Fundamentalism in the Modern World
Garda Ghista, January 2008
As was stated earlier, fundamentalism should not be equated with violence. Fundamentalism is a growing phenomena in every major religion, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and even in Sikhism and Confucianism. The term “fundamentalism” was coined by American Protestant Christians who desired to return to the fundamentals of their faith. According to Karen Armstrong, Muslims resent this word used in connection with Islam, as they consider themselves as having entirely different values and ideals in relation to Christian fundamentalists. In many cases it would be more accurate to use the word “traditionalists.” Regretfully the American media has convoluted the word “fundamentalism” to such an extent that it is now wholly associated with “terrorists.”
According to Armstrong, the typical characteristic of fundamentalists is that they retain their sense of being “by retreating from mainstream society and creating, as it were, enclaves of pure faith where they try to keep the godless world at bay and where they try to live a pure religious life.” In these spheres of seclusion, she says, they often try to think of ways to convert the rest of the outside world and bring them under their influence and to a more godly way of life. Irrespective of whether it is Christians, Jews, Muslims or Hindus, the fundamentalists all fear securalism and its accompanying materialist way of life.
Secularists can also be extremists. As an example, when Ataturk began modernizing Turkey, he shut down Islamic madrassas, drove the mystical Sufis underground and forced men and women to abandon their indigenous dress and switch to western clothes. When Reza Pahlavi came to power in Iran, his police used to roam the streets and tear off women’s veils, ripping them to pieces on the spot. Sayyid Qutb, the mentor of Osama bin Laden, was thrown into prison along with thousands of other Muslims only for handing out pamphlets or attending a meeting of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secularist President Nasser had thousands executed over the 15 years Qutb spent in prison. Seeing Nasser’s determination to bring religion into the purely private sphere of the home and his brutal torture and slaughter of thousands of religious-minded Muslims was what drove Qutb into the arms of fundamentalism. The theodemocracy being pushed forward by fundamentalists today is their solution to what they consider as the destruction of extant religions by secularists. It is for them a necessary strategy in their fight for survival.
Theodemocracy in Iran
According to Armstrong, Ayatollah Khomeini was a modern man of the 20th century, who created a theodemocracy to adjust with evolving political democracies. Fundamentalism has erupted all over the world and will not go away. It is a new phenomenon in reaction to the new phenomenon of people’s cries for more democracy, more equality and more voice in governmental affairs.
While discussing Muslim fundamentalism, it is important to again bear in mind that only a very small fraction of fundamentalists are “terrorists.” To think otherwise is government propaganda and media distortion. A parallel can be drawn with the Irish Revolutionary Army (IRA). No one called the IRA Catholic terrorists. But in fact, in modern parlance, they were.
Modern Iran was created from an Islamic revolution. While it pretended to uphold the cause of oppressed persons, in fact the one significant change was that Iranian nationalism changed from secular to religious. It is the first Islamic state that has elaborated a theoretical / theological framework for its governmental structures. As a consequence of changes and additions made in 1979 to the Iranian constitution, there are now several constitutional bodies with overlapping powers working sometimes in conjunction and sometimes in opposition to other power centers such as revolutionary foundations, paramilitary associations and other autonomous associations dominated either by political factions or by particular clerics.
Iran is the world’s first theodemocracy because even though the clerics rule, there is a vestige of democratic process, via presidential and parliamentary elections. The idea of Iran was that only “good” Shia Muslims should stand for office. After Khomeini, there was a reformist movement by Ayatollah Khatemi that sought to increase the level of democracy and freedom in the society, via reducing censorship and allowing freedom of the press. By 2004, however, the Islamic paramilitary organizations associated with the clerics had shut down many newspapers by violence. In 2005 the Council of Guardians took the unprecedented step of disqualifying hundreds of reformist candidates from standing for elections. This led to the election of Mahmud Ahmedinejad, who further tightened the repression by banning liberal professors from teaching in universities, taking away student scholarships and expelling radical students entirely from universities.
Presently the three-way struggle between the clerics, political factions, and the common people clamoring for greater democracy appears to be dominated by the Shiite clergy who espouse an increasingly nationalistic (rather than Islamic) stance in the face of the Iraq war and never-ending threats by the United States government to invade Iran. The result is an intensification of theodemocracy. While in 2003 President Khatami was attempting to move Iran towards greater conciliation with Western countries and towards a genuine theodemocracy, i.e., allowing the common people a greater voice, since the election of President Ahmedinejad the political climate has moved in the direction of the all-powerful clerics. In 2003 Iran celebrated the 24th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution; however, turnout was low as the common people continue to be denied promised rights. Inflation was at 15 percent with 20 percent unemployment. Twenty-five percent of young Iranians leave Iran to live abroad. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini along with the 12-member Guardian Council continues to hold a tight grip in the political sphere.
More recently Ahmedinejad has begun moving the country from a theodemocracy towards an outright theocracy. According to Iranian journalist Omid Memarian, a power struggle is presently taking place between two clerical factions to gain control of Iran’s Assembly of Experts. One faction led by former president Hashemi Rafsanjani leans towards greater secularism and democracy. The other faction led by the radical Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi supports return to complete Islamic government wherein the ruler is chosen by God through His sole representative, who at present is the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Thus, if Yazdi’s faction wins this struggle, elections and any other semblance of democracy will vanish from Iran as it becomes a complete theocracy with accompanying maximum suppression, oppression and repression. On December 15, 2006 the 86-member Assembly of Experts (clerics) will hold a meeting to elect the supreme leader who has total control and power over people and institutions in Iran, including the president, if he wishes to use that power. Ahmadinejad has aligned himself closely with the radical Yazdi faction.
The Islamic revolution of 1979 was ground-breaking in that for the first time religious clerics engaged themselves in rewriting Iran’s constitution to align its laws and dictates more closely with Islamic or specifically Shi’ite jurisprudence. They continued to make adjustments and amendments to the constitution throughout the 1980s and early 1990s in continuation of the process begun by Ayatollah Khomeini to create not a theocracy but a theodemocracy, as we have described earlier. The Mandate of the Jurists became the new basis of Iranian Fundamental Law, which was a revolutionary change in Shi’ism. Changes to this law were the efforts by Muslim religious clerics to purge earlier Iranian law of all western secularism and liberalism. While Western-educated intellectuals began to dominate the writing of the constitution, Tehran University law professor Naser Katouziyan wrote as follows to the clerics:
“This right belongs to you. It is those knowledgeable in Islam who may express an opinion on the law of Islam. The constitution of the Islamic Republic means the constitution of Islam. Don’t sit back while foreignized intellectuals, who have no faith in Islam, give their views and write the things they write. Pick up your pens and in the mosques, from the altars, in the streets and bazaars, speak of the things that in your view should be included in the constitution.”
Adhering to Katouiziyan’s advice, the clerics proceeded to fill the Iranian constitution with Khomeini’s ideas for a theocratic state while adjusting with the essence of a modern nation-state. These changes led to the first theodemocracy. The changes further created the Fundamental Law which superseded the previous more secular constitution and separated the new version from all other modern constitutions. The Preamble to the Constitution begins by saying, in the name of God, and proceeds with a brief history of the Islamic revolution, stating that the Fundamental Law is the attempt to cleanse Islam of western secular and materialist forces that had invaded their country. The Fundamental Law placed severe restrictions on individual liberties. Unarmed gatherings and demonstrations were forbidden. Again, as may be evidenced by the December 2006 elections, we are watching Iran move away from theodemocracy, containing some semblance of democracy, towards a complete theocracy, which will involve maximum suppression, repression and oppression of the people.
Christian Theodemocracy in the United States
Most Americans do not take seriously the rising fundamentalism and concurrent theodemocracy in the United States. Theodemocracy is providing a vehicle for religious ideologues to control the society. No one on the religious right says that Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson should run the country. But they do say that the people who run for president should be good Christians and that the government should be run according to Christian values. Pluralism in America has evolved from a fight against religion – or church ideology. What we see today in all countries is a resurgence of religious ideology over the society.
In the United States the Christian right has conducted on assault on women’s rights via attempting to overturn Roe versus Wade. It has conducted an assault on ethnic minorities, as evidenced by the recent crackdown on illegal immigrants. The religious-right dominated Senate and Congress had no interest to renew the Voting Rights Act in the summer of 2006. The same religious-right controlled Florida government denied millions of African-Americans the right to vote on one pretext or another. The same religious-right controlled federal government treated African-Americans like caged animals – instead of traumatized refugees – after Katrina hit the shores of New Orleans and the crucial dike broke flooding the low-lying, impoverished parts of the city. Above and beyond the war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the supreme international crime of illegal pre-emptive invasion of another nation-state, the prime reason that Bush and Cheney should be impeached today is because they have plundered the middle-class and poor American people and handed their taxes to the rich, creating the greatest wealth gap since just prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s. The religious right has converted the poor people of America into the “others” and carries on the process of exclusion with ever greater intensity, as the Senate cuts back on Headstart programs, reduces Medicare and Medicaid benefits, and passed a fraudulent health care package that punishes the elderly. Last but not least, Christian fundamentalists have conduced a witch-hunt against homosexuals, and even attempted to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriages.
Conclusion – Countering Fundamentalism
Some may think that the antidote to fundamentalism is increased secularism. However, according to Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis, this is not the solution. Secularism for the fundamentalist means more materialism, more racism and more poverty and violence. It creates a scenario that is ripe for theocracy. The best antidote to a bad religion is to offer a better religion. If fundamentalism takes religion too seriously, then secularists will say to take it less seriously. But the correct answer according to Wallis is “to take faith more seriously than fundamentalism sometimes does. The best response is to critique by faith the accommodations of fundamentalism to theocracy and violence and power and to assert the vital religious commitments that fundamentalists often leave out – namely compassion, social justice, peacemaking, religious pluralism, and… democracy as a religious commitment.” Or as Martin Luther King stated: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
When the world today is faced with people’s voices everywhere clamoring for greater democracy and a greater voice in economic and political forces that govern their lives, how can the fundamentalists convince the masses of the correctness of their path? They would have to demonstrate that they can discuss in a democratic setup and win their arguments in a democratic manner, through the deep conviction of their beliefs. Again, Wallis, speaking with real vision, says that politics today is becoming less and less about ideological differences and more about what kind of people do we want to be, what kind of world do we want, what kind of personal values do we imbibe – moral and spiritual values. The real debate now is not between fundamentalism and secularism. The real debate to be is about cynicism versus hope. It is not about bringing more dogma to the table. It is about bringing your shovel and planting trees to bring back the rainwater that will cause communities to flourish. It is about good collective actions, not religious dogma, to will bring hope to humanity. It is about introducing a new, greatly expanded consciousness that refuses to become bogged down in petty boxes of race, class, caste, gender, nation, ethnicity and religion. It is also a consciousness that goes way beyond Bennett’s idea of mere integration – a worldview in the tradition of great mystics who learned Supreme truths by rising above their religions to visualize and then propagate one universal humanity. In the words of Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, the greatest renaissance man of the 20th century:
“The devotional sentiment is the highest and most valuable treasure of humanity. This element of devotion, the most precious treasure of humanity, must be preserved most carefully. Because it is such a tender inner asset, to preserve it from the onslaughts of materialism, one must build a protective force around it, just as people put up a guard-rail around a small tender plant. Now the question is, what is this protective fence? It is a proper philosophy which will establish the correct harmony between the spiritual and material worlds, and be a perennial source of inspiration for the onward movement of society….
All molecules, atoms, electrons, protons, positrons and neutrons are the veritable expressions of the same Supreme Consciousness. Those who remember this reality, who keep this realization ever alive in their hearts, are said to have attained perfection in life. They are the real devotees….When the underlying spirit of humanism is extended to everything, animate and inanimate, in this universe – I have designated this as Neohumanism. This Neohumanism will elevate humanism to universalism, the cult of love for all created beings of this universe….
When this surging Neohumanism overflows in all directions, making all things sweet and blissful, unifying individual life with collective life and transforming this earth into a blissful heaven – that very state of supreme fulfillment is the state of spirituality as a mission. That is the highest state of attainment in human life, the source of all inspiration.”
 Anthony W. Marx, Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 191.
 Ibid, p. 193.
 Ibid, p. 197.
 Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 55-56.
 Ibid, p. 56.
 Ibid, p. 59.
 Ibid, p. 63.
 Ibid, p. 64.
 Ibid, p. 510.
 Ibid, p. 513.
 As it has manifested in Iran, the phrase “divinely-directed democratic government” is an oxymoron, with the “divinely-directed” clergy maintaining tight control over the so-called democratically elected leaders and exerting still tighter control over the general populace through repression, oppression and suppression, as witnessed by countless newspapers and television stations being shut down just in the past five years and anti-clergy political bloggers being given 14-year prison sentences.
 Garda Ghista, The Gujarat Genocide: A Case Study in Fundamentalist Cleansing, Bloomington: Authorhouse Publishers, November 2006.
 Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy, p. 521.
 Timothy L. Wood, “Prophet and the Presidency: Mormonism and politics in Joseph Smith’s 1844 presidential campaign.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2000.
 Qutb’s writings were later to have a profound influence on the worldview of Osama bin Laden.
 While Maulana Maududi was one of the first to coin the neologism of theodemocracy, it is unfortunate that he likewise advocated a Muslim extremism which led to implementation of punishment related to “blasphemy” and Hudood” laws. Due to enactment of these laws, thousands of women and members of minorities in Pakistan have been tortured and murdered.
 Financial levy refers to the jizya.
 Malise Ruthven, A Fury for God: the Islamist Attack on America, London: Granta, 2002.
 The realiy may be different, as it is in the United States where Bush has thrown the 600-year-old Magna Carta to the winds.
 Mumtaz Ahmad, “Islamic Fundamentalism in South Asia: The Jamaat-I-Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat of South Asia,” in Fundamentalisms Observed, ed. by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 489.
 “Fundamentalism and the Modern World,” A Dialogue with Karen Armstrong, Susannah Heschel, Feisal Abdul Rauf and Jim Wallis, Sojourners Magazine, March-April 2002.
 Ibid. Qutb was himself executed by President Nasser in 1966.
 Maurizio Martellini and Riccardo Redaelli, “The West perception of the Islamic Republic of Iran: the normality of a peculiar State or the peculiarity of a normal State?” Presentation to the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), Tehran, Iran, June 2003.
 Martellini and Redaelli
 Debarshi Dasgupta, “Young and senile,” The Iranian (Teheran), February 11, 2003.
 Omid Memarian is also a civil-society activist who won the Human rights Watch’s highest honor, the Human Rights Defender Award, in 2005.
 Omid Memarian, “Ahmadinejad’s Divine Inspiration,” Inter Press Service, 28 October, 2006.
 Said Amir Arjomand, Shi’ite Jurisprudence and Constitution Making in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” in Fundamentalisms and the State: Remaking Polities, Economies, and Militance, ed. by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
 Ibid. Note: This idea of Wallis is a revolutionary idea that contradicts all normative thinking on how to combat the rising fundamentalism. It is the most important point I read of all my readings for this paper. Normative thinking says, move towards less religion. Wallis says, move towards more religion but better religion. In my view, he wants to move closer towards pure spirituality, thus breaking the bitter boundaries of religious boxes.
 “Fundamentalism in the Modern World.”
 Shrii Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, Liberation of Intellect: Neo-Humanism, Kolkata: Ananda Marga Publications, 1999.
Copyright The author 2011