What do we mean when we speak of the phenomenon of “religious fundamentalisms”? Is the term even useful for people trying to advance a rights-based agenda? Who are the main fundamentalist actors in the contemporary world? Are women’s rights activists throwing the net too wide when they label fundamentalists, or are we instead overlooking many?
Take the 10,000 participants in the annual March for Life held in Canada last month, whose theme this year was “Abortion: a Crime against Humanity”. Priests and nuns, hundreds of young people bussed in by Catholic schools, and over 20 members of parliament; in a country more noted for its liberal, tolerant stance than the recently visible rise of a religious Right. How do we distinguish the fundamentalist profile from those actors more open to persuasion or negotiation?
These are some of the key questions that AWID’s Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms Initiative has attempted to resolve in the hope of building a more effective global response to fundamentalisms - a phenomenon that, according to 69 percent of over 1,600 women’s rights activists surveyed by AWID, obstructs women’s rights more than other political forces.
The first step was to discover how activists understand religious fundamentalisms on the ground. As women’s rights activists often find themselves at the forefront of struggles against regressive social and political forces, their perspectives and voices are critical to the debate.
The term “religious fundamentalism” was coined at the turn of the 20th century by militant North American Christian Evangelicals as a proud lable for their fight to preserve the “fundamentals of faith” in the face of modernizing trends in other religious groups. It has evolved today to be applied in some instances to a wide range of anti-human rights political forces that have little to do with religion (for instance ‘economic fundamentalism’), or more narrowly as code for specific actors in a particular religion, for example ‘Islamic extremists’.
In 2007 an AWID meeting that brought together some 44 experts on religious fundamentalisms from over two dozen countries agreed that attempting a single definition would be an unhelpful distraction, especially given the diverse manifestations of fundamentalisms across regions and religions. More effective is to identify the characteristics of religious fundamentalist movements and actors, in other words focus on the content of their agendas and their impact.
Through the survey, this approach revealed a number of key defining characteristics that resonate across religions and regions. The characteristic most frequently mentioned is “absolutist and intolerant,” followed by “anti-women and patriarchal,” “about power and politics”, “anti-human rights and freedoms”, and “violent”. A description provided by Nira Yuval-Davis, one of the 51 activists interviewed in depth for the study, reflects these characteristics: “The term has several elements: [it] shows that it’s a political use of religion; unlike liberation theology, it is not open to other ways of being religious, especially of the same religion. They say there is one version which they impose through various media on their constituency; and in most cases, this version of religion, because it also tends to be pre-modern and talk about “purification” and going back to The Truth, latches [on] to patriarchal modes of society and control of women. Most religions emerged in pre-modern times when sexism was much more shameless and dominant.”
But women’s rights activists disagree about whether the term ‘religious fundamentalisms’ is useful. While half of the activists AWID surveyed do find it useful, one-quarter are unsure and one-quarter had clear reservations about its effectiveness for activism.
In AWID’s survey the most common concern was the term’s potential to alienate the religious and to reinforce negative stereotyping—targeting Muslims and Islam was specifically mentioned. Indeed, 50 percent of activists surveyed felt that their efforts to challenge religious fundamentalisms were helping to increase prejudice and racism. Pragna Patel of Women Against Fundamentalisms in an interview for AWID says “I’m part of a movement of trying to de-link it from Islamic fundamentalism. For me what’s been the most useful thing is to use the word “fundamentalisms” and say it applies as much to Christian fundamentalism in the United States and Hindu fundamentalism in India, as to Muslim fundamentalism in Iran… It can be used to argue that they’re all part of the same problem.” Even activists working in similar contexts appear to offer contradictory perspectives on the utility of labelling. For some, the term ‘religious fundamentalist’ is potentially divisive and not helpful in encouraging people to reflect critically on their beliefs. Says Ugandan activist Winnie Sseruma: “I think it just makes the people who join these religious sects - the Christian fundamentalist churches - more defensive or feel persecuted. I would prefer the term ‘Charismatic’.”
On the other hand, labelling can aid counter-strategizing. For Hope Chigudu, a Ugandan feminist based in Zimbabwe: “I am able to name what I see and by naming it am able to address it or lobby. Until it was named, I had not been able to study it the way I have.” One survey respondent from the United States also seemed to feel that naming fundamentalist movements as such can help unmask a trend found across regions and religions: “Sometimes religious fundamentalism is easy to identify and sometimes it is insidious. In the United States, the  current leadership is quite openly Christian fundamentalist and laws that are slowly revoking the rights of women are being passed by the day. This in turn makes it easier for other state leaders to justify national laws that are based on strict religious beliefs, but no one is calling it religious fundamentalism.”
For some rights activists, the term even helps draw a crucial distinction between ‘being religious’ and ‘being fundamentalist’. In the context of their struggle to resist Catholic fundamentalist efforts to restrict sex education in rural Canada, the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre found that “Naming them as a separate, oppressive and regressive ideology within a dominant religion and, therefore, different from it, allows those practicing that religion to separate themselves from [the] imposition of a set of values to which they do not adhere.” On the other hand, AWID’s research found that a significant minority of women’s rights activists –precise figures are difficult to assess but it seems around 10-20% - label all religious actors as ‘fundamentalist’ rather than distinguishing between religion and religious fundamentalisms.
This then raises the challenge of how to approach actors who promote a religious fundamentalist agenda through secular organisations such as charities and NGOs, or political parties as is common in Latin America. According to activists, Daptnhe Cuevas and Marusia López Cruz both from Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad, “In Mexico, religious fundamentalisms operate through various actors: the Catholic hierarchy and its network of priests, nuns and parishes installed throughout the country; the National Action Party, which today has the Presidency of the Republic and the majority in Congress; ultra-right groups such as the Legion of Christ and Opus Dei that are characterized by the training of leaders, their insertion in public office and various tactics of blackmail and extortion against opposing groups; civil society organizations such as Provida or ANCIFEM that, under the slogan of the right to promote citizen participation, promotes values and practices associated with religious fundamentalism; corporate monopolies including Televisa) which has a monopoly on mass media), or Sabritas and Bimbo (which have monopolies on the manufacture of bread and candy). The story is similar in India, according to Pramada Menon, a founder of Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action (CREA), “The players are many: political parties, the religious right amongst Hindus and Muslims, the social and cultural wings of the Hindu right and organizations and individuals who subscribe to the philosophies being perpetuated.
Indeed, AWID found that there is no ‘typical’ fundamentalist actor. Apart from working across the apparent lines between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’, they can be local or international in their sphere of operation, and work as organisations or individuals. Fundamentalist actors are also composed of both elites and followers.
However, a key remaining challenge is to understand and characterise the relationship between conservatism and fundamentalism. Is there a dividing line and how do we spot it? This is particularly difficult because neither conservatives, nor fundamentalists nor the context are homogenous and unchanging. Shared positions on some issues may lead conservatives to see only the commonalities they have with fundamentalists rather than the dissimilarities. As Parvin Ali, a women’s rights activist from the United Kingdom observes, “Because there’s so much hostility still towards gay and lesbian people within the Muslim community, a lot of Muslims actually think that ‘Because we don’t accept them [LGBT people], maybe we are more like the orthodox.....the extremists have played on that”.
It has been AWID’s experience throughout its Initiative that terms such as ‘conservative’, ‘right-wing’, ‘traditional’ and their apparent opposites, ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘modern’ are increasingly inadequate for describing specific contemporary social, economic and political actors and capturing the realities shaping feminist strategizing. This is a world where the Christian Right-dominated Republican Party in the United States can have openly gay men in senior policy positions, The presumption that political figures hold consistently right-wing or consistently left-wing views on all social and economic issues today faces the challenge of apparently contradictory positions held by one person. This is particularly true when the positions of the actor that is being labelled change over time.
Two examples from Latin America illustrate these challenges. Mexico’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional (International Revolutionary Party, PRI) has historically has been categorized as a ‘social democratic’ party (and continues to be part of the Socialist International); it was responsible for decades of authoritarian government and has implemented neoliberal economic policies, but (at least until recently when they openly voted in favour of banning access to abortion in many state-level legislation) has been largely supportive of sexual and reproductive rights both nationally and internationally. Classifying the PRI as ‘progressive’ or ‘right-wing’ party would not be an appropriate or helpful characterization. Daniel Ortega was cast as a revolutionary during the 1970s Sandinista struggle against the Nicaraguan dictator and faced intervention by the United States under Republican President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Today, as President of Nicaragua and leader of the Sandinista Party, he supported the Catholic Church’s position and the introduction of laws in Nicaragua that make access to legal abortion impossible, has publicly allied with the Catholic Church on other matters of public policy, and is openly persecuting civil society organizations and international donors, as well as feminists and women’s rights activists.
AWID’s research has settled a number of issues: it has identified common characteristics of religious fundamentalist agendas across religions and religions; revealed that the vast majority of activists do distinguish between religion and religious fundamentalists; and unmasked the diversity of fundamentalist actors. The remaining complexities and challenges involved in identifying religious fundamentalists hint at a different strategic advantage between labelling a phenomenon or a movement and labelling individuals. They suggest that it may be more effective to lable agendas rather than actors as ‘fundamentalist’; it may at times be strategic to ‘name and shame’ a fundamentalist leadership or organization, but the advantages of labelling followers is far less certain.