On Fundamentalism

The only F-word to have retained its unambiguous meaning is the original F-word. Two others, Feudalism and Fascism, seem to have lost all meaning. They serve no purpose except to characterize any development the user is negative about. Thus anyone you don’t like can be labeled a feudal or a fascist.

This might not matter much because feudalism and fascism are largely phenomena of the past. Fundamentalism is a new F-word, however, that demands a lot more care in its usage. Fundamentalism is both current and hot and there could be a lot riding on how we define and interpret the phenomenon.

Narrowly interpreted, the term fundamentalism refers in religious discourse to a total commitment to the literal interpretation of a scared text and a belief in its infallibility. In this sense, there can be no religious fundamentalism without the existence of a scared text.

It follows from the above that only Judaism, Christianity, and Islam among the major religions can give rise to religious fundamentalism. Even in Christianity, fundamentalism is less prevalent in Roman Catholics for whom the church is more basic than the Bible. One can argue that the Protestants at the time of the Reformation were the first modern Christian fundamentalists. The various denominations within the Protestant church have subsequently provided the majority of Christian fundamentalists.

This is more or less what also comes across in the book, The Battle for God, by Karen Armstrong whose subject is Protestant fundamentalism in the United States, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, and Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt and Iran. If she were writing today, she would almost certainly have focused on Afghanistan and the creeping fundamentalism in Pakistan with its talk of a ‘true’ Islam.

In this narrow interpretation, there can be no Buddhist fundamentalism simply because Buddhism has no sacred text. And, there can be no Hindu fundamentalism because there is no one sacred text in Hinduism. This is important because a lot of people are concerned about Hindutva in India, a phenomenon incorrectly characterized as Hindu fundamentalism.

So, if Hindutva is not fundamentalism, what is it? It more clearly fits the description of a nationalism that feels the need to establish the superiority and dominance of the Hindu religion in India and to force all other religions to accept this superiority. In this sense, it is more akin to the Aryan nationalism of Hitler than to the Protestant fundamentalism of Luther.

Both Muslim fundamentalism and Hindu nationalism need to be challenged. But they can be challenged effectively only if one understands that the two phenomena and their dynamics are quite distinct from each other.

We would like to thank Ashok Dhareshwar for motivating this post.

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  • Sanjay Shah
    Posted at 14:35h, 08 July Reply

    While I agree broadly with the post on fundamentalism, I think Hindu “fundamentalism” is not just a kind of nationalism. For example, I believe there are over a thousand versions of the Ramayana if one includes the oral tradition and there has been a definite move to reduce this variability and to create a narrower interpretation. And Hindutva-inspired scholars in various fields – history, classics, etc. – have also tried to reinterpret the past along Hinduist lines. This is not unconnected with nationalism but it is also broader than nationalism – it is, so to speak, “civilizational” or just “social.” Likewise, other text-based fundamentalisms appear to have a nationalist dimension as well. I think “fundamentalism” is a more complex term than the literal (and original) meaning in a dictionary would seem to indicate and requires deeper analysis. Otherwise, one may be guilty of being a fundamentalist (i.e. literalist) about the term “fundamentalism.”

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