Karen Armstrong on Religious Fundamentalism

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.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
marincarle's picture

Cause and effect, action/reaction. No one deserves the horror of 9/11. But the reality is that we Americans have harbored much ill-will in the world. Maybe not our citizens, but our businesses, industries and government... unfortunately they represent us. We Americans have been blind (or turn a blind eye) to what these institutions have and are doing in other countries... supporting dictators, making illegal deals, selling weapons for profit with disregard to how they are going to be used, etc. etc. Buddhism teaches us about the laws of cause and effect. Maybe this is something we all need to look at. A lot of these people (extremist / fundamentalist, what ever you want to call them) don't hate use because they envy or lifestyle or religious beliefs, they are against the ways we have acquired our lifestyle, many times at the expense of their own lifestyle, freedom and even lives.

In regards to a previous comment that all fundamentalist are not the same... they all have their violent side. Case in point, abortion clinic bombings and doctors murdered. These people were acting on their own, but fundamentalism tends to be the breeding ground for these extremist.

Personally I agree with Ms. Armstrong that all religions have a common ground. Lets find the common ground and take "the middle way", which is what Buddhist believe in the first place.


Dominic Gomez's picture

Educator and Buddhist reformer Tsunesaburo Makiguchi questioned the underlying logic of global industrial and political competition, exploring the possibility that competition could fundamentally be recast in a non-violent mode of mutual striving for excellence. He termed this "humanitarian competition" and suggested that as the historical possibilities of military, political and economic competition exhaust themselves, this form of competition would take a central place in human affairs.
He saw this shift as not merely a change in the venue or form of competition, but a qualitative transformation, from a winner-takes-all style of competition, to one conducted within a consciously acknowledged framework of cooperation (a "win-win" mode of competition).

In his work "The Geography of Human Life" (1903), Makiguchi wrote that "What is important is to set aside egotistical motives, striving to protect and improve not only one's own life, but also the lives of others. One should do things for the sake of others, because by benefiting others, we benefit ourselves. This means to engage consciously in collective life."

Lycas_2000's picture

When the Titanic went down it didn't really matter how much you paid for your ticket. You were going to drown when the darn thing sunk. We can only stand cold temperatures in the North Atlantic for so many minutes, so we were all in the same boat if we were lucky enough to be outside the building. I had wished I went up in the tower to visit when I was in NY six month earlier when I got the chance. I felt a little violated. Like I got put in jail for something I didn't do or for something that was a stupid law to begin with like the war on drugs. All somebody has to do is plant a little grass or dope on you and call the law and its curtains... Nobody really cares what your doing anyhow its all just a game. This article is a good reminder of the simple pleasures in life we are all chasing after in our daily lives.

Buddhism often asks us to look at love and desire. I don't have a real life when it comes to propitiate striving in the affective domain. I take my medication. I wish I could learn to meditate instead of medicate. I'm learning everything I can about it. Find it all fascinating like I'm suppose to and make my AA meetings, but have little immediate family. My lover is a jerk. All I have to do is focus on hygiene, meals and reading materials. I have to avoid weight gain and wash my clothes. I slipped back into pain relief which I justify because I had tension headaches from the stress over my people pleasing and lack of affection. I was running to many errands for everyone else and failed out of GRAD school. I started leaning back toward Christianity because my practice wasn't doing much for me.

Have fundamentalist a better perception or the correct ideology that we should covet them? I believe like all of us they know where the want to be but they deceive themselves and can't see the truth.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Welcome to the reality of the good ship samsara, Lycas. Yes, I have a ticket same as you that's allowing me to sail on the great ocean of "the affective domain". But when this vessel goes down, my hope is that both you and I will find ourselves on board a sturdier ship in our next lifetimes. I believe that's what Buddhism is really asking us to look at carefully as we press ahead from this very moment. Be strong and maintain faith, m'friend.

meditatortoo's picture

The events of 9/11 and the responses to the attacks on America were the major motivators for me turning to Buddhism for some answers. Islamic fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism going head to head. When the 'Stars and Stripes were hoisted in the Yankee Statium to the strains of 'The Truth goes marching in' I realised that I needed to look wider for answers. I was born in 1949 the year after the state modern day Israel was established, from my early twenties I have questioned the way that indigenous people have been treated throughout the world at the hands of the more powerful, not least the Palestinians.

Religion has always been an influential factor in my life, raised as a child under Aglican and Methodist teaching, and later while serving in the Royal Navy I turned to Evangelical Christianity to help me cope with a serious problem I had with handling alchohol. In the name of faith I shelved conflict on the back burner of my mind ... i.e. The treatment of Hagar and Ishmael in the Old Testament, The manner in which God organised the Israelites into a confrontational military force in order to march on from one conquest to another in search of the 'Promised Land', and turning to the New Testament the promise of 'My Grace is sufficient for you' when faced with personal inadequacies and the encouragement to rely on the 'Holy Spirit' as a guide! I could never work out which was the voice of the Holy Spirit and which was my own built in moral guide and logic.

So with these embedded conflicts along came 9/11 providing the proverbial kick up the rear end. Initially it motivated me to join the Anti War Movement, dismounting a bus at 4.45am, armed only with my guitar and few home spun protest songs I was, apart from Brian Haw himself probably the first of the 2 million to take to the streets of London on February 15th 2003 in protest to the Iraq war. That was one very long day, it was 6pm in the evening when I walked through the gates of Hyde Park. I have no regrets about my participation but in hindsight I question the effectiveness of protesting. The 2 million who marched against the Iraq war represented the views of over 80% of our nation at the time - these views went unheeded. To me that indicates there is a problem with our current democratic structure here in the U.K.

From 2001 on, starting with initial research on the internet, then moving on to visits to a nearby Theravadan Buddhist Monastery, and joining a local Buddhist group in my city, I find that slowly I am beginning to slot a few pieces of life's complex jigsaw into place. I find the Buddha's take it, try it, keep it if it works or discard it if it dosn't a very honest and refreshing way of training. I havn't progressed much beyond a very basic understanding of the 'Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path' coupled with a very embryonic 'Calm abiding and Insight Meditation' practice.

Strange though, even with this very basic practice, I am coming around to the idea, that it's ok to stash things onto the backburner, I don't have to have answers to everything, conflict is ok. As the Buddha said He's right and so is He and Him also when the blind were feeling their way around the elephant!

Yes I too like the concept of 'using the good that is common to all religions to make the world a better place'. I very much enjoyed the film 'With One Voice' from the recent Buddha Film Festival. As for the mixing of politics and religion, there is very little I can do about it, they are mixed, they were in the days when the Buddha taught they are today, dharma is all embracing.

I am not one for skirting around the boundaries, for me conflict has to be investigated. Sure I question terrorist activities, I also question pre-emptive wars. I question the manner in which the United Nations is more and more being used as Los Vegas style slot machine, pull the handle and if you get a despicable dictator, a williness expressed through a UN veto along with the belief that errant leader and his supporters are doable then 'Bingo' you have the three cherries lined up along with the nod for military intervention. Why are we constantly on the search for conflict, who profits from this?

Our political systems, our leaders, and our international structures be they fiscal, military, environmental or NGA's are only as good as our own combined personal contribution. As Buddhists joining with other like minded people we can make a very important contribution and so I too look forward to Karen's Imput and participating in the forthcoming forum.

Will.Rowe's picture

It seems a bit disengenuous to lump all fundalmentalist groups together; after all, there is only one fundalmentalist religion killing others with terrorism across the globe in the name of their religion--Muslim terrorists. Most Muslims are not terrorists of course, and some have even helped in the war on terrorism, yet it is deceptive if not inaccurate to pretend that we were attacked by fundalmentalists on 9/11 (as though this were Christian, Buddhist, Hindus, or even atheists).

As for "feeling it’s about time we joined the real world?", is this the reaction of a peaceful heart? Rejoicing in a terror attack upon America does not demonstrate any Buddhist compassion or love for others; rather, this shows a heart of malace or envy.

I think most people fear "annihilation", so it is hardly a relevation that a certain group might harbor the same notion. Isn't this one of the very things that we Buddhists battle as well when we face death or anatta?

Stephen Batchelor's comments are quite interesting in advising us to look at the roots of violence. Although violence may be intrinsic to a nation-state, I think the source is ultimately a human condition. To imply violence is only the result of a certain government form would lead one to conclude that without a nation-state, violence would not be prevelant. This is easily disproved since there is much evidence demonstrating that humans have killed each other long before any centralized states came into being. His point about attacking an enemy without any anger does appear quite accurate.

It seems to me that we can acknowledge that religous zealots attacked the US in the name of their religion, yet try to not have hatred for others of this same faith, realizing that it is only a small number of Muslims who are terrorists. Also, it would be good to acknowledge the peace-loving Muslims who deplore this terrorism. My only request is that we not pretend that all fundalmentalist religions are attacking across the globe in the name of their religion, when it is only one. Being dishonest or implying that the US got its just deserts when we were attacked by terrorists does everyone killed or injured that day, as well as all Americans, a great disservice and it can easily be viewed as an insult. Surely, this does not promote anything we would want, does it?

I like the idea of the "using the good that is common to all religions to make the world a better place." This is far more constructive and less devisive than attacking "the Christian Right and the political right in general." Another focus could simply be to see how this event helped us to remember what is really important to us that we usually take for granted.

I guess my concern is that some would use 9/11 to introduce anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Conservative politics here in a good Buddhist format. Should politics and religion (forgive me the use of this "convenient" term) be mixed? Is it beneficial?

awalts's picture

Stephen Batchelor asks: "is the Buddhist commitment to nonviolence but a noble aspiration whose goal can never be reached on this earth?" One of the most devastating aspects of 9/11 is how it threw us so back into the midst of brutality, violence, pain, and hate - exploding our aspirations toward an evolved, enlightened society just as it smashed at the symbols of our economic and military achievement. So while I welcome the call to honesty and clear understanding of our actual situation, looking back on 9/11 from here this statement feels like a capitulation. (Our violent response caused far more harm than the violence that Batchelor feared we cannot withstand - though I feel in my heart why he responded so.) I prefer Martin Luther King Jr.'s conviction that peace is certainly in the cards for us, though none of us may fully taste it in our lifetimes. Karen Armstrong emphasizes that compassion is found at the heart of every religion. Why capitulate to the violence of fearfulness and hatred, when the overwhelming call at the heart of every human spiritual aspiration is for peace?

raymondtovo's picture

Thank you.
What i remember about some things said in that aftermath was that Americans needed more time and space to grieve. No war making.To just stop and feel the pain for as long as it took for each and every one of us. There was no need to rationalize or blame or least of all to say that now Americans know what it is like in other parts of the third world. Some writings were indeed cruel. No matter how rich a person is, they suffer as much as the poor person in Haiti. or wall street, it is all duka.Grieving takes its own time.

islomane's picture

Any extreme ideology or stance ought to be viewed as potentially dangerous to society, save for one virtue: pulling and expanding the framework in which productive thought and discussion might take place. Actions motivated by extremism, however, are the source of great suffering in this world.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Looking forward to discusing with Ms. Armstrong and others the role the religious person (rather than religion) can play in repairing the damage to human spiritual life.