BE it the agony of a large population in Muslim Algeria or the sufferances of the bomb victims in Kenya and Tanzania—again the Muslims—or the traumatic experiences of the God-fearing Pushtoons and others groaning under the heavy boots of the Taliban. Their shared victimhood necessitates an understanding of the psyche, objectives and aims of what are called the 'fundamentalists'. While assessing these callous activists, it is important to appreciate that such an outlook is not confined to one belief or religion—as became evident from a recent exhaustive study in a US Foundation, covering a vast canvas.
The report is the result of a "five-year study examining the (fundamentalist) movements in seven major religions spanning five continents". The core research group comprised a Sikh political scientist, a Shia legal expert, an Egyptian historian and an American feminist. But a much larger group of more than 100 were participating in the studies that were funded by the American foundation. The study says: "The fundamentalist groups are often at odds with one another but (they are) unified in their pursuit of political power. Usually, (their quest) is peaceful, but occasionally their 'fight-back' philosophy leads to riots, terrorism—and death." Since, "... everything in the fundamentalists' world is We vs Them, God vs Satan, Black vs White... to be persecuted or spoken against is a sin; they alone have the Truth."
I was interested to note—though sadly—when the study said "...in the tumult of India, half a world away, hundreds of Muslims and Hindus died during the riots when a sacred mosque was destroyed." The scholastic team believes that such riots, or be it "the rescue protest and picketing of the abortion clinics, both are tied to fundamentalism, one of the world's fastest-growing religious movements". All such movements—despite their internal differences, "want to change society and they believe (that) they and they alone have the answer". Even while all these zealots "emphasise non-violence they can always find an escape hatch: "a statement in a holy book, a teaching of a guru (that may say) that the faith itself is under moral attack". And when they do so, they frequently make headlines "to cause excitement and encourage irrationality". The examples are several: "Radical religious Zionists who have pushed for (territorial) expansion; Islamic groups in Egypt, whose disciples are convicted (some were recently executed) of trying to topple the government". Some in the US blame a blind Mullah, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rehman, for his preachings that may have caused the World Trade Centre explosions. The administration thought it expedient to find fault in his immigration visa application that resulted in his expulsion from the US.
Prof Marty, director of the study, sees a lot of motivational resemblances between these activities and those of the "VHP, the cultural arm of a Hindu nationalist party, tied to the destruction of Muslim mosques and riots". He says fundamentalism is "one of the world's two fastest growing religious movements—the other is Pentecostalism—that thrive in turbulent times... in the midst of upheaval. When the regular regime can't fulfill their promises, fundamentalisms have great opportunities... they make promises and they fill the void". As often seen, the fundamentalists are "very, very savvy politically... they are shrewd observers and imitators of secular politicians". Even when their messages are obscurantist and outdated, "they think modern communications and technology are perfectly fine to be manipulated for the glory of (their) God".
It is important to differentiate between the fundamentalists and the religious cults. "A cult usually arises around one charismatic figure or family... and the cultists tend to be apocalyptic (and say) we are in crisis, we are the chosen and the end is coming." But the "fundamentalists are not focused on tomorrow as the end of the world, they want to rebuild society in the image of a sacred nation or a homeland". Even while "the fundamentalists may not share a religious doctrine, they (all) seek to create a world that fits one profile: it is patriarchal and anti-feminist, so God is always male and the man in the family is the ultimate authority; it is anti-pluralistic, anti-liberal." The fundamentalists of all hues "need scapegoats: an opposition; a foil; personification of a force coming on all the time, so they are fighting against a world operated on rational principles whether this is market economy, human rights or a government that accepts the separation of religion and politics". The fundamentalists are always "averse to any compromise" since "(they believe that) if we give up any thing, we'll lose everything... so (for them) there are no negotiations".
What has the future in store? Prof. Appleby—coordinator of the team—predicts that "the fundamentalists' hardline attitude will shake the world in upcoming decades. They are going to rip up governments. They will win some governments. They will change some constitutions. There will be a lot of turmoil." Such prospects are already horrifying even the conservative regimes.
It must be understood that traditionalism is not a synonym of fundamentalism, "since the zealots not only denounce nationalisms but (also) demand that above all (even) the Saudi government—should renounce all contacts with the world of ideas". Some time back an editorial in the Middle East International said: "The Saudi royals see this as a threat, not only to their own position but to all hopes that the Arab and (the rest of the) Muslim world will ever be able to match the power and achievements of the West." Prof. Hamid Al Turki of the King Saud University had written, pertinently, that "the crisis we live in is a vicious struggle between individuals, organised groups and Arab regimes over the answers to fateful questions that deal with 'who we are', 'are we Muslims', 'are we Arab nationalists', or 'are we all of this, or parts of it?'" This, in no way, implies that any consensus has emerged but two important issues are drawing a great deal of discussion. One, of course, being the relationship of the Arab regimes with the West (described as evil) that brings in the issue of religion and culture. And two, whether the pluralistic Western values are an attack against the religion? A learned professor of theology in Jeddah University, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Biyah, argued: "The notion that a majority should rule and the notion of the political party are all Western notions."
Though the study could not address itself to the emergence of the Taliban that came later and the social order they seek to project, it would be of interest if the scholars could give attention to this and their activities that are spilling outside Afghanistan.