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The Facts


new internationalist
issue 210 - August 1990

Fundamentalists of whatever stripe or colour have much in common.
But each movement has its own special characteristics and beliefs. Here the
NI offers factual portraits of five major strains of fundamentalism.

[image, unknown]
Illustration: Clive Offley


[image, unknown] GROUPS: These range from Pentecostals. Baptists and other independent fundamentalist churches to 'charismatic' renewal movements in the mainstream churches both Catholic ('Evangelization 2000') and Protestant. They have gained particular momentum in the 1980s.

STRENGTH: These groups are strongest in the US - of the 60 million born-again Christians in the US, about half describe themselves as fundamentalists.1 From there they have spread the message to Latin America, the Philippines and parts of the Caribbean and Africa. Their vigorous missionary program combines emotional religion with militant anti-communism. Every hour 400 Latin Americans convert to fundamentalist or evangelical churches such as the Pentecostals.2 In Guatemala, for example, Catholicism is rapidly being overtaken - in 1989 there were 400 ordained Catholic priests compared with 7,000 Protestant pastors.3 In Nicaragua between 1980 and 1986 the number of Pentecostal congregations grew from 682 to 2,012.

SCRIPTURE: Christian fundamentalists take the Bible quite literally, concentrating particularly on the Old Testament. Tbey defend literal translations of controversial biblical passages such as the Immaculate Conception or the Garden of Eden interpretation of creation. But fundamentalist publishing of new texts is also a booming business. For example born-again prophet and writer Hal Lindsay has sold over 15 million copies of his apocalyptic vision The Late Great Planet Earth.4

BELIEFS: Christian fundamentalists see God and the Devil as active forces in everyday life and ascribe the most mundane decisions and events to divine intervention. Most of them believe society is not far from the final judgement where God will descend to earth and take the side of the righteous (theirs) against a plethora of enemies - secular humanists, homosexuals, supporters of abortion, communists, false Christians etc.

SOCIAL AGENDA: Christian fundamentalists generally incline towards the political right with the view that 'God helps those who help themselves'. The rich do and the poor don't. A main fundamentalist goal is to protect the Christian family against moral decay and the national state against the forces of atheism, be they communist or secular humanist. Their level of activity ranges from passive support for right-wing causes to direct action against abortion clinics (including 34 bombings and 47 arson attacks in the last 12 years in the US).5 In Central America and the Philippines the fundamentalist right is implicated in paramilitary campaigns against those fighting for social change.



Photo: Jacques Haillot / Camera Press GROUPS: The two main groups of Islamic fundamentalists correspond to the two wings of Islam - the Shi'ites and the Sunnis. The Shiites are concentrated mainly in Iran. Iraq, southern Lebanon and parts of the Arabian peninsula with the Sunnis dominating the rest of the Muslim world.

STRENGTH: Nearly one in five of the world's people is a Muslim. Muslims form the majority in 42 nations, and a significant minority in another 45 nations.6 This provides the fundamentalist movement with ample room for growth. Islamic fundamentalism has grown up as part of a more general Islamic revival. The success of the Islamic revolution in Iran is the most visible sign of fundamentalist ferment. The Islamic Brotherhoods and their more militant spin-offs in Egypt and Syria (such as Al-Jihad, the group that assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat) are typical of Sunni fundamentalism.

SCRIPTURE: The basic scripture for Islam is the Qu'ran - and the fundamentalists adhere to a literal interpretation. Some of the more modem influences on fundamentalist thinking are Khomeini's Islamic Government (Shi'ite) and the writing of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb such as In the Shadow of the Qu'ran and Signposts on the Road (Sunni).7

BELIEFS: To the fundamentalist Islam is a total belief system providing direction for every aspect of life - culture, politics, economics and personal behaviour. All fundamentalists believe in the firm application of the Shari'a Law which represents the direct rule of Allah over society. At the present time only three Islamic countries - Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan - maintain rule by Shari'a.

SOCIAL AGENDA: This is a combination of egalitarianism and militant puritanism. There is suspicion of wealth, particularly that gained by interest-bearing capital, as a potential source of corruption. The excess associated with the oil wealth that flooded the Middle East was one of the causes of the Islamic revival. Muslim fundamentalists are absolutely opposed to drinking, drugs, women's rights, abortion, homosexuality and any kind of sex outside marriage. They are committed to a wide range of severe sanctions from censorship to dismemberment in order to discourage these and other manifestations of 'the modem world'.



[image, unknown] GROUPS: The absolute faith in market forces as a solution to all human problems is most widespread in business and conservative political circles in the Anglo-Saxon world. It also has its proponents throughout the capitalist world, particularly in Japan and the newly industrialized countries of Asia. This doctrine is propagated by a network of influential private pressure groups such as the Heritage Foundation in the US, the Adam Smith Institute in the UK, the Kid Economics Institute in the West Germany and the Fraser Institute in Canada.

STRENGTH: This is a form of fundamentalism very much in fashion today. The US under Reagan and the UK under Thatcher have pioneered a radical conservatism that involves substantial retreat from previous welfare commitments to help the poor. The influence of this doctrine has most recently spread to Eastern Europe (particularly Poland) where it is being embraced as the solution to decades of communist mismanagement of the economy. Market fundamentalism has also influenced the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in their prescriptions for Third World economies.

SCRIPTURE: The classic texts of Adam Smith and the other founders of political economy' in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Also popular are the more recent writings of the Viennese philosopher FA Hayek and the Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Hayek's Road to Serfdom (1944) and his influential Geneva-based Mount Pelerin Society laid the groundwork for militant laissez-faire anti-tax capitalism. The Reagan and Thatcher revolutions have also thrown up their own literature such as George Gilder's very popular Poverty and Wealth.8

BELIEFS: The messianic capitalists believe in a program to reduce government and allow the 'invisible hand' of the market to create and spread wealth. They advocate privatization, cutbacks in social services and deregulation to allow industry a free rein. The Thatcher government had put 17 previously publicly-held companies into private hands by 1987. Deregulation of the Federal Savings and Loan industry in the US has caused one of the biggest financial collapses in human history - costing the US taxpayer $500 billion.9

SOCIAL AGENDA: It would be a mistake to see messianic capitalism as simply an economic philosophy. Its rigorous program aims to break the financial and psychological dependency that a number of groups - cultural workers, public servants, welfare recipients - have on the nanny state'. As with the Christian fundamentalists the values most prized by messianic capitalism are discipline, sobriety and hard work. Fundamentalist born-again techniques are increasingly being employed in business training seminars.



[image, unknown] GROUPS: There are a myriad of small Marxist-Leninist groups in almost every country that allows them the political space to organize. The remaining Marxist-Leninist states are predominantly in the Third World - China, Mozambique, Angola, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Laos and Cambodia. Albania is the only remaining European representative.

STRENGTH: Marxism-Leninism (fundamentalist communism) is on the wane. After the movements of political reform that swept Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989 orthodox Marxism-Leninism is very much on the defensive. In 1985 there were 18 states that ascribed to Marxism-Leninism; today there are only 10. The absolute faith in fundamentalist communism is today the monopoly of a few extremist movements like Sendero Luminoso in Peru and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

SCRIPTURE: The works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin are the holy scripts of Marxism-Leninism. These are among the best-selling and most translated books in the world. However some (such as Marx's Capital and The Communist Manifesto and Lenin's What is to be Done?) have been more widely used than others (the early work of Marx on human alienation, for example) that raise embarrassing issues about autocratic government.

BELIEFS: Orthodox Marxism-Leninism cloaks itself in the certainty that an elite corps of professional revolutionaries who have conquered state power can create a classless society based on freedom from necessity. The Marxist-Leninist replaces the belief in God's will with the materialist notion that change in the economic base of society is enough to liberate human potential for good. The centralization of economic and political power will allow for the rational use of resources to serve society as a whole and not just a privileged capitalist elite.

SOCIAL AGENDA: Marxist-Leninist regimes have extended state power in a totalistic fashion both over economic enterprises and the lives of individual citizens. Popular rights to jobs, health care and housing have been the central goals of policy.



Photo: Bernard Charlon / Camera Press [image, unknown] GROUPS: A wide spectrum including: survivalists: new-age therapy movements; racist groups like the Aryan Church: gurus purporting to represent Eastern religions; and independent churches that have grown up around powerful leaders like Sun Myung Moon, L Ron Hubbard, or Elizabeth Claire Prophet. The largest and most influential cults are Hubbard's Church of Scientology and Moon's Unification Church ('the Moonies'). Some groups are merely local while others have an international presence.

STRENGTH: In the US there are 3000 or so cults with what are conservatively estimated to be three million adherents. The US has the largest following but these groups are spreading rapidly in the Third World and Europe. Prophet's The Church Universal and Triumphant is a presence in Ghana and The Unification Church is active in Uruguay and Central America.

SCRIPTURE: Each cult tends to have its own holy book that is the 'revealed truth' - a guide to the meaning of the universe as well as the more mundane matters of everyday human behaviour. Hubbard's Dianetics or Moon's Divine Principles are cases in point. Moon's book recommends a kind of 'theocratic socialism' as the optimum form of human government. Dianetics offers a highly-individualized success-oriented salvation.

BELIEFS: Cult adherents have a variety of beliefs but common themes emerge: authoritarian leadership and absolute obedience; belief in a coming apocalypse; hostility to outsiders (except as potential converts); and belief in the total explanation of the world provided by cult theology.

SOCIAL AGENDA: Cults are usually thriving businesses and their main goal seems to be to increase their size and financial clout. Some are very successful. Moon's church owns millions of dollars in real estate and two daily newspapers (the right-wing Washington Times and New York City Tribune) in the US alone.10 Such organizations are quick to jump on bandwagons such as anti-drug campaigns (the Scientologists) to gain respectability.


1 Fall from Grace: the Failed Crusade of the Christian Right; Michael D'Antonio Farrar, Strauss, Giroux 1989).
2 The fundamentalist surge in Latin America, Penny Lernous in The Christian Century (20 January 1988).
Mid Trial and Tribulation: Protestantism in Modern Guatemala, VG Burnett (University of Texas, unpublished conference paper).
4 Faith, Hope, No Charity, Judy Haiven (New Star Books, 1985).
5 National Abortion Federation Fact Sheet, 31 December 1989.
6 The Struggle Within Islam,
Rafiq Zakaria (Penguin, 1988).
7 Radical Islam.
Emmanuel Sivan (Yale University Press, 1985).
8 Revolution on the Right, Simon Gunn (Pluto Press 1989).
9 'America's dream turns into a tale of big-time fraud', an article in UK newspaper The Independent, 28 June 1990.
10 'Messianic Capitalism', an article by Laurence Grafstein in US magazine The New Republic; 20 February, 1984.

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