Fundamentalist is not the Insider Perspective*

Fundamentalism, the concept, is a topic that I’ve struggled with for a while—probably since 9/11, although to be frank, I haven’t exactly kept a journal or other record following my thoughts on the subject. But even if I remember exactly what I thought, I do know I’ve thought about it.

And I have the most trouble seeing it as more than simply a Bad Thing, especially when I usually can’t articulate why. I’m not much of a rebel, and still think my parents are some of the smartest people I know. As my mom said about it (fundamentalism—or some similarly-used term in the popular media) anything can go too far. Terrorists are fundamentalists because they go too far. But some Christian fundamentalists go too far. And so do governments. And the examples go on and on ad nauseam.

Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is really all about fundamentalism and what it means, both in the US and the narrator’s native Pakistan. The American that Changez, the narrator, approaches in the opening of the book seems alarmed by his appearance—specifically his beard, which is specifically taken as a symbol of the Middle Eastern fundamentalist. Or that is how it, and the American, are introduced to Changez: “Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.” But really, it’s all about fundamentalism as identified from the outside. What seems fundamentalist and dangerous to outsiders may seem perfectly acceptable to insiders.

A friend of mine pointed out that fundamentalism isn’t necessarily bad: in the sense of going to the fundaments. For instance, the fundamentals of the Constitution. The Constitution of the United States is essentially the ideal document of the United States, particularly with the Bill of Rights, the 13th and 14th amendments and the 21st amendment. It is the ideal of what our country is supposed to live up to, which is why arguments over the Constitutionality of laws makes people go so insane and irrational. Sort of. At any rate, her argument of going to the ‘fundamental’ (according to the OED, “2. Of or pertaining to the foundation or ground-work, going to the root of the matter.” and “3. b. Primary, original; from which others are derived) makes sense. If we went back to the fundamentals of the IRS, we wouldn’t need so many tax laws and forms and confusion.

It’s the “-ist” that causes the problem. Fundamentalist comes into use, according again to the OED from the first world war to apply to Protestant groups that wanted to get back to the fundamentals of the Bible. At first, this wasn’t seen as a bad thing. Then it is applied to the “other religions, esp. Islam” as “a similarly strict adherence to ancient or fundamental doctrines, with no concessions to modern developments in thought or customs” which is a pretty reasonable definition, until you get to the “modern developments” which is always considered a Bad Thing in most of the so-called “Western World.” (I feel terrible using that term, but here it seems to work).

Early in the book, when Changez reflects on his life in the US, he paints it as a fundamental society—fundamentally capitalist, and he sees this as just as bad as any other fundamentalism, or rather far worse, because America is so powerful, and because he himself was a part of it: “Moreover I knew from my experience as a Pakistani…that finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power.” In fact, describing his “initiation to the realm of high finance” as primarily an education in the fundamentalism of capitalism: “Maximum return was the maxim to which we returned, time and again. We learned to prioritize—to determine the axis on which advancement would be most beneficial.” When he is first a part of this society, this particular corporate culture, Changez enjoys it, according to his older self, always feeling the seeds of guilt, though they eventually grow enough to lead him to quit.

Changez cannot fully buy into this fundamental finance culture because he was, or always felt like, an outsider. Though Jim, his boss, seems to recognize a similar drive in their ambition, he accepts fully the precepts of his “religion” and Changez even calls him a knight, describes what may be a nervous habit as “donning his gloves before striding onto a field of contest.” At first, Changez envies Jim’s certainty. Because of his own doubts he does not feel that he could have it in the United States. But the older Changez telling this story seems to have found it in his fundamental Islam.

Changez, though having decided to leave America and become a fundamentalist to his own beliefs and country, in advocating “a disengagement from your country by [Pakistan],” does not see himself as an extremist. He becomes a university lecturer on finance, and tells the American “it was not difficult to persuade [his students] of the merits of participating in demonstrations for greater independence in Pakistan’s domestic and international affairs.” When one of those demonstrations becomes a riot, for all intents and purposes, with thrown stones and burnt effigies, he admits it had gotten “out of hand,” and he had gone to jail for “intervening” in one of the “scuffles.” As the incident is described, he certainly seems to be using gentle language for his own role.

While Changez learned the fundamentalist role of commerce in the United States, and is aware of the world’s belief in his own county’s fundamentalist culture…and to an extent even acknowledges the problems of the local fundamentalist, he does not seem to realize his own role as a fundamentalist and how that affects others. For instance, when he is describing how the demonstrations got out of hand, and a former student was arrested for a planned assassination, his defense is that he is only a university lecturer, a teacher. But teachers have great power, great influence, and he admits that his reputation, although exaggerated, is attractive to many intelligent young students. But he doesn’t know their beliefs or why they are coming to his lectures in the first place. Though he ought to know that simply because someone can have the loftiest education doesn’t mean they are above fundamentalism. It was what he didn’t like about his classmates from Princeton.

*also known as “Fundamentalism is More Than Just the Fundamentals”

What to Call Faith

From the outside, I’m not sure that people would have thought of my home, growing up, as “religious.” For one thing, the word “religious” itself seems to have a rather negative connotation for us enlightened modern people. We know better now. People often seem to think of “Religious” as Puritanism or Evangelism. One’s from growing up and having to wear silly hats in kindergarten and the other is from watching too much media “news” and infomercials. And in my (parents’) house, we don’t have crosses/crucifixes on every wall, or whatever else religion in the home is supposed to look like. One of the cars did have an ichthys (“Jesus fish”) though. And we always had plenty of Bibles.

At any rate, I was raised in the Christian faith. To believe in God, however you chose to worship. My brother is Baptist. My aunt and uncle are Catholic. Like my mom, I am Presbyterian. At least I think I am. It’s hard to be “religious” (read “believe”) in this current culture. Christianity is seen as the province of the crazy conservative Rightists. Or maybe my mind is making it up. Or maybe, to a certain extent it’s the college atmosphere. Or maybe it’s because I personally have had trouble finding my faith. After leaving home to go to community college in Southern CA (my home county didn’t have a community college) I pretty much stopped attending church. So there might be some lingering guilt. There are lots of distractions in modern life. It’s easy to form idols: out of celebrities, money, grades. Science. Believing is not easy, and it’s not supposed to be.

So when Perry Garfinkel, in Buddha or Bust, tried to convince the head priest of Rinsoin (a Zen Buddhist temple) Hoitsu Suzuki that Americans have imbedded what he called “Judeo-Christian” traditions in their/our culture as thoroughly as Japan has Buddhism because

“Yes, we look to God,” I said. “God is there even in our casual language. We say, ‘God bless you,’ when you sneeze. We say, ‘Thank God that truck didn’t run me over.’ We say ‘God damn it’ when we stub our toe when Matsui strikes out.”

And when Suzuki-roshi responds “‘Who is this God you keep talking about?’” Garfinkel sees it as a revelation. He sees that “Belief in God is perpetuated suffering.” He is enlightened.

I really want to quote the whole thing now. And this section wouldn’t irritate me so much if it wasn’t couched in such universal terms. It’s evident that Garfinkel doesn’t have a strong personal belief to defend. For instance, his use of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” traditions. He has said that he was raised in a Jewish household, although I don’t think he mentioned how strongly traditional they were. However, you can’t compare “Judeo-Christian” traditions to a single religion like Buddhism. In a high school history class, when asked what was the largest religion, “Christianity” without the “Judeo-” attached, couldn’t be the answer. It included too many religions to be considered one religion.

I think what Garfinkel is enlightened to is his own lack of belief. And perhaps when he discusses his (personal) enlightenment in universal terms, it’s simply habit because he is a journalist. At the very least, I suspect Suzuki-roshi was certainly responding to Garfinkel’s lack of personal faith. Garfinkel (in one of the more problematic sections, for me) writes “That in itself may be the reason we invent God, because it is easier to point the finger than to take the blame,” which is certainly not why I choose to believe, and he then calls his own comments in his conversation a “pointless game of intellectual masturbation.”

The way he’s been talking? Yes, it is. Suzuki-roshi notices. It’s a careless argument. Garfinkel, up to this point, doesn’t seem to realize that he doesn’t believe. His “faith” and the faith on the part of our culture that he tries to evidentiate through empty phrases like “God bless you,” are not real. They’re habits. Left over from people who grew up around religion but never found “it” themselves. That’s how language works.

It’s not how faith works. And I think Garfinkel was fortunate that someone finally pointed out the difference to him.