Keeping the Faith: Overcoming Religious Fundamentalisms

Asian-Pacific Resource & Research Centre for Women (ARROW)
Publication Date: 
October, 2008
Arrow for Change Publication

This ARROW Publication contains a diverse range of articles on fundamentalisms around the Asia Pacific region and more:

  • Keeping the Faith: Overcoming Religious Fundamentalism
  • Hindu Fundamentalisms in India: Examining Impact and Responses by the Women’s Movements
  • Challenging Islamic Fundamentalism: Asserting Muslim Women’s Sexuality and Rights in Marriage, Family and Society
  • Growing Fundamentalisms: A Grave Apprehension for Women’s Rights in Pakistan
  • Beyond Legality: Abortion and Reproductive Health in the Philippines
  • Tackling gender and sexual discrimination in Buddhism

Keeping the Faith: Overcoming Religious Fundamentalism

The impulse to strictly conform to sacred texts and moral codes dates back a long time. To comprehend why and how such impulses arise, discussions on religious fundamentalisms and their historical contexts are necessary. More pragmatically, a fuller understanding of the dynamics of religious fundamentalisms—especially as they affect women’s rights—helps identify and create potential spaces where strategic advocacies could be pursued.

Origins. The term “fundamentalism” came into existence in the US in the 1920s to describe conservative Protestants who supported the principles expounded in The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. These pamphlets attacked the modernist theories of biblical criticism and reasserted the authority of the Bible. Their central message was that the Bible is the inerrant word of God; it should be read literally; and believers should lead their lives according to its moral precepts.

But this belief does not apply to religious fundamentalist movements that emerged in other parts of the world throughout the 20th century—Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Confucianism and Islam. Muslim theologians, for instance, rely for guidance and inspiration not only on the Qur’an, but also on the Traditions of the Prophet, and on transmitted theological and legal learning.2 Among Hindus, the “fundamentalism” associated with the Sangh Parivar, a network of organisations that includes the Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashatriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is more a nationalist than a religious movement. It does not have a specific sacred text to which conformity can be demanded and it does not attach importance to adhering to religious rules. For these groups, what matters most is Hindutva or Hindu-ness, their guiding philosophy, which is a symbol of national identity and calls for Indian unity. 3

Religious scholars have long opposed the term “fundamentalism”4 not only because of its Christian origins but also because it connotes retrogression, backwardness, and ignorance and is automatically associated with Islam. “Fundamentalism” came into widespread usage during the Iranian revolution in 1978 when the media used it to evoke the anti-modernism that Ayatollah Khomeini represented. Since then, it has been increasingly used to refer to “Islamic fundamentalism” and has become synonymous with terrorism, anti-Americanism and fanaticism.

Religious philosophers, however, have defended the use of this term. Sadik J. Al-Azm of Syria reviewed the doctrines of the new Islamic movements and found that they consisted of going back to the fundamentals. He concluded that the term “fundamentalist” in reference to these Islamic movements is “adequate, accurate, and correct.” Hasan Hanafi of Egypt reached the same conclusion: “It is difficult to find a more appropriate term than the one recently used in the West, ‘fundamentalism,’ to cover the meaning of what we name Islamic awakening or revival.”2

To this day, the debates around the term “fundamentalism” still continue. Religious revivalism, nativism, integrism, among others, have not gained wide acceptance as alternatives. Although religious scholars continue to find the term “fundamentalism” unsatisfactory, they continue to use it as long as it is properly defined and qualified.

Understanding religious fundamentalisms. Various reasons have been attributed to the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and its apparent predominance today. The 1995 Fundamentalism Project compared Protestant Christian, Catholic Christian, Jewish, Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Confucian and Shinto fundamentalisms. The authors grouped together significant resemblances shared by these religious movements and justified using the plural term “fundamentalisms” to underscore their diversity. They viewed fundamentalisms primarily as the militant rejection of secular modernity. Further, they contended that fundamentalisms are totalitarian as they seek to remake all aspects of society and government on religious principles.5

Similarly, other scholars view religious fundamentalisms as reactions against rational, secular modernisation, which is now taken to mean as Westernisation. Wherever a westernised secular state has established itself, a religious protest movement rises up alongside it in conscious rejection.6 Such fundamentalisms reflect “a profound fear of annihilation,” and whether they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim, religious fundamentalists are convinced that secular society wants to exterminate them. Jewish fundamentalism, for instance, emerged after the Nazi Holocaust and was reinforced after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Iranian Shi’ite fundamentalism was a result of the aggressive secularism of Shah Muhammad Reza.7

Other thinkers point out that all discussions of fundamentalisms ought to take place within the context of the historical process of secularisation. This process has resulted in the separation of religion and state with the consequent removal of religious-based laws and prohibitions. Religious institutions and ideas have ceased to exert a dominant force in societies and individuals have moved away from them. Religious fundamentalisms reject and seek to reverse this process.8

Others argue, however, that to refer to religious fundamentalisms simply as “revolts against modernity” is reductive. It tends to downplay or ignore nationalism, the assertion of identity, as well as the social grievances that often fuel such movements.9 Sikh fundamentalism, for instance, became a nationalistic separatist movement. Although it stressed the need for conformity to a sacred text, the Adi Granth, and advocated for the creation of a Sikh state governed according to sacred law, its fundamentalist concerns were subordinated to nationalistic ones.10

Some observed traits. Religious fundamentalists tend to impose their worldviews and apply religious law to all aspects of life. Their religious ideology then becomes a political ideology embodied in a movement, which may gain mass support or even political power. Thus, they issue rules based on their religious ideology; they select aspects of modernity to advance their causes; they respond to their adherents’ physical needs to keep them within the fold; and they may come from the same source but have different streams.

Selectivity. Religious fundamentalists tend to identify selective aspects of modernity as threats to their identity. While they decry the “evils” of mass media, for instance, they use media technology to promote their cause. In Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini used the audiocassette to distribute his sermons throughout the country. These became the vehicle of opposition to the shah’s repressive regime. In the UK, Muslim fundamentalists distributed DVDs and books that condemned democracy and called for jihad; presented women as “intellectually congenitally deficient and in need of beating when they transgressed Islamic dress codes”; and recommended that “homosexuals…be burnt, stoned or thrown from mountains or tall buildings.”11 In the US, the evangelicals have flooded the airwaves since 1944. Its organisation, the National Religious Broadcasters, represents “1,600 broadcasters with billions of dollars in media holdings and staggering political clout.”12

Religious fundamentalists, likewise, select certain aspects of their religious traditions while choosing to ignore others. When reading and interpreting the Qur’an, Muslims take it as a whole, understand the reasons and circumstances behind each passage, and are careful not to choose verses that may serve one’s interests and arguments. But Muslim fundamentalists do otherwise. Those who justify polygamy, for instance, do not cite this verse in full: “If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three, or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one” (Al Nisa’, 4:3). They also ignore that a subsequent verse states: “You are never able to be fair and just between women even if that were your ardent desire” (Al Nisa’, 4:129).13 These two verses together have now become a compelling justification for monogamy.

The same is true with Christian fundamentalists. The Bible is a source of inspiration and guidance for Christians but fundamentalists concentrate on aggressive biblical texts that, for instance, justify war: “there is a time to kill” (Ecclesiastes 3:3) and “If you do not have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36/37). This is unfortunate because like all religions, Christianity’s core value is to “love God above all things and one’s neighbor as oneself” (Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31).

Influencing policies. Religious fundamentalisms are associated with conservative, authoritarian politics. But they also thrive in democracies and are usually engaged in shaping policies. The Religious Right, for instance, pressured Ronald Reagan to approve the Global Gag Rule (GGR) in 1984. This policy prohibited foreign NGOs receiving US funds, either directly or as sub-recipients through domestic NGOs, from performing or actively promoting abortions “as a method of family planning” regardless of whether the money used for those purposes was from the US government or other sources.14 Former president George Bush’s restoration and expansion of the GGR in 2001 was a way to repay his ‘pro-life’ constituency composed of conservative Catholics, Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Efforts applied by religious fundamentalists on political leaders are not limited to the US. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva secured the support of Pentecostals and other evangelicals in the October 2002 elections. For the October 2006 elections, Lula’s Workers Party forged an alliance with the Brazilian Republican Party which one of Brazil’s largest Pentecostal churches helped organise. The Pentecostals defeated attempts to liberalise homosexuality laws but failed to block laws liberalising abortion. 15

Service providers. Religious fundamentalists respond to their adherents’ needs to strengthen their mass base and support. Hamas, for example, combines Palestinian nationalism with Islamic fundamentalism. Its founding charter commits the group to the destruction of Israel, the replacement of the Palestinian Authority with an Islamist state on the West Bank and Gaza, and to raising “the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” Long before it won the elections, Hamas has devoted much of its estimated $70-million annual budget to an extensive social services network. It funds schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens and sports leagues. Hamas’s strategy to build political support through its social programs sealed the loyalty of many Palestinian women.16

Different streams. Within Christian fundamentalism, there are similarities and differences. Evangelicals and fundamentalists believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, i.e., it is without error or fault in all its teachings. They believe that the fundamental message of Christianity is that one is saved only through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Evangelicals, however, believe that anybody who repents can be saved, while the fundamentalists believe that God intended to save only a small number of souls. Moreover, evangelicals are more pragmatic and willing to work with other groups than the fundamentalists.17

Recently, the evangelical lobby in the US, together with some feminist groups, succeeded in making human trafficking one of the priorities of US policy. At present, evangelicals are active in other parts of the world alleviating poverty and preventing diseases. Rick Warren, pastor of an evangelical mega-church in Southern California, has mobilised his 22,000 congregants to help combat HIV/AIDS worldwide and to form relationships with churches in Rwanda.

At the same time, evangelicals are against abortion, contraception and gay marriages. Many among them believe in women’s subordination.

Creating spaces for change. Religious fundamentalisms may connote a sense of the absolute where accommodation is impossible and spaces for change are non-existent. This is not, however, the case. Opportunities to protect and advance women’s rights may yet present themselves.

First, global events are happening that may be the beginning of processes leading to incremental changes. One significant event is the UN conference on interfaith dialogue initiated by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in November 2008. World leaders called on followers of the major faiths to turn away from fundamentalisms and seek reconciliation. They also declared their commitment to respect freedom of belief and expression. The second event is the inaguration of US president Barack Obama. He is reversing controversial Bush administration executive orders on reproductive rights, stem cell research, climate change, among others. During his first week as president, Obama lifted the Global Gag Rule.

Second, political reforms are taking place in countries. In the Wahhabi state of Qatar, Sheik Hamad launched the country’s first popular elections in 1999 where men and women were allowed to vote and run for office. His reforms encouraged women to go to school; now, women make up about 70% of the country’s university students.18 Similarly, reforms in Saudi Arabia have created opportunities, even if limited, for women to participate in public life. In 2004, the first-ever syndicate for journalists was established and two female journalists were appointed to its nine-member board. And in 2005, the Saudi National Agency for Engineers admitted women as candidates and voters in its board elections.19 In the wider Arab world, a recent study shows that Islamist women are increasingly involved in political processes that could spawn a full-fledged Islamist movement for women’s rights. The study argues that women’s participation in Islamist movements reflects a growing trend toward women’s activism in the Arab world, though quite different from Western norms.20 While these may be small steps, they have set significant precedents in women’s participation in the public sphere that cannot be reversed.

Third, within established religions, there are several groups ceaselessly working against fundamentalisms. Aside from the featured spotlights in this bulletin issue, there is also the Indonesian Society for Pesantren21 and Community Development, which uses Islamic jurisprudence to encourage religious schools to promote women’s reproductive health and family planning. Sakyadhita works to create a communications network for Buddhist women throughout the world, to educate women as teachers of Buddhadarma, and to help establish a community of ordained nuns.22 The See Change Campaign seeks to change the status of the Holy See as a Non-member State Permanent Observer at the UN.22

In the light of these encouraging global events, all these efforts, collectively and individually, are extremely crucial in resisting religious fundamentalists’ efforts to curtail women’s rights. To seize these opportunities, groups—secular and religious—should make a conscious, deliberate effort to study—and reclaim—religious texts that have been appropriated by fundamentalists for their own ends. Further, they should analyse fundamentalist groups, their histories and contexts, and understand the economic, political, and social conditions that breed and sustain them. They should forge partnerships with others locally, regionally, and globally; engage with an open mind in inter-faith or intercultural dialogues; and discuss concrete, pragmatic ways on how people could live together, justly and compassionately, despite religious differences.

Despite what religious fundamentalisms may represent, there is a space where changes can happen. There is hope. And we all should keep the faith.