Fundamentalism is here to stay

Despite expectations in the 20th century that religion was on the wane, fundamentalism has emerged as a backlash to secularism 

In the middle of the 20th century, it was generally assumed that secularism was the coming ideology and that religion would never again play a major role in world events. Today, religion dominates the headlines, and this is due in no small part to the militant piety that has developed in every single major world faith over the past century.

We usually call it “fundamentalism”. Fundamentalist groups have staged revolutions, assassinated presidents, carried out terrorist atrocities and become an influential political force in strongly secularist nations. There has, for example, been much discussion about the role of Protestant fundamentalism in the recent American elections. It is no longer possible to dismiss fundamentalism as a passing phase.

Fundamentalism is not…

We should begin by defining what fundamentalism is not. First, it should not be equated with religious conservatism. Leading American religious revivalist Billy Graham, for example, is not a fundamentalist.

Second, fundamentalism should not be linked automatically with violence. Only a tiny proportion of fundamentalists worldwide take part in acts of terror. The rest are simply struggling to live what they regard as a good religious life in a world that seems increasingly inimical to faith.

Third, fundamentalism is not an exclusively Islamic phenomenon. There are fundamentalist Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Confucians, who all challenge the secular hegemony of the modern world. In fact, Islam developed a fundamentalist strain long after it had erupted in Judaism and Christianity.

Fundamentalism is…

So what is fundamentalism? It is essentially a revolt against modern secular society. Wherever a western polity has been established that separates religion and politics, fundamentalist movements have sprung up in protest. Whatever the politicians or the pundits claim, people worldwide are demonstrating that they want to see religion reflected more prominently in public life. As part of their campaign, fundamentalists tend to withdraw from mainstream society to create enclaves of pure faith.

Typical examples are the Ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in New York or the fundamentalist Christianity of Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Here fundamentalists build a counterculture, in conscious defiance of the godless world that surrounds them, and from these communities some undertake a counteroffensive designed to drag God or religion back to centre stage from the wings to which they have been relegated in modern secular culture.

This campaign is rarely violent. It usually consists of a propaganda or welfare effort. In the United States, for example, the fundamentalist riposte attempts to reform school textbooks or to get Christian candidates elected to government posts. But if warfare is endemic in a region and has become chronic – as in the Middle East or Afghanistan – fundamentalists can get sucked into the violence that pervades the whole of society. In this way, originally secular disputes such as the Arab-Israeli conflict have been sacralized, on both sides.

The road to modernity

The ubiquity of the fundamentalist revolt shows that there is widespread disappointment with modernity. But what is it about the modern world that has provoked such rage and distress? In the 16th century, the peoples of the west began to develop a new type of civilization unprecedented in world history. Instead of basing their economy on a surplus of agricultural produce, as did all premodern cultures, they relied increasingly on technology and the constant reinvestment of capital, which freed them from the inherent limitations of agrarian society. This demanded radical change at all levels of society – intellectual, political, social and religious. A wholly new way of thinking became essential, and new forms of government had to evolve to meet these altered conditions. It was found by trial and error that the best way of creating a productive society was to create a secular, tolerant, democratic polity.

It took Europe some 300 years to modernize, and the process was wrenching and traumatic, involving bloody revolutions, often succeeded by reigns of terror, brutal holy wars, dictatorships, cruel exploitation of the workforce, the despoliation of the countryside, and widespread alienation and anomie.

We are now witnessing the same kind of upheaval in developing countries presently undergoing modernization. But some of these countries have had to attempt this difficult process far too rapidly and are forced to follow a western programme, rather than their own.

This accelerated modernization has created deep divisions in developing nations. Only an elite has a western education that enables them to understand the new modern institutions. The vast majority remains trapped in the premodern ethos. They experience the incomprehensible change as profoundly disturbing, and cling to traditional religion for support. But as modernization progresses, people find that they cannot be religious in the old way and try to find new means of expressing their piety. Fundamentalism is just one of these attempts, and it therefore develops only after a degree of modernization has been achieved.

The modern spirit that developed in the west had two essential characteristics: independence and innovation. Modernization in Europe and America proceeded by declarations of independence on all fronts – religious, political and intellectual – as scientists and inventors demanded the freedom to develop their ideas without interference from religious or political authorities. Further, despite the trauma of modernization, it was exciting, because the western countries were continually meeting new challenges and creating something fresh. But in some developing countries, modernization came not with independence, but with colonial dependence and subjugation, and the west was so far ahead that these could not innovate but only imitate. So they find it difficult to develop a truly modern spirit. A nation such as Japan, which was not colonized, was able to make its own distinctive contribution to the modern economy in a way that some Middle Eastern countries have not been able to do.

A fight for survival

Culture is always contested, and fundamentalists are primarily concerned with saving their own society. Protestant Fundamentalists in the United States want America to be a truly Christian nation, not a secular, pluralist republic. In Palestine, Hamas began by attacking the Palestine Liberation Organization, because it wanted the Palestinian resistance to be inspired by an Islamic rather than a secular polity. Osama bin Laden started by targeting the Saudi royal family and such secularist rulers as Saddam Hussein. Only at a secondary stage – if at all – do fundamentalists begin to attack a foreign foe. Thus fundamentalism does not represent a clash between civilizations, but a clash within civilizations.

Perhaps the most important factor to understand about this widespread religious militancy is its rootedness in a deep fear of annihilation. Every fundamentalist movement I have studied in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is convinced that modern secular society wants to wipe out religion – even in America. Fundamentalists, therefore, believe they are fighting for survival, and when people feel that their backs are to the wall, some can strike out violently. This profound terror of annihilation is not as paranoid as it may at first appear. Jewish fundamentalism, for example, gained fresh momentum after World War II, when Hitler had tried to exterminate European Jewry, and after the 1973 October War, when Israelis felt vulnerable and isolated in the Middle East.

In some Muslim countries, modernization has usually been so accelerated that secularism has been experienced as an assault. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created modern secular Turkey, he closed down all the madrasahs (traditional institutes for higher education in Islamic studies) and abolished the Sufi orders. He also forced all men and women to wear western dress. Reformers such as Ataturk wanted their countries to look modern. In Iran, the shahs used to make their soldiers walk through the streets with their bayonets out, tearing off women’s veils and ripping them to pieces. In 1935, shah Reza Pahlavi gave his soldiers orders to shoot at unarmed demonstrators in Mashhad (one of the holiest shrines in Iran), who were peacefully protesting against obligatory western clothes. Hundreds of Iranians died that day. In such circumstances, secularism was not experienced as liberating and civilized, but as wicked, lethal and murderously hostile to faith.

The main fundamentalist ideology of Sunni Islam developed in the concentration camps in Egypt in which president Jamal Abd al-Nasser had incarcerated thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1950s, without trial and often for doing nothing more incriminating than attending a meeting or handing out leaflets. One of these prisoners was Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Nasser in 1966. Qutb went into the camp as a moderate and a liberal. But in these vile prisons, watching the Brothers being executed and subjected to mental and physical torture, and hearing Nasser vowing to relegate Islam to a marginal role in Egypt, he came to regard secularism as a great evil. He developed an ideology of committed armed struggle against this threat to the faith. His chief disciple today is Osama bin Laden.

Thus fundamentalism usually develops in a symbiotic relationship with a secularism that is experienced as hostile and invasive. Every fundamentalist movement I have studied in each of the three monotheistic traditions has developed in direct response to what is perceived as a secularist attack. The more vicious the assault, the more extreme the fundamentalist riposte is likely to be. Because fundamentalists fear that secularists want to destroy them, aggressive and military action will only serve to confirm this conviction and exacerbate their fear, which can spill over into ungovernable rage.

Thus membership of al-Qaeda has increased since the recent Gulf War. The offensive has convinced many Muslims that the west has really inaugurated a new crusade against the Islamic world. In the United States, Protestant fundamentalists in the smaller towns and rural areas often feel “colonized” by the alien ethos of Harvard, Yale and Washington DC. They feel that the liberal establishment despises them, and this has resulted in a fundamentalism that has gone way beyond Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority of the 1970s. (Falwell is an American fundamentalist Baptist pastor, televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority – a group dedicated to promoting its conservative and religious Christian-centric beliefs via support of political candidates.) Some groups, such as the Christian Reconstructionists, look forward to the imminent destruction of the federal government; the blazing towers of the World Trade Center would not be alien to their ideology. When liberals deplore the development and persistence of fundamentalism in their own societies and worldwide, they should be aware that the excesses of secularists have all too often been responsible for this radical alienation.

Here to stay

Fundamentalism is not going to disappear, as secularists once imagined that religion would modestly retreat to the sidelines and confine itself to private life. Fundamentalism is here to stay, and in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, at least, it is becoming more extreme. Fundamentalism is not confined to the “other” civilizations. A dangerous gulf has appeared, dividing many societies against themselves. In the Middle East, India, Pakistan, Israel and the United States, for example, fundamentalists and secular liberals form two distinct camps, neither of which can understand the other.

In the past, these movements were often dismissed with patrician disdain. This has proved to be short-sighted. We have to take fundamentalism very seriously. Had the US made a greater effort to understand Shiite Islam, for example, it might have avoided unnecessary errors in the lead-up to the Iranian Revolution of 1978 to 79. The first step must be to look beneath the bizarre and often repulsive ideology of these movements to discern the disquiet and anger that lie at their roots. We must no longer deride these theologies as the fantasies of a lunatic fringe, but learn to decode their ideas and imagery. Only then can we deal creatively with fears and anxieties that, as we have seen to our cost, no society can safely ignore.

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