Fighting Fear and Fundamentalism

... consider a fine piece in Al Ahram, the main Egyptian paper, by Usama Ghazali Harb, who says the Muslim world's predicament today is not the result of some external plot but the fact that "while the vast majority of Muslims keep silent, an extremist minority has hijacked the faith and is steering it into a confrontation with the world. . . . These extremists are supported by conservative forces that fear progress and modernity."
So writes a fawning Thomas Friedman in his endless quest to find Jeffersonian Muslims.

But here is a modified version of Harb's thesis: "while the vast majority of Americans keep silent, an extremist minority has hijacked our government, and is steering it into a confrontation with the world...These extremists are supported by conservative forces that fear global equality and environmental moderation."

Isn't this as valid a description of our predicament -- those of us caught in the middle as we watch our government convert the simple terrorist crime of Sept. 11 into a vast conflict that asserts American military dominance over the Arabs?

Although not a historian, I have always felt that fundamentalist ideas are based on fear of the future. What else can explain the attraction Armageddon holds for so many American Christian fundamentalists, except the idea that no future is better than the fearful future of uncertainty, change and atomization they are being drawn toward. Fundamentalism gains currency in societies in which the leadership maintains power by creating terror, either overtly through repression and arrest, or covertly through hyper-sensitizing people's everyday fears -- of crime, poverty, exclusion, and death.

Many American Jews went to Israel to live in religious communities. But fear of a modern, secular identity has driven some of them to set up radical fundamentalist orthodox communities, who approvingly stone cars that drive on the Sabbath, threaten stores that might open, or more seriously, support murderous attacks on Palestinians or even the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who stood up to the Settler movement. Is this not the same virulent fundamentalism we are fighting?

At the political level, the Republican Party long ago chose to capitalize on fear to maintain power. In California, Ronald Reagan got his start by fanning fear of communists, poor people, immigrants and crime. The GOP became the dominant party in the South by playing on racism and fear of blacks among white southerners -- a strategy that is now showing signs of strain, as is evident with Trent Lott's resignation. As the U.S. population becomes more diverse, leaders like Lott who expose the overt racism at the core of some Republican policies have to be sacrificed for not staying on message.

This unfortunate convergence of a party based on fear governing a country where many already are acting in fear creates "perfect storm"-like conditions for power elites to push for a major expansion of American empire.

So what are we to do?

The only way to fight this fundamentalist ideology at home and abroad is to clearly fight fear. When comforting a fearful friend, you don't get far by dismissing or contradicting their feelings. You are of no help. It is only by understanding the fear, by bringing it out into the open that we can help people who are afraid. We can help them see how exaggerated and unreal their fears are, and recognize how these fears are being imposed on them from the outside. This is the only way in which fear can be gradually drawn away and dissolved.

The left should not only stand moral witness against killing civilians overseas, but also stand up for freedom at home. Roosevelt's four freedoms are not a bad place to start: freedom of expression; freedom of worship; freedom from want; freedom from fear.

The current war on terrorism unleashed by the Bush administration undermines each one of these freedoms. With skyrocketing budget deficits and military spending, the war will increasingly divert economic resources away from urgent social needs such as health care. Thanks to our military expansion and adventurism, Americans are becoming targets both when we travel abroad and when we dissent in public at home. The fear of political violence may soon become a part of our everyday lives.

Although most of us may not feel religious freedom is at risk, Muslims are already beginning to feel under pressure, what with FBI agents in mosques secretly recording their words. But in Roosevelt's 1941 Four Freedoms speech, the first and foremost point was freedom of expression. In the U.S. today, the government is using the war on terrorism to purge any idea that the Republicans view as "heresy" -- silencing or spying on dissenting citizens in the name of patriotism.

Only fundamentalists can support such an agenda of fear. And remember, fear is our enemy.

Read more of Toby Sackton's writing in Toby's Political Diary.

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