More on Fundamentalism – 1

In our last post (On Fundamentalism), a point of view had been advanced that there could be no religious fundamentalism without the existence of a scared text. It was the sacred text, the word of God, which provided the reference for the movement of going back to the ‘fundamentals’. And because there was no one sacred text in Hinduism, Hindutva could not be interpreted in terms of religious fundamentalism. It was speculated that Hindutva was better interpreted as a form of nationalism.

We are impressed by the reader who accused us of being fundamentalist (i.e., literalist) about ‘fundamentalism’. He argued that Hindutva was more than nationalism and had a fundamentalist dimension as well because it was attempting to reduce the variability in the interpretation of the Ramayana to create a narrower (purer) consensus. Likewise, he argued, other text-based fundamentalisms have a nationalist dimension as well. Therefore, there was need for more analysis of the interpretation of term fundamentalism.

This post is an attempt to move the argument further. For this we refer to an article by Peter van der Veer (Religious Radicalism in South Asia) who is a Professor of Religion at the University of Amsterdam.

Professor van der Veer first posits what he feels was the commonly accepted understanding of fundamentalism in the West:

Fundamentalism is a social phenomenon that occurs during rapid social change, is marked by a profound experience of crisis, and tries to overcome that crisis by a revitalization of religion and a search for authenticity. Fundamentalism is a global phenomenon in so far as it is a response to global processes of transformation.

[It represents] counterattacks from threatened religious traditions, seeking to hold ground against this spreading secular ‘contamination’ and even to regain ground by taking advantage of the weaknesses of modernization. The resistance to modern forms of secularization is a defining common feature of religious fundamentalisms. Secular Modernity is the Enemy against which radical religious movements rally.

Professor van der Veer argues that this interpretation is not compatible with the nature of contemporary radical Hindu movements:

These movements do not protest against secularization…. What is clear from the Indian case is that ‘secularism’ is a political ideology carried by political actors and opposed by other political actors in the name of religion. If liberalism is a secular ideology, radical Hindus accept most of it, such as liberalization of the market, the free individual, democracy, but all in the name of a nationalist utopia in which the majority of Hindus dominate the nation-state. The Enemy is not secularization but Islam that is seen as an obstacle to the secular ideal of progress that is shared by Hindus.

[In the same way] if the Muslim attackers of the World Trade Center can be considered followers of radical religion it is clear that they did not object to the secularization of Saudi-Arabia, but to something far more specific, namely the close ties of the Saudi establishment with the American military-industrial complex and the presence of American soldiers on Saudi holy land.

Professor van der Veer proposes a different perspective:

I would suggest that radical religious movements have much in common with a number of other movements – socialist, fascist, conservative, nationalist, that also want to use modern state power for total transformation of society. Indeed, it is the focus on capturing state power that seems a defining feature of these movements and it is thus state formation as the framework of these movements that has to be understood. The modern state is directed to large-scale social transformation and, by and large, has the capacity to have such an impact (obviously with a large number of unintended consequences). No modern political movement (religious or otherwise) can ignore the state.

I would propose that it is not essential whether the focus of mobilization is religion, language, regional identity or a mix of all these things and thus I would not claim a specific status for radical religion. Essential is the nationalist framework for political contestation.

Having made this argument, Professor van der Veer poses the question: “If religion is only a variable in all the movements that try to gain political power should we then pay specific attention to religious movements?”

He answers the question as follows:

I think that there is some need to do so for the simple reason that with the so-called ‘End of History’, the socialist utopia is not anymore carried by communist or socialist movements and religious utopias seem to be flourishing everywhere. This is so also because mainstream social scientists continue to be inspired by secularist ideals and thus have difficulties to apply their perspective to religious movements. Therefore there is also a theoretical need to pay attention to religious movements. While I think that in their recruitment patterns, their resource mobilization, and their creative response to opportunities religious movements can be studied like other social/political movements, their ideological core makes them religious movements. Striking in the ideological core is the reference to religious traditions.

Often in South Asia and elsewhere we find a reference to a traditional, just, state. This is the background to references to the Islamic state (dawla) or to Ram’s Rule (Ramrajya)…. One should understand references to such traditions in the modern period primarily as a utopian rejection of current political formations rather than as a theological interpretation of the tradition. This is not to say that there are no theological interpretations of the tradition that have political implications. They certainly exist and are important, because they show that the tradition is alive. The violent political projects of activists like Osama Bin Laden, however, do not engage the tradition in such a fundamental manner. It is, in fact, striking how little theological training leaders of the major religious nationalist movements have had. They tend to be journalists, engineers, graduates of the humanities, educated in modern topics rather than in the tradition.

The same is true for leaders of Hindu and Muslim movements who want a just rule. Gandhi was absolutely not a theologian and when he came up with the notion of Ramrajya he used a cultural repertoire in which he had been socialized from his early youth, but not a political theology. In the case of Gandhi and many other great populist leaders one sees the function of a traditional religious repertoire for bridging the gap between elite politics and mass politics. However, it is also clear that this kind of reference to tradition for purposes of mass mobilization needs to allow for a wide range of interpretations….

Here we get to the heart of the matter: I do think that modern references to Ramrajya and Dar-al-Islam are inventions of tradition, but at the same time there are a number of living traditions, in which there are discourses and practices relating to state and violence. However, we are not speaking about separate universes (one of tradition, one of invented tradition) here, but about interaction, conflict, polemics. Some people are willing to use a lot of violence to establish their idea of traditional justice in the form of an Islamic state or of a Hindu state and others who think they are living in harmony with tradition are completely mystified by what the first are doing.

We conclude that our reader was right and his intervention has helped us see a few more dimensions of the phenomenon of fundamentalism, now in the context of the modern nation-state.

We need to unravel this material slowly to be sure that we understand all the implications in Professor van der Veer’s presentation.

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