What Is Fundamentalism?

by Domenico Losurdo
MEP Publications, Minneapolis
Nature, Society, and Thought, All rights reserved.

Fundamentalism and fundamentalisms

What is fundamentalism? One immediately thinks about the Middle East and Islam, but the term first appeared in U.S. Protestant circles, regarding a movement that developed prior to World War I whose followers occasionally referred to themselves as “fundamentalists” (Riesebrodt 1990, 49). Although this concept was developed in the heart of the Western world as a proud and positive self-definition, it is now being used to brand the “barbarians” who live outside of the Western world, and who prefer to call themselves “Islamists.”

The popular definition of fundamentalism is the claim to “derive political principles from a sacred text,” which serves to legitimize ancient secular norms and to judge their adherence to or deviation from the text on a case-by-case basis (Choueiri 1993, 29). In order to analyze the problem correctly, one must keep in mind that there are different kinds of fundamentalism. Jewish fundamentalism, for example, proclaims “the holiness of Eretz Israel” and the “supremacy of a higher law”; such movements possess a growing and worrisome vitality. They pit the “holiness of Halacha” (Eisenstadt 1993, 275) against existing political institutions, while Islamic fundamentalism upholds the sanctity of Sharia; in both instances, human societal norms have to be justified in the eyes of unimpeachable divine law.

We can find the same dichotomy in Catholic doctrine. For this reason, the renowned jurist Stefano Rodota saw a “move toward fundamentalism” in the sharp polemic against legislation on pregnancy termination in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae. Just as there is no lack of books that draw a close parallel between the American Protestants of the early twentieth century and today’s Iranian Shiites, many polemics have discovered similarities between John Paul II and the leaders of radical Islamism. The former states: “Authority derives from God and is postulated by the moral order. If laws . . . contradict this order and the will of God, they cannot overpower individual conscience . . . in this case authority loses its claim and turns into abuse.” The second text proclaims: “The definite and essential point is that he who renounces the divine law in favour of another law, created by himself or other people, is practicing idolatry and tyranny, and is moving away from the truth, and he who governs on the basis of such law is an usurper.” The latter statement is by Maududi of Pakistan, considered to be one of the main leaders of today’s radical Islamism. According to Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian Shiite revolution, every political regime must acknowledge the supremacy of divine law; it must not be absolute but bound by constitution, or in other words political power and human “rule” must be clear, as the Pope puts it, that it is not “absolute but acting on behalf of God” (Spataro 1996, 27–32). Finally, the influential Rabbi Eliezer Waldman resolutely opposes any Israeli withdrawal from Hebron by stating the citizens and “military must not follow any orders that violate any commandment of the Torah” (Lewis 1996).

Is the tendency to fundamentalism restricted to religion? A “laicism” arguing in this way would prove to be especially dogmatic. On a philosophical level, dogmatism means the inability to apply the same criticism to one’s own theories as to those of one’s opponents. If one subscribes to the definition of fundamentalism given earlier, one should also include the “holy writ” of human rights that is invoked to supersede domestic laws in some countries. This becomes even more obvious when those campaigns include explicit religious overtones: “There is sin and evil in the world, and the Holy Book as well as the Lord Jesus Christ forces us to oppose them with all our might.” Those are the words of U. S. President Ronald Reagan on 8 March 1983, when he was trying to prop up the Cold War by turning it into a holy war (Draper 1994, 33). This concept of “holy war,” usually considered to be a feature of Islamic fundamentalism, played an important role in U.S. foreign policy of the last century, especially with Woodrow Wilson (Losurdo 1993, 166). Critical analysis of fundamentalism emphasizes its rejection of the principle of national sovereignty (Guolo 1994, 79–81). In the same way, the U.S.-led campaign for “human rights” insists on the right, even the duty, to intervene without regard for such superstitious beliefs as respect for states and national borders.

Maududi talks about an “international revolutionary party” (Choueiri 1993, 175); significant American political circles claim to support “liberal-democratic internationalism” (Draper 1994, 31–34). Since the collapse of communist internationalism, the only opposing sides left are apparently the internationalism based on “human rights” and the one that refers to the Koran. Islamic fundamentalism insists “on the interminable counterpositions of the ‘universal’ interests of the Western world and the equally ‘universal’ interests of Islam” (Guolo 1994, 81). The same view, with reverse value judgment, denotes the West’s “human rights” crusade.

Sometimes the Vatican joins this crusade. In the same way that a politician such as Ronald Reagan had no qualms about posing as a prophet, Pope John Paul II can easily appear as a jurist or theoretician of natural law when he demands an “international criminal law” that would be able to advance higher “moral values” even against political rights of individual states. But quis judicabit? [Who will judge?] The Pope seems to realize the dangers of an internationalist approach when he warns against the “law of the stronger, richer, and bigger” (Accattoli 1997). Catholic internationalism, with its delegitimization of existing law, is perhaps a little more restrained than “liberal-democratic internationalism,” even though the latter often denounces the former as a form of fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism, the modern world, and culture clash

The usual trite “enlightened” interpretation of fundamentalism criticizes its obscurantist rebellion against the modern Western world. But even a moderate sociological analysis shows that these movements have their mass basis mostly in the cities. At least in Egypt, “it is rare that they are able to secure mass support in the rural population, which is largely semi-illiterate” (Lawrence 1993, 176). As a “result of mass schooling,” the “Islamic activists” are mostly “youth under the age of thirty, generally well educated, with diplomas in their pockets but very poor employment prospects” (Spataro 1996, 72). In the area of Sunni fundamentalism “the typical activist . . . is a student at a modern, nonreligious institution with emphasis on applied sciences.” Often these activists include “agronomists, electronics technicians, doctors, engineers.” A leading role in the Shiite revolution was played by “Islamic student elites, who received an excellent education in the Iranian system, but were frustrated in thei r attempts at social advancement.” Largely with “U.S. diplomas,” achieved thanks to Iranian stipends, the “leadership and technocrats of the Islamic Republic” also have considerable international experience (Kepel 1991, 46, 42).

Islamic fundamentalism assumes “a hostile attitude toward traditionalism as well as the official religious institutions. . . . From both an intellectual and political point of view, it introduces a creative interpretation of the sacred texts” (Choueiri 1993, 31). This interpretation is revolutionary, not only because of the content, but also because it confronts the traditional Sunni clergy, the Ulemas, with a new group of intellectuals. In the Western world the loss, through the Reformation, of the clerical monopoly in the interpretation of the Bible was an important step in the rise of the modern world. A similar breakup is happening in the Middle East under pressure from fundamentalism.

the latter is provided with certain things: raw materials, mines, oilfields, minerals, or . . . even a special factory (the ball-bearing project of a Swedish enterprise). The socialist state gives the capitalist its means of production such as factories, mines and materials. The capitalist operates as a contractor leasing socialist means of production, making a profit on his capital and delivering a part of his output to the socialist state. (1973b, 297)

In his 1918 argument with the Left Communists, he cited Germany as “the most concrete example of state capitalism.”

The assumption of the role of “religious intellectual,” which makes every activist an Ulema, gives the Islamic movement an extraclerical character, which often turns into anticlericalism in the more radical groups. As part of the first generation that through their schooling gained access to religious sources without expert interpretation, these “warriors of God” have an extremely revolutionary view of the Koran and the Sunna. (Guolo 1994, 137)

What Is Fundamentalism? by Domenico Losurdo continued

With this new intellectual segment, radical Islamism is in practical terms introducing a kind of modern political party into a mostly static society. It is a party that, according to its theoreticians, assumes a “vanguard” function, and whose spread depends among other factors on its ability to create a minimal welfare state with “organisations for mutual support” to help the poorest classes gain access to education and the “modern world.” Even in Great Britain, the spread of fundamentalism among Moslems was made possible by its ability to fill the vacuum created by the “policies of extreme economic liberalism of Mrs. Thatcher” (Kepel 1991, 39, 53).

In the relation of the sexes, reactionary aspects are obvious, but even there a closer look shows the matter is more complicated than one might think. First of all, it needs to be established that male-dominated morality is primarily a sociological and not an ideological phenomenon: especially the women of the “lower classes” provide “support” for the Shiite Iranian “regime” (Riesebrodt 1990, 180), and as we learn from Adam Smith, these classes tend especially in sexual matters to express a “strict,” not at all “liberal” morality (1981, 794). Fundamentalist organizations in Egypt operate in this way: “They provide transportation for female students, who would otherwise have to travel in the ‘promiscuity’ of overfilled buses, where they would be constantly harassed; the only condition is that women on the ‘Islamic buses’ wear the veil. They establish entrances to the lecture halls separated by sex which allows women, who usually lose out on getting seats in overcrowded auditoriums, to have reasonable access” (Guolo 1994, 129).

Radical Islamism sharply rejects the tradition of the marriage contract and insists on “absolute freedom of the woman to choose her partner”; it condemns the “systematic polygamy” of the harem and tries to limit and even discourage polygamy. Wearing the veil is not always or everywhere based on coercion. The girls respond to their conservative backgrounds. “The veil, worn even against their parents’ opposition, is a symbol for Islamic radicalism” (Spataro 1996, 188–90, 74). This attitude means agreement with masculinist strict morals, opposition to the Western world, and a demand for cultural and political identity; a further aspect may be seen as reminiscent of Western feminist criticism about the marketing of the female body.

To emphasize the fallacy of explaining fundamentalism through the simple dichotomy of premodern vs. modern, one must remember that in only one country in the Middle East has fundamentalism been successful—Iran, the most modern country both on the socioeconomic and political level. Iran experienced the revolution at the turn of the last century as well as the democratic attempts of Mossadegh that were cut short by the CIA and Western intrigue in 1953. Finally, it should be mentioned that both early twentieth-century Protestant fundamentalism and contemporary Jewish fundamentalism refer to the country that has become the symbol of the modern world. Incidentally, the two are both distinguished by a “return” to the Bible.

The interpretation of fundamentalism as rejection of the modern world or as aggressive traditionalism does not fit with the equally widespread analysis that warns against the new totalitarian danger. In any case, it is worth mentioning that this accusation is only leveled against one of the many fundamentalisms that move today’s world. To avert totalitarian danger, the West is calling for a new crusade against militant Islam, which for its part is denouncing totalitarianism as a ruinous Western import (Spataro 1996, 25).

This second interpretation is no more convincing than the first. One should try a fresh attempt. Looking first at Islamic fundamentalism, we need to find out how it defines its enemies. In the view of Sayyid Qutb (the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood who was put in a concentration camp and later executed under Nasser), they are “human demons, crusaders, Zionists, idolaters, and communists, who differ from each other but are united in their opposition to Islam with all their might, to destroy the vanguard of the movements for the rebirth of Islam” (Guolo 1994, 75). Noteworthy are the arbitrary reduction of the enemy camp and the description of the conflict as a religious clash. The Manichaeism of this interpretation is obvious, but it alone is not enough to characterize fundamentalism. Manichaeism is also found—only to mention the heroes of liberal-democratic internationalism—in the already quoted Reagan or Eisenhower, who described the international situation of 1953 in these words: “This is a war of light against darkness, freedom against slavery” (Lott 1994, 304). Those were the years when John Foster Dulles, who claimed to have an excellent knowledge of the Bible, advocated drawing political inspiration from it: “I am convinced that our political ideas and actions must as closely as possible reflect the religious faith according to which man has his origin and fate in God” (Kissinger 1994, 534). As secretary of state under President Eisenhower, Dulles condemned any attempt at neutrality as deeply immoral.

Let us return to further examination of the phenomenon of fundamentalism. How does Qutb identify his friends? We read: “An Islamic activist belongs to an ancient and noble tribe. He is part of an illustrious procession led by many exalted leaders: Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Josef, Moses, Jesus, and the seal of the prophet, Mohammed” (Spataro 1996, 71). We are dealing with the claim to an unbroken historical continuity of hundreds of years, to permanence. The current conflict is being projected back into a distant past, and into exactly this distant past leads the identity of friend and foe, especially since Qutb attributes the enemies with an “innate” drive to aggression (Guolo 1994, 101). The world of Islam is called upon to overcome the current decadence and crisis by a return to the situation prior to the military, ideological, and political Western aggression, and this means a return to one’s self and to origins that have undergone a mythical transfiguration. The point is to protect the Islamic identity from contamination and interference. The point is to put an end to centuries of ruinous religious subversion. This is a protection, a kind of “cultural cleansing,” against all Western political tendencies without differentiation, from liberalism to communism. The essential and decisive element is the fight not against the “modern world,” but against the West. Ideas and institutions that are considered unacceptable or dangerous are condemned as having no connection with Islamic identity. Operation “cultural cleansing” includes a variety of expressions of culture, fashion, language: in Algiers there is a spreading fight against the French language, which is seen in a negative light as the “language of the colonial masters,” as opposed to the “language of Koran” (Kepel 1991, 60).

The wished-for purity is only imaginary. Surely the theory of an “international revolutionary party” as a “vanguard” is not of autochthonous origin. In reality, Islamic activists draw a number of elements from their enemies: critique of modern Western civilization is borrowed from European cultural critique. Qutb quotes Alexis Carrel favorably and at length, but dilutes this source acknowledgment by relaying the ideas of this man of “great knowledge, extreme sensitivity, great honesty and liberal mentality” back to the Koran (Choueiri 1993, 179–81). Islamic activists like to consider themselves as occupying the political and ideological center, but they claim this modern classification did not originate with the French Revolution but with a verse of the Koran that is rather freely interpreted and even manipulated.

Fundamentalism is characterized by the tendency to create an inflexible identity by ignoring the relations and mutual influences of different cultures. If a cultural tradition is being presented as compact, exclusive, and antagonistic toward all others, it is in danger of adopting an ethnic configuration. Fundamentalism is a cultural tradition that tends to become nature, a nature that is incompatible with other cultural traditions, which are also represented as being stuck in inflexible intransigence. Ideas and institutions are first and foremost judged by their real or imaginary ethnic origin. Criticism of Western rule turns into criticism of the West in general, and finally criticism of “Western man”: his leadership role, proclaims Qutb, is in an inevitable decline (Choueiri 1993, 161). The transition from the historical to the anthropological level corroborates the tendency to understand the conflict in a naturalistic way.

Fundamentalism and the awakening of the colonial peoples

Any culture can be susceptible to fundamentalism. But it is not good enough simply to switch from singular to plural to define this phenomenon. Fundamentalism is not the way of life of one or more distinct cultures; it is a reaction to the encounter, or rather the clash, of two different cultures, a reaction characterized by entrenchment and the construction of a jealously guarded and exclusive identity. One could say that fundamentalism is the rejection of one culture by another and the tendency to regard both as natural phenomena. Such a tendency increases with the size of the gap between the cultures and the violence of the clash. This is quite compelling in the relations of the West with other parts of the world. The awakening of oppressed peoples and their subjugated and silenced cultures is also characterized by rejections. In this sense, fundamentalism is neither a new phenomenon nor one restricted to the peoples of the Middle East. Consider, for example, the 1857 Sepoy rebellion in India. One could simply view it as a reaction by the old caste system, as a rejection of the modern ways introduced by English rule. That is certainly one aspect. The rebellion did not target the modern world as such, however, but those modern elements that were imposed selectively (depending on British interests) in the wake of colonial expansion and went hand in hand with oppression of a nation and a culture that had after all produced the Mogul Empire. Disraeli was already perfectly clear what a significant role had been played by the national question in this case (Stokes 1986, 4).

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