No, Gov. Jindal, Islam Doesn’t Have a Problem. Fundamentalism Does

Louisiana Gov Bobby Jindal, a possible candidate for the Republican nomination for President in 2016, said in a speech in London last week, “Let’s be honest here, Islam has a problem.” His point is that unless a vast majority of Muslims denounce terrorism committed in the name of the religion and say clearly that those who do such things are not practicing Islam, then the religion as a whole has a problem it must face.

Gov. Jindal is only very partially correct. It isn’t Islam that has the problem; it is fundamentalism of every stripe. Fundamentalist Muslims who interpret not only passages in the Qur’an but also in another holy book known as Hadith to justify their violence are reacting, like fundamentalists historically have and continue to do, to fear that their base teachings are being corrupted by outside influences. As it happens, in our current world situation, Islam is the home of many such fundamentalists.

But they are not the only fundamentalists out there and, like fundamentalists of all kinds, they are in a tiny but very vocal minority.

Christian Fundamentalism is a Problem, Too

President Obama pointed out this same undeniable fact in a speech at the National Prayer Breakfast that he gave a few weeks ago. Here’s what he said:

[L]est we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

What he didn’t but could and perhaps should have added is that even today, fundamentalist Christians advocate violence to defend their religious positions. For example, extremist Christians applauded the assassination of a doctor who performed the absolutely legal surgical procedure of abortion for women in need in Kansas, as they have elsewhere in the nation.

The backlash from the extremists on the right was fast and furious.

Understanding Fundamentalism

In today’s world, an understanding of fundamentalism and its close cousin fanaticism is crucial to being able to maneuver on the political or socio-economic stage. Jindal shows no signs of understanding the subject at all. President Obama clearly does. It isn’t necessarily the case that we always need to tolerate fundamentalist thinking or actions — clearly we shouldn’t condone violence regardless of its trigger cause. But fundamentalism is a cross-cultural, cross-spiritual phenomenon that is popping up in many places of tension and stress in the world.

Fundamentalism in religion can be understood to mean the tendency to reduce a religion to its most fundamental tenets, based on strict interpretation of core texts. In that sense, there will always be fundamentalists in every religious and spiritual tradition. From an intellectual perspective, they perform a sometimes useful service as they force adherents to deal with the essential teachings that my have morphed over centuries of assimilation, accommodation and commentary.

In today’s Christian churches, e.g., there are progressive communities that question whether Jesus the Christ was uniquely the Son of God who literally died and literally resurrected for the sole purpose of saving humanity from its sins. They may adapt that belief and suggest that Jesus was indeed a great rabbi and teacher, perhaps even a spiritual Guru or Master, who taught unconditional love, universal forgiveness and the necessity of compassion. Fundamentalists accuse such progressives of not being “real Christians” and certainly not being able to avail themselves of the salvation that comes only — in their narrow view — through a strict interpretation of the Biblical texts.

Viewed more broadly, there is a continuum of beliefs about who Jesus was, what he taught and what one who would wish to be called a “believer” must believe about him. Those with progressive views would readily acknowledge that spectrum, typically not declaring those with whom they might disagree to be, of necessity, wrong. Fundamentalists, however, with a vested interest in maintaining a strict interpretation of the Biblical text, will be forced to declare those who take any liberties with the interpretation as heresy.

It’s About the Scripture and Interpretation

Note that in the definition I offer for fundamentalism, the emphasis is on interpretation of scripture. Fundamentalist Christians believe that every word of the Bible was directly and divinely inspired by God, at least in the original manuscripts. They attempt to apply its teachings and precepts in the modern world, a world which could not possibly have been foreseen by the original authors of the texts. Furthermore, we don’t have  a single authentic original manuscript as it was allegedly dictated by God through human “scribes” who recorded it flawlessly.

And here is where there is a key and often overlooked difference between Islam and Christianity. Whereas there is also no authentic original copy of the Qur’an, the earliest manuscripts of its content are dated very soon after the reported delivery of the book through an angel to the Prophet Mohammed. (It should also be noted that in Islam, the Qur’an itself is what is worshipped, not the Prophet, who is highly revered.) So that the earliest manuscripts are more likely to bear a close resemblance to the originals than is the case with Judeo-Christianity and the Bible, the earliest versions of which are hundreds of years later than the originals would have been produced. Muslims generally consider the Qur’an to be the only revealed book that has been protected by God from distortion or corruption.

The purest, most fundamental of Muslims do not believe the Qur’an should have been translated into any other language. And when those follower quote from the Sacred Text, they reference the original Arabic as the only true source of information and wisdom. If the Qur’an had never been translated into more popular languages, it is doubtful the religion would have been able to spread as widely and quickly as it has.

One other point that is perhaps salient to our present discussion is the relative youth of Islam. Today, Islam is about 1500 years old. (This is a bit of an oversimplification; for a more precise and fuller answer, see the Wikipedia article on the history of Islam.) When Christianity was 1500 years old, its adherents were still engaged in the Crusades, a violently bloody period of more than 500 years during which hundreds of thousands of Christians traveled thousands of miles to what is today the Arabian Peninsula and northern Africa to destroy Islam and its adherents. Wholesale massacres took place, the size and scope of which make today’s worst terrorist attacks pale by comparison.

A similar comparison could be drawn to the early history of the Judaic religion, as reflected in the history and mythology of the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Scriptures). It seems that, at least with the monotheistic religions, their early histories are plagued and scandalized by brute force behavior in an attempt either to spread what its adherents see as the only truth or to prevent any alternative profession of truth from achieving widespread following or recognition.

Where, Then, Is the Problem?

From what very abbreviated thoughts I’ve just offered here, it seems to me obvious that Gov. Jindal’s comment was designed only to inflame passions against a specific religious group that was following a pattern of newborn fundamentalist movements stretching back many thousands of years. While it is certainly true that Islam has a problem with fundamentalism in its ranks, the observation cannot logically or truthfully be confined to Islam and must, in fairness, be expanded to include Christianity, even down to the present day.

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