The Challenge Network

   back   menu   next   

On fundamentalism

On fundamentalism

"Fundamentalism" is as much a term of abuse as a useful analytical label. This short paper tries to unravel some of the false meaning which has been attached to this term. "Core" fundamentalists - those who take direct action with a political motive to it - ate one part of a social structure which encompasses something much more complex. Analysis of the sophistication peculiar to these very rare animals ("is taq a decisive force in middle eastern politics?") is helpful only when we have an understanding of the broader forces that are at play.

There are, it would seem, two sets which overlap: people who resent change, and people who become motivated to act politically around abstract concepts. Where these two overlap, the program of action is dictated by the desire to shift the totality of society into a new state. The state may be eschatological or it may be regressive. That is, there may be a bold vision of what might be, or there may be a desire for a strong leader to make things right again, in part by restoring former verities. There may be both models in play at the same time: Hitler and the fascists were the response to just such a need - brought about by economic and social change, war and turmoil - and the strange mixture of neophilia and regressive social ideals are very common in such movements.

The regressive element in fundamentalist movements is often strange: we am not aware of Jesus having said anything whatever about abortion, homosexuality or racial differences- laying aside the views of Paul, who never met Him - but this does not stop these issues from becoming major issues within the Christian fundamentalist psyche. It is often the case that the positions which have been taken on these and related issues were concocted well after the founding of the faith by the organised religion of a later era, perhaps in reaction to distinctive features of groups with which the religion was in conflict at the time, perhaps through mining peripheral writings and traditions. Much the same is true of Islam, where subsequent interpretations have been woven one upon another over the centuries to generate a structure which provides guidance to the faithful on issues which were either not mentioned in the original text or became issues subsequently. Reversion to these values is, however, hardly fundamentalism, but rather a desire to impose a former order on a disorderly society.

Fundamentalist social movements usually consist of authoritarian personalities who like to be in a rigid social relationship with the "in group" (giving orders and receiving them, knowing where you stand, relishing self-policing, relishing self-denial and deeply relishing the policing and denial of other's pleasures and liberties.) They set themselves in hostile opposition with the "out group" - the heathen, the oppressors, the polluters, Big Government, faceless multinational plotters and pornographers. These social movements have a power structure and a career structure - police, security, ministration, leadership, teaching, external affairs - and I refer readers to the RAND report on the ethnic entrepreneur to see how this works. It is, however, necessary for the power structure that clear distinctions be drawn between the in group and the remainder of society. Where such groups gain political power, they can have nothing of compromise and their program is always to suppress dissent.

Why does this matter? Because, we suggest, around 4 bn people are having their lives disrupted by change, and they are looking for solutions and villains. Better communications, professionalisation of the indignation business and religious and ideological co-ordination mean that this issue will be exploited. Its surface manifestations will be populist politics, rejectionism, some terror and incoherent, free-floating hostility as a characteristic mode with which many parts of the world face change agents. Opposing this trend will be the existence of paths to self-betterment, the growth of individualism, the influence of urban elites, the presence of sound inclusive government and the impact of non-ideological education. These, I believe, are the drivers of one very important theme which will shape the next 20-30 years.

 to the top 

The Challenge Network supports the Trek Peru charity.