There are few things more dangerous in the modern world than pissed-off zealots drunk on the potent, backwoods hooch of religious fundamentalism. We received yet another reminder of this fact on January 7, when Muslim fanatics opened fire on the workforce of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people and injuring many more. The two main douche-canoes suspected in the Paris terror attacks were identified as Cherif Kouachi and his older brother, Said Kouachi. Their motivation appears to have been a revenge-attack in response to Charlie Hebdo’s habit of publishing uncompromisingly satirical cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed and generally mocking radical Islam in a manner that only the French could pull off. You see, visual depictions of Islam’s founder are forbidden under Muslim religious laws, so, yeah, guns; murder; terror, etc.
And, just to add some good ole’ fashioned anti-Semitism to the mix (because you can seemingly always blame the Jews for something!!!), two other suspects followed the Charlie Hebdo attacks by taking hostages in a kosher supermarket in a traditionally Jewish quarter located outside of Paris. A man named Amedy Coulibaly (a career-criminal with a bad case of Caliphate-itus) and a women named Hayat Boumedienne (Coulibaly’s former squeeze), apparently decided to bring about the second Muslim Conquest of Europe by shooting people in the frozen-foods section.
These types of terrorist attacks always spur the inevitable question of “why?” And the obvious answer to that question is, well, obvious: Islam forbids depictions of its prophetic Head Honcho, and Muslim fundamentalists (like most religious nutballs) are famously devoid of anything resembling a sense of humor. But that explanation doesn’t get at the deeper “why” to explain why so many people, whether they be Muslims or members of other faiths, are drawn to the siren call of religious fundamentalism. After all, there are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and most of them (like Lassana Bathily, the Muslim man who saved the lives of several hostages during the Paris kosher market siege) aren’t violent terrorists. And Muslims don’t constitute the only religious group drawn to fundamentalist lunacy. Anyone familiar with U.S. politics and culture knows that America has its own, home-grown strain of fundamentalism in the form of the most conservative versions of Evangelical Christianity. But of the world’s roughly 2.18 billion Christians, most aren’t out there fire-bombing abortion clinics or trying re-take Jerusalem for Richard the Lionheart.
So what gives? Why are some religious believers drawn to the most extreme, the most violent, and the most anti-Enlightenment fringes of their respective faiths? The answer is both simple and enormously complicated. At its core, however, religious fundamentalism is a decidedly modern phenomenon that exists as a reaction to the secularizing forces unleashed by the Enlightenment (yes, THAT Enlightenment) that gradually reshaped (and continue to reshape) how human beings interpret science, politics, gender relations, spirituality, and religion. While conservative religious beliefs have always existed, today’s fundamentalism is quite “new” in the sense that it thrives off of its resistance to the cultural dominance of scientific thinking, religious and racial pluralism, and small “d” democratic values — values that roughly separate the pre and post-Enlightenment eras in human history.
Indeed, when we say “Je Suis Charlie,” we’re not just offering support for a bitingly transgressive (if sometimes openly racist) newspaper’s right to rhetorically slaughter the world’s most sacred cows: we’re also taking a side in the battle between religious fundamentalism and the increasingly secular modern world. In her book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism, Karen Armstrong observes that the world’s various strains of religious fundamentalism share a common trait as “embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis.” Fundi beliefs, Armstrong continues, “are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself,” and fundamentalists regard this battle not as a “conventional political struggle,” but as “a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil.”* To resist the scourge of modern, secular, pluralistic societies, fundamentalists seek solace in an imagined past that supposedly embraced immutable religious truths that secular societies have disavowed. Religious fundies, Armstrong writes, “fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past.”*
Whether or not this more authentically religious past ever actually existed is of little concern to the paranoid, fundamentalist mind. Fundies view history entirely through nostalgia-fogged windows, and the mere idea that humans got religion “right” in the past by adhering to a particular belief system’s “fundamentals” is enough to inspire impressionable nutcases to kill someone over a cartoon.
The term “fundamentalism” itself actually has American roots. Early twentieth-century conservative Evangelical Protestants first used the term to distinguish themselves from more liberal denominations that supposedly strayed from the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith by embracing a figurative reading of the bible, among other nuanced offenses. But the term soon came to embody narrow-minded, science-adverse religious zealots of any faith background who were willing to wage spiritual (and literal) warfare against modernity and creeping secularism. As religious scholar Grant Wacker writes, “Generic fundamentalism takes its cues from a sacred text that stands above criticism. It sees time-honored social distinctions and cultural patterns as rooted in the very nature of things, in the order of creation itself.” To fundamentalists, messing with creation itself justifies the most extreme forms of retribution, including cold-blooded murder.
And it’s no surprise that religious fundamentalists often turn to violence to address their grievances with the modern world. Sociologist Charles Selengut reminds us in his book Sacred Fury: Understanding Religious Violence that while humans commit atrocious acts of violence for all manner of reasons, there is nonetheless a unique relationship between religion and violence. “Religious faith is different from other commitments,” he writes, because “the faithful understand the rules and directives of religion to be entirely outside ordinary social rules and interactions.” For the fervent believer, “the divine imperatives of the religious tradition, including violence, are not open to question by non-believers, and secular legalities can be breached if they conflict with religious truth.”* Thus, fundamentalists thrive on the incontestable “truth” of their divine beliefs, and if those beliefs instruct them to riddle the bodies of infidels with bullets, then so be it. God gave them the green light, and it’s easy to justify obscenely violent actions when those actions are sanctioned by literally the highest authority in the universe.
This kind of unassailable certainty and sense of divinely sanctioned righteousness represents precisely the kind of Dark Age human thinking that the Enlightenment challenged, and the prevalence of religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world demonstrates why we’re still fighting for the Enlightenment’s very soul in the twenty-first century. As long as there is religion in the modern world, there will be religious fundamentalists, and these overly righteous crackpots won’t stop waging their holy wars until what remains of the Enlightenment is drowned in a sea of self-imposed ignorance.
The secular world’s response to religious fundamentalism should continue to be firm but measured. Preserving the ideal of democracy and individual rights means that all believers should be free to believe as they see fit — provided they understand why the wall between church (or Mosque) and state must never fall. But those who wish to conflate the laws of their particular holy book with the laws of the secular state had better be prepared to see their fundi-fogged dreams of spiritual paradise remain just that, dreams. It’s fitting that Charlie Hebdo will continue to publish by the millions of copies even as twelve of its workers fell victim to fundamentalists’ bullets. The issue at hand is bigger than a sometimes brilliant, sometimes racist, but always profane French magazine: the gains of a great human intellectual tradition hang in the balance, and those are gains well worth fighting for.
* See Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (New York: Random House, 2000), xiii.
* See Charles Selengut, Sacred Fury: Understanding Religious Violence (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2008), 6.