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)
« 1 2 »