For nearly ten years Americans watched - with mingled fascination, horror, anger and incredulity - as the Iranian Revolution transformed a nation once assumed to be firmly moored to the world of the modern West into an apparent bastion of anti-Western, anti-modern, fundamentalist values. It was an event that seemed to confound the normal patterns of analysis; and the only explanation with which most Americans have since felt comfortable has been one that stresses a cultural irrationality rooted in the oddities of the Islamic mind or the peculiarities of the Persian character. A rational society, Americans believe, does not turn its back on modern development. It does not embrace fanaticism. It does not reject progress. During roughly the same years, the United States itself has experienced a resurgence of Christian fundamentalism which, if far less powerful and far less radical than its Islamic counterparts, has raised some of the same challenges to secular, scientific values and some of the same threats to what most Americans have come to consider the norms of modernity. And when American liberals attempt to understand what is happening in their own society, they begin with many of the same assumptions they use to explain fundamentalist fervour in the Middle East. In America, as in Iran, fundamentalism is essentially irrational, even pathological, the product of alarming cultural or psychological maladjustments. For in America, as elsewhere, rational men and women do not reject progress.
LRB 2 May 1985 | PDF Download