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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of  October 17 - 23, 2001

  Opinion Column

The infectious disease theory of pluralism

Fighting fundamentalism is fighting a perception of reality, as opposed to fighting a single political opportunist and his resources.

President Bush has gone to great lengths to make the case that the U.S. is not at war with Islam itself but with a network of terrorists. It is a difficult, if not impossible, case to make.

For obvious diplomatic reasons—most notably to keep moderate Arab states feeding us information and logistical support—he will, nonetheless, continue to try to make that distinction.

The crux of the problem we face is that we are after something much more illusive than Osama bin Laden will ever be. Ultimately, we are trying to destroy not terrorists or training camps or bio-terror labs, but a way of thinking that is not at all unique to Islam, namely fundamentalism. It is a way of thinking so inflexible that it breeds violence.

Fundamentalism is an element of Islam just as it has been an element in the past and present of Christianity. From the 11th through the 14th centuries, European Christians carried out the Crusades against the "heretical" Muslims. Then as now, religious and political motivations were blurred.

My, admittedly, simplistic understanding of what fundamentalism is—whether we are talking about Muslims, Christians, or Aryans—comes down to an almost philosophical notion: that deviance from a set of beliefs or even non belief are not only sinful and evil but, more importantly, infectious agents. It is the belief that those who don’t subscribe to a particular belief actually threaten those who do, so much so that, in this way of thinking, it would be considered a greater sin not to try to eliminate the threat.

In explaining his perception of the infidel threat, a fundamentalist might draw an analogy, say, to an outbreak of small pox in a society. Would you not do everything in your power to destroy that infection lest it destroy you and everyone you love? This may not be a perfect analogy, but I think it is illustrative of what we are dealing with.

Unfortunately, one can find textural evidence in the Koran to support this type of thinking. People have found the same in the Bible, at least as they interpret it. And anyone who has ever taken a literature class knows just about any interpretation can be found in any text. Not incidentally, it is perhaps why the Catholic Church maintains strict authority over interpretation of scriptures. There is no such authority over the Koran.

In the Western world, in general, we’ve come a long way from the Crusades. We don’t burn "heathens" at the stake in order to purify them for eternal life or to protect the rest of Christian society from the them. Rather, we trust individuals to wrestle with their own demons. Underlying this trust, I think, is faith in a moral compass within us that exists long before religion or politics or social norms or any other human constructs, come into play.

Still, to a certain extent, we all subscribe to this "infectious evil" thinking, only in a much more moderate sense. Everyone worries about influences on children. When the bad kids at school are doing bad things, we want them away from our children. We want them expelled. We could care less how they see the world or what problems they have.

We see other, more virulent strains of fundamentalism in various slices of American society. Members of Operation Rescue justify murdering doctors who perform abortions with similar logic. Homosexuality is considered by some segments of society as moral turpitude that can and will spread. Aryans have the same attitude about people of color.

I’m convinced that fear of the other is a fairly basic human quality. We tend to fear all that is separate or different. How we handle that fear is what matters—whether we use it for political ends or not. I suspect that bin Laden is using a fundamentalist guise for political opportunism. His ambitions are probably more of a geo-political design than that of ridding the earth of evil and protecting Muslims from infidels. That is not to say there aren’t true fundamentalists working for him who believe they are commanded by the Koran to kill infidels. The latter is a wider, more vexing problem.

Fighting fundamentalism is fighting a perception of reality, as opposed to fighting a single political opportunist and his resources. Beliefs, if true at heart, are difficult to grapple with. It’s like waging war with the air.

What makes a society civilized in this case is whether we place trust in individuals to draw distinctions about the sea of ideas we live in. The Osama bin Ladens of the world will not allow these distinctions to be made. He and his followers would consider the average Muslim as capable of resisting Western culture—capitalism, Judeo-Christian faiths, and civil liberties—as he would be able to resist getting the flu.

Which raises a question: Is faith necessarily a collective undertaking? Can one’s faith in a God or a religious vision exist independent of context. I would hope to believe that one’s spiritual connection to something greater is neither diminished nor made greater by whatever connection one’s neighbor might have. I believe we can have a million different relationships with as many different Gods if need be.

Certainly faith loves company, but it is not a necessary condition. Spirituality resides, for the most part, in hearts and minds. And never can we know, absolutely, what is in the hearts and minds of even those we know best. While we travel through life together, at base, we come to terms with life as individuals. And surely we face death alone. All of this is to say that whatever relationship we may have with a God is uniquely ours.

To think that the beliefs of others can destroy us is to underestimate our own convictions and strengths.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.