What is fundamentalism?

Grahame Thompson
9 March 2006

The spectre of "fundamentalism" is haunting Europe. In every faith-tinged controversy, from the Danish cartoons to the French hijab, from British multiculturalism to Dutch language-rules, the word and the idea are wielded with vigour – though often without discrimination. Perhaps it is time to step back from such immediate arguments and ask what fundamentalism (particularly religious fundamentalism) is.

At first sight it may seem evident that fundamentalism amounts to little more than a militant form of piety that leads to a rebellion against modern secularism. But as Malise Ruthven explores in his study of the topic (which traces the first use of the term to evangelical Christians in the United States in the 1920s), and as several openDemocracy writers (Gilles Kepel, Faisal Devji, Fred Halliday, and Sami Zubaida among them) point out, religious fundamentalisms are a very "modern" phenomenon. They operate to facilitate an engagement with modernity, and are thoroughly intertwined with secularism as a result.

Thus it is preferable to treat religious and secular fundamentalisms as parallel projects, answering similar needs and occupying a shared intellectual and psychological territory. For religious fundamentalisms, the claim to be such is based on the demand that the word of their God must be taken entirely literally. For the secular form, it is usually based upon some doctrine (such as freedom of speech) or text that is similarly thought to be canonical and beyond dispute.

Each fundamentalism inhabits "its own" universe. What does this consist of? One way to answer is to note that at some level fundamentalisms – especially the religious variety – are fascinating to those who do not share them precisely because of their certitudes. Fundamentalists are absolutely certain about their beliefs and destinies. "We", the rest of us, cannot quite grasp or achieve this level of certitude or of self-meaning or self-belief, though many of us might dearly like to do so. Thus fundamentalists have achieved things that are always just beyond the grasp of those (self-)excluded from their system of belief.

In this respect fundamentalists trade on a very modern syndrome. This can be termed "meaning-deficit disorder". This we all experience, and suffer from. For most of us "life" is so complicated and things so difficult to fully grasp that we give up in "despair" about making complete sense of it all. In addition, this syndrome arises from the basic uncertainties and risks that are pervasive throughout the modern experience, what Ulrich Beck sums up rather crudely under the rubric of "risk society".

On each count, meaning and uncertainty, fundamentalists "cure" this disorder. They neither lack understanding nor remain uncertain. Thus fundamentalists represent an idealised, even purified, version of ourselves. Indeed, in some ways they are more like ourselves than we are, since they have the certitudes that we lack but continue to desire and pursue. This is why at some level, everyone is a potential fundamentalist.

Grahame Thompson is professor of political economy at the Open University. He is the co-author (with Paul Hirst) of Globalisation in Question: The International Economy and the Possibilities of Governance (1999) and Between Hierarchies and Markets: The Logic and Limits of Network Forms of Organisation (2003)

Also by Grahame Thompson in openDemocracy:

"The Age of Confusion" (September 2003)

"A strident Victorian or a realistic pluralist? " (October 2003)

"The limits to globalisation: questions for Held and Wolf"
(July 2004)

"Learning tolerance" (December 2004)

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Five features of fundamentalism

Human beings are at the same time, and ambivalently, alike and different. What divides us are also the things that we share. What divides us, in other words, are not so much differences as similarities. But it can be more difficult to acknowledge sameness than to recognise difference, and fundamentalists work with this difficulty in a particular way: by disavowing difference in the name of sameness. They offer a retreat from, or a withdrawal from, difference by insisting that everything should be the same – the same as them (and many of them are prepared to die to achieve this). The command they issue is that all should conform to their way of life, worship their God (who is the only true God), share their beliefs, and their ideals.

This is connected to what Sigmund Freud called "the narcissism of minor differences". We are narcissistically fascinated with minor differences because, at root, we all desire to be the same. Fundamentalism connects with this desire and offers an idealised version of its possible applicability in a real world of unimaginable diversity and plurality – of difference.

This offer carries with it five consequences for the way fundamentalists think about and relate to the world: extremism, leader-fixation, sacrifice, aggression, and endurance.

First, "idealisation" is closely linked to extremism and the disregarding of others' views. Fundamentalists' pursuit of an ideal or principles can also promote blind faith as against pragmatic reason, and form a basis for an extreme, exclusive refusal to accommodate perspectives different from their own.

Second, when fundamentalists invest these ideals and principles in the figure of a single leader (as they often do), this too can encourage extremism. Those close to the leader, who exist in his shadow or proximity, understand and offer deference to him, are the ground troops of extremism. Those not so close are the same but ignoble; they need to be converted.

Third, in order to realise their ideals, fundamentalists (particularly religious ones) need to engage in sacrifice: both of the search for meaning that entraps others, and indeed of the "meaning of life" itself. This suggests why the mentality (and occasionally the practice, as in suicide / "martyrdom" operations) of self-sacrifice is so central to fundamentalism.

Fourth, fundamentalists may share a fear of aggression and violence (again like everybody else) but in their case this fear takes a particular, acute form: the urge to eliminate what they see as the source of aggression, namely difference. For them the only way to eliminate violence is for us all to be the same.

Fifth, fundamentalists pride themselves on enduring (or "tolerating") pain and suffering in the name of their intolerance of other attitudes or aspirations. This connects too to the issue of sameness and difference: for fundamentalists, endurance of pain, suffering and the struggle itself recommits them to the ideal of making sameness from difference.

A question of territory

This approach has three key implications for the understanding of fundamentalism.

First, in place of the heavy emphasis on "difference" that resulted from the "cultural turn" in academic and intellectual life in the 1980s, there is a need to refocus attention on the notion of "sameness". A shift of this kind might enable a genuine insight into the conflicts surrounding fundamentalism by understanding how its recognition and celebration of sameness mirrors that of postmodernism (in the academy) and liberal multiculturalism (in politics) of difference.

Second, this emphasis on sameness helps clarify why religious fundamentalisms are not "cultural" movements. For in fact they care little or not at all about culture: they are indeed (idealised) religious movements which transcend cultures in their single-minded devotion to the word of God.

The Taliban, for instance, banned Afghan music, dancing, local festivals, and destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhist statues. The movement was also indifferent to any particular cuisine, as long as it served halal meat. Particular territories do not matter, nor particular cultural, ethnic or linguistic groups. As long as individuals commit themselves absolutely to the word of God, anyone – coming from anywhere and from any community – can be a member.

Such fundamentalisms in this respect demonstrate a genuine radical universalism. They treat everyone as in principle "the same". The ultimate cause of man's failure and rebellion throughout history is not his external environment and circumstances but his inward, sinful nature which rejects the rule of God and asserts self-rule. Thus, Christian fundamentalism and its Islamic counterpart are thoroughly "individualistic" in their doctrines. They both involve practices of individual conversion and redemption. They are not "social" movements.

Third, the focus on sameness can provide a way to grasp how fundamentalisms as a collective endeavour (as well as an individual motivation) operate.

The issue of national borders can illustrate this. The "strong globalisation" thesis argues that these are no longer pertinent to the international system since they have been permeated and undermined by truly global economic and political forces. This is also exactly what fundamentalisms argue: borders are shared across the world, but at the same time they divide us – let’s get rid of them!

Market fundamentalists, for example, see national borders as a major constraint to trade and other spatial economic interactions. All economic agents should face exactly the same conditions of competition; they should be eliminated in the name of sameness. A "level playing-field" (flat, smooth and uniform) is the ideal image.

Religious fundamentalisms share this antagonism towards national borders. Militant Islam is an essentially trans-territorial movement, devoid of a real sense of a cultural community of belonging. Its only common link is to a religious one of faith and struggle. Thus it undermines the idea of community at the same time as it celebrates it. Its perspective is one of a radicalised itinerant and de-territorialised "warrior politics" aimed at establishing an Islamic umma on a global scale.

The movement to achieve this umma is also not based on any actual community or territory; it is imagined as everywhere and nowhere at the same time (as Olivier Roy discusses in his book Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah). The fundamentalists’ "new frontier" is a fluid one: first the reconquest of the "conquered" Islamic lands, then the push to extend Islamic rule and sharia law to the rest.

The fundamentalists of militant Islam conceive of an open, ever-moving frontier of struggle and conquest; their "politics" is de-terriorialised and abundantly unconstrained. Small, roving bands of militants is the iconic organisational form, loosely linked into and by a global network. The traditional nation-state is redundant in this conception; hence the end of the Westphalian system as announced by so many of al-Qaida’s ideologues.

This view is shared by Christian fundamentalism as promoted by "dispensational theology". For them, when the "second coming" happens and Armageddon arrives, God will cast his rule over the entire earth. The world will have a true theocratic government in which the rule of God will be administered worldwide through his representative, Jesus Christ. This is the particular Christian fundamentalist conception of "globalisation". Again, the idea of an extra-territorial global "politico-confessional community" driven exclusively by religious commitment is evident. Both these fundamentalisms are predicated on an ideology of sameness, which provides the required unifying condition for the exercise of their respective competing ("different") visions of the good life.

The experience of conflicting religious fundamentalisms suggests that the emerging world is a radical "pluriverse" rather than a single "universe". As this reality impacts on the international system it means there is no already existing common sphere to which all citizens can readily belong. There is, for example, no single "cosmos" to which cosmopolitanism (a concept pioneered by David Held) would be the politically possible answer – the "globe" of globalisation does not exist. Rather, there are several "cosmoses" with different gods at their imaginative centre, which in turn "drive" the humans who subscribe to them. In this sense, it is not so much men who make war – but gods.

How, then is any coexistence, peace and progress possible? Under the circumstances described here, "peace" would need to be composed anew. Peace is an undertaking; it must be fabricated and constructed between contending parties. And the gods who drive this conflict would need to be taken into the peacemaking chamber. It is difficult to see them being "left outside", after all. This new form of peacemaking is likely to take a long time, because it entails a challenge to all parties, of learning to live in a different world.

In the meantime, something else can be done: in the face of much-vaunted "globalisation", a programme of "re-territorialising the global" in various ways and to various degrees is not beyond feasibility. It would also have distinct advantages over two existing political and intellectual forces: idealistic global cosmopolitanism (whether secular or religious), and the tendency towards interventionist repression. These are equally dangerous responses to the present international predicament.

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