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As we approach the anniversary of 9/11, a religious scholar looks at the fear behind fundamentalism
In the wake of 9/11, we struggled with the consequences and lessons of that terible day, as did all organizations concerned with spiritual traditions. The Winter 2001 issue, the first to appear after 9/11, featured responses from a number of respected Buddhist figures, among them Acharya Judy Lief, who wrote:
In the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, in many quarters there is a subtle undercurrent of satisfaction, even glee, that the U.S. is finally experiencing a small glimmer of what life is like outside its privileged bubble. We have come to take for granted a level of prosperity, security, and personal freedom unheard of in most parts of the world. While we are obsessing about ups and downs of the stock market, the price of gas, or the hassles of HMOs, countless others are worrying about surviving ethnic violence and genocidal warlords, falling ill with no chance of treatment, or finding enough food to eat and clean water to drink. Can you blame people for feeling it’s about time we joined the real world?
This was not what many Americans expected or wanted to hear in the fall of 2001. The essay drew angry responses, but in retrospect, it is plain to see we were protected from most such acts of war before 9/11. Another response that many found provocative was Stephen Batchelor's assertion that violence was intrinsic to the idea of a nation-state:
The challenge for Buddhists is not to let a commitment to the principle of nonviolence blunt one’s critical acumen or deflect one’s gaze from looking steadily into the nature and origins of violence. It is far too simplistic to think of violence as originating solely in the psychology of hatred and anger. Violence is intrinsic to the function of the nation-state. Our freedoms and privileges in a liberal democracy are ultimately guaranteed by the willingness of the state to use violence to protect them. It is conceivable that a president or general could launch a devastating military attack on an enemy who threatened their country’s way of life without any anger or hatred at all. When everything else fails, a nation-state will resort to violence to protect the interests of its citizens. One needs to acknowledge that there may be a contradiction between one’s heartfelt commitment to nonviolence and one’s enjoyment of the wealth and freedoms of a modern democratic power.
9/11 showed us the dark side of religion and promoted the rise of the New Atheists, who tarred all of religion with the same fundamentalist brush. In "The 'R' Word," Robert Bellah challenges the New Atheists, arguing that religion is intrinsic to human activity It is never going away, no matter how secular societies get, because it has been the primary method for creating meaning in our lives.
In the run-up to the Iraq War in early 2003, anti-Muslim hysteria was at a fever pitch, fanned by the Christian Right and the political right in general. At around this time,Tricycle's Andrew Cooper spoke with Karen Armstrong about fundamentalism and the fear that lies beneath it in "The Freelance Monotheist." Asked to characterize fundamentalism, Armstrong replied:
Every fundamentalist movement that I have studied is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. It is a defensive, embattled religiosity that is fighting for its life. Because fundamentalists fear annihilation, they are highly suspicious of the “other” and have all developed quite pernicious views of the “enemy,” though it must be emphasized that only a tiny proportion of fundamentalists take part in acts of terror and violence. Most are simply trying to live what they regard as a true religious life in a world that seems increasingly hostile to faith, and all have developed in a symbiotic relationship with a secularism that is felt as invasive and destructive. Every single fundamentalist movement that I have studied is convinced that modern secular society is trying to wipe out religion. And besides religious fundamentalists, there are secular fundamentalists who often have as bigoted and inaccurate an idea of religion as fundamentalists have of secularism.
As we approach the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, let us take the opportunity to look back at the fear, uncertainty, and anger of those times. Next week, we will examine Karen Armstrong's efforts to use the good that is common to all religions to make the world a better place, one community at a time.
Take a look at one or more of the articles cited here and let us know how your view of the events of 9/11 have evolved over the past decades and how prescient—or wrongheaded—you feel these essayists are.
In particular, Karen Armstong's interview is a good one to get acquainted with. When she joins us next week, you will be able to ask her questions about how her own views have changed—or been reaffirmed.