Susan Naidoff This article appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday, April 06, 1993. FUND
This article appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday, April 06, 1993.
FUNDAMENTALISM: A SPASM IN THE 90'S..................by Peter Steinfels
Scholars used to dismiss fundamentalism as a fossilized form of old-time
religion, destined to dissolve in the acids of science and skepticism.
But from the Iranian revolution and the rise of the religious right in
the United States to the militancy of Jewish settlers on the West Bank
and the riots that followed a Hindu-led destruction of a mosque in
India, events of the past two decades make it clear that religious
fundamentalism has done anything but dissolve. As one scholar recently
put it, fundamentalism is "dynamic, adaptive and modern," perhaps the
last great ideological upsurge of the 20th century.
What were once viewed as unrelated religious movements - indeed, often
condemning one another's doctrines - are increasingly recognized as
sharing a set of fundamentalist "family resemblances" that cut across
religious traditions. Scholars and policy makers hope that by comparing
fundamentalist movements, a new field of study will afford insights into
the dynamics that spark militant religious revivals, drive them into
politics, fuel their growth or brake their influence.
THREATS AND OUTSIDERS
No one expects these studies to yield neat "laws" of fundamentalism, and
scholars insist that the specific traits of movements as different as
Pentacostal Christians in Central America and Muslim guerrillas in
Afghanistan should not get lost in a stretch for commom denominators.
But when 35 political scientists, sociologists of religion and
specialists in Asia, the Middle East and Latin American gathered in
Chicago in March for the final session of a five-year examination of
fundamentalism, most agreed that there were common threads. Unlike
traditional believers, the scholars said, fundamentalists are
consciously counterattacking against the threats of secularism and
modernity, threats often identified with outsiders.
Most fundamentalists do not reject modernity in principle. Often they
embrace the most up-to-date techniques and communications and
organization to spread their message. But they may well seize on minor
elements of a religious tradition, like a specific way of dressing, to
symbolically distinguish the faithful from the uncommitted.
These conclusions emerged from the Fundamentalism Project, a broad effort
sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that enlisted
more than 200 scholars since 1988 to examine fundamentalist movements in
seven major religions and across five continents.
Other "family resemblances" outlined by the group, which met at the
University of Chicago Divinity School, included moral dualism - a view
of the world as sharply divided between embattled camps of good and evil
- in which fundamentalists see themselves as a divinely called group,
set apart from others, bound to a strict code of behavior and frequently
subject to a charismatic leader.
WHEN GOOD WILL TRIUMPH
The scholars said the "Abrahamic" forms of fundamentalism - Jewish,
Christian and Muslim - constantly affirm the absolute truth of a sacred
text or authoritative tradition. These fundamentalists also emphasize
messianic or millennial beliefs in a miraculous culmination of history,
with good reigning triumphantly.
Similarly, some Hindu and Buddhist movements are beginning to create a
"synthetic fundamentalism" by highlighting crucial texts or looking
toward a coming triumph.
Yet, even after five years of the Fundamentalism Project, not all the
scholars were comfortable with stretching a single label from American
Protestant adherents of a strictly literal reading of the bible to
politically resurgent Muslim groups in North Africa, Sinhalese Buddhist
fighters in Sri Lanka and Hindu nationalists in India.
Some warned that the popular equation of fundamentalism with fanaticism
was leading governments to develop an ideology of "anti-fundamentalism,"
justifying human-rights abuses against religious opponents.
DIVIDED OVER STRATEGY
The group also divided over whether fundamentalist movements
aggressively seeking power could be nudged toward moderation by
Martin Kramer of Tel Aviv University questioned whether moderate
fundamentalists could be disentangled from extremists. "If there is
anything we have learned, it is how unpredictable these movements are
and how little we know," he said.
Doug Johnson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington replied: "I don't accept that fundamentalism is monolithic.
There are certain entities you can play to more than others."
The scholars agreed that while fundamentalist movements in many nations
have mobilized frustration by denoucing greed and corruption, these
movements have proposed only vague rememdies of their own and have
varied greatly in their support or suspicion of market economics.
"All major religions are capable of supporting both pro-market and
anti-market ideologies," said Timur Kuran, and economist at the
University of Southern California who gave a skeptical overview of such
fundamentalist economic doctrines as "interest-free" Islamic banking,
the "Buddhist socialism" of Myanmar, formerly Burma, or the
anti-government stance of fundamentalist leaders in the United States.
PUZZLE, PROBLEM OR PERIL
Prof. Samual Heilman of the City University of New York said the
encounters of scholars from around the world, and often from religious
backrounds that have been antagonistic, was itself "a human drama we
haven't written about. "But the project did not succeed in integrating
fundamentalist representatives themselves in its work, he said.
For most participants in the Chicago meeting, fundamentalism remained at
least a puzzle to be explained, if not a problem to be solved or a
danger to be parried. For some, however, the years of study may have
produced an increasingly critical attitude toward modern secular
Nancy T. Ammerman, a sociologist at Emory University who has written
several books about American fundamentalists, said she had a greater
appreciation of fundamentalists' power "in critiquing the culture in
imagining a world that is different," and in "contesting the powers of
those who claim the right to tell the culture's story."
Five years of study, and this is all the "scholars" can come up with???
Fairly unremarkable and lightweight discoveries in my opinion.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank