When we consider this question, let’s start with some definitions.
Wikipedia defines Islamic fundamentalism as:
Islamic fundamentalism has been defined as a movement of Muslims who think back to earlier times and seek to return to the fundamentals of the religion and live similarly to how the prophet Muhammad and his companions lived. Islamic fundamentalists favor “a literal and originalist interpretation” of the primary sources of Islam (the Quran and Sunnah), seek to eliminate (what they perceive to be) “corrupting” non-Islamic influences from every part of their lives and see “Islamic fundamentalism” as a pejorative term used by outsiders for Islamic revivalism and Islamic activism.
Wikipedia defines religious (Christian) fundamentalism as:
Fundamentalism usually has a religious connotation that indicates unwavering attachment to a set of irreducible beliefs. However, fundamentalism has come to be applied to a tendency among certain groups—mainly, though not exclusively, in religion—that is characterized by a markedly strict literalism as it is applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining from which advocates believe members have strayed. Rejection of diversity of opinion as applied to these established “fundamentals” and their accepted interpretation within the group is often the result of this tendency.
As with many groups this is not an issue of ‘black or white’. Individuals can be part of the mainstream in these groups or fringe believers. In particular, each group is associated with an ‘extremist’ fringe. The Islamic extremist are most often cited for their radicalism and terrorist affiliations and incidents. Christian extremists are associated with the religious right, the tea party. They are cited as the backers of protest, sometimes violent, against abortion, and non-white racism. In both cases they believe that religious doctrine or simple beliefs, trump or supersede democratically enacted laws. It is also the case that in both instances the extremist represent only a very small fraction of the population. However, because of their energy, commitment and activism are responsible for a large part of the national discussion.
The extremist factions of both fundamentalist groups represent equal threats to our democracy. First, they both are major factors in the rising polarization in our society. Strongly held views and uncompromising positions are characteristics of both. This is counter to the needs of a healthy democracy, where discussion, listening and compromise are essential. Second, due to the extreme vocalism of both, the national debate (to the extent that it still exists), is dominated by a few strong issues, to the detriment of the broader interests of the nation. Third, to the extent that extremist beliefs are held by our elected representative, the democratic process suffers from obstructionism.
We have to conclude that each group, despite their commitment to different issues and priorities, is equally responsible for a negative impact on our democracy. Different days, different locations, see different situations develop associated with either group. In both cases they tend to dominate our news and national debate and they both continue to increase the societal polarization.
Given this situation, what can be done? A really tough question. Most certainly it is a situation that will take a long time to reverse. I believe, however, that at the core of any solution is education. Getting to know one another, our beliefs and issues, how they were formed is critical. With knowledge will come discussion and then debate – the hallmarks of a healthy democracy.
Photo by Images George Rex