Fundamentalism, or religious fundamentalism, is a popular and oft-used 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 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 practicing 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.
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In recent times, fundamentalism has become nearly synonymous with blind faith and extremism. In this expanded view, its myriad manifestations cut across virtually all religions and beliefs. Let me make my point with a few examples.

Jewish fundamentalism 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. They also stress the Genesis story of Abraham’s purchase of land in Hebron for “four hundred shekels” to bury his wife. The Palestinian counterparts to them 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.

Islamic fundamentalism seems not quite content with the conservative Wahhabi brand of Islam and strict application of Sharia law in Saudi Arabia. It has spawned numerous extremist movements: al Qaeda and its offshoots (in Yemen and Algeria); the Taliban (in Afghanistan and Pakistan); and most recently the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL). This branch of fanaticism also spawns murderous lone-wolf defenders of the faith who are bent on exterminating mocking infidels and apostates, such as the Dutch filmmaker (Theo van Gogh) who criticized Islam, the Danish cartoonist (Kurt Westergaard) of Muhammad’s face, the journalists of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and a mentally unstable Afghan woman in Kabul for allegedly burning pages of the Koran.

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 recent example of Hindu fundamentalism was the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which resulted in the 1992 demolition of the Babri 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.

Finally, and in a less murderous but quite impactful way, fundamentalism is playing out in the US courts. Its adherents, citing the scripture and their right to the free practice of their religious beliefs, are trying to circumvent anti-discrimination laws in the areas of access to abortion and same-sex marriage.  Hobby Lobby won a close Supreme Court decision last year that exempts it from mandatory contraception coverage of its workers in Obamacare. And Mike Pence of India recently signed into law a measure that would, in theory, permit businesses not to serve gay and lesbian customers if that lifestyle is anathema to their owners’ religious belief.
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Fundamentalism becomes a serious problem for society in at least two ways: One, when its adherents buck modernity by not accepting scientifically well-established facts such as Evolution or the Origin of Life; and Two, when its adherents try to impose their will on others by force or through legal means. In an odd and contradictory way, social liberalism makes space for fundamentalism to have a preacher’s platform from where it may end up undercutting the liberal order itself.



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