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This text was circulated within an e-mail forum in which I participate. It contains the contents of a lecture held on the subject. I put it here because I consider it very useful material to increase the understanding on this subject.


On Fundamentalism

What is Fundamentalism?

Fundamentalism is a devotion to an extreme version of a religion, based on unbending adherence to a specific interpretation of particular religious texts in opposition to the anti-religious effects of modernity. Consequently, the most important issue for trying to understand the impact of fundamentalism on societies is not whether these are correct interpretations of the religion, but how they motivate people who believe them. The relevant issue is not whether or not the Koran justifies suicide bombings, but how the belief that it does motivates people. Fundamentalists view the world as sharply divided between good and evil, with themselves, because of their unbending adherence to sacred texts, falling squarely on the side of good.

Moreover, fundamentalists have an eschatological worldview. Unlike the orthodox, who try to imitate an idealized past in their religious practice, fundamentalists try to move the present forward toward an idealized end state, or Ďeschatoní. Thus, fundamentalists tend to embrace the products of modernity, especially modern technology, to aid them in creating a new fundamentalist present. This technology use ranges from the use of modern weaponry by Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists, to the use of modern communications and media by Al Qaeda, from the goal of some Christian fundamentalists of using space travel to find the planet of Christís birth, to the use of sarin gas by Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo subway attacks. Fundamentalists play a very long game that only ends with the realization of their eschaton. Because of their inherent moral certainty, they use all methods at their disposal and are willing to make any compromises necessary to attain their goals.

This ability to compromise means that fundamentalists are able to easily recruit and build alliances. Without losing sight of their eventual goals, the leaders of fundamentalist movements can build coalitions with other groups in society, either to work together on certain issues or to support one another in the longer term. It must be borne in mind that fundamentalist groups, when they compromise in this way, rarely lose their long-term focus. Thus, the introduction of fundamentalism tends to greatly complicate conflict, as the fundamentalists will be much less willing to compromise than their coalition partners. This can be seen in the Israel/Palestine conflict, where the leadership of both Hamas and Gush Emunim is essentially unwilling to compromise, because doing so would prevent them from attaining their eschaton.

Fundamentalism and Nationalism

When coupled with nationalism, as in the Israel/Palestine conflict, fundamentalism becomes a much more potent motivational force than patriotism. Thus, fundamentalism can be a tempting tool for politicians to appropriate and distort, but in such it can easily get out of hand, as fundamentalists move past the political ends for which politicians had intended to use them and push further toward their desired eschaton. Politicians are then forced either to compromise with fundamentalist leaders or to try to eliminate fundamentalism. Both strategies, as exemplified in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, respectively, are highly risky. Although tempting for politicians, exploiting fundamentalism for political ends can let a very dangerous genie out of the bottle which politicians are rarely able to control.

Fundamentalism is particularly explosive when tied to nationalism, because nationalist impulses provide an easy path for outsiders to enter, often unknowingly, the fundamentalist movement. Teenagers in Palestine go to Hamas because of their anger toward Israel more than their desire to participate in Islamic fundamentalism. As an institution that ties the two together, however, Hamas leads nationalistic and patriotic Palestinian youth into Islamic fundamentalism as part of their protest against Israeli occupation.

Vulnerabilities to Fundamentalism

Some societies seem to be more vulnerable to fundamentalism than others. Fundamentalism provides two crucial things to societies. On the one hand, fundamentalism provides a moral worldview than can be adopted in toto and thus is particularly appealing to societies in flux. Those who either see morality disappearing from their society, or who are unsure how to anchor their morality, may turn to fundamentalism as a new source of moral surety. In the United States, for example, Christian fundamentalism was given a great boost by the moral laxity of the 1960s, as many felt that society had lost its moral course and turned to fundamentalism to restore morality to society. Fundamentalists played a crucial role in the election of Reagan to the governorship of California in 1966 and the conservative groundswell in American politics that continued for roughly 30 years. Throughout this period, fundamentalist Christianity helped shape the agenda of the Republican Party, on issues as diverse as Communism, abortion, and school vouchers.

On the other hand, fundamentalism is also appealing to youth, particularly youth who feel that they have no political voice. While ordinary society tells adolescents to moderate their desires in order to function in society, fundamentalism glorifies adolescent desires, like anger, depression, need for revenge, and rejection of oneís parentís society. While these emotions are not productive in normal society, they play a major role in helping fundamentalists to achieve their eschaton. Fundamentalism gives broader context to adolescent hubris that justifies and reinforces these adolescent desires. Moreover, fundamentalism fulfils basic adolescent desires for a sense of belonging and acceptance. Once new converts accept the fundamentalist groupsí worldview, they will be automatically accepted into the fundamentalist society.

A Response to Limited Opportunities

Youth are particularly vulnerable to the promises of fundamentalism when traditional paths to advancement, like steady employment, are closed to them. In the United States, Christian radicals who flirt with the militia movements as youth often move into more traditional paths as they grow up, slowly cut their ties with fundamentalist Christianity, and return to conservative but not fundamentalist Protestantism, never having become proper fundamentalists themselves. Similarly, after the horror of the Oklahoma City bombing, many Americans left Christian fundamentalists groups, horrified by what Christian fundamentalism had produced. These people had little trouble finding satisfying jobs and entering new life paths.

In societies that are particularly prone to fundamentalism, like Saudi Arabia and Palestine, however, these traditional paths to advancement are closed, removing some of the incentives to leave fundamentalism. In Saudi Arabia, wealth and leisure leave many with large amounts free time, while the range of acceptable careers is very limited, leading to the combination of a high number of guest workers and high unemployment at the same time. In Palestine, on the other hand, more than 50 years of war and living in refugee camps leave few options to have a normal career. In both cases, those who might leave fundamentalist groups as they grow older have nowhere to go, making it more likely that those in fundamentalist groups will remain there and that youth who flirt with fundamentalism will become proper fundamentalists.

Orthodoxy and Fundamentalism

The orthodox are the other group that is particularly prone to becoming fundamentalist. While youth are often drawn to fundamentalist groups, the founders of fundamentalist groups are usually orthodox observers who step over the line and become fundamentalists, and large components of all fundamentalist groups are orthodox or conservative observers of the religion who, often because they feel alienated from society, step over the line and become fundamentalists.

Factors Favoring Fundamentalism

Thus, we see a society is particular vulnerable to fundamentalism if:

  • It has a weak civil society that seems adrift.

  • It has large numbers of youth.

  • Those within them who follow the orthodox or conservative religion feel alienated from society or feel under threat, often from a modernizing regime that will accept no role for religion in society.

  • Traditional paths to advancement are closed, possibly because of poverty, affluence, or war.

  • Politicians may try to use fundamentalism for their own ends.

  • Fundamentalism may become tied to nationalism.


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