Religious Fundamentalism and Human Rights

By Vyver, Johan D. van der | Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Religious Fundamentalism and Human Rights


Vyver, Johan D. van der, Journal of International Affairs


The concept of religious fundamentalism is in the eyes of the beholder. What could be regarded by one person to be a legitimate exposition or practice of religious obligation might be perceived by others as the manifestations of unbecoming extremes. And, of course, "fundamentalism" can signify different things to different people.

In current parlance, "fundamentalism" in matters of religion has acquired a distinctly negative connotation. As commonly understood, fundamentalism is associated with certain trends within a particular religious community. Precise definition of fundamentalism within these general confines seems impossible. Martin Marty and Scott Appleby therefore suggested another way to define fundamentalism, namely "as a generalized tendency, a habit of mind, that may inspire a variety of specific activities."(1) One can at best single out certain trends in religious thought and practice that signify a tendency toward fundamentalism.

Gabriel Almond, Emmanuel Sivan and Scott Appleby thus included amongst the "properties of fundamentalism" the following general considerations:(2) Although fundamentalists profess to be upholding religious orthodoxy (right belief) or orthopraxis (right behavior) and hold themselves out as being instrumental in preserving religious traditions from erosion, they in fact embark upon ideologies, practices and organizational structures that are quite new and unprecedented in established or mainstream religions. Most fundamentalists would deny the novelty of their dogma, procedures and institutions, for claiming the authority of a sacred past is crucial to the fundamentalists' sense of mission. Marty and Appleby again, depicted as "general traits" of fundamentalist movements the tendency toward self-separation from those not of their particular creed, and redefinition of the religious community in terms of disciplined opposition to unbelievers and those perceived to be "lukewarm" believers, as well as a male-dominated (charismatic and authoritarian) leadership that defies the conventions of church hierarchies.(3)

Fundamentalism in the broadest possible sense may thus be said to thrive upon a belief that God sanctions attitudes and behavior developed and executed in strict obedience to what the faithful observer perceives to be holy commandments. It develops an uncompromising commitment to basic principles believed to be eternal and immutable. It enhances a spirit of repristination: condemnation of contemporary perceptions, institutions and conduct, coupled with glorification of the past and endeavors to restore the ways of the supposedly "good old days." It derives its main support from the victims of suffering and deprivation, or those frustrated by an underdeveloped personality or unfulfilled aspirations. It seeks to develop a strong sense of solidarity amongst its flock and often finds strength in isolating its circle of adherents from the secular world, and from alternative religious influences. It fosters a sense of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness and promotes ruthless condemnation of, and intolerance toward, all competing forces. It is in several of its varieties conducive to xenophobia.

Of course, these trends, seen in isolation, would not necessarily constitute fundamentalism of any particular kind. It is the combination of all, or most, of those trends that would attract the fundamentalist badge. Given the distinct variables that could thus be depicted as instances of fundamentalism, one might distinguish several meanings of that epithet.

In its most extreme sense, fundamentalism signifies profound radicalism which, if put into practice, would adversely affect the disposition or interests, even the safety or lives, of particular individuals or groups within, or exterior to, the creed encompassed by the fundamentalist's faith.

In a different sense, religious "fundamentalism" may also denote a conservative adherence to old and established dogma enunciated in bygone times. …

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