The fundamentals of fundamentalism

Douglas Pratt, University of Waikato

Tariq Ali The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, Verso, 2002 (342 pp). ISBN 1-85984-457-X (paperback) RRP $33.00.

Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms is an acerbic yet insightfully critical examination of the context of much contemporary international politics. Ali combines an easy style with a sound grasp of international affairs generally, a keen knowledge of the politics of globalisation and American foreign policy in particular, and obvious erudition about the world of Islam. The result is a thought provoking, educative, disturbing, yet at the same time, delightful book. Ali’s grasp of contemporary events, and his ability to place them appropriately in the context of their antecedent histories, is interspersed with personal narrative. This is no dispassionate academic tome. The author is passionate about his subject, but his work is grounded in solid knowledge, nonetheless.

Born in India, in what would become Pakistan while he was a young child, Ali grew up atheist in an otherwise Muslim-dominated society. He was educated in England and now lives in London. He has pursued a varied career as a journalist, playwright, author, and filmmaker. His literary output includes scripts for both screen and stage, a clutch of novels, and some dozen books on world history and politics.

In this book, Ali examines the deeper aspects of the contemporary ‘war against terror’, a contest he categorises as occurring between two fundamentalist trajectories. On the surface, one is religious (the Islamic world) and the other political (America, or the Americanised West). The latter is characterised, as the book's cover notes, by a ‘shameless use of disproportional military power’ and the former by ‘a carefully targeted fanaticism’. But these are unequal forces: for Ali ‘One is a product of despair, the other is an empire, whose ability to go to war is a chilling reminder of its place in the world’.

Ali’s thesis is that the predominating dynamic in world affairs is a clash of fundamentalisms, religious and political, and in both realistic and idealistic senses. What has been recently played out in Iraq, for instance, involved a combination of political and religious fundamentalisms as both real and idealised systems. The political ideal, arguably, was that of a Western ‘coalition of the willing’ contending with the totalitarian Islamic regime of Saddam Hussein. The ostensible aim was to liberate the world from fear of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But there also emerged—especially as these weapons seemed highly elusive—the aim of liberating the Iraqi people from political oppression in order, among other things, to obtain religious freedoms. Such were the idealised rationales for war.

The political reality, following lines suggested by Ali (and others), would suggest seeing the conflict in much more murky and cynical terms. This was but another instance of the United Empire of America flexing its might and getting its way for reasons and ends that have little to do, really, with the well-being of Iraqi masses and more to do with satisfying self-serving hegemonic and imperious aggrandisement motives. Ali clearly identifies America as the Empire of the age, displaying all the imperialist tendencies that have marked empires of every age.

On the religious side the ideal espoused, on the one hand at least, was that there was no attack intended on religion, in this case Islam, as such. Indeed, the promotion of freedom to be religious as such, and of one’s choosing, together with positive overtures to a diversity of religious leadership in Iraq, seemed genuinely offered. Nevertheless, the conflict may be cast, in religious terms, as yet another clash of the West’s secularised Judeo-Christian religious system with that of Islam per se—and winning, yet again. This is an ideal perceived by some cadres, at least, of Christian fundamentalists in the West. It was certainly viewed as a threatening reality by many Muslims the world over. More pointedly, this latest clash reinforces a general fundamentalist viewpoint that pitches Islam and Christianity as eternal adversaries. The same holds for Islam and the Jews, of course, as much contemporary Islamic rhetoric testifies. Which side is regarded as ultimately victorious depends on the religion espoused by the fundamentalist. The rules of engagement are the same either way. God/Allah will guarantee the ultimate victory: the believer is simply enjoined to fight the good fight.

Ali betrays a neo-fundamentalist secular outlook of his own.

In some ways a variation on Samuel Huntington’s celebrated thesis of the West versus Islam as a ‘clash of civilisations’ (1996), Ali’s book highlights the religious dimension. But at the same time Ali treats religion as essentially an epiphenomenona, and in so doing, betrays what appears to be a neo-fundamentalist secular outlook of his own. That is to say, in the secular fundamentalist view, the phenomenon of religion is both explained away by reference to other phenomena—psychological, sociological, or even political—and viewed as not being a primary motive and cause in political affairs. On this view, religion is no more than a naïve sensibility that is used cynically by the world’s power brokers on the way to achieving their nefarious aims.

Although the reductionism of a secular fundamentalist outlook results in a woefully limited treatment of religion in terms of its place in human affairs, there is, to be sure, more than a grain of truth to Ali’s cynical view. Religious sensibilities can be all too easily manipulated. Religion often acts as a mask for otherwise socio-economic and political power plays—we only have to think of the modern history of Northern Ireland, for example, for the point to be taken. Ali himself certainly makes a compelling case, especially with his poignant chapter on Kashmir.

However, I think that Ali is rather too ensnared by his own ‘secular fundamentalism’. As an avowed atheist, religious sceptic, and secular socialist, whose pedigree includes early years as a Trotskyite, he underplays the religious dimension even as he lucidly discusses it. As Ali himself infers, fundamentalism is a mindset, a modus operandi, which can apply to just about any sphere of human activity, but especially so to religion and politics, for both are concerned with the context and aims of human existence. Allow me to elaborate.

Fundamentalism is marked, I suggest, by at least six key features. Others may be adduced, but six need to be carefully understood. For these features, collectively and cumulatively, move a fundamentalist mindset from the quirky to the critical, from atavism to aggression, from benign eccentricity to socially endangering activity. The six I identify are perspectival absolutism, textual literalism, ideological exclusivism, polity inclusivism, sanctioned imposition and legitimated extremism.

The fundamentalist perspective is, firstly, inherently absolutist: all other relevant phenomena are simply explained on its terms, or viewed in a relativising way with reference to it. Fundamentalism, as a mindset, is first and foremost a mentality that expresses the modernist project writ large: only one truth; one authority; one authentic narrative that accounts for all; one right way to be. And, of course, that way is my way, declares the fundamentalist. Further, the fundamentalist perspective deems itself privileged in respect to this absolutism, for it implies superiority of knowledge and truth. Indeed, this is inherent to holding an absolutist perspective as such.

Fundamentalism is a mentality that expresses the modernist project writ large.

Allied to absolutism is the view that the grounding text—be it political manifesto or holy writ—is to be read ‘literally’. The assertion of textual literalism—that is, reading the text as being in fact the literal truth—is a claim that only one normative interpretive reading is allowed: that which is undertaken through the fundamentalist’s lens. Paradoxically, of course, a so-called ‘literalist’ reading is itself a modality of interpretation, namely a fundamentalist one. But it is often assumed, by the fundamentalist, that a ‘direct’ reading of the text can be made so as to avoid the murky waters of interpretation. Not so. The fundamentalist makes the assumption that meaning and truth can be directly read without recourse to a frame of meaning that supplies a key to understanding. Again, not so: every fundamentalist reading of the Bible, the Qur’an, The Communist Manifesto, or whatever, necessarily requires a prior held framework of understanding about the nature of the text and the meanings of the key terms and concepts employed. A fundamentalist’s literalism is but one interpretive option. Nevertheless, from the fundamentalist perspective, alternative and variant interpretations are heterodox, if not outright heretical, and so are rejected.

Absolutism and literalism on their own might simply indicate one among many options for the expression of religious belief. Most often a secularist, an agnostic, or a religious liberal in the West views this to be the essence of fundamentalism: an atavistic expression of religion, a quirky mindset, a rather odd out-of-step religious mentality. Easily ignored, best avoided, of no consequence or significance in the greater scheme of things. But this is not all there is to fundamentalism.

Fundamentalism’s third factor is ideological exclusivism. By this I mean that where there is only one reading, only one interpretation, of the grounding text allowed, the ideological view expressed therein, or built thereon, is inevitably an exclusive one. No competing or alternative ideological view is granted credibility. Indeed, such alternatives may be—and in fact often are—demonised. The religiously ‘other’ on this view is cast as ‘satanic’. Importantly, a fundamentalist perspective will exclude anything that, relative to it, appears ‘liberal’, that is, that admits of, for example, any limitation, provisionality, otherness, or openness. Religious fundamentalism excludes, therefore, any religious liberalism. Secular fundamentalism often excludes religion per se on very similar grounds. Ideological exclusion works in multiple directions.

But now we find an apparent paradox: alongside this exclusivity there may be discerned, as a fourth characteristic of fundamentalism, a form of inclusion, namely polity inclusion. This is the propensity to include, in respect of considerations of the policies and praxis of social organisation, all others that fall within the fundamentalist’s frame of reference or worldview understanding. This may still appear innocuous, especially if the fundamentalists concerned are a minor or marginalised group in terms of the wider society in which they exist. But the fundamentalist is now poised to become activist—to act on this inclusivism in terms of polity, whether covertly (for example, Mormons vicariously baptising the dead) or overtly (for example, the Taliban insistence that everyone in Afghanistan live according to their application of Islam).

So, the apparent paradox of fundamentalism evincing both exclusivism and inclusivism as two of its core features is resolved. Excluding all other ideological variants and perspectives necessarily implies the wholesale inclusion of a society. Thus, for example, the fundamentalism of a resurgent Islamist perspective naturally calls not only for all Muslims to live according to Islamic Law, but for all members of the society in question, irrespective of religion, to likewise submit, or be made so to do. We hear this call being made by Islamic activists from time to time in different parts of the Islamic world.

Religion must not be taken lightly or dismissively ignored.

Once these first four factors are in operation, it is but a step to the next two, which denote the expression of fundamentalism in some form of direct socio-political action. The fifth factor sees the very imposition of the fundamentalist’s views and polity as, in fact, sanctioned by a higher or greater authority—whether that authority is conceived in terms of deity or the dynamics of historical necessity. This reference transcends the local, particular, ordinary, taken-for-granted freedoms of everyday life with the requirement to be, live, and do in accord with the fundamentalist’s dictates.

Sanctioning of the imposition of the fundamentalist’s programme leads naturally to the sixth and final factor of this analysis: extremist action is now legitimated. Once there is in place a sense of transcendent sanction for programmatic action, extreme behaviours to achieve the requisite outcomes become legitimate. Japanese kamikaze pilots and Palestinian suicide bombers are two examples of the way these aspects of fundamentalism work themselves out. More complexly, as we have recently seen in Afghanistan, not only were all good Muslims expected to submit naturally to the Shari’a, according to the fundamentalist ideals of the Taliban, but the whole society was made to submit, like it or not, because submission to imposition is inherent to Islamic extremism. Submission to the dictates of the fundamentalist is a matter of necessary imposition, as the Afghan women found to their cost. And the alternative to even involuntary submission is outright destruction: hence, from the Taliban’s fundamentalist perspective, the Buddha ‘idols’ had to be destroyed. How else does the fundamentalist ensure that the imposition sanctioned can actually be effected? Sanctioned imposition and legitimated extremism are the two sides of the one coin in the currency of terror.

Fundamentalism is not simply a religious or political option. It is a ‘package deal’ phenomenon with characteristics the cumulative impact of which can be devastating. The Taliban, to return to this extreme example of Islamist fundamentalism, took an absolutist, literalist, and exclusivist line with respect to their religious identity and behaviour, which was extended to include all who were within their purview—namely, the inhabitants of Afghanistan. Actions taken to effect their aims were deemed sanctioned by the highest authority—Allah (God)—and their extreme measures were in consequence deemed legitimate. Thus no opposition was brooked; all had to submit and obey, or face the consequences.

Whether political or religious, of local or global scope, fundamentalism is a phenomenon to be seriously reckoned with. Tariq Ali has served us well with his provocative book. However, as a final word, I want to return to what I have said is arguably a limited perspective that Ali takes toward religion as such. He is by no means alone in giving voice, from the cynical secularist perspective, to what may be called the fallacy of reductionism vis-à-vis religion. But, as any historical overview of a civilisation wherein a major religious system has played a prominent role shows, religion cannot be summarily dismissed. As a scholar of religion I am sensitive to the easy reductionism too often applied to the religious sphere. In the end we are all the losers if the motivating power, cognitive frame, and reference to ultimate reality religion gives is downplayed. If recent events in world history tell us anything, it is that religion, especially in its fundamentalist forms, must not be taken lightly or dismissively ignored—any more than we would the fundamentalisms of fascism, and any more than we should the fundamentalist rhetoric of the dominant empire of our age. And on this last point, I am sure Ali would agree.


Huntington, S. P. 1996, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Dr Douglas Pratt is Director of Religious Studies and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. His research interests include Christian thought and history, Islam and Christian-Muslim relations, philosophical theology, inter-religious dialogue, and religion in New Zealand.