The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Armstrong, Karen
Harper Collins (2001)
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To make sense of a massive volume of material on the confrontation between the Abramic religions and modernity, Karen Armstrong imposes a perhaps over-severe division between Mythos, a conservative mental framework which sees religion as mysterious, and Logos, a radical mental framework which sees religion as rational. Starting with the critical location of Spain in 1492, the date of the first voyage of Columbus, the conquest of Islamic Granada and the edict to expel Jews, she describes the way in which philosophical and scientific progress has sent traditional religious groups into convulsions out of fear that they will not survive. Her grand thesis, which is of major importance to contemporary Christians, is that the current phenomenon of Islamic 'fundamentalism' shares a common set of causes with Judaic and Christian fundamentalism. In other words, if we study American Evangelical fundamentalism we will learn much of what we need to know about Al Qaeda; Islam is simply reacting to imposed modernity in a slightly different way from that in which a large section of Christianity reacted to internally driven progress. It took Europe more than 300 years after 1492 to develop tolerant democratic societies and we must expect Islam to suffer equally extended traumas.

The discussion of the way in which all three religions split between rationalists and fundamentalists at either end of a spectrum with the vast majority trying to make a variety of accommodations between the two in the middle - is to well described that I felt that I was being told what I already knew. What was certainly new, however, was the detail which supports her theory.

Like almost all history, the nearer she comes to today, the less satisfactory the analysis. To keep her text manageable she selects the United States as the locus for Christian fundamentalism, with the whole Judaic world for Judaism and Egypt and Iran as the focus of her discussion of Islam. It is immediately obvious that such particularities make her grand scheme difficult to sustain as there were special circumstances in all locations in the 20th Century. Her analysis of North America is clear and balanced, as is her discussion of what led to the great Iranian Revolution in 1979 but her grasp of the Egyptian material is less secure because there was not such a simple outcome. Perhaps her most fascinating material concerns the various currents of opinion in Judaism but in a book of this length she surely could have found space for a slightly enlarged discussion of the peculiar merits and suffering of Grman and Austrian Jews between 1900 and 1945.

What we should learn from her book is that fundamebntalism, as we see it, is explicable and almost predictable. It can be moderated through generosity and special cultural and economic measures but coercion is useless. She shows that there are extreme rationalists aand fundamentalist who simply lack the means to talk to each other but most of those in the middle are susceptible to dialogue.

The book suffers from the accident of having been completed months before 9/11 which altered our angle of observation of religious fundamentalism (even if Armstrong would probalby argue that Al Qaida is a secular organisation); but, as this is a library book, it is certainly worth borrowing to read the chapter up to the 20th Century.