Charlie Hebdo and the Modern Scourge of Religious Fundamentalism

A makeshift memorial for the slain Charlie Hebdo journalists.

A makeshift memorial for the slain Charlie Hebdo journalists.

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.

Tis statement pretty much epitomizes how religious fundamentalism approaches the modern world.

This statement pretty much epitomizes how religious fundamentalism approaches the modern world.

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.

Thousands march in Paris to show support for the type of secular, open society that permits a magazine like Charlie Hebdo.

Thousands march in Paris to show support for the type of secular, open society that permits a magazine like Charlie Hebdo.

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.

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  1. This one is a toss-up, because left-wingers are generally as hate-filled, loathsome, and despicable as islamic fundamentalists. It’s almost like watching the Nazis and Soviets fighting early in WWII.

    • Bolsheviks, Stalin regime, Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot, Kim Jung __…
      Nah, no violence or fanatics there…

      • For shame! You left out confederates, fascists, and military juntos in South America. You know, right wing governments displaying the same political techniques as Stalin and the Nazis. Don’t forget, Nazism was a right wing government.

  2. Yeah, me too. From the towering intellect of a Youngstown State doofus. Youngstown has gotta be what, the 13th most prestigious school in Ohio (behind, in no particular order, Ohio State, Ohio, Xavier, Denison, Oberlin, Cincinnatti, Dayton, Miami, Toledo, Bowling Green, Kent State, and Akron). Gimme a break hair-bear.

  3. Now I have seen it all! A Portland State dimwit has the unmitigated nerve to call someone a “troll”! For crying out loud, didn’t anyone on this worthless blog attend a decent school?!

  4. Oh for Heaven’s sake, now we have “Walden University” reporting in. What the hell is a “Walden” University” anyway? “Walden University” for chrissakes. Or as “Rainey” said, “DIDN’T ANYONE ON THIS WORTHLESS BLOG GO TO A DECENT SCHOOL?????!!!!!!

    But then again, I would never dignify such vulgar, inferior, primitive, boorish, and lowbrow institutions like Youngstown State or Portland State by recognizing them as schools. And Jesus, I can’t even begin to fathom what something called “Walden University” is supposed to be.

    • Until you actually use your real name and show a degree and school all you are is a nameless troll crying for attention while showing us you do not know anything about higher education.
      Now if you are going by sports identities, that’s fine. College sports have next to nothing to do with academics.
      You also might want to define what you consider a decent school to be and what standards it has to have. You can learn more about colleges here
      If you want to use a ranking system, good luck. None of them are the same and they all have shortcomings.

  5. lol…A “Walden University” guy is trying to take a tude. You are, however, correct about one thing; college sports have nothing to do with academic excellence. But then again, neither does ‘Walden University”.

  6. lol…if you attended “Walden University”, you most certainly don’t hold a degree.

    • Gee, then why are two degrees on my wall? Why do I teach in a job that requires a MA to do so? Why do you refuse to show your credentials? Only your lack of them can be the explanation.
      I was at a residency in December sitting with over 400 doctoral students. Almost all of us in higher education or K-12.
      You are not. It is never too late to learn. You should begin.

  7. lol…”Walden University”. By the way, that’s the on-line “school” with a 100% acceptance rate, right? “Walden University” for chrissakes…..have you no shame?

    • Gee, the peanut gallery speaks. People that have no idea what goes on in higher education and have no qualifications think they can criticize those who are in higher education. That’s about as good as your knowledge of history which is severely lacking as indicated in earlier posts.

      One day when you start to open your mind to learning you might progress, but then I doubt it. You will be too busy chewing on the cheese that goes with your whine.

  8. You just don’t get it do you? You were “educated” at a woefully inferior institution, and that you posture as an “educator” is both farcical and absurd.

  9. Really? And you have what for an education? Nothing? So who are you to judge what is beyond your limited capacity to judge? When I want to compare elementary schools to each other for research purposes I will keep you in mind.

  10. WTF? Anyway, any claim that “Walden University” is a legitimate institution of higher learning is a laugable farce. But by all means, if your are going to compare elementary schools, please do include “Walden University”, it will fit right in. Actually, the elementary schools are probably far superior and far more advanced. “Walden University” for chrissakes….

    • Look! A troll with no degree speaking about stuff they know nothing about! Hell, when do you run for Congress as a Republican? You’re certainly qualified to do absolutely nothing like they do.

  11. lol@ the Dumbocrat retard from “Walden University”. Btw, I just reviewed the admission criteria for “Walden University”, and it is highly competitive. It seems one must be 24 years of age in order to be accpeted. Lololol!!! How very competitive!!! Good grief, the fact that you are not utterly humiliated by having attended that ridiculous slipshod institution is all one really needs to know.

    Well, maybe there is more to know. I just read your review of “Ratifiction” in the Summer 2013 edition of something called “Saber and Scroll” (you proudly list it among your published works-lol). Holy Cow, it was positively dreadful. No kidding, it reads as if it was written by a small child. You basically wrote “Pauline Maeir was a very, very, very, very, very, very, very good historian and she wrote a very, very, very, very, very, very, very good book. Her book is as nice as a day at the seashore”.

    Buth then again, what would one expect from a “Walden University” alumnus.

  12. What does one expect of someone who has no degree, doesn’t know history, and hides behind a lot of aliases like you do? Nothing. It is really amazing how you criticize me when you can offer nothing of your own. Wait, that’s because you have nothing to show.

    I suppose you think you are bothering me with your insults, but the only thing you have accomplished is to demonstrate your lack of intelligence and your complete and utter lack of knowledge of what goes on in higher education. It must really bug you that when you have posted under the multitude of aliases on this forum and many others that you have been constantly proven wrong every single time. That’s a perfect track record of failure.

    You know what must really bother you and the rest of your buddies? That you keep getting your asses beat badly by me and Chris and Jarret and Andy and the others. Guess that Walden degree is better than anything you have.

  13. lol..a “Walden degree”. Too, too funny. What’s funnier still, is the following selection from your book review:

    “However, Congress did decide to send it on as they deemed it was legal to do so under the Articles of Confederation. Had they thought it was not legal, they certainly would not have done so.”

    You clearly learned nothing of tautology at “Walden University”. But then again, “tautology” has more than one syllable, so the concept was probably taught only in the “Honors” classes at “Walden Universiy”. I repeat, you write like a child. And worse still is the fact that you are truly not embarrssed to put your name to that stinkin’ mess of jumbled words and incoherent ideas. But you keep living in your silly fantasy world where a “Walden degree” is a most impressive thing. Pathetic.

  14. What’s the matter? Did you get upset that someone read a book more complicated than Green Eggs and Ham? I realize that Ratification is far beyond your understanding and certainly does not fit into your ideology, but facts are facts no matter whether you deny them or not.

    Too bad you don’t have a degree. But then why would you? That would require actually learning which is beyond your capacity according to all the erroneous posts you’ve made on the blogs. My Walden is still more than you will every have.

      • This is a well known loser who has nothing better to do than make totally inaccurate posts while proving him or her to be ignorant of history. It hides behind an alias because it is a coward. It has no college degree and can only whine petulantly because is accomplishes nothing.

        You are right in that you can’t “win.” There is nothing to win. I just find it very amusing that a coward with no degree who has been wrong with every post it has ever made continues to bleat.

  15. Still don’t know what tautology is, do ya blubberbut? And as for “Green Eggs and Ham”, was that the textbook used for English 101 at “Walden University”? Probably not, it is far too complicated for the collection of misfits, dolts, dimwits, and nincompoops at “Walden Online University”. And speaking of misfits, dolts, dimwits, and nincompoops, here is another selection from your book review:

    “The example of James Madison barely being elected to the first House of Representatives is a good example of how personalities clashed over ratification”

    Geezus H. Krist, you write like a 5th grader. But then again, that is to expected from a dimwit alumnus of a “University” which boasts a 100% acceptance rate.

    Really, who are you trying to kid?

    • Ever hear of The American Historian or the Organization of American Historians? You might want to do an Internet search and find something related to me. Let’s see if you can.

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