It might seem ironic but religious fundamentalism is quite a modern, sui generis phenomenon. As its quest for truth is driven more by casuistry than spirituality, it strives to confute the orthodox and traditional practices of various faiths, polities and cultures.
Thus, fundamentalism is modern not merely because of its emergence in relatively recent times, but because it attempts to impose a systematic structure to dogma and is generally averse towards religion’s essentially metaphysical and esoteric dimensions.
By discarding the intricacies of the metaphorical, fundamentalism clings to a literalist defense of scripture that invariably gives its arguments a reductionist, absolutist and intolerant streak.
In its pursuance of minimalism to ostensibly achieve pristine purity of faith, it sets itself up against intellectualism, aestheticism and mysticism, and so it finds few scholars, thinkers or artists among its obscurantist following.
Fundamentalism in our times is remarkably innovative in that it has transported religion out of its spiritual realm and brought its distorted version into the socio-cultural, political and even economic domainsDr. Adil Rasheed
The term fundamentalism originated in late 19th century when it referred to the extremist beliefs of certain Protestant sects in Britain and the US, which insisted on the literal inerrancy of the Bible.
However, this mimetic threat soon spread to other religions including some segments of Islam, even though this trend has arguably shown signs of general regress in recent times.
Although simplistic in its vehement adherence to “the inviolable basic principles”, fundamentalism in our times is remarkably innovative in that it has transported religion out of its spiritual realm and brought its distorted version into the socio-cultural, political and even economic domains.
Surprisingly like neo-liberalism, fundamentalism rejects tradition and “cultural specificity in favor of abstract universalism”. Thus, Muslim fundamentalist movements generally reject all the orthodox schools of religious jurisprudence or doctrines. In this, they are remarkably anarchist, even post-modern.
In an article titled “Post-Modern Jihad”, published in The Weekly Standard soon after the September 11 attacks in 2001, Waller Newell (Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Carleton University) wrote “the ideology by which al-Qaeda justifies its acts of terror owes as much to baleful trends in Western thoughts as it does to a perversion of religious beliefs. Osama’s doctrine of terror is partly a Western export.”
In the article, the scholar traces the influences of Nazi philosopher Heidegger and post-modern ideologues like Foucault on the Iranian Revolution and al-Qaeda.
He writes: “The relationship between postmodernist European leftism and Islamist radicalism is a two-way street: Not only have Islamists drawn on the legacy of European left, but European Marxists have taken heart from Islamist terrorists who seemed close to achieving the longed for revolution against American hegemony.”
According to noted expert on Islamist terrorism Olivier Roy, “In the 1960s, in Western Europe we had a tradition of youth radicalization from the Marxist revolution. Suddenly around the 1990s, the dream of the Marxist revolution disappeared and al-Qaeda and ISIS filled the vacuum”.
Similarly Ofri Ilani writes: “Individualism, hatred of the establishment and a cult of emotion activate the jihadists, just as they activated the anarchist assassins in the 19th century or the Red Brigades in the 1970s”.
The loss of meaning
Since ancient times, religion instituted meaning in human consciousness through its spiritual injunctions, ethical distinction of right from wrong as well as restrictions on the bestial and carnal instincts. With the coming of European enlightenment, rationalism and science set new standards of personal, societal and universal values.
However, with the rise of post-modern philosophies, certitude in established institutions of faith, ethics and even reason started to crumble and thereby the very construct of meaning began to blur. A similar trend is perceptible in the descent of militant fundamentalism from its avowed pursuance of essential religious truths to a near complete breakdown of any ethical construct it claimed to cling to.
Like post-modern Marxist revolutionaries, the bestial has gained pre-eminence over both the spiritual and the rational, leading to a near collapse of faith and any semblance of good sense. Borrowing ideas from their post-modern ideological mentors, groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS have violated the very basic injunctions of their avowed faith.
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As Newell puts it: “For Foucault as for Fanon, Hezbollah, and the rest down to Osama, the purpose of violence is not to relieve poverty or adjust borders. Violence is an end in itself … That is how al Qaeda can ignore mainstream Islam, which prohibits the deliberate killing of noncombatants, and slaughter innocents in the name of creating a new world, the latest in a long line of grimly punitive collectivist utopias.”
One could definitely add the name of ISIS on the list of these post-modern, neo-fundamentalist purveyors of violence. Not surprisingly, militant fundamentalism strives in places of utter chaos and confusion.
The remedy to clearly lies in restoring religion to its rightful and exclusive preserve of spiritualism, while leaving socio-political issues to institutions of national and international polity. There can be no space for religion in the political domain.
Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. For over 20 years, he has been a journalist, researcher, political commentator for various international think tanks and media organizations, both in the United Arab Emirates and India. He was Senior Research Fellow at the United Services Institution of India (USI) for two years from 2014 to 2016, where he still holds the honorary title of Distinguished Fellow. He has also worked at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) for eight years (2006-14).