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new internationalist
issue 210 - August 1990

Fundamentalism: Reaching for certainty.

Fundamentalism of all kinds is sweeping the
globe. It makes Richard Swift nervous.

Photo: Garry Clarkson / www.garryclarkson.com
Photo: Garry Clarkson / www.garryclarkson.com

The frenzied 'dance of the brokers' on a heavy trading day at the London stock exchange... an eager gathering of Bible Belt Pentecostals speaking in tongues to their Lord... the fervent worship of Kim II Sung by neatly-scrubbed North Korean schoolchildren... the rhythmic chanting of the crowd at rallies to protest against heretical works like The Last Temptation of Christ or The Satanic verses... hundreds of Moonie couples on the floor of Madison Square Gardens having their wedding vows blessed by their main man - the Reverend Moon himself.

All of these scenes evoke a similar sense of unease. This is the world of the fundamentalist - whether Allah or the Dollar is being worshipped and whether the lesson for the day is drawn from the Old Testament or the Little Red Book. You might be looking at the shiny face of a recently-graduated Master of Business Administration in downtown Montreal, at the ageing countenance of a Hare Krishna in Melbourne or at that of a hardened member of the local Komiteh militia unit in South Tehran. In any case the fundamentalist has no doubts and wants to clear up any of yours. Politely if possible, but if not...

The fundamentalist is by and large a reactionary but not a conservative in any traditional meaning of the word. A conservative wants to conserve what is: be it the existing system of privileges, a set of political boundaries or a local neighbourhood or forest. While fundamentalists venerate the authority and wisdom of the past. it is a past already lost under the assaults of the modern world. Their program is to regain this lost past. The present state of affairs must be entirely overturned to achieve their aims. They use the vocabulary of revolution but hark back to a mythical golden age that must be recovered in order to set things right.

Each set of absolute believers has its own version. It could be: a pure state of primitive communism; life as it was lived under the Prophet Muhammad - or at least the four right-thinking caliphs' who followed him; the racial purity of the Teutonic forests: the 'natural' system of punishments and rewards bestowed by a completely unfettered marketplace: inner peace and tranquillity - the list is almost endless.

Fundamentalism is a mindset that can affect almost any belief system. In this sense it is not strictly religious but encompasses secular forms of absolute belief. No matter what you believe you can fall prey to fundamentalist temptation. Any obsessive preoccupation with a single explanation of the cosmos or a single answer' to the problems of society can slip easily into fundamentalist belief. An absolute faith in science, for instance, can lead one into donning technocratic blinkers that easily match religious dogma for wilful narrow-mindedness.

A modern phenomenon
Fundamentalism is not, however, simply the same as extreme opinion. Movements of religious revival and social orthodoxy have erupted throughout human history. But they usually arise in defence of an existing and unquestioned truth rather than as deeply estranged reactions to an era where no one knows what to believe any more. Fundamentalism reasserts an old truth as the answer to modern doubt. It is thus a byproduct of the modern age.

Christian (largely Protestant) fundamentalism grew up in the US at the turn of the century. The Judaic version has only surfaced in the last 50 years while Islamic fundamentalism dates from just before World War Two and has only really got going in the last 20 years. Secular fundamentalisms are just as new: the Marxist variant dates from Stalin's day, those of the racist right from after World War One and messianic capitalism from the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The recent arrival of fundamentalism - whether it dons a three-piece suit or a chador - is rooted in the failed promise of modernity. Our era is one where God has been superseded by a gospel of technical progress and economic growth. This process - known broadly as modernization - has a 'natural' feel, an inevitability to it, that is immune from all but minor tinkering by mere mortals.

But it is also very confusing. The pace of change in this century has been dizzying, with traditional habits, beliefs and cultures under constant pressure to adapt. In an increasingly materialist world our individual worth is measured according to standards of wealth and power. We no longer seem to belong anywhere. Old neighbourhoods are disappearing. Government is increasingly large and remote. Growing rates of divorce and family violence have put traditional home life in question. The increasingly global economy means our livelihoods can be undermined by the keystroke of a computer in Brussels or Tokyo.

Cultural and economic confusion provide fertile ground for the growth of fundamentalism. Who would not want a return to certainty in an uncertain world? The inner peace offered by the Reverend Moon or other cultic hucksters sounds pretty appealing in the pressure-cooker of modern life. The key is to re-establish the old ways: the intimate gathering around the family hearth; a clear sense of what is right (and will be rewarded) and what is wrong (and will be punished): belief in something bigger than ourselves.

Sounds quite reasonable. But did it ever really exist'? And if it' ever did, didn't it contain the seeds of its own destruction'? If idyllic family life, hard work and god-fearing morality were all we ever wanted - why did we ever leave this Garden of Eden'? The seeds of discontent that have grown and flowered into the modern world must have been planted in that garden.

Nevertheless fundamentalists are not only harking back to a golden age - they are also obsessed by the idea that we are heading towards an apocalyptic crisis if we don't mend our ways. This is referred to most graphically by Christian fundamentalists as the second coming of Christ known as 'endtimes'. But it takes other forms. too: the collapse of capitalism, a debt crisis due to lax welfarism, a race war, generalized environmental catastrophe - take your pick.

Each movement aims to put things right with a total program of rigorous moral reform enforced on unbelievers by a government of the 'chosen'. Because the fundamentalist impulse is rooted in insecurity is preoccupied with exorcising its devils by laying down chapter and verse (whether drawn from the Bible or Das Kapital) as to how life should be lived. It is immensely difficult to enforce a static code of conduct - especially if it derives from another historical era. But this doesn't seem to faze the true believer. The Ayatollah Khomeini's Explication of Problems contains more than 3,000 rulings on the conduct of daily life: everything from laws of inheritance to matters of personal cleanliness and how to slaughter animals.

Pat Robertson, the TV evangelist and US presidential candidate, is another uncompromising authoritarian. 'When the Christian majority takes over this country,' he proclaimed, 'there will be no satanic churches, no more free distribution of pornography, no more abortion on demand and no more talk of rights for homosexuals. After the Christian majority takes control, pluralism will be seen as immoral and evil and the state will not permit anybody to practise it.'

A worldwide surge
The present surge of fundamentalism that is sweeping through political cultures all over the world must not be underestimated. There are some 60 million horn-again Christians in the US who provided the core of Robertson's ill-fated presidential campaign in 1988. Latin America has become a veritable playground for US evangelical organizations as an estimated 400 Catholics every hour make the switch to right-wing Protestantism. From Morocco to Malaysia Islamic fundamentalism has thrown the fear of Allah into traditional political elites. The militant Right, at least the brand that advocates draconian market prescriptions, has gone a long way towards dismantling the welfare state and mixed economy in Western countries.

Other right-wing true believers are reviving once-discredited theories of race as a total explanation for all social ills, and gaining support by targeting the non-white and Jewish populations of Europe. Communal tensions in India and Sri Lanka have been significantly exasperated by a rise in Hindu and Buddhist fundamentalist chauvinism. Only on the Marxist-Leninist Left are the faithful in disarray, with none but the gerontocracy that runs China and zealots like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Sendero Luminoso in Peru standing firm against the winds of revisionism.

Roots of faith
It would be a mistake to see fundamentalism as an entirely negative phenomenon. For a start it usually addresses real issues, albeit in an obsessive and partial way.

Also many fundamentalists, particularly Islamic ones, have suffered for their beliefs. The Assad government in Syria massacred some 10,000 in the 1970s. Real idealism animates fundamentalist belief. There were elements of Christian fundamentalism in the nineteenth-century movement for the abolition of slavery. Islamic fundamentalism is fiercely egalitarian, rooted in dismay at the corruption and despotism of post-colonial Muslim societies. And it is quite possible to make the case that Iran's Islamic Republic is preferable to the ruthless officer class that runs Iraq and Syria. We should avoid being too quick in judging those who profess absolute faith elsewhere without looking for it in our own backyards, even in our own minds.

Fundamentalism is also a question of degree. It is when out of power that absolute faith is most ardent. Once in power a fundamentalist movement is in a position to do more harm but the realities of government (fear of popular revolt and the desire to reward its constituency) lead it into selective tolerance and departures from principle. A rigorous belief in the free market with its 'everyone paying their way' creed is often tempered by tax deferments for corporations or other welfare-for-the-rich schemes. The Saudi royal family enforces a fairly strict Islamic regime on its subjects but is notorious for its own moral licence.

Some see departures from principle as evidence of the underlying hypocrisy of the fundamentalists. Sexual misconduct and fraud by US TV evangelists are often seen like this. But it is far better to question the puritanical standards that such people uphold but cannot live up to themselves. Instead of blaming Baton Rouge holy roller Jimmy Swaggart for his voyeuristic adventures with a New Orleans prostitute, we should reject the kind of explanation that says 'the devil made me do it' and counterpose a more practical and liberated approach to sexuality. The lapses of fundamentalists when they reach power or public eminence are tacit acknowledgements that their expectations are out of line with reality. The problem is not Jimmy Swaggart's deceit but his dogma.

The fundamentalist confuses her or his own faith with power. Their belief is not a private matter. It has no meaning if its directives cannot be imposed on others. Faith is vested in charismatic leaders (usually but not always male) who are given the right to interpret and enforce doctrine. The implications are profoundly undemocratic but effective in achieving the obsessive goals fundamentalists set for themselves. The thousands of bizarre religious cults mobilize their members' time, energy and money while providing only minimal room and board to the faithful. In this way Elizabeth Clare Prophet, leader of the Church Universal and Triumphant in Paradise Valley, Montana, can count on absolute obedience from her 'flock' in the central task of building a complex of air-raid shelters so that church members will survive World War Three.

Where opposition to messianic leadership exists it is cowed or eliminated. The new Islamic dictatorship in Sudan ensures absolute obedience to its program of Islamization by executing or imprisoning opponents and banning political parties, trade unions and the non-Islamic press. In more democratic contexts fundamentalism becomes a question of arrogant political style (such as those of Thatcher and Reagan), always of course with the CS gas and the riot squads of the national-security state to fall back on if necessary.

The passion and simplicity of fundamentalism is what gives it its strength. Those who hold a messianic faith in capitalism are often the most skilled in translating what is at core an arbitrary and extremist doctrine into everyday common sense. According to Margaret Thatcher: 'My policies are based not on some economic theory but on things I and millions like me were brought up with: an honest day's pay; live within your means: put by a nest egg for a rainy day; pay your bills on time, support the police.'

The way to resist
The temptation for those opposed to fundamentalism is to try and replicate the fundamentalist's appeal in order to compete. This is where one-dimensional argument and crude simplifications creep into feminist, green and other oppositional thinking. Here our politics is easily reduced to apocalyptic nightmares and simple-minded finger-pointing rather than the coherent presentation of alternatives. While we need a politics that appeals to the emotions and the spirit it must avoid trading in the currency of fundamentalism.

We should instead be exploiting the inherent weaknesses of fundamentalism - its sectarianism, for example. It is very hard for fundamentalists to get along with one another, let alone anybody else. Most Muslim countries have several competing currents of fundamentalist thought. Sectarianism on the Left comes close to self-parody. Evangelical Christians aren't exactly known for their ecumenical generosity towards other churches. The obsessive fundamentalist belief in 'one solution' makes minorities who value their distinctiveness very suspicious. And despite a commonly held puritanical creed and intolerance for dissent it is impossible to imagine the different types of fundamentalists coming together to make common cause. Jerry Falwell and Hezbollah'? Or maybe Dan Quayle and Sendero Luminoso'?

Fundamentalism touches a powerful inner need in many of us - even if we aren't willing to surrender. But there is a side to the human personality that it doesn't reach at all - the side that contains our laughter, our sense of play, our sensuality, our curiosity about the world. Fundamentalism is all a bit dour - in short, not too much fun. It doesn't want people to express the generous side of themselves, the side that identifies with the plight of others even if they are unbelievers and sinners.

[image, unknown]
Photo: Rachad El Koussy / CAMERA PRESS

Many ways, many roads
By putting boundaries on thought it tries to forbid the inquisitiveness of the storyteller and the scholar, so necessary in exploring an idea no matter where it may lead. By its mirthless authoritarianism it fails to appreciate that nothing in this life is or should be beyond the prick of humour. And because personality and politics have a tendency to spill over into one another it wants to take these things away from the rest of us.

If we reject fundamentalism we must do so with a politics that allows room for our humour and imagination. A libertarian approach to society that upholds common human rights but also values diversity could be the best way of going about this. In the place of a failed modernity we must put not 'the way' and 'the road' but many ways and many roads: different ways of working and organizing economies, different designs for community and public life, different kinds of caring and loving - in short, different ways of living.

We must look at each situation with a fresh gaze that allows us to make a better start if this is necessary - more appropriate technologies, different sources of energy, more creative ways of organizing democracy and human government so that we no longer feel so helpless. To do this we should borrow shamelessly from the past without being imprisoned by it. We need a vision that has passion and doesn't fear the spiritual yet allows space for individual and collective difference. It must value the iconoclastic, the eccentric, the deviant, the heretical, in the face of a fundamentalism that wants to mould everything into a dull sameness.

Those who want to resist the conformity of fundamentalism must do so with a politics that has the flexibility to listen to many voices - and yet speaks clearly enough to be heard over the shouts of the faithful.

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