Terrorism in the name of religion is very much in the news these days. Only recently, the world witnessed three near-simultaneous lethal acts of terror by alleged Islamists on three continents: foreign tourists gunned down at a beachfront hotel in Tunisia; a man decapitated in an attack on a chemical plant near Lyon, France; and the suicide bombing of a Shiite mosque after Friday prayers in the Kuwaiti capital. Coming close on the heels of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) blowing up the tombs of a Shiite and a Sufi saint in the world heritage city of Palmyra, these acts of terror have one strand in common. Their perpetrators claim divine support for their grisly mayhem from either a literal reading of holy texts or a sectarian interpretation of religious history. Which brings up two related questions: Is it proper to refer to the actors as religious fundamentalists, and how does fundamentalism lead to violence and terrorism?
Fundamentalism, or religious fundamentalism, is a popular term that has entered relatively recently in the English lexicon. The Online Etymology Dictionary states that the word was “coined in American English to name a movement among Protestants circa 1920-25 based on scriptural inerrancy.” The faith in the absolute literalism of the scripture makes fundamentalism a concept that is in direct conflict with liberalism and modernism. The conflict finds its most potent expression in the rejection of the Darwinian Theory of Evolution. An early high-profile battle on the subject was fought in 1925 with the Scopes Trial, where William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow faced off against each other in court over the right of a schoolteacher in Tennessee to teach evolution in state-funded schools.
Over the years, the meaning of fundamentalism has been broadened and made more elastic to encompass other religious faiths. According to Oxford Dictionaries on the web, fundamentalism is defined as “A form of religion, especially Islam or Protestant Christianity, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of the scripture.” It traces the origin of modern Christian fundamentalism to the American millenarian sects of the 19th century. One can reasonably argue, however, that the Catholic Church was practising an earlier version of fundamentalism when it banned the teaching of the heliocentric theory of Copernicus (1473-1543), burned Giordino Bruno at the stake for heresy (1600) and forced Galileo Galilei (in 1633) to recant his advocacy of the Copernican theory.
Islamic fundamentalism, in the words of Oxford Dictionaries, “appeared in the 18th and 19th centuries as a reaction to the disintegration of the Islamic political and economic power, asserting that Islam is central to both state and society and advocating strict adherence to the Koran and to Islamic law (sharia).” It has become increasingly virulent in recent decades, fostering the dream of re-establishing the Caliphate over the Ummah (Islamic Nation), in response to economic stagnation and explosive population growth over a vast region of the world blighted by autocratic rulers, failed states and civil wars.
Fundamentalism over the years has become nearly synonymous with blind faith. In this expanded view, its myriad manifestations cut across virtually all religions and beliefs. Jewish fundamentalism, for example, exacerbates the challenge of finding a solution to the so-called “Palestinian Problem”. The fundamentalists in this context refer to the Old Testament to claim all of a vaguely defined Eretz Israel, including Judea and Samaria (the Biblical names for the “Occupied West Bank”), as the divinely ordained Promised Land of the Jewish people. Their Palestinian counterparts are people who believe literally in the journey of Muhammad on a celestial animal (al Buraq) on a single night from Mecca to Jerusalem and back. The place which he visited in Jerusalem, now the site of the Al Aqsa mosque, is also precisely the location of Temple Mount – the holiest site in Judaism.
Hinduism suffers from this scourge too. While the word fundamentalism cannot apply strictly to a religion without a scripture, it can be applied loosely to the toxic brew of blind faith in Hindu epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata) and semi-sacred texts (Puranas and Manu-Smriti, for example) with intolerance for proselytizing religions (Islam and Christianity) imported in the main by foreign rulers. A notable example of Hindu fundamentalism was the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which resulted in the 1992 demolition of the Babari Masjid in Ayodhya. Its aftermath reverberated for years – from the Bombay blasts of 1993 to the Gujarat riots of 2002 – with significant loss of lives.
Buddhism, an avowedly non-violent religion, has its own share of bigotry too, as witnessed in the recent persecution and forcible displacement of the minority Rohingya Muslims by the majority Buddhists in Myanmar. Strictly speaking, since there is no scriptural basis for the majority action, the label of fundamentalism can be applied to it only in the loosest sense.
Were the gunman in Tunisia and the suicide bomber in Kuwait City Islamic fundamentalists? We would never know because they are both dead, but it is reasonable to assume that they were motivated by ISIS’ call for global terror attacks during Ramzan. In Tunisia, the gunman wished to destabilize an insufficiently Islamic government. The bombing in Kuwait was a reflection of sectarian hatred – a continuation of the earliest and still unresolved conflict in Islam about whether Abu Bakr or Ali should have been the first Caliph after the Prophet&’s death.
It is important to note that religious fundamentalism does not automatically lead to acts of violence. The tension between the deeply faithful and those opposed to their views can be mediated through the rule of law, i.e., the court system, and the political process, e.g., elections. This happens both in the United States and India, where the respective Supreme Courts try to adjudicate fraught issues like legalized abortion and same-sex marriage (in the US) and sharia law divorce settlement and legal rights to the Ram Janmabhoomi property. The verdicts do not please everyone but are generally accepted by all. It is precisely the absence of comparable mediating institutions and practices that has allowed Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East to metastasize into its present, virulent form. The Ummah lacks a widely accepted and authoritative methodology to deal with either internal conflicts in Islam that may lead to sectarian bloodbaths, or external conflicts with other faiths that often give rise to gratuitous acts of vandalism, like the ISIS destroying ancient artifacts at Mosul Museum in Iraq, or the Taliban destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas more than a decade earlier.