09/30/05 - fundamentalism

In today's excerpt - Karen Armstrong explains religious fundamentalism as a reaction to change:

"In its early years, the Ottoman state was far more efficient and powerful than any kingdom in Europe. Under Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66), it reached its apogee. Suleiman expanded westward, through Greece, the Balkans, and Hungary, and his advance into Europe was checked only by his failure to take Vienna in 1529. In Safavid Iran, the shahs built roads and caravansaries, rationalized the economy, and put the country in the forefront of international trade. The sixteenth century was the great period of Ottoman architecture, Safavid painting, and the Taj Mahal.

"And yet, while these were all modernizing societies, they did not implement radical change. They did not share the revolutionary ethos that would become characteristic of Western culture during the eighteenth century. Instead the three empires expressed what the American scholar Marshall G.S. Hodgson has called 'the conservative spirit', which was the hallmark of all premodern society, including that of Europe. Indeed, the empires were the last great political expression of the conservative spirit and, since they were also the most advanced states of the early modern period, they can be said to represent its culmination. Today, conservative society is in trouble. Either it has been effectively taken over by the modern Western ethos, or it is undergoing the difficult transition from the conservative to the modern spirit. Much of fundamentalism is a response to this painful transformation. It is, therefore, important to examine the conservative spirit at its peak in these Muslim empires, so that we can understand its appeal and strengths, as well as its inherent limitations.

"Until the West introduced a wholly new kind of civilization (based on a constant reinvestment of capital and technical improvement), which did not come into its own until the nineteenth century, all cultures depended economically upon a surplus of agricultural produce. This meant that there was a limit to the expansion and success of any agrarian-based society, since it would eventually outrun its resources and obligations. There was a limit to the amount of capital available for investment. Any innovation that needed large capital outlay was usually ruled out, since people lacked the means that would enable them to tear everything down, retrain their personnel, and start again. No culture before our own could afford the constant innovation we take for granted in the West today. We now expect to know more than our parents’ generation, and are confident that our societies will become ever more technologically advanced. We are future-oriented; our governments and institutions have to look ahead and make detailed plans that will affect the next generation. It will be obvious that this society of ours is the achievement of sustained, single-minded rational thought. It is the child of logos, which is always looking forward, seeking to know more and to extend our areas of competence and control of the environment. But no amount of rational thinking could create this aggressively innovative society without a modern economy. It is not impossible for Western societies to keep changing the infrastructure to make new inventions possible, since, by constantly reinvesting capital, we can increase our basic resources so that they keep pace with our technological progress. But this was not feasible in an agrarian economy, where people channeled their energies into preserving what had already been achieved. Hence the “conservation” bent of premodern society did not spring from a fundamental timidity but represented a realistic appraisal of the limitations of this type of culture. Education, for example, consisted largely of rote learning and did not encourage originality. Students were not taught to conceive radically new ideas, because the society could generally not accommodate them; such notions could, therefore, be socially disruptive and endanger a community. In a conservative society, social stability and order were considered more important than freedom of expression.

"Instead of looking forward to the future, like moderns, premodern society turned for inspiration to the past. Instead of expecting continuous improvement, it was assumed that the next generation could easily regress. Instead of advancing to new heights of achievement, societies were believed to have declined from a primordial perfection. This putative Golden Age was held up as a model for governments and individuals. It was by approximating to this past ideal that a society would fulfill its potential. Civilization was experienced as inherently precarious. Everyone knew that a whole society could easily lapse into barbarism, as Western Europe had done after the collapse of the Roman empire there in the fifth century."


Karen Armstrong


The Battle For God: A History of Fundamentalism


A Ballantine Book by The Random House Publishing Group


Copyright 2000 by Karen Armstrong


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