Fundamentalism

The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends ... is the source of all religious fanaticism.

— Reinhold Niebuhr

Once considered exclusively a matter of religion, theology, or scriptural correctness, use of the term "fundamentalism" has recently undergone metaphorical expansion into other domains and other forms of absolutist ideological expression. In the public and media portrayal of fundamentalism in particular, political militancy has superseded concern over texts, as one gathers from the identification of fundamentalisms in non-Abrahamic religion zones such as South Asia — for instance, the Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In the present section we focus on religious fundamentalism.

Religious fanaticism is something psychologically lowborn and ignorant — and usually in its action fierce, cruel and base.

— Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 490

Those who use the term “fundamentalism” to describe the activities of religious groups or individuals must be very clear about what they mean by the word. Over the last thirty years, fundamentalism has ceased to indicate merely a particular sort of textual literalism in religious matters. More and more, it is used to refer to a religious orientation characterized by certain psychological attitudes and habits of action. There are similarities and differences among the meanings of fundamentalist, traditionalist, conservative, zealot, ideologue, and fanatic. Each of these describes in its own way a combination of belief and action that has often made religion a divisive and reactionary force.

Sri Aurobindo never wrote about fundamentalism per se (the term was coined after he had completed his major writings, and during his lifetime was confined to its original context: Protestant Christianity), but when he wrote of religious fanaticism he characterized it in ways that modern writers on fundamentalism would have no difficulty recognizing. He put his finger on the nature of fanaticism and much of what is now called fundamentalism in the sentence quoted above. Though the two words are not synonymous, both fanaticism and fundamentalism tend to be seen as characterized by “lowborn and ignorant” habits of thought and can lead to “fierce, cruel and base” modes of action.

Words with negative connotations often degenerate into vague terms of abuse. Words commonly employed in this way include “fascism” and “fundamentalism”. We wish to avoid any loose and imprecise use of the latter term. We undertake our analysis of the writings of the leaders of a loud and potentially disastrous movement among followers of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and practitioners or would-be practitioners of their Integral Yoga in a spirit of seriousness, marked not by enmity but by sadness. We find many troubling characteristics in the rhetoric and activities of the leaders of this movement, and believe that there are grounds for regarding their actions, prima facie, as signs of fundamentalism.

In what follows, we will see how closely the claims made and the language used by these individuals approach the characteristics of fundamentalism that are acknowledged by authorities on the subject. In our conclusion, we will consider whether the term “fundamentalism” can rightly be applied to the mindset and actions of these individuals.

In this essay MARK JUERGENSMEYER looks at the responses to old secular nationalisms, which are under siege precisely at a time when they have themselves been weakened by globalization. Their vulnerability has been the occasion for new ethno-religious politics to step into the breach and shore up national identities and purposes in their own distinctive ways. Some forms of ethno-religious politics are global, some are virulently anti-global, and yet others are content with the attempt to create ethno-religious nation-states.

MARK JUERGENSMEYER is professor of sociology and director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is author or editor of a dozen books, including Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Third edition, California 2003), The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (California 1993), and Religion and Global Civil Society (Oxford 2005).

ABDULLAHI A. AN-NA'IM is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law. Originally from Sudan, An-Na'im is a disciple of nationalist leader and Islamic reformer and Sufi, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed in 1985 by the regime of President Gaafar Nimeiry. Taha's pronouncement of his first political incarceration by the British is reminiscent of Sri Aurobindo's: "When I settled in prison I began to realize that I was brought there by my Lord and thence I started my Khalwah with Him."

An-Na'im's specialties include human rights in Islam and cross-cultural issues in human rights. He is the director of the Religion and Human Rights Program at Emory. He also participates in Emory's Center for the Study of Law and Religion. An-Naim was formerly the Executive Director of the African bureau of Human Rights Watch. He argues for a synergy and interdependence between human rights, religion, critical thought and secularism, instead of a dichotomy and incompatibility between them.

A crucial point in An-Na'im's fascinating and insightful article "Competing Visions of History in Internal Islamic Discourse and Islamic-Western Dialogue" is the hegemony of the "center" over the "peripheries" as defined in terms of the historical origins of Islam. Pondicherry is the Mecca of the Integral Yoga community. The question Angiras raises in his comment is: does this make Sri Aurobindo the property of the Ashram and India, or does he belong to the world? The attempt by defenders of the faith in Pondicherry to seize control of the representation of Sri Aurobindo on the other side of the globe resembles the hijacking of Islam by the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia.

This is an edited excerpt from Chapter 22, titled "Ideological Totalism," of Robert Jay Lifton's book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of 'Brainwashing' in China. Lifton, a psychiatrist and distinguished professor at the City University of New York, has studied the psychology of extremism for decades. He testified at the 1976 bank robbery trial of Patty Hearst about the theory of "coercive persuasion." First published in 1961, his book was reprinted in 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill and London). Lifton's analysis of "thought-reform" applied to cultic behavior is very instructive in our present space-time.