Monday, September 25, 2006

Strange Words

Anyone following the news of the international religion scene these days will be struck by the repeated use of words like "extremist", "moderate", "fundamentalist", "Islamofascist", and "Islamicist" in connection with Islam. What is usually meant by "extremist", "fundamentalist", "Islamofascist", and "Islamicist", is somebody who is a Muslim and who wants to do something in the neighborhood of destoying the West, killing the Pope, or murder innocent civilians, while what is meant by "moderate" is somebody who is horrified by the thought of such things.

This is a rather curious state of affairs. It seems to me that someone who is "extreme" in their Islamic beliefs will be the "moderate" on this definition, not those whom the media have dubbed the "extremists" and "fundamentalists". Indeed, "fundamentalist" is a particularly strange word to use of Muslims, since it refers to a movement within evangelical Christianity. A "fundamentalist Muslim" will be one who adheres to the fundamentals of the Augsburg Confession, but that doesn't make any sense.

This ought to give you some idea of how the media in particular, and how secular society in general, views religion of any kind, not just Islam. For a secularist, anyone who takes their religious beliefs very seriously is a potentially dangerous person and, it now transpires, any dangerous person is one who takes his religious beliefs very seriously. But this is rot. An "extremist" Christian is not a Christian who wants to burn heretics at the stake and march on Constantinople, but one for whom the teachings of Our Lord dictate the motivation behind every thought and action. A "fundamentalist" Christian is not one for whom creationism is the most important dogma of faith but one for whom only a minimal set of beliefs is necessary for salvation. By parity of reasoning, it would seem, an "extremist" Moslem ought to be one for whom the teachings of the Prophet dictate the motivation behind every thought and action, and a "fundamentalist Moslem" is just an ignorant coinage.

Did the Prophet recommend the destruction of the West, the killing of the Pope, and the murder of innocent civilians? I doubt it, at least not in any sense in which the nutjobs of today's terrorist groups envision such things. Presumably what the Prophet envisioned was a world of peace in which Islam is the religion in everyone's heart, put there not by violent means but by the honey of the Prohpet's own words. The terrorists are not "extremist" Moslems because in an important sense they are not really Moslems at all, any more than Christians who unjustly kill in the name of their religion are genuine Christians.

For the secularists, however, it is all too easy to take the claims of those who act in the name of religion seriously. If somebody says that they are acting qua Muslim in order to spread Islam and destroy the West, then, by golly, that's what that person is doing, regardless of how irrational it is to believe that such an act can be pulled off as part of a religious movement. While there may be religions within which irrational violence is an essential element of belief, I don't know of any, and it is clear that neither Islam nor Christianity is such a religion. It seems quite silly, then, to characterize those who act in irrationally violent ways as "extreme" examples of either Islam or Christianity.

The term "fundamentalist" is just a special case of this phenomenon. The secular media don't like Christian fundamentalists, and for two reasons. First, the tend to be conservative, while the secular media have a tendency to be liberal. Second, the secular journalists employed in the secular media have a very strong dislike for the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity. These two reasons result in some very strange portrayals of fundamentalist Christians in the media, and they tend to explain the willingness of journalists to apply the term "fundamentalist" to any "religious nut" who happens to be doing something inexplicable. The phrase "fundamentalist Muslim" is quite meaningless, but try telling that to a media pundit. When one complains about the term, one often hears, as if it were an argument, "Well, you know what they mean." Hey, meaning is use, after all.

That's why we shouldn't misuse our words. We don't want anyone to mistake our true meaning.

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