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Competing Religious Fundamentalisms by Sathianthan Clarke

03 November 2017

Michael Doe looks at the violent streak in fundamentalism

AS THE 20th century progressed, it was easily assumed that religion was on the way out, its divisions and wars consigned to history, although the secularist movements that took its place, including Stalinism and National Socialism, brought an even greater violence. But in the last quarter of the century, it became clear that this was not so: not only did the number of Christians and Muslims continue to rise, particularly in the Majority World, but within these religions there was a significant growth of what may be called Fundamentalism, and with it the emergence of violent extremism.

The most obvious examples are within Islam, illustrated in this book by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the terrorist groups from al-Qaeda to Islamic State. But Clarke points up similar phenomena in Christianity, especially in the United States, where he is now based. Readers may recall that in this summer’s race riots in Charlottesville, the white supremacists repeatedly described themselves as “Christian” and “Conservative”. And he also describes it within Hinduism, where it led to the political victories of the BJP party in the India where he grew up — his father was a former Bishop of Madras.

Clarke rightly identifies all these as religious movements. Many political, cultural, and economic factors may have contributed to the context in which they have grown, but they are primarily religious: they have what he calls a “divine Word-vision”, rooted in authoritarian texts and teachers, leading to a fixed “World-way”.

The obligation to translate these ethical principles into communities and societies allows the use of force. They often have a wider global vision of conquering the whole world for God, and here the forces of globalisation enable and fuel their aggression as they compete with each other, as we have seen this century with the West’s involvements in the Middle East and with the continuing conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India.

What should Christians make of all this? We need to defend the majority of religious people who are not party to such violent extremism, and so not expect Muslim leaders to denounce every terrorist attack when, for example, Lambeth Palace doesn’t have to take responsibility for white supremacists who call themselves Christians. At the same time, we need to take seriously the damage that fundamentalism does, to religion itself, but even more to the victims of its violence.

Clarke finishes his book with this vocation to peace-making. He points out that the Bible, from the jealous God of the Old Testament to the apocalyptic of the New, can be seen to sanction violence more times that the Qur’an.

Most of us Christians give lip-service to the gospel of peace, while enjoying the benefits of a more equivocal approach to issues of justice which threaten peace. Perhaps we need a new fundamentalism: a greater standing out against the ways of the world, a much greater commitment to the non-violent love shown to us in Jesus Christ.


The Rt Revd Michel Doe is Preacher to Gray’s Inn and former General Secretary of USPG.


Competing Religious Fundamentalisms: Violent extremism in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism

Sathianthan Clarke

Westminster John Knox £20.99





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