Fundamentalism as Speechlessness

Photograph Source: Taymaz Valley – CC BY 2.0

Our world is bent out of shape. It is all twisted and tangled like a bombed out bridge after an air raid. As we gaze out upon this mangled world, on a very bad day one can see apocalypse around every corner. This was the case in July 2011, when Anders Breivik systematically massacred 76 children at a Labour party youth camp, situated on an idyllic island, in Norway of all places. He imagined that these youth were being trained to respect all peoples in a multicultural world, including Muslims. When some of us in the West first heard this grizzly news, we immediately thought that this must be linked in some ghoulish way with Islamist terrorists. And that is just the problem, isn’t it? Since 9/11, we in the West can easily slip and slide into this quick judgment. Mention terrorism, think Muslim.

But Breivik is not linked with Al-Qaeda. He is a Norwegian who actually mixes “Christian” language in his perverse rambling manifesto of 1500 pages. Breivik’s own description of his attack provides some examples. “I’m pretty sure I will pray as I’m rushing through the city blazing, with 100 armed system protectors pursuing me with the intention to stop me and/or kill….It is likely that I will pray to God for strength at one point during the operation, as I think most people in that situation would…If praying will act as an additional mental boost/soothing it is the pragmatical [sic] thing to do. I guess I will find out….If there is a God I will be allowed to enter heaven as all other martyrs for the church in the past.”

This is surely disturbing (and evil), but it is strangely rational. He has a worked out framework. He is crazy, but a twisted logic courses through his words. He and his Knights of the Templar (sounds like a video game) want to purify the “Christian” (white?) world of its impure virus. He wants to defend “Christendom” against its Muslim enemies. This mentality is not unknown in the history of the troubled relationship of Islam and Christianity. In fact, using violence to cleanse and erase the other, who threatens a homogenous identity, is well known everywhere in the world, past and present. It has both religious and non-religious roots.

The bombings during the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 were perpetrated by young men claiming allegiance to Islam who were foreign-born but apparently assimilated into American culture. Only two weeks earlier, three Canadian young men were linked with the jihadist bombing of an Algerian refinery. Their photographs speak of nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever. Were they hockey fans? The CBC (and other media) tracked their movements into the darkest corners of the desolate Mauritanian desert. These events trigger our memory of the violence perpetrated by British young men in July 2005 who, seemingly, loved soccer and beer, but chose out of misunderstood depths to bomb certain subways.

On May 22, 2013 our dinners were visited by horrendous television images of a Black man with a bloody cleaver who had just hacked a British soldier to death shouting: “We swear by Almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. We must fight then as they fought us.” The exploding bomb and bloodied body is the dominant symbol of our age, the “war on terror” its dishonourable moniker of the times. And actions directed against the innocent citizen arise from inexplicable murky depths. One quickly reminds one’s self, however, of the Allied bombing of innocent citizens in WW II, and the notorious release of the atomic bomb on Japanese innocents.

All the major religions have experienced fundamentalist movements and tendencies. Violent speechlessness lives at the edges of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. In Muslim countries, minority religions such as the Copts of Egypt have experienced repression, imprisonment, death and oppression from that states. On January 1, 2011 in Alexandria, the Two Saints Coptic Church was bombed killing 20 Copts. On Tuesday, March 8th, 2011, thirteen people were killed and 140 injured in an attack on St. Mina and St. George Church in the village of Sol. The church was burnt to the ground and Copt homes attacked. The attack against Christian Copts in Sol was precipitated, it seems, by a relationship between Ashraf Iskander, a 40-year old married Christian and a married Muslim women. This tense situation exploded into heated fights within the Muslim family, leading to two deaths.

In the southern Sudan and Northern Nigeria, Christians have been attacked and massacred. Tyrannical dictatorships such as Egypt and Libya long relied on the West to keep the lid on “Muslim extremists” (in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood primarily). With the fall of the dictators Ben Ali, Gadhafi and Mubarek, the Arab Spring erupted with its agonized cry and action for human dignity. Now in the disenchanted aftermath, the idea of putting a constitutional democratic, secular state in place is very much in question.

Elsewhere, in India and Pakistan, Muslims and Hindus battle each other; in Sri Lanka, it’s the Buddhists and the Hindus. Ethnic suffering and threatened identity—all coalesce to create speechlessness before the other. In Europe and North America, incidents of aggressive and hostile reactions to Muslims—in particular—have flared up in troubling ways. Some think Trump was elected for publicly declaring his opposition to Muslim immigrants. Even the staid CBC has featured documentaries exploring the possible roots of the radicalization of Muslim youths (which includes the actions of some Muslim activists to inoculate youth against extremist choices and, ultimately, speechless acts of violence against the innocent).

Fundamentalism is itself a product of modernity; modernity (or the failure of modernization) is perceived as a threat to religious identity (or, the unsettling of one’s lifeworld and meaning structures). With the onset of modernity, those adhering to the teachings of the world religions, which make universal claims, have been challenged to let go of their alleged universally binding character and political acceptance of their doctrine to co-exist with others in a pluralistic world.

But in many countries, particularly Islamic ones, there has been deep resistance to co-existing with the religiously other. As well, considerable segments of the American “Christian right” are profoundly and disturbingly resistant to Islam and secular humanism. One can always count on some small Protestant sect to throw up some self-proclaimed parson to burn the Qur’an. Or, conversely, for Muslim fanatics to want bloody vengeance for a cartoon mocking the Prophet.

Globalization has intensified the “defensive reaction” to modernity—with its “violent uprooting of traditional ways of life.” Globalization produces winners, beneficiaries and losers. Thus, within the Arab world (but not there alone), the “West” becomes a scapegoat for the Arab’s perceived (and real) losses. This creates a “psychologically favourable situation” for the acceptance of polarized world-views. Religious sources are drawn upon in order to resist the secularizing force of western influence, and even re-assert ethnic or national identity. Once world-views (which include self-understanding) are polarized, communication is distorted.

Within Habermas’ world-understanding, the “spiral of violence begins as a spiral of distorted communication that leads through the spiral of uncontrolled reciprocal mistrust, to the breakdown of communication.” Terrorism becomes a communicative pathology. The world is ripped apart. The act of stopping speaking lies mainly in the abysmal life-situations of the mute. But not there only. We must try with delicacy and humility to examine the maladies of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in our world today (the sickness that creeps into the centre of monotheistic religions and pushes violent actions against perceived enemies).

In inter-cultural forms of communication, those who refuse to speak to the other must recognize “each other as participating members of a community.” The act of taking the gag out of the mouth is one step toward mutual trust. But building a culture of trust cannot take place while oppression and fear dominate. Improvement of material conditions and a political culture where each can engage in mutual perspective-taking underpins a culture of trust. Fundamentalism, then, is not about the holding of dogmatic or orthodox viewpoints. All the world religions have dogma. But orthodoxy veers toward fundamentalism when “representatives of the true faith ignore the epistemic situation of a pluralistic society and insist—even to the point of violence—on the universally binding character and political acceptance of their doctrine.” This statement from Habermas characterizes Islamist, Jewish and Christian forms of fundamentalism.

In our shattered and deaf world, Habermas wonders if the conception of communicative action has been brought into disrepute. He thinks that the West has gotten used to structural violence—the “unconscionable social inequality, degrading discrimination, pauperization, and marginalization” (both within its own countries in in the global community). However, he adds this caveat: “But our social relations are not totally governed by violence, strategic action and manipulation. The praxis of our daily living rests on a solid base of common background convictions, self-evident cultural truths, and reciprocal expectations. If violence thus begins with a distortion in communication, after it has disrupted it is possible to know what has gone wrong and what needs to be repaired.” This is the foundation, if you like, of Habermasian cultural vision and hope in hopeless times.

Martha Nussbaum, writing in The New Religious Intolerance (2012), speaks of the “cultivation of the ‘inner eyes,’ the capacity to see the world from the perspective of minority experience” (p. 59). This cultivating process is at the heart of the pedagogics of mutual tolerance and respect. We must find the appropriate forms of conversing across difference, how we might understand toleration and reasonable accommodation in a multi-cultural world. Moreover, we should analyze instances of reconciliatory pedagogies in a world without apparent foundations or metaphysical certainty. Where are the “centres of light and reflection” in our incredible world?


Sources for Habermas citations: “Faith and knowledge,” in E. Mendietta (Ed.), The Frankfurt School on Religion: key writings by the major thinkers (2005) and “Fundamentalism and terror—A dialogue with Jurgen Habermas,” in G. Borradori, Philosophy in a time of terror (2003).


Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.