More on the very real similarities between fundamentalisms — Christian and Islamic.
The current issue of The Christian Century has an article by United Methodist minister Paul Jeffrey on the difficulties faced by NGOs providing earthquake relief in Pakistan. The local director of Church World Service (CWS) describes some of the measures that have had to be adopted by western aid agencies in order to avoid showing disrespect to local tradition and culture, while still providing urgently needed relief.
Interestingly, the foreign influence that causes the most trouble with the locals is not western secularism or feminism, but conservative evangelical Christianity. Operations such as Samaritan's Purse, whose leader Franklin Graham has attacked Islam as a "very wicked and evil religion", seem all to ready to exploit the earthquake victims and their suffering as an opportunity to evangelize.
Blatant proselytizing mixed with religious intolerance can be volatile for all involved. Such an approach to aid is not only inflammatory, but can well endanger other Christian and western aid groups and damage good relations NGOs have taken years to build with local communities.
In the article, Jeffrey observes two interesting parallels between fundamentalist Islam and fundamentalist Christianity.
Firstly, both types of groups have flourished under US taxpayer funding. Islamist extremists got their headstart under Reagan with billions in US funding channeled through the Pakistan security forces. Based on what I learned this weekend on terrorist funding, such groups still manage to draw funding (albeit limited) through USAID by posing as legitimate charities. On the other hand, Christian fundamentalist organizations have in recent years been the primary recipients of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to "faith-based" initiatives. In both cases much of the funding was and is diverted to proselytizing, political activity and other questionable ends.
Secondly, in troubled theaters like Pakistan and Iraq, both groups of extremists continue to foster discord among the ordinary people, posing a challenge to real relief efforts. Jeffrey quotes Marvin Pervez of CWS commenting how you hear the same type of shrill jeremiad coming from both the local church and the mosque, "as if the clergy and the mullahs exchange notes."
Another parallel is how fundamentalists of both persuasions will try to appear reasonable and compassionate in their efforts to win hearts and minds to the cause. For instance, Hezbollah is known for its charity and welfare work in Palestine. Various groups affiliated with al-Qaeda are known for the support for widows and families of suicide bomb 'martyrs'.
Likewise, on the Christian right you see furious opposition to women's reproductive choice and gay civil rights dressed up for the media and general public as compassionate "concern for the unborn" and for the "protection of marriage". But behind closed doors the real agendas of keeping women "in their place" and eliminating the homosexual 'problem' are openly discussed.
Ralph Reed does the same thing in his recent debate with Jim Wallis on God's Politics Blog. Among various other misrepresentations, he even manages to characterize the fundamentalist obsession with Israel (based on its belief in the end-times, which culminates in Israel's ultimate and horrific annihilation at Armageddon, as foretold by fundamentalist eschatology) as a social justice issue.
Pam Spauling noted a similar trend on her blog today, where she discussed Jerry Falwell's comparison of Hillary Clinton to Satan during private remarks to like-minded pastors at the Value Voters Summit. Falwell is an extremist and works closely with others who can be considered even more extreme than he is, but he likes to come across to the general public as a genial defender of the faith. Mel White has documented at length, in Religion Gone Bad, how these ideologues will say one thing in public, trying to sound as reasonable as possible, whilst uttering dark invective to foot soldiers when they suppose the media aren't paying attention.
The point of all this is not to attempt to equate Jerry Falwell or Franklin Graham with Osama bin Laden. To compare isms is not to equate them, nor to suggest moral equivalency between one kind of outrage and another. In any case, charges from the right of 'moral relativism' do not successfully detract from the validity of observations that similar dynamics appear to be at work in both.