Tony Greenstein | 06 January 2015 | Post Views:

Fundamentalism and its Colonial Roots
discussion on Facebook thread on US fundamentalist preachers led me to write
Mike Cushman


say ‘Europe is not burdened with the Bible literalism that gives life to this
insane trajectory {of US susceptibility to fundamentalist preachers].’ I agree,
but my question is why is this so? I will attempt some tentative answers – this
takes me to areas I haven’t reflected on enough before so what follows is a
preliminary intervention.
earlier reference to the European experience of and reaction to fascism is
thought provoking but I think we need to go further and consider reactions to
modernity itself.
can see the US as le grand projet of
the European enlightenment – an enterprise to build an ever more perfect
society free of the destructive history of European feudalism, the divine right
of kings and authoritarianism. Thus the US embrace of mystical religion is
a reaction to failures of modernity in contrast to the critical and sceptical
engagement of modernity that underlies the most interesting post-modern
critiques. It is a retreat to pre-modern certainties of proclaimed dogma.
Europe’s interlude of fascism, and even more importantly
Nazism, gave the continent a brutal experience of a pre-modern reaction to
modernity and thus the wide adherence to social- and Christian democratic
models of modernity and belief in the possibility of progress.
is worth trying to do a preliminary taxonomy of the types of religious
fundamentalism that are gathering force around the globe.
can see Islamic fundamentalism as a reaction to the history of colonialism and
a rejection of western models of modernity that provided the ideological
infrastructure for colonialism and neo-colonialism. The struggle against
imperialism was initially widely articulated through communism – originally an
enlightenment project for progress. The corruption of communism in the Soviet
Union (and later China) resulted in these communist sponsors endorsing and
enabling corrupt and repressive regimes that provided little or nothing for the
mass of the population and embedded a self perpetuating cleptocracy (the actors
who ruled may have changed from time to time and coup to coup but the
structures of exploitation remained).

Christian fundamentalism in Russia
and its neighbours is similarly a reaction to the failures of soviet communism.

fundamentalism in Israel
and supporting Jewish communities is rather different. Israel attempts to be a
modern state but it has moved its foundational belief away from a need for a
safe haven after the shoah in a territory that modern Jews, even the secular
ones who founded the Israeli state, claim a historical link to. The notion of
sanctuary remains of course but that can only be used to justify Israel within
pre-1967 borders. Occupation of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria in fundamentalist jargon) can only be
‘legitimised’ by reference to a biblical promise. The perceived need to employ
this ‘promise’ moves fundamentalist Judaism from a minor current to the centre
of state thinking. Jewish Israeli fundamentalism incorporates a central
paradox; a would be modern science based state justified through mysticism. 

fundamentalism of the BJP and the new Modi government has some similar
characteristics to the Israeli version. It is an attempt to strengthen the
Indian state by asserting a common identity on a highly diverse population –
like Israel,
significantly against both its own Muslim minority and its Muslim neighbours.
The contradiction here is between Hindu mysticism (which incorporates a strong
bias against consumerism) and the forceful promotion of neo-liberal economic
models of market-denominated rationalities.
brings us back to the American model. In contrast to Europe
the incubus is communism rather than fascism. While Soviet communism distorted
and corrupted the enlightenment project it incorporated it, not rejected it.
Rejection of fascism in Europe was a rejection of pre-modern tropes; rejection
of communism in the US
was a rejection of modernity and opened the path to religious fundamentalist
ideas. Unlike Hindu fundamentalism it did not have to confront a rejection of
materialism – protestant belief co-evolved with capitalism and catholic belief
embraced capitalist values many years ago; although the anti-capitalist and anti-consumerist
threads of Catholicism still have some purchase and are somewhat articulated by
Pope Francis.
Jewish Israeli fundamentalism, the American version justifies territorial
seizure and in the US
sanctifies it as manifest destiny. However like the Israeli version it wishes
to have a productive science based economy while rejecting the basic tenets of
science. The three central US battlegrounds, climate change, evolution and
abortion, each have different characteristics – although the opposing alliances
on each issue are very similar.
change denial is economically advantageous to many of its proponents. It is not
difficult to see why Exxon or the coal industry or the Koch brothers spend
large sums contesting it. The link to fundamentalism is that denial of climate
change requires a suspicion of science that is afforded by fundamentalist
belief. At its most basic, American protestant fundamentalism asserts that humans
in general, and Americans, in particular are the beneficiaries of God’s munificence
and as he won’t allow us to be swept away by global warming so the science must
be wrong. However, if science is so wrong here where can it be trusted?
has always been difficult for narrow believers from Soapy Sam, through William
Jennings Bryan to contemporary evangelical preachers. Denial of evolution requires
belief in ever more elaborate deceptions which are in conflict with Occam’s
razor. It requires a belief in a god who requires ever more difficult acts of
faith – accepting that a god would carefully place dinosaur bones in ever
deeper strata that are most easily accounted for by evolution and a 4.5 million
year old earth just so he/she can require us to reject such an explanation to
keep our belief pure and accept Genesis and the rest of the bible as literal
and accurate history. The US
economy requires scientifically competent professionals but School Boards are
requiring curricula that reject science in order to sustain their version of
religious belief.
to abortion (and the associated issues around feminism and LGBT rights) is a
rejection of the central tenet of the enlightenment: of the individual endowed
with rights, rather lucidly proclaimed in the US declaration independence and
the amendments to the US constitution. The fundamentalists who most loudly
announced their patriotism do so while contradicting the founding principles of
their state – unless they believe the claim that “all men are created equal” is
to be narrowly interpreted as gender bounded.
pessimistic view of the possibility of progress and therefore a reluctant
renunciation of the central promise of the enlightenment does not require us to
abandon the struggle for partial ameliorations of injustice and inequalities –
indeed it makes individual action more pressing as we cannot rely on the
immanent forces of history to solve our problems. It requires us to keep being
forward looking and to maintain a critical acceptance of positivist science. While
we may doubt simplistic versions of reality and truth and see reality as
socially constructed and the object of interpretation we do not doubt the
validity of human experience we rather seek better means of understanding it.
have to keep making the arguments for makes rejecting the idea that, if only we
would retreat to a religiously ordered fantasy past, we will find happiness on
earth and contentment in paradise. Such ideas are bound up with an
authoritarianism and denial of agency and creativity that will destroy us. The
struggle against all varieties of religious fundamentalism, no matter what
god(s) each seeks to appease must be a major part of our public and private
politics: our ability to lead fulfilling lives, and indeed the future of the
global eco-system, depend on it.

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