15th April 19:56
Making the world safe for . . . theocracy?
Making the world safe for . . . theocracy?
By DOUG SAUNDERS
Saturday, August 30, 2003 - Page F3
The Iranian cab driver was taking me across one of the largest Persian cities
when he confessed that he had become worried about his country's fate.
"Everywhere there is religion," he told me. "This is the most religious place
anywhere. This should be the most modern country in the world, but the
politicians want God to run everything."
His country, in his view, was hanging in the balance. The legislature,
officially secular, was dominated by a circle of strict religious adherents who
controlled the executive branch. In every speech, they invoked God's powers, and
they were making determined efforts to bring religious authority into every
branch of public life. Half the country's people seemed to support religious
authoritarianism, while the other half seemed to hide in frightened silence.
The only thing surprising about this conversation was that it took place in Los
Angeles, home to hundreds of thousands of expatriate Iranians, and the subject
of my taxi driver's complaints was the United States.
The driver was asking a question that seems to hang on the world's lips: Does
the United States have its own problem with fundamentalism, perhaps as serious
as the one faced by the Islamic world?
To someone who has fled the rule of revolutionary mullahs, America today must
seem shocking: Though it boasts the world's first all-secular constitution,
religion is far more pervasive in day-to-day public life in the United States
than it is on the streets of Tehran.
The United States is the only major nation where politicians of every party are
expected to mention Jesus in their speeches. Elsewhere, such an invocation would
be remarkable and off-putting. When Ontario Premier Ernie Eves made mild
comments this week about his Anglican boyhood, his mention of religion made this
newspaper's front page.
This week, the world watched as many Americans rallied behind an Alabama judge
who was thwarted in his efforts to assert a theocratic foundation for his
country's laws by putting a statue of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse.
His arguments sounded uncannily like those used by the Taliban, the Iranian
mullahs and like-minded fundamentalists.
Already spooked by the religious faith of George W. Bush (who said in 2000 that
his favourite political philosopher is Jesus Christ), foreigners couldn't help
wonder what was going on. One of my colleagues, watching the throngs of
Christian protesters outside the Alabama courthouse, suggested that this
newspaper mark the 25th anniversary of the Iranian revolution with a series.
Part 1: "The struggle for democracy in Iran." Part 2: "The struggle for
theocracy in America."
In the developing world, American religious extremism is even better known. As
the world's largest foreign-aid spender, whenever the United States takes part
in a United Nations aid project, its officials insist on strict religious
principles, such as prohibiting any discussion of abortion and insisting on
***ual abstinence as the only means of preventing AIDS.
In pressing for such limitations, U.S. representatives have joined an unlikely
voting bloc whose other members are Iran, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Pakistan and the
Vatican. Fundamentalists east and west have no trouble finding common ground
That has led many people to wonder: Is American Christian fundamentalism a close
sibling of the Islamic kind, and does it pose a similar threat? Are the world's
"fundamentalisms" (to use the new, slightly annoying term) really one? Is
America threatened by religious extremism as much as its enemies are?
In recent months, these questions have become a subject of study and debate on
There is a silly version. A current non-fiction bestseller titled The Clash of
Fundamentalisms, by New Statesman editor Tariq Ali, features a cover showing
George W. Bush wearing Osama bin Laden's headdress, and Mr. bin Laden wearing
Mr. Bush's clothes. In case that point wasn't clear enough, there is even less
subtlety in the argument inside, which has little value beyond protest-march
But while the United States is clearly not a fundamentalist regime (even the
conservative federal judges appointed by Mr. Bush showed no interest this week
in seeing the Ten Commandments in a courthouse), that doesn't mean its Christian
extremists aren't a serious subject.
The Fundamentalisms Project, an international group that has been studying
extreme religious regimes for 12 years, has just published a carefully
researched report taking note of a "family resemblance" between Islamic and
American Christian groups.
These similarities aren't coincidental. Fundamentalism, both word and concept,
was invented by American Protestants in the early 20th century, during the
heated debate between creationists and evolutionists. The term first appeared as
a battle cry in a 1920 issue of the Northern Baptist newspaper The
By the 1950s, Rev. Jerry Falwell was able to declare: "I am a fundamentalist,
and that means that I am a soul-winner and a separatist." By that time, Islamic
scholars in Egypt had begun to pay attention to this movement, and to copy both
its rhetoric and its radically anti-secular goals.
Luckily, fundamentalism has built-in limitations. Its twin goals -- maintaining
purity and altering the world -- tend to cancel each other out. We've seen this
both in Islamic countries (even Iran's mullahs have had to compromise, often
quite a lot) and in the United States.
As the Fundamentalisms Project's scholars write, "Fundamentalisms are unlikely
to expand much beyond their role as dissenting minorities who hope to nudge the
culture in their sociomoral direction."
Sometimes, of course, those nudges can be violent and terrifying. And it turns
out that they can come from anywhere.