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The fundamentalist mind

Publication Date : 05-02-2013


Fundamentalism is a controversial term, ascribed first to 19th-century American Protestant groups which preached strict adherence to basic biblical tenets.

It is now applied loosely to all groups exhibiting broadly similar tendencies. While a consensus definition eludes scholars, certain key characteristics are generally ascribed to fundamentalists.

Firstly, they desire strict adherence to their interpretation of an earlier ideology which they view as being perfect and timeless. Their interpretation often distorts the original ideology. Usually, the idealised ideology is religious since religious reverence makes it easier to recruit followers, though political, economic and nationalistic ideologies also occasionally spawn fundamentalism.

Secondly, fundamentalists see only black or white, viewing themselves as perfect and others as wrong.

Thirdly, fundamentalists often invoke the memory of a past community which prospered by supposedly following the idealised ideology.

Fourthly, they believe in manifest destiny, i.e., that they have been prophesised to prevail universally. The more a group exhibits these characteristics, the more fundamentalist it is.

Not all fundamentalists are terrorists nor are all terrorists fundamentalists. Fundamentalist groups fall into three categories.

The first includes reclusive fundamentalists who practise their traditions in isolation, e.g., the American Amish and the Pakistani Kalash, and show little interest in converting others. Beyond adherence to traditions, they share little else with other fundamentalists, being fairly egalitarian in their practices.

The second category includes pacifist fundamentalists who non-violently want to establish states run strictly on “divine” laws though no religion provides detailed divine rules to cover all or even most present-day complexities. Religions do however provide timeless general principles.

The third category includes violent fundamentalists, whom Pakistanis know well. Pacifist and violent fundamentalists believe that a small, morally superior vanguard group must carry the burden of converting the morally inferior majority. Thus, they generally adopt a top-down disciplinarian approach where the vanguard group leads while others follow their wisdom unquestioningly.

Fundamentalism has mushroomed recently largely in reaction to the uncertainty and tumult caused by the spread and dominance of Western liberal civilisation globally. A civilisation is a large national group spread over a large territory for several centuries with a distinct combination of cultural, religious, economic, political and epistemic institutions which make significant contributions to overall human progress.

The distinctive coordinates of Western liberal civilisation include capitalism, democracy, science/rationality, materialism, secularism, individualism and imperialism. Imperialism along with capitalism has been a key factor in spawning resistance to Western civilisation globally despite its other sterling features, e.g., democracy and science.

To date, Western liberalism has faced three generations of global challenges: Nazism/ fascism (a political philosophy); Soviet communism (an economic philosophy); and religious fundamentalism (a cultural philosophy). Common to all three were vanguard groups who attempted to convert the “impure” majority through strong discipline and even force.

Ironically, each succeeding challenger initially cooperated with the West to defeat its predecessor before becoming the West’s nemesis. Communism helped the West defeat fascism in 1945 and fundamentalism helped defeat communism in Afghanistan.

Fundamentalism exceeds the other two in the totality of its rejection of Western liberalism and the barrenness of its own ideas. While fascism and communism at least achieved significant geographical and scientific progress before their demise, fundamentalism cannot even boast of that and will fail too.

Humanity’s most glorious achievements ever have undoubtedly occurred under Western liberalism, notably the immense freedom provided by democracy and the spectacular technology provided by science.

However, it is equally true that individualism, materialism, free-market capitalism and imperialism are causing today’s most serious global threats, including climate change, nuclear proliferation, unsurpassed inequality, anomie and economic

Thus, there is scope to challenge those specific liberal coordinates. Any successful challenge to Western liberalism must match its positive aspects (i.e., freedom and technology) while avoiding its weaknesses.

By basing their strategy on top-down discipline and even totalitarianism, the three challengers each instantly failed this test and consequently could not attract large numbers of people. Fortunately, other non-violent movements like the global green movement (a political, economic as well as cultural movement) meet this test better, though it has a long distance to travel before it becomes a coherent intellectual challenge.

While all major religions have fundamentalist groups, the most virulent ones today are al-Qaeda-cum-affiliates and the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (the former being far more potent globally).

Consequently, some argue that revealed Middle Eastern religions generally encourage fundamentalism more since each claims to be the only right religion unlike South and Southeast Asian ideologies, e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism etc. However, Abrahamic religions also emphasise rationality, tolerance and moderation.

Opinions differ on why people become fundamentalists. Some view poverty as the main cause. However, the motivations of its leaders rather than its foot soldiers represent the root causes of any movement. Poverty supplies fundamentalism its foot soldiers, but not its leaders.

What motivates the leaders remains a mystery. Psychologists define defence mechanisms as mental processes people adopt to deal with uncertainty and challenges. One such mechanism is regression, i.e., mentally living in the past when life was better instead of tackling present challenges bravely. The desire of fundamentalists to recreate the distant glorious past literally represents collective millennial regression. Something in the socialisation of fundamentalists gets them hooked to regression.

For anyone dissatisfied with liberalism’s downside and contemplating embracing fundamentalism, violent or pacifist, the message is clear — fundamentalism represents regressive escapism and a blind alley.

Despite their developing nature, progressive global movements already provide better answers to liberalism’s downside while embracing its many positive features. However, to wean impressionistic minds away from fundamentalism, progressives must articulate their ideas more loudly and clearly.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.


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