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The Social Imaginary of Extremist Muslims and Christians

Fundamentalist Christians in America are fear Muslim extremists as a foreign influence that is invading the United States, trying to impose sharia religious law on everyone else. If the Christians stopped for a moment to study the Muslim extremists they fear, they might find what they see reassuringly familiar.

For one thing, the desire to force archaic religious codes on others is something that fundamentalists in Christianity and Islam have in common. The justification for imposing narrow religious law is something they share, too: Belief in a mythical past, when their religious law made life sweet. In Islam, A Very Short Introduction, Malise Ruthven says of the current “Islamist” extremists,

“Demands for the ‘restoration’ of the Shari’a are part of what the progressivist Algerian-born scholar Muhammad Arkoun calls the ‘social imaginary’ of Muslims – the ‘collection of images’ held within a culture about itself or other cultures, images that tend to preclude analysis and objective self-reflection while feeding fantasies based on romantic, ahistorical visions of the past.”

American Christian fundamentalists have a social imaginary all their own. They believe in a mythical stage early in the history of the USA when the nation was a Christian theocracy, with laws based on the Bible rather than the Constitution. Just as Muslim extremists insist that the greatness of the old Muslim empire was based upon sharia law, Christian extremists insist that the United States is special because its laws were founded upon the Ten Commandments. Both claims are historically untenable, yet central to the fundamentalist agenda of the two groups.

They may detest each other, but these two groups aren’t really so different. Instead of fighting with each other, and making life miserable for everyone else, why don’t they get together in some quiet corner of the world, and simply pretend to be living in their desired pasts, like the members of the Society for Creative Anachronism do?

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