Spirit in the sky. Fundamentalism in the 20th century has been to religion what fascism has been to patriotism. Edward Skidelsky looks at the ugly growth of an un-Godly fanaticism

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

Karen Armstrong <em>HarperC

Fundamentalism is a major source of anxiety for people, such as I, who believe both in God and in the basic tenets of liberalism. We are embarrassed by the intolerance of our co-religionists, and struggle to distance ourselves from it. But to the extent that we succeed, we appear guilty of compromise and betrayal. Fundamentalists can boast that it is they who have remained true to the original faith - the faith of the apostles and martyrs - whereas we have fallen into apostasy. "When all is said and done," wrote Peter Berger in a recent Prospect, "fundamentalism usually refers to any sort of passionate religious movement." Is our faith, to the extent that it is not fundamentalist, lacking in passion and conviction?

Karen Armstrong is presumably no stranger to religious passion, having spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun. But neither is she a fundamentalist; she has written learned, sympathetic books on Islam and Judaism. The Battle for God is an attempt to prove that fundamentalism, far from being synonymous with religious passion, is a strange, ugly and peculiarly modern distortion of it. It is an endeavour I support.

The novelty of fundamentalism is masked by how it presents itself as the defender of tradition. Fundamentalist movements arise in order to protect faith against the encroachments of modernity. American Protestant fundamentalism was provoked into existence by the introduction of scientific Biblical criticism from Germany. Jewish Orthodoxy was a reaction to the weakening of religious observance among emancipated Jews. Muslim fundamentalism was a protest against the secularising policy of Nasser, Ataturk and the Persian shahs.

But in coming to the defence of religious tradition, fundamentalism cannot help but transform it. Tradition is tradition precisely to the extent that it doesn't need to be defended. It is the unconscious background against which everything else takes place. Like the Christ Pantocrator in a Byzantine apse, it encircles the individual with benevolent, impersonal arms. I was recently made aware of this kind of tacit faith when an otherwise irreligious Italian friend of mine called himself a Catholic. Catholicism, for him, was not a personal conviction so much as a cultural inheritance. This loose religiosity is repugnant to Protestantism, but there is much to be said for it. It is good that most people should not be alienated from religion entirely. In moments of crisis, it is a source from which they can draw.

The moment a religious tradition falls under the influence of fundamentalism, everything changes. What was an inescapable inheritance becomes an object of voluntary allegiance. What was implicit is made explicit. A new stringency is imposed. Traditions lose their catholicity, their tolerance of variety and dissent. "He who is not against us is with us" is replaced by "He who is not with us is against us".

The obsession with purity - doctrinal in the case of Christians, ritual in the case of Jews, political in the case of Muslims - creates a tendency towards ever-greater extremism. In a culture that values stringency above all else, the more extreme of two positions always has the competitive advantage. Exactly the same logic can be observed in the history of communism and fascism, suggesting an underlying unity of motive behind all three movements. The phrase "conservative revolution", coined by the historian Fritz Stern to describe German fascism, could also be applied to religious fundamentalism. Like fascism, fundamentalism claims to defend tradition while at the same time transforming it into a revolutionary ideology. Fundamentalism, you could say, does for religion what fascism does for patriotism.

Armstrong is particularly interesting on the relationship between fundamentalism and science. Ever since the Scopes Trial of 1925, in which a Tennessee schoolteacher was charged with teaching Darwin's theory of evolution, fundamentalism has been seen as the deadly enemy of scientific rationality. But the relationship is more complicated than that. Fundamentalism rejects many of the conclusions of modern science, but it has adopted a basically scientific conception of what constitutes reality. The Bible is "the truth" in exactly the same sense that a history or physics textbook is "the truth". Where the Bible and the textbook contradict each other, the Bible must be right and the textbook wrong; there is no sense that the Bible and the textbook are talking about different things. This has some comical consequences. The marvellous myth of creation is transformed into a grotesque piece of pseudo-science, and much time is expended discussing what exactly will happen to aeroplane passengers when the skies open and the Son of Man returns in glory.

Here again, fundamentalism deforms the heritage it tries to preserve. Church fathers such as Origen and Augustine avoided the literal interpretation of Scripture on the grounds that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life". Everything in the Bible had a symbolic meaning as well as a literal one, and it was the symbolic meaning that gave life to the Church. But fundamentalism is heir to the positivistic spirit of the modern age. The notion of "symbolic truth" is execrated as a sophisticated equivocation, a subtle derogation of the literal truth. No ambiguity can be tolerated. Either the Bible is true literally or it is not true at all. Either you are with us or against us.

Fundamentalists share the impatience of a literal-minded atheist such as Brian Magee, who accuses religious believers of continually slipping backwards and forwards between literal assertion and metaphor. But it is precisely in this continual slippage that the life of religion lies. What is "the Resurrection"? It is both an event in human history, taking place at a particular time in a particular place, and a universal symbol of renewal. In traditional Christian writing, the word occupies both registers simultaneously. But the positivistic spirit of fundamentalism forces attention on the first to the exclusion of the second. The Resurrection is imagined in graphic physical detail. Jesus has become a vampire or a zombie; the numinous has become the ghoulish. This "magic trick with bones" (in the phrase of the theologian Keith Ward) is no longer capable of bearing the weight of significance that Christian theology places on it. Christ remains as if dead.

Perhaps the most damning thing one can say about religious fundamentalism is that it has very little to do with God. The title of Armstrong's book is in this sense a misnomer. Whatever it is that fundamentalism battles for, it is not God. American fundamentalists battle for the American way of life. Islamic fundamentalists battle against the American way of life. Jewish fundamentalists battle either for Israel or against Israel, depending on whether or not Israel serves their purposes. But can any of them really believe that the author of the universe takes their side in these miserable parochial squabbles? Religious fundamentalism has been an important force in the politics of the late 20th century, and this book is an admirable chronicle of it. But the real battle for God takes place on another level.

Edward Skidelsky's reviews appear monthly in the NS

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The tiny group that controls us all

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis