The Social and Political Implications of Religious Fundamentalism
Barrister Hameed Bashani
The term “fundamentalism” is relatively new and was introduced into the English language in the early twentieth century. But fundamentalism itself is not a new phenomenon. It has existed through much of human history in different forms. In the United States, fundamentalism became visible as a religio-political movement in the early twentieth century. This movement was guided by the doctrine of complete faith in five principles. Over the century, fundamentalism has become a significant political force in the United States as well as other Western countries.
Today we recognize religious and religious-political fundamentalism as a global phenomenon, whose purpose and objectives are the same all over the world. Its purpose is, basically, to reverse human civilization and achievements. Fundamentalists seek to de-secularize society, undo the separation of state and religion, and impose religious-based laws and morals on all spheres of life, especially in social, familial, sexual., and gender relations.
The force of fundamentalism may have little social or political traction as long as it remains within a particular religious territory .But it cannot now be limited to that domain because fundamentalist beliefs are increasingly tied to a fairly overt political agenda. This agenda includes political and patriarchal conservatism, authoritarianism, and the institutionalization of prejudice. It projects itself, meanwhile, as a hostile confrontation with modern society, ideas and thoughts. In both Western and Eastern societies, fundamentalism has become a political ideology embodied in a substantial political movement with the potential to shape the immediate destiny of states and people.
In the West and especially in the United States, we have seen strong fundamentalist elements and pressure groups, which in the last three decades have been turned into a major political force. It has successfully undermined progressive social and democratic policies in the country, and diverted the attention of people from their real struggles of survival around health, education, poverty, and the growing gap between rich and poor in the society. These religio-political fundamentalists groups have started religious crusade against gay rights, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and abortion rights.
It is not a coincidence that fundamentalists have become so strongly mobilized during a unique period of economic stagnation. During the last 25 years, we have witnessed that the real wages in the U.S. have declined for the majority of people. Family incomes are rising far more slowly than productivity and economic growth. There is a social and economic crisis considering the increased working hours and decreasing wages and social benefits. In this context we can say that the ruling classes have used the fundamentalists to divert attention from pressing social and economic issues. At the same time, the fundamentalists have used their new influence in the state to further their own agenda. In the name of the ‘war on terror’, they have pushed the state to wage a war against freedom and civil liberties at home, and bloody wars in foreign lands. On the social cultural and educational front, the fundamentalists achieved their maximum goal by getting the state to fund religious and faith based organizations, and stop scientific research and experiments in human genetics. The strong alliance between fundamentalists and state has enormous social and political implications in the United States and for the rest of the Western world.
In the East, the situation is more tragic. Religious fundamentalists have long been a reactionary factor, but after 1970, here too they have turned into an organized religio-political force with huge social and political implications as states used fundamentalism against secular, democratic and progressive forces. From Egypt to Afghanistan we have, for instance, seen rise of Islamic fundamentalism under government support and protection, as well as the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India. In the Arab world Islamic fundamentalism has been used to strengthen dictatorships and brutal regimes. In Iran it was used for a reactionary revolution and cultural and political suppression. In Pakistan, the social and political implications of fundamentalism have been staggering. Here, religious fundamentalist developed an unholy alliance with the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq. Consequently, an elected Prime Minister was hanged by getting a judicial decision from Kangaroo courts. People have been stripped of democratic and fundamental rights. A religious code of conduct and laws has been imposed in the country. Women have been prosecuted, jailed and tortured under Islamic laws. The Pakistan state along with Arab support has put billion of dollars to open thousands of Islamic Madrassas and religious educational institutions which have been breeding grounds for extremists. Under the pretext of holy war against Soviet Union Afghanistan was turned into a living hell. A generation of Afghani people was destroyed. Fundamentalists brutally ruled over the country after Soviets left. All over the Islamic world fundamentalists were supported against the progressive and secular forces by regional powers in collaboration or under the control of international powers.
Now the genie is out of the bottle. Terrorism, violence, intolerance, bloody wars and countless conflicts around the world are just a few implications. Love, compassion, and tolerance are disappearing from our globe. There is an urgent need to put the genie back into the bottle before it is too late.
Note…This essay is prepared for the seminar titled Understanding Fundamentalism held in Toronto Canada Dec 1st, 2007 http://www.familyofheart.com/07/Dec01/