How Terrorists Afford Fundamentalism

I’ve been watching The West Wing for the first time, on DVD. The opening episode of the third season was a special one in recognition of the 9/11 tragedy. There was some good dialogue and debate on the sources of terrorism, which sparked a discussion in my household.

Fundamentalism is rooted in an extreme and rigid mindset that doesn’t seem sustainable. Even the most homogeneous of societies include diverse interests, and it seems inevitable that a rigid mindset would either bend or break under daily buffetting from opinions and ideas that conflict with it or divert it. Its seems natural that a person with a rigid mindset opposed to the common interests (as the Declaration of Independence put it, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) of his society would be shunned, isolated, and thereby rendered harmless.

How is it, then, that fundamentalists are able to enlist the political and financial support of large populations, including fanatics willing to kill or die for their cause? How is it that they can motivate large groups of people to abandon their normal life and wage war or commit genocide?

At least one answer was discussed in the episode and succinctly illustrated in the movie Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters). They gain this support by promising social standing to those who are marginalized, freedom to those who are oppressed, wealth to those who are poor, and, generally, hope for a better life to those who are ignorant of alternatives. If such groups form a large part of a society, then it is fertile ground for fundamentalism. In making their promises, fundamentalists exploit religious myth because it is

  • generally accepted without proof by believers,
  • frequently ambiguous, and therefore easily bent to the fundamentalists' political, economic, or psychopathic aims, and
  • frequently concerned with the rewards of the afterlife, meaning fundamentalists needn't actually deliver on their promises. (That is left to God.)

The hypothesis discussed in The West Wing is that once these marginalized, oppressed, poor, and ignorant populations see alternative, realistic paths to these promises (in this life), they abandon support of fundamentalists, whose brittle systems of thought are easily shattered.

Davidson Loehr eloquently described the relationship between fascism and religious fundamentalism in his sermon, Living Under Fascism.

It is both accurate and helpful for us to understand fundamentalism as religious fascism, and fascism as political fundamentalism. They both come from very primitive parts of us that have always been the default setting of our species: amity toward our in-group, enmity toward out-groups, hierarchical deference to alpha male figures, a powerful identification with our territory, and so forth. It is that brutal default setting that all civilizations have tried to raise us above, but it is always a fragile thing, civilization, and has to be achieved over and over and over again.

I particularly appreciated his suggestion that these phenomena have roots in the primal human nature. Indeed, Freud dedicated his entire book, Civilization and its Discontents, to the relationship between civilization and primal human nature.

Tags: Philosophy, Politics

Updated at: 28 November 2005 12:11 AM

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