What Is Fundamentalism? (1)

Posted: June 10, 2010 in atheism, fundamentalism, religion
Tags: , , ,

A couple of days ago, I saw Dan’s post of a Ayaan Hirsi Ali video, in which she was explaining that the willingness of fundamentalists to kill people cannot be only blamed on their destitute situation (for two reasons: 1. not all of the fundamentalists who become terrorists are poor, 2. not all poor people become terrorists).

My immediate reaction was that of scoffing ‘well of course she’s right’, but actually I was  being overly dismissive again. Because that bad economic situation contributes to radicalization of many people’s political or religious beliefs is an intuition many people have, and one I would have had not so long ago.

(Fun fact: I feel I cannot any longer deny that I’m a learning machine. I tend to forget things like:

– paperwork,

– wallet,

– where I left the keys,

but I usually remember things like:

– when firefighting was nationalised in the UK (1865)

– where the wife of Salomon Maimon finally caught up with him, after he, to all intents and purposes, abandoned her with a child (Breslau)

– why a word with short vowels receives plene writing in Akkadian poetry sometimes (because it’s the accented part of a question).

I have a great memory, but my priorities are wrong, all wrong.

Another thing is: after learning a new thing I tend to immediately forget that there was a time I didn’t know it. A “new” information only stays “new” for a couple of hours or so.  Which is why everything always seems obvious-old-news all the time to me. Whence the dismissiveness.)


The intuition that “poverty causes people to become terrorists” is a bit true in that poverty may indeed spur a poor Pakistani political science graduate to join a fundamentalist organisation like Jamaat-e-Islami (it is now a more respectable political party) in hopes that it will lead to a creation of a just Islamic state, in which he or she would no longer be poor. The problem is that he or she has to believe in the just Islamic state and its power to make all wrongs right in the first place.

It is the quite obvious that poverty is not what causes fundamentalist movements to form. What happens instead is the following:

A  religion that was heretofore taken for granted is confronted with another (foreign, new, reformed) religion. As a result, the religion that to its believers appeared simply obvious and natural becomes the object of intense reflection  and deliberation, and is for the first time questioned. Eventually, the religion that was before natural and obvious, is defined, standardised and juxtaposed with the new or other or foreign religion.

This is in fact not just a religious phenomenon, it’s perfectly observable in culture and language (standardisation, anyone?). This is in fact  how people adapt to modernity or westernization.

Of course, many different concepts and definitions arise as the result of the reflection and deliberation process. Unless there is such a dominant power involved that could easily impose its own definitions, multiple definitions are allowed to exist. Some of them turn out to be fundamentalism.

If the new, or foreign, or other religion becomes, to put it succinctly, the evil twin of the newly-developed-old religion, we get fundamentalism.

A close observation of numerous movements allowed to create a definition of fundamentalism as having the following characteristics:

1. Moral absolutism

2. Manichaeism, understood as the belief that there is a continuous struggle of good and evil

3. Nativism (not always, propagated for instance in Sri Lanka, the belief that only a Buddhist Sinhalese is the real Sinhalese)

4. The sort of millenarism that presupposes that the believers will actively seek the overthrowing of the existing order, being fundamentally opposed to it (see moral absolutism). If a secular state can be  tolerated, we will only have a conservative, not fundamentalist movement. Often, the overthrowing of existing order is seen by fundamentalists as a restoration of mythical golden age.

5.  Claims of being the only true, pure version of a religion, other, more liberal versions being “tainted” by modernity, the Western influence, etc

6. But above all, the Enemy.  An  Enemy is something without which no fundamentalist movement can exist, because the enemy defines the fundamentalist movement and its goals by being everything it negates, despises and seeks to destroy. It’s the modernity, the secular society that tolerates multiple truths (see 1). Because the Enemy represents the absolute evil (1 and 2), it is all right to dehumanize the members enemy groups.  Fundamentalists from religions as traditionally pacifist as Buddhism advocate violence against their opponents (like Phra Kitthivuddho from Thailand, who argued that killing communists does not violate the Buddhist prohibition against killing sentient beings, because the communists are less than human).

The enemy must be eliminated; waiting for the respective higher power to mete out divine punishment and restore justice is not enough. A fundamentalists must actively strive to establish the divine order on earth.

Most fundamentalist movements appear in times of rapid societal change. This is not a coincidence: fundamentalism cannot exist without the Other.

I might write some more about different fundamentalisms in a couple of countries, later, if I have the time.

But I wouldn’t be very optimistic :<


(While I didn’t use any specific book while writing this post, I should mention that I’ve been reading a lot of stuff from the Fundamentalism Project, which you can find here, though I mostly focused on Fundamentalism Observed (while a bit obsolete, it is nonetheless a valuable resource). One of the first people who noticed the extent of puzzling similarities between various fundamentalisms is Martin Riesebrodt, especially in his book “Fundamentalismus als patriarchalische Protestbewegung. Amerikanische Protestanten (1910-1928) und iranische Schiiten (1961-1979) im Vergleich” aka Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran).

  1. mythicsushi says:

    I think a big attraction of fundamentalism is security. Sometimes, people like the feeling of knowing all the answers that it gives you. It organizes life’s struggles into a neat pattern that all fundamentalists are expected to follow.

    I think, ultimately, that there are few true fundamentalists-people who take every word, every command of the Koran, Bible, etc. seriously. These Islamic terrorists might be said to be included in that group.

    When you realize the evil, illogical, hate-filled nature of some parts of the major religious books, you’ll realize how easily they can be used to fuel violence.

    • I think it must be part of the attraction, yeah.
      But there are other fundamentalisms, that don’t really have holy books like that. A major example would be the Sri Lankan JVP, which was a Buddhist terrorist organisation that used to kill people a lot, or the whole “new religious movements” (新興宗教)in Japan – they do have some important texts, but this is not the same kind of importance that is accorded to holy books in Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

      Also, the fundamentalists, as you rightly pointed out, *are* hate-filled and actually do skip the bits of holy books that are *nice*. Their hatred was already there when they read the book, and the hatred skewed their entire reading. I’m not of course saying that moderates’ readings of holy books are more correct, if anything, they are all equally correct and incorrect at the same time, because you can’t correctly interpret something that is incoherent in the first place.

      But by putting an undue emphasis on holy books and their influence, we forget that it’s actually all about the hatred towards the enemy, towards modernity, and towards secular society, and also focus only on three religions, when there are many more that have violent fundamentalist movements (like Buddhism in Sri Lanka or Hinduism in India).

      I’m sorry, but yeah, I totally have to be pedantic about that ^^v

  2. […] is a guest contributor who blogs regularly at SendaiAnonymous.wordpress.com.  This post has been cross-posted from Sendai Anonymous,  please leave Your Thoughts on her post by clicking here and going to her […]

  3. pillowscrapbook says:

    you’re back, which is most welcome :) and I like the new layout

    “new religious movements” (新興宗教) what do you mean by these? because as far as i remember they aren’t all fundies, many are dangerous sects, which drain their victims economically and emotionally, but usually they aren’t much in the revolutionary business, the only one that comes to mind is aum shinri kyo

    ps i’m changing my rss reader and i can’t find the feed for comments :(

    • Yay, thanks!

      “new religious movements” (新興宗教) what do you mean by these? because as far as i remember they aren’t all fundies, many are dangerous sects, which drain their victims economically and emotionally, but usually they aren’t much in the revolutionary business, the only one that comes to mind is aum shinri kyo

      New religious movements are an interesting things, and I’d like to make a post about them one day, when I’m less dead, but:
      – the terms ‘sect’ and ‘cult’ are a bit too polemic. Some of the groups we call cults or sects in non-sciencey conversations could actually be simply called “fundamentalists”.
      – fundamentalists can also be dangerous.
      – “revolutionary business” is not actually always revolutionary, because some fundamentalists choose to use peaceful ways of trying to introduce theocracy. Of course you have many Islamic groups with terrorist ties, but not all of them are like that, and arguably, fundamentalist groups in the USA who are arguing that the US law is based/should be based on the Bible, Buddhist fundamentalists in Thailand, like Dhammakaya, are not using any violence at all. It’s not about “revolution”, but about the lack of acceptance for and the enmity towards the current social order and desire to, basically, form a theocracy that is, IMO*, the crucial characteristic of fundamentalism.

      *IMO that is not really IMO, but belongs to the authors with whose books I agree :>

    • Re: PS

      Ummm. There WAS a feed for comments? Um. Um. I’m afraid I didn’t know anything about it, will investigate further tomorrow ^^;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;

  4. […] is a guest contributor who blogs regularly at SendaiAnonymous.wordpress.com.  This post has been cross-posted from Sendai Anonymous,  please leave Your Thoughts on her post by clicking here and going to her […]

  5. […] What Is Fundamentalism? (1) (sendaianonymous.wordpress.com) […]

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