Fundamentalism and Violence


Dr. Khalid Sohail


When we study human history we become aware that all the religious, spiritual and secular traditions of the world, in spite of their ideological and philosophical differences, had one thing in common. They all had a dream of creating caring and compassionate human beings as well as just and peaceful communities. Unfortunately in many cases that dream turned into a nightmare. When we meet their followers today we find that some of them have become angry and developed a fundamentalist attitude. They easily get involved in bitter debates with followers of other sects, religions and ideologies and try to impose their values on others. When these people with fundamentalist personalities become leaders of political organizations and religious institutions they use violence to create theocratic states and declare holy wars, whether crusades or jihads to support their holy cause. Whether they are Muslim fundamentalists or Christian fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists or Hindu fundamentalists, they have become a great concern for peace loving people of the world and have been threatening the future of humanity. If these fundamentalists are able to gain access to nuclear weapons they might start a cycle of violence that might end in collective suicide or homicide. Those of us who care for the future of humanity have gathered here today to have an intellectually stimulating dialogue and put our heads together to understand the psychology and politics of fundamentalism so that we can be prepared to accept the challenges of today and prepare the grounds for a secular and humanistic world.

      Have you heard the story of that 90-year-old Indian grandfather who was planting a mango tree. His young neighbor asked him why was he planting a mango tree knowing very well that it would likely bear fruit in seven years and he might not be alive by then. The old man smiled radiating love from his wrinkles and said, “This tree is a gift for my grandchildren.”

      So we are having this seminar not only for us but also for our children and grandchildren so that they can live in harmony with other communities and cultures and be able to resolve their conflicts peacefully.

      When I tried to understand those factors that contribute towards fundamentalism and the violence generated by it, I became aware that there are four schools of thought that attempt to explore these concepts seriously.


The first group focuses on religious factors. They believe that there is something inherent in the religious ideology that motivates people to be self-righteous and impose their values on others and if these religious people cannot impose their values on others in a peaceful way then they do not hesitate to resort to violence, even war, whether it is called a crusade or jihad. These people blame religion for creating suicide bombers and believe that it is the promise of heaven that is a major contributing factor. Such people believe that if there were no religions there would be no holy wars.

These people blame faith-based schools that indoctrinate children to feel superior to those people who have other religions or no religion. They believe such schools play a dominant role in creating fundamentalist adults who later on take part in holy wars and become suicide bombers.


The second group highlights the political factors. They share with us that in the twentieth century many wars were fought on the basis of nationalism. Nationalism is also an ideology but it is not a religious ideology and people can have fundamentalist attitudes towards their nations with no connection to religion. Such nationalistic ideology can even generate suicide bombers. We all know that the Tamil Tigers Movement in Sri Lanka has produced the biggest number of suicide bombers in the last few decades. Tamil Tigers are motivated by their nationalistic ideology and commitment that is non-religious. Some scholars feel that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are primarily political wars where political leaders use religion as a motivating factor to achieve their political goals.

Some political analysts consider such wars as wars of liberation from local dictators or foreign imperialistic and colonial powers. They highlight that only those countries that have been invaded by foreign Western powers are producing suicide bombers. They state that many countries in the world are deeply religious but only those that are involved in political conflicts are becoming violent. So they see a stronger relationship between violence and politics rather than violence and religious fundamentalism. It is also important to note that freedom fighters of one nation are perceived as terrorists by another nation and liberators of one country are perceived as invaders by another country.


The third group believes that religious and political wars are primarily the socio-economic wars. These wars are fought in those countries that have natural resources especially holy oil that the Western powers want to have control. They believe that in the 21st century there is a war against imperialistic and colonial powers because small countries want to be politically and economically independent. These countries do not want a foreign army in their backyard. They also feel that because of the imperialist powers exploitation of their resources, local people have remained poor, uneducated, frustrated and angry. Such people resort to religious and political ideologies to express and rationalize their anger. Their hold on fundamentalist ideologies is a desperate attempt to deal with their crises. They become suicidal and think of life after death because their present lives are so miserable and desperate. They believe that until we make sure that wealth is equally distributed all over the world and the gap between the haves and have-nots is decreased we will continue to see the fundamentalist wave all over the world spilling over to violence from time to time.


The fourth group brings to our attention that violence is part of human nature. For thousands of years human beings have survived against all odds by becoming part of a tribe and develop tribal thinking. For a tribe to survive they had to fight wars with other tribes. They considered them their enemies to get hold of their crops, land and women. They had developed a Us / Them mentality. Unfortunately such a tribal mentality still exists. The only difference is that the tribal mentality now includes religion, nationality, gender, race and many other factors. Religious fundamentalism reflects the same tribal mentality. Whether Christians fighting with Jews or Muslims having a war with Hindus or Shiites killing Sunnis, it is the same tribal thinking that has become part of human nature.

When we study different parts of the globe we realize that all these factors, whether religious or political, social or psychological, are significant and depending upon the special social and political circumstances, play the dominant role. In some areas religion is more important than politics and in other areas socioeconomic factors dominate the political factors. Human beings are conditioned by their families and communities and violent cultures produce violent people.


I believe that humanity is at a crossroads. We all have choices. We can maintain our tribal mentality and commit collective homicide or rise above it and embrace our fellow human beings from different cultures and faiths. The time has come for all human beings to realize that for our collective survival we have to believe that the whole of humanity is one tribe and one human family. We have to work together to solve our collective problems whether religious or political, social or economic. We need to base our communities on science and reason, caring and compassion. We can all do that by promoting humanism, a philosophy in which all human beings are equally respected. It is the core philosophy all religious, spiritual and secular traditions have been trying to teach. They all wanted us to become better human beings. I believe humanism is the essence of all traditions. Over the centuries followers of those traditions became dogmatic and institutionalized and lost touch with the essence. For the future survival and growth of humanity, we need to discover common goals to decrease human suffering and improve the quality of life rather than getting into angry and bitter debates about our ideological differences. Such a philosophy will help us fight fundamentalism and help people find peace within themselves and social harmony in the communities, harmony based on peace and justice.

Note…This essay is prepared for the seminar titled Understanding Fundamentalism held in Toronto Canada Dec 1st, 2007