Beyond the pathology

In Western discourse, fundamentalism is usually assumed to be a bad thing. This may be unhelpful and limit our capacity to manage the diverse range of groups labelled "fundamentalist". The standard characterisation of fundamentalism is one-sided and patronising. It needs to be deepened and supplemented in order to restore historical complexity and the range of contradictions in individuals and movements.

Without this rethinking, the current discourse about fundamentalism may even be dangerous. It encourages us to regard ourselves as cognitively, politically and morally superior to those we denigrate as fundamentalists. It also encourages us to ignore the historically specific trajectories and experiences that underlie movements labelled "fundamentalist". It makes it far too easy for us to treat essentially different types of movements as the same and tricks us into thinking that we can tell which individuals and social movements are characterised by loyalty to "fundamentals" and which are "fundamentalist" in the pejorative sense. The distinction is not always easy to draw. Many religious revivalist movements are mixtures of both, while a very large number of people clearly have fundamentalist beliefs about non-religious matters.

A better strategy would be to analyse individual movements as combining diverse and often contradictory approaches, only some of which are fundamentalist. For example, Western analyses of contemporary Iran tend to be stereotypical and reductionist. They usually trivialise the intellectual commitments of Iranian intellectuals. To take the most obvious case, the Ayatollah Khomeini is presented in the media as a fanatical fundamentalist who turned his back on science and civilisation. In fact, Khomeini was a trained philosopher and jurist. He was also a transcendental theosopher, an expert in the subtle interpretation of a range of Persian and Arabic texts. He was an able poet who wrote ghazals (rhyming poems) ridiculing his opponents. In addition, and very importantly, Khomeini was a militant republican who introduced genuine democratic features into the Iranian polity. Of course, there was a fundamentalist dimension to Khomeini's revolution in Iran, but it is essential to understand the local background, including the belief of some Iranians that he was the occluded imam of the Shi'ite tradition.[i]


ONCE GENERAL CHARACTERISATIONS OF FUNDAMENTALISM are complemented by details that restore historical complexity and human and organisational contradictions, it is easy to see that many movements currently labelled fundamentalist may have fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist features. It is the non-fundamentalist features – their mystical doctrines, their historical myths and their sociopolitical ideals – that we need to study. It is these characteristics that will be crucial if we are to change the hearts and minds of the supporters of such movements and persuade them that enlightened, democratic values provide a better basis for the future.

In many contexts, the most useful question is not how to stereotype, attack or even physically destroy human beings labelled fundamentalists, but which issues are fundamentalists right about. The answer may be quite a few, even if they are not always right for the right reasons.

For example, 19th-century Egyptian fundamentalists such as Qutb provided a probing critique of modernity, including its pornography, its gross materialism, its hidden nihilism and its trivialisation of ordinary life. Further, as many Muslim women have argued, it is by no means the case that Islamic customs designed to protect woman are purely reactionary. In the hijab there are authentic elements of religious dignity and protection from dehumanising sexism. Similarly, Islamicist discourses about banking, the economy; the media and the need for public ethical values are not without merit and deserve serious attention from scholars. It is not necessary to agree with what such Muslim writers say in order to discern that they are raising ethical issues about how to promote human flourishing – a matter of concern to all enlightened global citizens.

There is also extensive evidence that fundamentalists may be partly right to insist that religious human rights cannot be properly exercised unless religious performances are granted some degree of recognition in the public sphere. It is easy to declare that religion must be kept out of politics, education and economics, but harder to show that religion can develop in healthy ways if its only expressions are part-time, private and potentially trivial.

Put this way, the issue is one of citizenship or the right of individual human beings to express their spirituality in meaningful and not only trivial ways. It is debatable that Western secularists have not yet acknowledged the destructive and in no sense neutral character of the arrangements they have promoted and, in many cases, foisted on populations – such as banning prayers in public schools in the United States or Christmas carols in shopping centres in Australia or the French ban on school girls wearing veils – are fair examples of well-intentioned but destructive secularism. At the very least the whole question of the role of religious activity within the public sphere needs to be re-examined, even if we reject the proposals put forward by fundamentalists.


THESE CONSIDERATIONS HAVE SIGNIFICANT POLICY CONSEQUENCES. If we are to manage fundamentalism more successfully in an increasingly globalised world, then we may need several distinct responses to fundamentalism, not one.

In the first place we need a positive typology of fundamentalism – one that alerts us to the range of ethical and social organisational issues that fundamentalism addresses in potentially useful ways. American evangelicals, for example, raise a number of serious issues about how advanced technological societies should be run. Taking their concerns seriously would not only limit the negative impact of fundamentalism in the US, it would also alert us to the extent to which American secularists are often guilty of a covert and hegemonic fundamentalism of their own. This is clearest in American debates about creation science in which so-called fundamentalists argue for pluralism and American scientists, bereft of any graduate training in philosophy, treat current scientific doctrines as literal truth, and often almost inerrant.

We also need a pathology of fundamentalism, which sets out its recurrent social logic, including its proneness to authoritarianism, scapegoating and violence. Such pathology could be used to raise public awareness that religious social forms can be dangerous and harmful and cannot simply be regarded as good. It might also be used to alert some of those tempted by fundamentalism to ways in which fundamentalism can be harmful to particular religions. In the case of Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists it is reasonable to expect that a better knowledge of the sociology of religion would moderate more extremist attitudes and behaviour, especially if this sociology was taught in secondary schools.


FINALLY, AND IN MY VIEW MOST IMPORTANTLY, WE NEED TO DEVELOP post-secular enlightenment as an organisational response to fundamentalism in advanced societies. This implies that both religion and secularism have pathological features and that a rational public philosophy can move beyond an uncritical attitude to either in a way that recognises genuine pluralism and the thick religious commitments of individuals.

As is well-known, the European Enlightenment sought to apply reason to the management of all areas of human life. I believe that this legacy is still valid, despite all the qualifications of postmodern and post-colonial discourses. However, the Enlightenment developed a distorted critique of religion, which we now need to reassess. The dominant interpretation of religion as an intellectual falsehood, as the result of bad reasoning and wrong premises, the result of credulity, ignorance and superstition of human beings, maintained by a professional clerical caste out of self-interest, needs to be revised.[ii]

Today, it is crucial to go beyond this critique in order to better manage the challenges posed by fundamentalism in a global context. The Enlightenment was right to attack superstition and to promote rationality, personal autonomy and social reform. Recent scholarship discredits the European notion that the religious activities should be understood in terms of false beliefs.[iii] Today, we understand these activities more in terms of social performances and practices, many of which may be valid ways of developing human spirituality and ethical concern, even if the beliefs associated with them are not interpreted as ordinary literal propositions.

Once this is understood, it is not difficult to grasp that the Enlightenment was wrong to reject doctrines, symbolisation, ritual and traditions as outmoded and of little value for future social development. A contemporary post-secular Enlightenment needs to combine secularity – in the sense of the autonomy of non-religious concerns and the non-interference of religious organisations in political, legal and economic affairs – with a culture of multi-faith dialogue and religious citizenship. It needs to do this in ways that allow us to retain the advances in practical evolutionary logic, while correcting its anti-religious and, indeed, anti-spiritual bias. A post-secular Enlightenment of this sort would respect pluralism and difference – which fundamentalism does not. It would celebrate difference and seek to pervade it.

To some extent, the beginnings of such a post-secular Enlightenment are already evident in the reverence for wildlife, the environment and multicultural cuisine. And it is at such an everyday level that a post-secular Enlightenment needs to take effect.


A TURN TO SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT RELIGION IS APPARENT EVERYWHERE; even former secularists are inclined to take meditation seriously. On the other hand, the relatively enlightened mainstream Christian churches are experiencing declining support, while less-educated and less-enlightened fundamentalist movements are flourishing. In this context I believe that we can learn from fundamentalists that many human beings need greater definition of the spiritual life than modernist forms of secularism and mainstream religion tend to provide.

It was the great German sociologist Georg Simmel who showed that the modernist attempt to do away with form was misguided. Today, we are experiencing the truth of this claim in the disordered management of the spiritual lives of ordinary citizens. A possible response is to create new post-secular spaces, which combine Enlightenment values, such as rationality and critical scholarship, with the public performance of spiritual concerns. This can be done in ways that fully respect multi-faith dialogue and the rights of individuals to think freely and to adopt whatever attitudes they like to particular religious symbols and practices. No doubt it will take time and diverse experiments to pull practical arrangements of this kind off.

Australia can and should lead the world and provide good examples for other countries. We are already doing this to some extent with Buddha's birthday, which is celebrated in our cities with public participation of politicians and police bands, and we could probably pull off something similar for Muslims if we tried – for example, a national calligraphy festival in which Muslim, Chinese and contemporary Western calligraphies are exhibited side by side. Given an enlightened pluralism of this kind, there is reason to expect that religions would flourish and become healthier, just as secularists would become more rational and less para-religious. Of course, it would take longer to establish this kind of Enlightenment in the Middle East but the prospects for post-secular Enlightenment are already quite good in Indonesia.

The emergence of post-secular Enlightenment in contemporary Western, and a small number of more advanced Islamic, countries would make possible a fruitful dialogue with contemporary Islam and diminish the appeal of fundamentalists such as Osama bin Laden by addressing some of the pathologies that underlie his support. It would also engage with evangelical Christian concerns in a way that encouraged them to articulate a rational Christian ethic instead of leaning towards irrational and perhaps non-biblical fundamentalist claims. In the context of international terrorism, post-secular Enlightenment, educated by fundamentalism, would be a magnificent alternative to burning cities and killing civilians. Paradoxically, it might win conservative as well as liberal support.  ♦

[i] In the Shia variant of Islam there are twelve imams or recognised successors of the prophet Muhammad, one of whom may be alive on earth.

[ii] Of course, not all forms of Enlightenment were anti-religious, especially not in Germany and Austria.

[iii] Asad, T. Genealogies of Religion: Disciplines and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1993) and now Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

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