Behind the Veil of Fundamentalism

By Hussein, Mahmoud | UNESCO Courier, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Behind the Veil of Fundamentalism


Hussein, Mahmoud, UNESCO Courier


For the moment the splits in Islamic societies are encouraging a return to the reassuring certainties of the fundamentalist message. How long will it last?

It is impossible to appreciate the real danger of fundamentalism if it is reduced, as it often is, to its excesses, to the manifestations of a blind and criminal terrorism, which is only its extreme outcome. This political nebula is actually divided into many tendencies, some of which, although they may be less barbaric, are not necessarily reassuring. For this reason it is important to grasp the inner logic of fundamentalism, especially those aspects of it that may seem attractive. For fundamentalism has a message, part of which responds in the modern world to unsatisfied expectations.

The fundamentalists, although themselves divided into more and less radical wings, find the climate particularly favourable to their development in countries where the powers-that-be appear to most people to be iniquitous and to be leading to the accelerated dissolution of links of social and cultural cohesion as a result of an uncontrolled opening up towards the world market and a dualization of society. In this context, some people adopt Western interests and ways of life whilst others feel excluded from them.

Thus the very identity of these countries is at stake. And it is questions like "What has become of us?" and "Where are we going?" that enable fundamentalists to articulate a global and radical approach. Their discourse is a political one. It would like to think of itself as submissive to God but not to the order of things. It is anti-Western and anti-modernistic, but it would like to think of itself, paradoxically, as anti-archaic. It rejects the fatalism of the traditional brotherhoods just as it rejects the conformism of the religious authorities associated with power.

The absence of a precise message consisting of clear and evaluated objectives does not weaken this discourse--the religious content fills the vacuum. The function of this content is not to provide a programme but an incantation; its purpose is not to resolve but to exorcise. It is not primarily aimed at reason but at blind faith. At a time when no one knows precisely what form the future may take, the strength of fundamentalism lies in its ability to promise radical change without having to specify its outlines--since God is claimed as its guarantor.

The emergence of the modern individual

In this context, what are the current prospects for those who preach secular and republican ideals? Some have immersed themselves in the study of the sacred texts in the search for quotations, metaphors and arguments to support the democratic ideas they put forward. They are fighting from a position of weakness on their opponents' own ground, ideologically and psychologically trapped.

As for those who openly defend--sometimes even at the risk of their lives--a vision clearly based on values such as the separation of the temporal and the spiritual, equality of status for all religions away from the political sphere, the freedom of the governed to choose those who will govern them, they are, quite obviously, in the minority. …

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