1 Feb 2010

Haiti and the forgotten fundamentalists

Imagine for a moment that the American Baptists from Idaho, who have been arrested heading out of Haiti with a busload of ‘orphans’, had been a group of Islamic fundamentalists. Would the world have been quite so sanguine about an incident that has been represented as involving naïve God botherers, or worse, child trafficking?

In truth there is a distorted use of language when it comes to religious fundamentalism. There is a spirit of Christian fundamentalism abroad, which is at least as numerous, if not considerably more so than its Islamic counterpart. Its heartland is in America – particularly in landlocked states like Idaho that have traditionally sported a wariness of the world beyond America’s shores.

These ‘evangelicals’, as many describe them, represent a very broad church that extends from the mad-cap tele-evangelism – that feathers the nests of many of its leaders, to the ‘mega church movements’ that are sprouting everywhere from Texas to East London. They spawn and sponsor many causes ranging from opposing Obama’s health care bill, to advocating the death penalty for homosexuals in Uganda.

Yet the column inches devoted to the threat from Islamic fundamentalists far outstrip the equally concerning antics of Christian fundamentalists. In each case followers are ‘captured’ in places of worship by ‘charismatic’ operatives. In each case funds are raised on a huge scale to fund ‘the work’ of the Bible or Koran. Both groupings depend upon a highly literal application of both books in support of their activities.

It is also true that many of the ‘believers’ caught up in these movements have little context in which to place the issues around which they are being asked to rally. So when the charismatic preacher tells his congregation that ‘thousands of children have been orphaned by the earthquake in Haiti’, they have little way of knowing quite what this means.

My own inquiries in Port-au-Prince revealed very few absolute orphans. The extended family is very much still a part of Haitian life. I found a ten month old baby girl, whose mother had been killed and whose father was missing. But the child’s aunt, who was cradling the child as I spoke to her, told me she would bring her up as her own. According to NGOs I spoke to, there are very, very few children who have been completely dispossessed of all family and community. Yet even in these circumstances, I have heard evangelicals stating as a fact that a loving, childless, Christian family in America will give the child a better life.

Christian and Islamic fundamentalists both play on immigrant and ethnic minority groupings in western countries. They play too on communities in the developing world – from Africa to Europe, from the Caribbean and Latin America to South East Asia.

Christian fundamentalists have yet to carry out bomb attacks against the state. But among many other practices, they kill doctors who carry out abortions, they abduct children, and they threaten the social cohesion of emerging societies by advocating the outlawing of homosexuals.

Do we ignore the dangers inherent in hysterical fundamentalism in all faiths at our peril? Perhaps the time has come to ask why, in the age of technological breakthrough, religious fundamentalism is developing such a stranglehold on societies across the world.


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