Subject Material

Fundamentalism and Totalitarianism

Published: 25.07.2013
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It has been argued that fundamentalism is an important part of terrorism's mental framework – that there are few or no terrorists that aren't at the same time fundamentalists1. However, since not all fundamentalists are terrorists, it also represents an object of study in its own right.

What is Fundamentalism?

An easy way to define "fundamentalism2" might be to take a given set of beliefs (primarily religious, but also ideological or others) as a starting-point. The fundamentalist will consider that this worldview represents "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth". As a result, new elements that are presented will not be used to examine what the believer considers as true, but will be considered true or false according to whether they are consitent or not with her or his beliefs (which, for instance, is the reason why fundamentalist Christians reject certain scientific discoveries that aren't compatible with a strict interpretation of the Bible – the theory of evolution, e.g. – which is considered to be an expression of divine truth).

In other terms, the fundamentalist's beliefs are not open to debate, and in extreme cases, anyone who shows doubts will be considered an enemy. Less extreme fundamentalists may feel smug superiority, pity, the urge to save non-believers by helping them see the light or indifference, if they consider that non-believers aren't worthy of notice.

From a practical point of view, the fundamentalist's set of beliefs will be seen as the unique criterion of distinction between good and bad, right and wrong, and as such, it becomes a guiding star for the individual's actions and relationships with others. There are also obvious political implications: a fundamentalist will wish that public life – in all its dimensions (customs, social structures, legislation, institutions…) – just as much as inner and private life, conforms to principles that originate in her or his faith.

Fundamentalism isn't a new phenomenon – medieval Europe, for instance, showed fundamentalist tendencies, as did the puritan society of New England3. Current occurrences include Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as many local and transnational communities, such as evangelical Christian groups in the US and Europe, traditionalist Catholicism, Judaism etc. There are also cases where ideologies have been "religionized"4, both to the left and to the right of the political spectrum.

Fundamentalism and totalitarianism

Totalitarianism, which can be seen as an aggressive form of fundamentalism, considers that society must strive to reach one specific goal (a nation's privileged place in the world and in history, the superiority of a race, man at the exclusive service of God, humanity reaching some sort of maturity, revolution…), which is considered to be the expression of an absolute truth. Anyone who does not contribute wholeheartedly – let alone opposes the effort – must be removed from the group, if necessary with violence, because they are seen as liabilities and as being morally bankrupt. This is why secret police and informers, sending people to prison for their opinions, torture, political assassinations, aggressive foreign policies etc. are natural parts of totalitarian societies.

Fundamentalism has been severely criticized for not conforming to basic rules of rationality – such as adapting one's beliefs to new information. As a result, a debate of ideas is difficult – there is no room for dialogue. In this respect, fundamentalism has few barriers against political and religious violence: people who disagree with its core beliefs are necessarily in the wrong. What they have to say has little or no value, and winning becomes more important than sharing. As a consequence, fundamentalism may not cause terrorism, persecution or other faith-based forms of violence – be it political or religious, physical or mental – directly, but it makes it possible, and therein lies its responsibility.

Discussion

  1. Discuss whether it is possible for a fundamentalist society to avoid becoming totalitarian?