Book of the week

7th April 2000 at 01:00
THE BATTLE FOR GOD: fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. By Karen Armstrong. HarperCollins pound;19.99.

In Iran, they deposed the royal family. In Egypt, they shot dead the president during a military parade. In Israel, they settled the West Bank. In the United States, they attacked abortion clinics, censored schoolbooks and created some lucrative (if dire) television channels.

"They" are the people we once called bigots, now given more politically correct labels - traditionalists, evangelicals or fundamentalists. Karen Armstrong admits in the introduction to her latest book that "fundamentalist" is an imperfect term. It is carelessly applied to many diverse movements but must nevertheless suffice as a term for those who have "a lust for certainty".

The developing conflict between such enthusiasts and more liberal thinkers is the story of The Battle for God, a scholarly (if occasionally less than concise) book.

Armstrong begins her story in Spain in 1492. In that year, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered the city state of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Christendom. They also signed an order expelling all Jews from Spain - and Columbus sailed for the New World.

Armstrong shows how the three faiths have since come to terms with the modern world - in which, by 1900, science had largely replaced myth; worship of the future had supplanted reverence for the past, and self-expression was becoming an ideal.

But the intervening centuries had also spawned many religious teachers for whom progress, reason and freedom were not virtues. For them and for more recent fundamentalists, such marks of modernity were "an assault that threatened their most sacred values". They believed that "once biblical truth had been unravelled ... all decent values would disappear".

She moves on to a detailed analysis of four 20th-century movements - US Protestant fundamentalism; Jewish groups within the state of Israel; and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt and in Iran. In each case she makes clear the political and social changes that, with hindsight, we can see prepared the ground for a fundamentalist resurgence - and which, so frequently surprised, confused and wrong-footed the secular world.

In Iran, for example, the combination of a sudden population shift from the poverty-stricke countryside to the cities and an increasingly aloof Shah created an alienated underclass. When the Shah aligned himself with the USA ("the Great Satan"), this "modernity" was soon perceived as a threat to Islam. Four hundred Americans became prisoners in their Tehran embassy and the Ayatollah Khomeini was feted by the disaffected as a saviour.

In the USA, it was the influx of northerners into southern states. Conservative Baptists and Presbyterians, feeling threatened by the liberal ideas of the incomers, sought refuge in fundamentalist churches and the new breed of televangelists. Between 1965 and 1983, following the secularisation of US schools, enrolment in private evangelical schools increased sixfold.

Another great demon of this new Christian Right was feminism. The movement seemed to attack the traditional view of women as homemakers and "unmanned" the male. The new self-assertion of women was seen by Christian conservatives as "feminising" or even "castrating" men - destroying the structure of conventional society. Armstrong also suggests that this fear "underlay the fundamentalist hatred of homosexuality" which, like feminism, was perceived as "the cause of America's (moral) decline".

The author suggests 1974-79 may have been a highwater mark of the influence of fundamentalism, and titles her final chapter (covering 1979-1999) "Defeat?". The demise of the Iranian ayatollahs' regime during this period is well charted - but the situation in Israel since 1979 suggests the ultra-orthodox still wield considerable influence. Nor does the USA's reluctance to see its president impeached because of his sexual activity prove that the moral majority had given up its battle.

Fundamentalism, it seems, will always be with us - even if it tends to create caricatures of religion and science. How then can a mainstream culture which cherishes democracy and toleration connect with those who see such ideas as threats to a God-given order?

The answer, perhaps, is for our modern secular culture (which may have brought us happier and healthier lives) to appreciate that it has also resulted in "a void in society". Secularists, Karen Armstrong concludes, "must address themselves . . . to the fears, anxieties and needs which so many of their fundamentalist neighbours experience".


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