Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Talking to Fundamentalists

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan I realized how impossible it would be to debate a Taliban cleric. It just can't be done. There is nothing that we could say to a person who believes that he knows the exact word of god, who believes that carrying out the meaning of that word will result in an eternal happy life. Now this is a real difficulty for those of us who believe in debate and democracy.

So how do you talk to fundamentalists? Take the old example of the Taliban banning women's shoes that make a noise. Why would they do something like that? The reason can be found in the writings about Mohammed's era. It seems that prostitutes wore bells around their ankles in those days, and there is most likely something in the writings that says good women don't make a noise when they walk. Hence the need for soft shoes centuries later. Did someone try to explain this to the Taliban clerics? I'm sure that they would have appreciated such a clarification of the religion they study all the time...

Everything is absolute to literalist fundamentalists, and it is the very absoluteness that they value. Consider the recent court case in Afghanistan:

An Afghan man is being prosecuted in a Kabul court and could be sentenced to death on a charge of converting from Islam to Christianity, a crime under this country's Islamic laws, a judge said Sunday. The trial is believed to be the first of its kind in Afghanistan and highlights a struggle between religious conservatives and reformists over what shape Islam should take here four years after the ouster of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime. During the one-day hearing, the defendant confessed that he converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago while working as a medical aid worker for an international Christian group helping Afghan refugees in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, Mawlavezada said.

"We are not against any particular religion in the world. But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law," the judge said. "It is an attack on Islam." . . . Afghanistan's constitution is based on Shariah law, which is interpreted by many Muslims to require that any Muslim who rejects Islam be sentenced to death, said Ahmad Fahim Hakim, deputy chairman of the state-sponsored Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

If you have found the true god it is a grievous sin to then leave him, and there is only one correct avenue to faith.

Our own fundamentalists have exactly the same attitude. Here is an example of it:

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and host of the daily Christian radio show The Albert Mohler Program, defended Pat Robertson's recent claim that Muslims are "motivated by demonic power," and expanded on Robertson's comments, saying: "Well, I would have to say as a Christian that I believe any belief system, any world view, whether it's Zen Buddhism or Hinduism or dialectical materialism for that matter, Marxism, that keeps persons captive and keeps them from coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, yes, is a demonstration of satanic power."

I don't believe that we can talk to the fundamentalists, and I am very worried about this, not only because the fundamentalists always believe in the inferiority of women (as their truths are based on writings from an era when women were universally acknowledged to be inferior), but more generally, too. We have fundamentalists wielding power right now, and they have their own agendas about how to wield it, agendas that have to do with the end of the world and the Rapture. All this is worrying and makes communicating even more urgent. But how to do it? I really can't see a way.