Heart of Fundamentalism
by Tenzin Sherab
people "fundamentalists"? They don't see themselves that way.
It's a label we give to others whom we fundamentally disagree
with. Fundamentalism is in our hearts--all our hearts. Once
we recognize that, we can start to come to terms with it.
have a trace of de Sade, Genghis Khan, or Hitler in us. And
all a touch of Mohammed, Socrates, or Avalokiteshvara. They
merely express the extremes of our humanity. If we condemn
someone for evil we are, in part, condemning ourselves.
the people who most condemn a fundamentalist group are those
who were once members, but have escaped its "clutches." But
what made them join in the first place? Not anger or hate,
but the desire for love, devotion, and the search for a better
world, a life more meaningful than the usual 9-to-5 drudgery.
brainwashed me," former members sometimes say. "I was told
to trust the leaders without question," "I was told my money
would build the new tomorrow." The message is: Now that I've
left, I'm all right, but the group I was part of is condemned.
group is a whole bunch of I's. I was a member, I was the one
who propagated those views, I was the one who believed, and
they are my friends who are still members. Now I've changed.
But why? And why are these, my erstwhile friends, now the
enemy, dangerous fringe elements out to destroy society and
everything I stand for?
I read an alarmist newspaper article, or hear some terrible
first-hand account by a "victim" of fundamentalism, I try
to answer four questions: Who's labeling whom as fundamentalist,
and why? Am I seen as fundamentalist by the people
I've labeled as such? What am I going to do about my
attitudes; am I simply going to condemn and grow more paranoid,
or reach out compassionately and communicate? Why is
it that "fundamentalism" produces such a fundamental reaction
is not something alien, "out there," to be feared and guarded
against. It is something that can well up within any of us,
because it results from very human conditions: faith and fear.
experience--and I've been there, having been both a political
and evangelical fundamentalist in my time--fundamentalism
begins from a very deep and powerful dissatisfaction with
life. Take my story. As a teenager, I perceived the way of
the world as radically wrong. So wrong, I desperately wanted
to change it, make it a better place to live. First, I turned
towards God, then towards Marxism.
young. It was hard to get a job. The people I lived with and
identified with were poor. The world was being polluted, not
just by carbon monoxide, but by evil, by rich people. Everyone
seemed to be against me. Nothing seemed to work for me. I
increasingly searched for a more radical answer to my fears
and frustrations. Twice, I joined a small group of people
who believed they held the right answer, the only answer.
members of these groups, we didn't see ourselves as a great
threat to the world. We saw the world as the great threat
to us! We felt marginalized, laughed at, vilified, endangered.
These feelings only served to push us further to the extreme
and make us more insular and secretive.
same with members of the NRA (National Rifle Association).
They believe that Big Government threatens their whole way
of life. To "Wise-Use" people (who believe in unrestricted
exploitation of natural resources), environmentalists are
evil extremists, fundamentalists out to destroy their whole
way of life. Christian and Muslim "fundamentalists" sincerely
believe the world is in the grip of the Devil and that everything
they value is being torn down. To Christians, Muslims seem
extreme; to Muslims, Christians, and the Western values they
bring with them, seem the real threat.
don't see themselves as particularly extreme. Rather, they
see the extent of the threat to themselves as so great, so
powerful, that the only answer is an extreme one: a theological
state, sectarian violence or holy war. We may not like it,
but Libyan bombers or IRA terrorists blowing up civilians
in London believe they're the victims, that they're forced
to those actions because of the desperate plight of the Palestinians
or Catholics in Northern Ireland. This way of thinking is
also true of Marxists. They believe in revolution because
they see it as the only answer to the terrible problems of
poverty and class inequities.
of others' "fundamentalism" is, in fact, a reflection, a mirror
image, of our own fundamental beliefs, for which we are as
answerable as they. To my mind, we all need to make compromises.
Christians must be prepared to compromise on their way of
life. So must environmentalists, Buddhists, Muslims, the FBI.
Part of the answer is to look at our own belief system and
question how it is perceived by the people we are labeling.
part of the answer is to question precisely why we're labeling
them. What right do we have to call anyone a "fundamentalist"?
Is that the very problem--we've labeled people who differ
from us, and, as part of that labeling process, we've decided
they're evil, a terrible threat, to be condemned outright?
frequently grows out of a feeling of being ignored and despised.
It is often a call to arms by people worn down by years of
oppression. We have to examine our role in wearing them down
and in continuing their oppression, in not hearing their cries
Boer people trekked across southern Africa in their wagon
trains, if they were attacked by the Zulu, they would form
their wagons into a circle called a laager. This "laager mentality"
is at the heart of fundamentalism. "Fundamentalists" feel
they're on a mission to build a holy land, a place of peace
and contentment. They are visionaries, often escaping from
some sort of hell. Just like the Lutherans and Pilgrims escaping
religious persecution in Europe. They were "fundamentalists,"
visionaries see dangers all around them; they feel they're
being attacked from all sides. To defend themselves, they
resort to everything from sloganeering to slaughter. Look
how the European settlers, usually deeply religious, set out
to exterminate the Native Americans, because of the threat
they were thought to pose. Fear and misunderstanding led to
emerging from my fundamentalist mentality was the result of
two trends, one internal, the other external. Internally,
I began to find peace, to become happier with the world as
I saw it. I began to realize the world's problems would take
a lot longer to solve, and perhaps weren't as immediately
life-threatening as I'd once thought. This was all part of
my move towards Buddhism. I felt less need for a vision and
less threatened by the visions of others.
I found understanding from the society around me. As a visionary,
I needed to be offered a new, more compassionate vision. I
needed to be involved, not swept aside. I began to talk to
people, to explain my point of view, and to listen to others.
As I emerged
from my own cocoon, I realized others could be loving and
giving as well. I also had to learn patience. To some extent,
I had to accept the defeat of my ideals. While I realized
I had to accept compromise, it was the compassion of others
that gave me the strength to emerge from fundamentalism, not
as a twisted mutant Ninja Turtle, but as what, I hope, is
a passably beautiful butterfly.
people don't want to give up their ideals. They feel so endangered,
so disempowered, that they have no alternative but to fight
back. As long as those in power continue to turn their backs
on those without, they will have to face the frustrated explosions
of fundamentalism. And now, as I count myself as one of those
in power--I have a well-paid job in California, I'm one of
the world's elite--I have to remember what it was like to
be disenfranchised, and reach out to understand their position.
Fundamentalism is a plight, a plea to be heard, not an evil
to be destroyed.
I going to do about the impoverishment of Palestinian families?
What am I going to do about the spiritual degeneration of
society, and the pollution of the planet? What am I going
to do about crime and the crisis of morality in the West,
the violence on TV, and the ruthless indoctrination of the
world into Western cultural values, so that multinational
corporations may sell it more consumer goods? How am I going
to reach out my hand to those who turn to Christian or Muslim
"fundamentalism"? How am I going to change my life to accommodate
are visionaries who feel their vision is in dire danger. We
need to communicate our vision and listen to theirs. We need
to compromise and not fear. We need to have compassion in
our hearts and work with the compassion in theirs.
Sherab (Tim Lewis) is a born-again Buddhist.
Response to Fundamentalism