Fundamentalism as a Cross-National, Cross-Traditional Concept
- Jeffrey HaynesJeffrey HaynesCentre for the Study of Religion, Conflict, and Cooperation, London Metropolitan University
“Religious fundamentalism” is a term that, for several decades now, has been a staple of writing about the general involvement of religion in politics. “Religious fundamentalism” is nearly always associated with “traditional,” “conservative,” or “right-wing” understandings of the world. It is articulated and pursued by those who appear to believe that the world would be a better place if all people lived by the word of (their) God, as articulated and set forth in their particular faith’s holy scriptures. In addition, for many, “religious fundamentalism” implies a rejection of modernity and a wish to return to the past, to a—perhaps mythical—time when people lived by God’s jurisdiction.
Despite what some believe, it is clear that religious fundamentalism is a modern phenomenon, although with historical antecedents. As a concept, “religious fundamentalism” has been widely employed since the late 1970s, especially by the mass media and many scholars. It has been used to describe and explain quite a few, sometimes rather diverse, religious movements around the globe with political aspirations to change society. The designation “fundamentalist” was first applied by some American Protestants to themselves in the 1920s. In the early 21st century, as a generic term, it is now widely applied additionally to a multitude of groups outside the corpus of American Protestantism.
Generally speaking, the character and impact of fundamentalist doctrines is located within a nexus of moral and social issues revolving, in many contemporary countries and religions, around state–society interactions. “Modernization” has affected many people’s lives in profound and sometimes disconcerting ways. For some religious fundamentalists, this was manifested in an initial defensiveness, which eventually developed for many into a political offensive that sought to alter the prevailing social and political realities of state–society relations. That rulers were performing inadequately and/or corruptly, led many—but not all—religious fundamentalists to relate contemporary developments to a critical reading of their faith’s holy texts. The significance of this from a political perspective was that it could serve to supply an already restive group with a ready-made manifesto for social change. Many religious leaders saw the opportunity and began explicitly to use a selective reading of religious texts both to challenge secular rulers and to propose a program for often radical societal or sociopolitical reforms. Under these circumstances, it was often relatively easy for fundamentalist leaders to gain the support of those who felt that in some way the development of society was not proceeding according to God’s will or their community’s interests. In sum, various manifestations of what are generically referred to as religious fundamentalisms have appealed to different groups for different reasons at different times.