Fundamentalism & Terror

Here’s a review of Timothy Garton Ash’s new book by the distinguished British philosopher John Gray. The following  passages, in particular, caught my attention:

The reception of Garton Ash’s writings on Muslim fundamentalism is instructive in this regard. He provoked a firestorm by suggesting that Muslims in Europe would have to face up to an Enlightenment version of fundamentalism which demanded – as a condition of Muslims being accepted as Europeans – that they renounce their religion in favour of secular humanism. Such a demand was not only patently unrealistic, as Garton Ash himself pointed out, it also smacked of intolerance. Yet these are debates in which anything that looks like – or can be misrepresented as – an assertion of moral equivalence provokes immediate and intense condemnation. In a footnote to the original article, he writes that he has “long since abandoned the term ‘Enlightenment fundamentalism’, since it gives rise to the misunderstanding that some symmetry is suggested with ‘Islamic fundamentalist’ – a label now used almost synonymously with ‘terrorist’”.

As far as current discourse is concerned, Garton Ash has a point. Although they are often intolerant, today’s evangelists for secular humanism do not preach or practise violence. As he puts it, “there are no al-Darwinia brigades making bombs in secret laboratories in north Oxford”. On the other hand, the conflation of fundamentalism with terrorism is not supported by the facts. Fundamentalists are by nature illiberal, and most are more than happy to repress the freedom of others, but it is silly to portray them all as terrorists. Very few fundamentalist Christians support the murder of doctors who perform abortions – a type of terrorism that is fortunately rare, but terrorism nonetheless. Again, many Muslim fundamentalists support abhorrent policies against women and gay people, but that does not make them potential recruits to al-Qaeda.

Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking…

This at least partly misses the point. It is of course true that the vast majority of fundamentalists are not terrorists in the narrow, going-to-work-for-al-Qaeda definition, but that surely is not the end of the matter. Terror can also be a tool of the state. To take the example of one notorious fundamentalist, Stalin used terrorist tactics when he fought against the Czar, but he was no less a terrorist when he was in power. When therefore we ask how fair it is to equate fundamentalism with terrorism, it’s necessary to ask not only how fundamentalists behave in opposition, but also how they would act in government.

On the question of Stalin’s ideological kin, Gray has this to say:


Equating fundamentalism with terrorism is loose thinking, but the biggest drawback is the loss of historical memory that making the parallel entails. Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to “Enlightenment values”.


To suggest that Lenin and Mao were  “disciples of an Enlightenment ideology” may be a familiar line of attack, but that doesn’t make it correct. In fact, their ideology (such as it was) was drenched in religious tradition, Messianic fervor and simple bloodlust. It is better seen not as part of the Enlightenment tradition, but as a romantic, irrational reaction against it. As for being “secular”, well, yes and no. Traditional gods were merely replaced by a mystical belief in historical determinism and cults of state and ‘the people’. These may have come with a (sometimes only nominal) rejection of the supernatural, but they are difficult to describe as truly secular – at least in any meaningful sense.

H/t: The Daily Dish

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