Fundamentals of Fundamentalism


Ziauddin Ahmed

To understand fundamentalism one has to look at its fundamental properties.  Fundamentally, any living system, be it human or non-human, exhibits the most fundamental of requirements, and that is,  ‘ an innate property to seek to preserve itself ’. No sacrifice is great enough to make in order to continue to survive and hold on to dear life. Be it one’s desire, need or duty, the preservation of every life is essential for the flourishing of humanity and civilization, so much so, that even dissent and opposition must be tolerated, even if for nothing else then its negative value alone.

Humans, who have in some way developed and evolved over the animal, continue to, and will, exhibit their basic animal traits along with some other form of a more developed behaviour, which they may have acquired on account of their intellect. This intellectual activity is a human’s most distinguishing characteristic over other forms of life.  Due to their capacity to think and consciously analyse, understand and manipulate the surroundings, humans seek not only to live, but also to do so with a reason. The reason for existence is sought and held on to in a variety of ways – differing from people to people. Whichever method is most convincing and suits the individual becomes the basis of their justifying themselves and the world around,  and this they tend do with a passionate conviction. 

If religion seems convincing to some people, they try not only to live by it themselves but wish others to do so too. If scientific laws are the dependable vehicles for some other people, they examine things around them based on those principles and expect of others to do the same. If the laws of material economics give satisfactory explanation to yet some others, then they tend to explain every thing in material terms and want people to follow their train of thought. Thus, it is the mindset of individuals that makes them accept a set of ideas, and affords them the dependable reason to acquire a peace within and outside of themselves, and gives a meaning and reason to their lives. 

The moment one’s belief is shaken, either by questioning, or is found to be inadequate to explain certain phenomena, the common reaction is to defend it rather than accept change and adjust one’s own thinking accordingly. This inertia to avoid change leads some people to re-examine the basis of their ideas and find solutions within the framework of the belief itself, and, then take it upon themselves, as if it were their duty, to enforce it ever more vehemently on everyone around. This is so because human nature is possessive, protective and projective of what it sees to be it’s precious belonging, and that which it does not want to give up easily. 

Now, only some few things seem to be the real essentials for existence. Primarily they are:  nourishment, preservation and reproduction. These are the requirements for every life on an individual and a singular basis.  The first duty is to the self, and after having satisfied that need one looks towards the propagation of the group as a whole, for there is strength in numbers.  Things like environment, natural resources and even ideas and beliefs are a collective possession, and are thus needed to be commonly shared and jointly guarded. 

In the animal kingdom the basis of survival is seen to be the fitness to stand and tackle the existing situation and predominantly fend for the self, and Nature and its laws do the rest. For humans however, it is not sufficient to survive in the present alone but also to intelligently manoeuvre and plan for a future of their liking.  Now, to be able to wilfully gain in the times to come it is imperative to learn from the past and utilise those experiences in the present.  But, somehow humans get so carried away by the desires of the future that they tend to forget the past, forego the present, and ignore the fact that evolution into the next phase will only be based on these two previous conditions of time.   

If the situation shows a tendency to change, life tends to readjust to the circumstance. At the animal level this is seen to be brought about by an instinctive, unconscious mechanism of readjustment.  Humans, however, should either be convinced of the necessity for change or must themselves understand and reason out its inevitability. Even then, the inertia mentioned above, is the factor that holds back the individual from recognising the facts immediately. In fact the usual human response is to fight the change and try to alter the circumstance and the environment itself, in order to fit it into the scheme of their desires.

The logical extension of the consequence to preserve life is to then perpetuate and finally immortalize it. This is somehow achievable by passing the essence of ones own experiences on to the succeeding generations – for, otherwise why else would there be the need to reproduce and propagate?  The birds and the bees do it as per the dictates of Nature. Humans follow it too, but being thinking animals they desire not only to perpetuate their physical selves but also their ideas and beliefs along with it. The fundamentality of the mentality which one tries to propagate and promote, from the past to the present and into the future is, however, bound by a redefining and modification at every successive step of the way; again by Nature under its laws of evolution.  Consciously or not, the idea itself traverses a different set of circumstance on its journey from the past generation to the present before it is ready to leap into the future. It must readjust itself in order to smoothly interface with the evolving situation. For, otherwise, the existing idea will none the less have to submit and conform to the greater and superior forces of Nature, or otherwise be left behind and then eliminated. Inertia once again resists this transition and tends to maintain the status quo. 

Having borne with the discourse so far we can now take the plunge into the topic of the day. A fundamental mindset is none else than this inertia in the thought process of the fundamentalist. It is ones innate desire to stay in the comfort zone and to maintain the status quo. The basic idea is the foundation on which one builds the edifice of society and so does not want to change it. As one tries to achieve immortality,  one realises that it can only be possible by passing on the basic principles, inherited or acquired, to the next generation. Also, one does not wish the progeny to repeat the mistakes one has committed in ones own life. The approach then is to forcefully or adamantly reinforce the foundation as firmly as possible into their minds. 

Now, most things usually have two effects, a positive and a negative, a ying and a yang. What is positive or constructive in one situation may sometimes become negative or obstructive in another, as also, one man’s meat may be another man’s poison. Let us take an example to explain this.  ‘Friction’ is a resistive force that restricts motion. On the other hand if there were no friction things would not stay in one place. e.g. a car would not stop if there was no friction between the earth and its tires.  But the same friction has to be overcome and harnessed in order to set the car in motion. What an irony, that, what is essential in one situation is a hindrance in another. This is why friction has been called ‘ a necessary evil’, and hence the corollary that ‘ evil too is a necessity’. This situation occurs at many stages in life. Fundamentalism also follows the same rule and shows two sides, it can be both devolutionary as well as evolutionary. It is both an extrovert and an introvert phenomenon. That it is extrovert is clearly exhibited by the behaviour of those trying to impose it on others. It’s being introvert is far more subtle, invisible and deep rooted in the psyche. The holding on to dogma, by the fundamentalists, is due to their fear of the unknown, which in reality is that ‘ indeterminate part of ones own unconscious self ’  which resists being brought to the surface where it can be rationally handled. This again is due essentially to the pervading inertia. If the saying, ‘ the greatest thing to fear is fear itself’,  is accepted and believed, much dogmatism and orthodoxy would be overcome by a logical acceptance of reality. Fundamentalism may be essential to build a system but then it also becomes its adhesive force that resists change. Fundamentalism usually starts out as a defensive measure. One looks to protect the basis of ones beliefs and ideals. It, however, becomes retaliatory in outlook if the fear of one’s own annihilation gets deep rooted, for then it acquires a mode of ‘ offence is the best defence’, and that is what eventually makes it derogatory. 

All stable systems in nature, be they ‘ macro-systems’ e.g. the solar system or ‘micro-systems’ e.g. the classical atomic structure, are both balanced and evolving. It is seen that the achievement of balance, in the various forces in any natural system, is an evidence of the probability of its survival and progress. For, imbalance is usually only a temporary, floating phenomenon and must eventually reach some state of adjustment and stability for the survival of the system as a whole. Taking lesson from this it is imperative that humans too should learn to balance and evolve in their thought, word and deed, for sensible survival and progress of the species as a whole.

In the closing I leave with a hope that it will perhaps noted that an attempt has been made to tackle the basis of the problem of fundamentalism from a slightly different angle and a fresh approach, and that the microscope has, however, been pointed towards the root cause of the situation. I am sure the illustrious speakers to follow will delve into greater depth and analysis of it from various other angles. 

I must admit that it is not essential that everyone would see eye to eye and agree with the ideas and the projections of this essay; and so I am tempted to quote Ghalib, the famous poet philosopher of the East, when he says:

    Ya rub neh who sumjhay hain neh sumjhain gay mare baat

Dai aur dil ous ko joh neh dai mujah ko zubaan aur.

O Lord, they do not comprehend

Nor ever will acclaim.

Give to them a new heart,

If not me another tongue to proclaim. 

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