Understanding religious fundamentalism

Randa Abdel-Fattah & Ray Richmond

Bringing out the worst

Randa Abdel-Fattah

A bomb goes off in the world: there are three choice labels: Islamic fundamentalist, Islamic terrorist, Islamic extremist. Handy and interchangeable labels which the media and our politicians relish using.

Let's take the term Islamic fundamentalism. It is enveloped in ambiguity and all too often employed in the same simplistic, emotive fashion as the term communism once was, failing to capture the reality of complex social movements.

Fundamentalism has been a major element in western policy considerations ever since the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni's anti-American, Islamic regime in Iran in 1979. The concern entered a new phase in the 1990s prompted largely by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the success of the Afghan resistance forces, the emergence of the independent Muslim Central Asian republics and so on.

According to Amin Saikal, the term fundamentalism has "mainly been used to delineate the position of two distinct types of forces within the Muslim world: those who have used Islam merely as a cover for violent anti-Western actions that cannot find justification within the sources of Islamic law and doctrine; and those who have deployed Islam as an active ideology of both resistance and reassertion, and refused to elevate the globalist interests of the US to the prominence that America claims it must have as a dominant world power'.

The predominant portrayal of Muslims as fundamentalists, extremists and terrorists transforms differences, be they national, ethnic, or economic, into opposites, into enemies.

Thus, the jingoistic violent US national psyche is denied, transformed and projected as the protector of the democratic way against the struggles of oppressed nations to establish their own rights and national identities.

The West is dismally incapable of drawing a clear distinction between those who constitute terrorists and fundamentalists acting in the name of Islam, and those who make up revolutionary reformers, upholding Islam genuinely as an ideological source for social transformation.

Failing to transcend treating Muslims as an undifferentiated mass, Sunni or Shi'ite sects, for example, are constructed as a monolithic bloc and dealt with in pejorative terms.

The frequency with which one reads about Islamic fundamentalism in the media suggests that whenever Muslims appear on the world stage, challenging an existing situation, they must be fundamentalists.

In such a context, fundamentalist is a synonym for a religious enthusiast who has gone over the top - a fanatic.

But a fanatic is only a fanatic because someone else has provided the label and has defined the limits.

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Unimaginable caring

Ray Richmond

All religions are based on fundamentals and all have their fundamentalists. They have their own texts, stories, doctrines, symbols and practices. Some are formed in antiquity, others are early in recorded history and some are quite recent.

We are today focused on religious fundamentalism, but it is necessary to acknowledge first that fundamentalists are found everywhere. Fundamentalists may be Maoists, Hindus, Christians, Astronomers, Liberals, Buddhist, Marxists, Muslims, Feminists or Freudians. But only some are 'militant' and 'triumphant' or resort to violence and killing.

Fundamentalist are scattered throughout human history and are found in all social strata. They are trained and nurtured by the left and the right.

Fundamentals are important. They provide a re-assertion of the basics, established and trusted as a foundation. Societies and individuals reach out for stability, safety, identity, continuity, and comfort.

But time marches on. When their relevance fades they require re-empowerment. The fundamentals may also be imperilled, obscured or ignored, but usually at great cost.

Between 1910-15, in response to 'Biblical Criticism' in general and 'Darwinism' in particular, conservative Christians published some pamphlets called 'The Fundamentals'. These were a defence of the Moses authorship of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), David's authorship of the Psalms, and the accuracy of the biblical prophecy predicting specific events in the life of Jesus.

Each of these suppositions has been successfully challenged by modern scholarship. Beyond that, these tracts also defended the literal accuracy of ... 'the primary Christian themes' of scripture.

Five doctrines were named the core fundamental doctrines. To deny or question these was thought to be heresy or apostasy.

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