Susan Naidoff This article appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday, April 06, 1993. FUND

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Susan Naidoff This article appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday, April 06, 1993. FUNDAMENTALISM: A SPASM IN THE 90' 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 outsiders. 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 assumptions. 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. Comments, anyone?


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