A Conversation with a Fundamentalist

A conversation at a cafe reminded me that it is easy to develop extreme viewpoints when we stop listening and trying to understand the other.

He began by asking me what I was reading (it happened to be a text on Middle East politics).  The conversation quickly jumped to the topic of Islam, and next thing I knew:

"Those Muslims are crazy," he said. 

"Those Muslims?" I found myself looking around the cafe wondering if certain customers were acting “crazy” at that moment. Several were, but since none of them was wearing an "I'm a Muslim" sign, my search for the "crazy Muslims" ended unsuccessfully.

"No," he gestured broadly as if pointing somewhere far away: "those Muslims."

 I'd run into this cafe "regular" several times before, and our previous encounters had always been friendly, though brief. Now his smiling and well-mannered demeanor was replaced with a wide-eyed, conspiratorial whisper and his stance had become decidedly aggressive.

"Have you read the Quran?" he asked. 

"Not cover to cover, but yes, excerpts from it," I said.

He began reciting Quranic verses with fluency, and with a tone on the opposite end of the spectrum from reverence. He had clearly armed himself with quotes to prove his earlier point about being "crazy."

He sounded convincing - as if he really knew his stuff.


Fundamentalists are selective and seek to divide

I soon identified a common pattern I had run into before in discussions with people who took a fundamentalist approach to their faith, while vilifying others:

An air of authority was adopted, and quotes from the scriptures of the three monotheistic faiths were rattled off as if rehearsed. There were intermittent pauses, but they were intended to quiz the listener on their own knowledge of these texts, rather than to invite alternative perspectives.

A select number of verses were pulled out of context and interspersed with interpretations of them that were far from moderate and balanced. 

 Questions and countervailing perspectives were met with heightened intensity and redirection.

The speech was peppered with “we” and “they" dichotomies, intended to invite the listener to be part of the “in group” by turning staunchly against a common foe.

Recognizing these tell-tale characteristics, I decided to "watch" our conversation "from the balcony" (a metaphor used by negotiation expert William Ury in his "Getting Past No," to describe a mindset of self-awareness and mental detachment that allows us to "see" ourselves and those we engage with as an objective bystander might).

 I was impressed with his ability to weave point after point together  - with flair - to create a convincing tapestry. Unfortunately, it was a tapestry of bigotry.

I wondered to myself how someone such as he, who obviously considered himself a devout Christian, would respond to an equally aggressive and well-laid argument against Christians and Christianity. 


Fighting back against fundamentalism - with interfaith dialogue

This exchange was an important reminder for me.

When the news is so focused on manifestations of Muslim fundamentalism, let us not forget that fundamentalists and extremists exist in all faiths. 

The problem isn't with the individual, or with the text they are citing. It lies in the way that scripture is twisted to forward collective ideological goals. These may be political, economic, social or religious. Regardless of the goals and the forms used to achieve them, it all sounds quite similar: Ideas are cherry-picked to support polarizing positions, and the irrational arguments of hate, fear and exclusion are rationalized.

In the aftermath of the Paris attacks, this kind of selective rhetoric has been taken up by politicians, media members, and individuals, whether inadvertently or purposely, fanning the flames of finger-pointing, divisiveness and stereotyped bigotry.

An effective antidote to religious fundamentalism - which seeks to use religion to divide - is interfaith dialogue, which strives to identify common ground between members of different faiths.  

As religion is being used to divide us, we must be ever more committed to efforts that seek to identify and highlight our shared values and bring moderate, inspired voices to the fore. 

One of my favorites of these is the radio show Friends Talking Faith, presented by The Three Wise Guys, a rabbi, an imam, and a reverend.

Each week these three religious leaders take to the airwaves to discuss an issue of social, political, economic, or environmental import, bringing to bear the teachings and values of their respective faiths.  

What I love is that their exchanges provide a much-needed reminder of the common values shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians, as well as respectfully explaining the divergences that arise in the religious practices of each group. 

From the Three Wise Guys:

“Our goal through this project is to educate, enlighten, inspire, and model a kind of inter-religious dialogue that builds community and creates a world that is fit to live in for all of us.  We believe this is God’s calling for people of all faith traditions.  We believe God intends for each of us to find ways to build bridges and create greater understanding for the people and nations of our world.  We believe that God never calls any of our religions to behaviors of violence or destruction of the other.  We are fully aware that there is “bad religion” in our world – there always has been; however, there is far more “good religion” in our world.  Good religion works for peace, respects and values the other person regardless of their religious perspective (or no religion at all), and works through acts of compassion to make the world a better place for everyone."

As an antidote to the kind of polarizing ideas voiced by my cafe companion, I also love A Common Word Between Us and You that began in 2007 with the joint penning of an open letter by Muslim and Christian religious leaders to promote peace and understanding between the two faiths.

Other organizations doing great interfaith and religion in conflict work include: 

United Religions Initiative

Interfaith Encounter Association

International Center for Religion and Diplomacy


Confronting extremism by reenforcing the moderate:

Despite my disappointment at the views expressed in my cafe exchange, I am grateful for the reminder that we must always be conscious in how we select our sources of information, develop our perspectives, and engage with those different than ourselves.

When faced with daily examples of the gruesome symptoms of extremism, it is important to remember: thinking can always be changed. If extremist ideas can proliferate when planted in the soil of disenchantment, alienation and exclusion, so too can moderate viewpoints take root when provided with the right "soil" of tolerance, understanding and shared responsibility.

The need to see and emphasize these moderate voices is even more critical at a time when fundamentalist views appear to be taking center stage. In actual fact, extremists are already on the margins numerically (for example, according to one study less than 1% of Muslims are “at risk of becoming radical…[which] doesn’t mean they will pick up a gun or start plotting an attack”, so let's not allow them to monopolize our media outlets and sow fear in our communities and relationships. Let's not succumb to the protective instinct to turn away from and exclude those who may seem different from us, but who in all actuality, seek the same basic dignity and understanding that we do.

 At the end of my cafe conversation, I was able to look into the eyes of the man who had shared such bigoted views and say with honesty: "I disagree strongly with much of what you said, and yet I am glad that we had this conversation. Thank you for listening and sharing." I recognized the importance of maintaining my own dignity and also of acknowledging his, despite our great differences.