Culture | The people behind fundamentalism

Why we can’t separate individuals from context

When I was younger, I got my nits picked by some lovely ultra-Orthodox women in Brooklyn. I lived in a small apartment with my entire family, and whenever lice so much as thought about Brooklyn, my whole house was immediately afflicted and my father would institute a crackdown which mandated infinite trips to the laundromat and absolutely zero complaints, “you infested children.” In further outsourcing, we were sent to sit in old wooden chairs on Ocean Parkway to stare at shellacked pictures of old Jewish sages while the women picked our nits, reminded us to obey our parents, and gossiped intermittently while tut-tutting the state of public schools. I spent about four years wishing I could swap my own frizzy curls for their shiny perfect bobs until someone pointed out they were sheitels, wigs worn by some observant Jewish women to cover their hair after marriage.

Nowadays, my mother is a pediatric visiting nurse, and often cares for Hasidic children (for there are many in Brooklyn), who she says are preternaturally responsible and well-behaved.  For Christmas, a grateful young wife gave my mother an enormous mottled glass serving platter, knowing it was the holiday season, and my mother would be celebrating.

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In my first year of Arabic, I befriended a particularly bubbly young woman in hijab who answered every question I could throw at her while sitting near a window in the SSMU cafeteria. She was far more religious than her family, none of whom asked or mandated that she wear a hijab, and she was invigorated by her piety. She wore the niqab (face covering) on occasion, to see if she was truly modest enough, to test her own vanity and limitations. I asked her if I was going to hell, as a non-Muslim. She smiled and asked what I believed. I hedged, and so did she. She hoped for an arranged marriage, and was nice enough to tote me along to a Qur’anic recitation class (in which I was, of course, a consummate failure). I saw a picture of her on Facebook a year ago, alongside her boyfriend who appeared to be wearing an army uniform. Her hair was uncovered.

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When I was working in Alaska, I was put on the packaging line alongside the boss’ girlfriend, a tough blonde with an easy smile. I told her I studied Religious Studies and Arabic and she asked me why I would bother learning about people who wanted to start a war against me. I asked her what she meant, and she told me that they want violence, they want war, it’s in “their Bible.” She said they were vicious and bloody, but she knew a couple who were okay. Halfway through the day, running on my second week of 18-hour night shifts, I felt exhausted and couldn’t keep up with my share of the work. She took over without a single complaint, and when I protested, she just smiled.

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I recently read a book by a formerly Hasidic woman who paints a portrait of a community that was repressive and static, characterized by female subjugation and torturous adherence to ritual.  You’ve read (from the political right) countless scare-reports of the political and social dangers inherent in the rise of Islamic fundamentalist movements, not to mention (from the humanitarian left) indictments of their backward and anti-feminist social mores. There are dramatic pseudo-take downs of Christian fundamentalist idiocy all over the internet, starring a Clarence Darrow-style campaigner for truth who shatters the childish magic the foolish believer still clings to. I merely find it problematic that we speak about religion, something so personal and integral to people’s lives, as if it takes place in a vacuum. At best, discussions of fundamentalism are accompanied by zealous testimonies, obvious and stark articulations of what makes this particular person a religious aberration. A person’s context is so much larger than any statement they might make, or any creed they profess. Ignoring the human who speaks, or the life behind the statistic, is a betrayal of the project of the humanities, one that would fall apart in a blink of an eye in gender or race studies.

Fundamentalism is growing in political, social, and cultural significance, and because many fundamentalists are grounded in separatist and isolationist beliefs, their voices may be absent from the popular consciousness. This should not mean that we construct effigies. Maligning the Other is outdated – why should this courtesy not be extended to the secularists’ ‘other,’ the fundamental believers?


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