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it."
Those haunting words were played out on September 11, 2001. In response to the horrors that befell thousands that day, US citizens of all beliefs decried Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism it seems to nurture. A large segment unquestioningly supported President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, believing his assertion that Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction posed an equally dire threat. Yet few imagined, despite any concerns about the Bush Administration’s agenda, a day when the President would disclose: "God told me to strike at al Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East."
On June 27, 2003, with those precise words Bush put his previous and, most certainly, future actions into perspective.
The ramifications of that statement, and the marked deterioration of civil liberties and religious freedom in the US over the past few years, leads to a nagging question: Could the US slip into a fundamentalist mode paralleling those nations we currently deem the world’s greatest threat? The events of 9/11 certainly have played into the hands of the Christian right. Citizens and government officials, unnerved by the looming threat of further attack, have permitted, even encouraged, this movement to flourish, further fusing God and Jesus with government, patriotism, and the warding off of Islamic fundamentalist evils.
Although much savagery, such as honor killings and the stoning to death of women for adultery, occurs in Middle Eastern and other societies where Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish fundamentalisms hold sway, both history
and contemporary events around the world confirm that Christian fundamentalism isn’t immune from such barbarousness. In Fundamentalism and Terrorism, psychoanalyst Robert M. Young notes that prisoners were the victims of agonizing torture under the conservative Christian dictatorship in Argentina. Afterward, they were flown in helicopters, where their abdomens were cut open and they were dropped into the sea as shark feed.
This gory example may not be typical, but it does confirm that, under the right conditions, dreadful atrocities inflicted by extreme Christians aren’t impossible. Most fundamentalists aren’t inclined to such cruelties, yet aggressive, even violent tendencies are often present, if only toward spouses and children.
So, do US Christian fundamentalists bear any striking resemblance to Islamic fundamentalists abroad? In recent months, a disquieting reality has begun to penetrate the national consciousness. By examining the similarities, we may develop a deeper awareness and understanding of why our country is in its current predicament, and more importantly, where it may be headed.
A chief similarity between Christian and Islamic fundamentalists is their patriarchal family structure and victimization of women. This is played out not only in private, but also in the public sphere where fundamentalisms rule. The appalling treatment of women in Afghanistan by the Taliban came to the forefront following 9/11. For example, women were regularly subjected to beatings at the hands of the Taliban’s religious police. Their offenses? In some cases, reported Richard Lacayo in the December 3, 2001 issue of Time, simply the sin of wearing white socks or appearing in public without a burka. Spousal abuse and honor killings by family members have been the norm, and in some cases are legal, in many Islamic fundamentalist societies. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, women were also banned from working outside the home, except in a few specific healthcare positions.
While US laws currently don’t dictate female attire, not long ago it was sinful for women to show their ankles. Many were required to adhere to a strict and insufferable dress code. Though today’s Christian fundamentalists do not generally require the head-to-toe garments worn by the Puritans of the past, many still allow only loose fitting dresses with high necklines, cut no shorter than the knee, often uncomfortable for the occasion or season.
Obsessions with female purity are played out in other ways. In 1998, Alabama passed a law making it illegal to sell, distribute, or manufacture sexual devices, including vibrators. It was overturned in 2002, yet spoke volumes about how far Christian fundamentalists will go to impose their "values" on all US women. As if to hammer that point home, in April, Attorney General Bill Pryor filed his second appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, challenging the most recent federal court ruling against the ban. Soon afterward, President Bush nominated Pryor to join the 11th Circuit as a judge.
The role of women in Christian fundamentalist homes is generally well defined: wife, mother, and homemaker. Often, they are not allowed to work outside the home and are vulnerable to abuse, sometimes condoned, or at best dismissed, by the clergymen they may ask for help. Restrictive and unfair divorce laws and welfare reforms are also frequently proposed by the Christian right, measures that would make it more difficult, if not impossible, for women to leave lethal relationships.
In Islamic fundamentalist societies such as Pakistan, the indoctrination of children is commonplace. According to the October 15, 2001 issue of US News & World Report, boys, sometimes as young as six and often from poor families, are sent to religious schools (madrasahs), where socialization is severely restricted during their most critical years. In the madrasahs, they spend their first three years memorizing the Koran. Science and math aren’t taught, and history is limited to the Muslim world. Reportedly, children in madrasahs are shackled and sometimes beaten. According to Philip Smucker and Michael Stachell, writing for Time, the Taliban was largely made up of graduates from these schools.
With striking similarity, James Dobson, former professor of pediatrics and a popular conservative Christian voice heard by millions, summed up the Christian fundamentalist mindset in Children at Risk. "Those who control what young people are taught, and what they experience Ñ what they see, hear, think, and believe Ñ will determine the future course for the nation," he predicted. In the US, that is accomplished by home schooling or sending children to ultra-conservative Christian schools, where socializing that might open doors to critical thought is limited. The key concept of fundamentalist education is controlling what children learn.
In Parenting Isn’t for Cowards, Dobson also argues, "If the salvation of our children is really that vital to us, then our spiritual training should begin before children can even comprehend what it is all about." Thus, children are indoctrinated through recitation and memorization of Bible verses and prayers, often reinforced with hell-fire and brimstone lectures. Their textbooks typically distort scientific and historic facts. New math is avoided altogether, since it leads to the development of critical thinking skills.
Abuse of Christian fundamentalist children is well documented. As early as 1974, sociologist H. Erlanger reported in American Sociological Review that conservative religious affiliation is one of the greatest predictors of child abuse, more so than age, gender, social class, or size of residence. Other studies, reported in The Role of Parental Religious Fundamentalism and Right-wing Authoritarianism in Child-Rearing Goals and Practices by social psychologist Henry Danso and others, conclude that child discipline by corporal punishment is typically related to religious conservatism, probably stemming from fundamentalists’ authoritarian nature.
All fundamentalisms sport their share of militants. In the US, extreme militia and "patriot" groups (many Christian-based) see war on terrorism "as justification for their existence," argued Brad Knickerbocker in the Christian Science Monitor on June 18, 2002. He believes that a Timothy McVeigh type could be tempted to join forces with foreign terrorists, "perhaps to precipitate the kind of race war envisioned in The Turner Diaries."
Militias in the US are dangerously equipped with the skills and weaponry to manifest the kind of fear, chaos, and destruction often seen in theocratic societies. Because most Christian extremists use religion as a grant to carry out what they see as God’s bidding, militia groups could easily influence and fuel the fundamentalist climate. Considering the fact that 79 of the world’s 82 armed conflicts during the brief period between 1989 and 1992 were within Ñ rather than between countries Ñ this possibility shouldn’t altogether be dismissed.
The one Ñ in some cases only Ñ difference between Christian and Islamic theocrats is their use of the Bible, versus the Koran, to justify an oppressive ideology or holy war. With approximately 400 militia-type groups in the US, and Christian identity believers alone numbering in the range of 40,000, the implications are profound.
Other evidence of militant and violent tendencies among Christian fundamentalists appears is 99 Covert Ways to Stop Abortion. Published by the Army of God, it’s a list of vicious and criminal recommendations for terrorizing abortion clinic doctors, employees, and women seeking abortion. More than 2500 acts of violence, including murders and attempted murders, bombings, arson, death threats, assault and batteries, anthrax threats, and acts of vandalism have been committed by US antiabortionists, reports the National Abortion Federation.
While less massive than Osama bin Laden’s catastrophic World Trade Center attack, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols caused 168 deaths when they bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. Influenced by the Christian Identity movement, their intention was to retaliate against what they perceived as government attacks on a Ruby Ridge white supremacist family and the Branch Davidians in Waco.
Karen Armstrong, author of The Battle for God, writes, "Because they believe that they are fighting for survival, fundamentalists tend to militancy, ignoring the more compassionate elements of the faith in favor of more ferocious theologies. In all three religions, including American Protestantism, fundamentalism seems to be becoming more extreme."
Christian fundamentalists in the US haven’t committed terrorist acts to the same degree as some other fundamentalist groups for two main reasons, claims Armstrong. First, they live in a more peaceful society. But they also believe that, with God on their side, US democracy will give way to a theocracy on its own.
Fundamentalism and Fascism
There are many similarities between fundamentalism and fascism, and the two phenomena often mesh. Given the attitude of the current US administration, this warrants some discussion. As a political philosophy, fascism is both authoritarian and antidemocratic. The state is placed above the individual, requiring absolute obedience to a glorified leader.
The Bush Administration has been particularly authoritarian in regard to the war in Iraq, demanding blind patriotism from constituents. And, as Fareed Zakaria reported in Newsweek on March 24, 2003, Bush is equally demanding and authoritarian in his relations with foreign nations. "President Bush’s favorite verb is Ôexpect’," he writes. Zakaria also mentioned that Donald Rumsfeld’s favorite quote is an Al Capone line: "You will get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone."
Christian fundamentalists have also glorified Bush, another requisite for a fascist leader. In March, pamphlets produced by In Touch Ministries were distributed to thousands of Marines, calling on them to pray for Bush. Usually, it’s the other way around.
Not all fundamentalisms, nor all fundamentalists within a particular religion, are identical. Environmental factors such as culture and government influence fundamentalist fears, reactions, and power. Still, several characteristics generally seem to be present: an inability to cope with modernity or life struggles; an authoritarian personality style; a need to simplify, which is accomplished through black and white thinking; and ultimately, given the right set of circumstances, the potential for inconceivable violence against those they perceive as their enemies.