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More than 100 members of the Lafayette community gathered at Interfaith Chapel in Hogg Hall today for a noon lecture and discussion on “Fundamentalism and Religious Violence.”

The event was the second in a five-part Campus Conversations series addressing issues related to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Landon Adams ’02 introduced speaker Justin Watson, visiting assistant professor of religion. Watson stressed that the term “fundamentalism” is often used casually to group together very different movements and viewpoints.

The term “fundamentalism” arose in early 20th century America as Protestants opposed the rising tide of modernists, who today would be called liberals, Watson explained. One of the defining events in this period was the Scopes Trial that allowed the theory of evolution to be taught in public schools. The late 1970s saw a resurgence in talk of “fundamentalism” as the Moral Majority became established in the U.S. and an Islamic revolution prevailed in Iran.

Referencing the work of scholar Martin Marty at the University of Chicago, Watson said that one view of fundamentalism is that of “threatened traditionalists,” who find their entire sense of identity in a religious movement and perceive a threat to it that must be answered to ensure survival. Another view is that fundamentalists are those who exercise militant resistance to secular modernity, including rationalism, differentiation (separation of the religious and political realms), and pluralism. A third perspective of fundamentalism is that of an adaptive and innovative movement that uses technology, and perhaps even new doctrines, to reinforce the influence of traditional religion.

The popular conception of fundamentalism is flawed, Watson argued, because it is taken from an American context and applied to very different religious communities. Many Muslims in the Middle East, for example, see modernity as linked with Western civilization, whereas those viewed as Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. see their struggle against modernity primarily as one within their own society and culture.

The term “militant fundamentalist” creates the impression that violence is inherent to fundamentalism, Watson noted, but the vast majority of fundamentalists in the world are non-violent. “To distinguish between fundamentalists with guns and fundamentalists without guns is very important,” he said.

Watson also talked about religious violence, drawing upon the example of Paul Hill, an anti-abortion activist who shot a doctor and his accompanying escort as they walked to an abortion clinic in 1994. Religious violence is committed as a symbolic action demanding attention from the world and designed to demoralize the enemy, he said. The delay between the crashes of the first and second planes into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 probably was intended to allow for maximum video coverage of the second crash, Watson said.

Those engaging in religious violence also conceive of the world as divided between the forces of good and evil, with no middle ground, thinking of their side as heroic and members of the other as virtual non-persons, Watson explained. This was typified in a 1998 statement by Osama bin Laden, suspected mastermind behind the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, that it is the duty of every Muslim to kill Americans and their allies.

Several of those in attendance asked questions and made comments relating to Watson’s points. Carrie Spell, assistant dean of students and director of intercultural development, raised the question of whether fundamentalist Christian leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are dangerous because of their aggressive political rhetoric.

Stephen Lammers, Helen H.P. Mason Professor of Religion, noted that responding to terrorist action often requires modifying one’s rhetoric and approach, which can mirror the characteristics of the enemy in some respects.

Illan Peleg, Charles A. Dana Professor of Government and Law, questioned whether the terrorists and political regimes that sponsor them are responding more to what the U.S. represents as a Western democracy and civilization than to the specific actions of its government and people.

Mehmet Uz, professor of chemical engineering, noted that both of his parents were fundamentalist Muslims, yet their nonviolent beliefs would lead his father to ensure that their family opened its door to let out a bee, rather than kill it. Bin Laden does not represent the Muslims of the world, he said, noting that the terrorist has waged more destruction in Uz’ native country of Turkey than even in the U.S. No Muslim countries supported the terrorist attacks, he noted, drawing widespread applause.

The remaining schedule of Campus Conversations:
Monday, Oct. 1: “Psychological Effects on a Nation,” Kirby Hall auditorium (room 104)
Wednesday, Oct. 3: “The Conflict,” Limburg Theatre
Friday, Oct. 5: “International Perspective on the War Against Terrorism,” Hogg Hall
Lunch is provided free of charge. The discussions run from 12:10-1:10 p.m.

The series is sponsored by the offices of the college chaplain, dean of students, dean of studies, and intercultural development; the Lafayette Activities Forum; the International Students Association; Student Government; and members of the faculty.

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