“Truth is one. Sages call it by different names.”
Rig Veda (India, c. 2000 BCE)
Although the term fundamentalism derives from Christian revivalism that took place in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, and refers specifically to the five fundamentals of Christian belief put forward by those movements, the word has also been applied more recently — at least since the 1979 revolution in Iran — to somewhat similar movements among Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs. Judaism, Islam, and Sikhism obviously do not share Christian fundamentalists’ specific beliefs regarding Jesus and the Bible, but they do often exhibit a similar fear or distrust of modernism and a desire to return to the way they presume their religion was practiced in an earlier, purer, time. Modernism here may be defined both as modern secular culture, liberal attitudes toward sex, especially homosexuality, and the modern view of women as equal to men with equal political and economic rights.
Because much of modern secular culture is identified with the West, particularly the U.S. (Hollywood, MTV, the women’s movement, gay rights), world fundamentalism can take on an anti-American bias. This tends to be true more among Muslim fundamentalists than, say, Jewish fundamentalists in Israel, who share strong bonds with American Jews and who rely heavily on American financial and military support. What Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism do have in common with each other and with Christian fundamentalism is a certain contempt for and opposition to those members of their own faith who do not share their views. Because of their distrust of modern secularism, they also share a desire to return to the values and religious beliefs of an earlier era, many of which their more liberal coreligionists have long since abandoned. As with Christian fundamentalism, extremist groups exist within both the Islamic and Jewish world that promote violence against perceived opponents, including members of their own religion who don’t share their absolutist beliefs.
Although there have been instances of Buddhists, Hindus, and Taoists acting in ways that could be considered fundamentalist, most observers find no large-scale, organized fundamentalist movement within these traditions.
There is one other way of looking at fundamentalism that has nothing to do with organized religions per se. The South African Islamic scholar Farid Esack, who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York, in an interview on Beliefnet.com described the current conflict between extremist elements of the Muslim world and the West as “a clash between two religious fundamentalisms. On the one side you have the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the actions we have witnessed. All that clearly represents the fanaticism of a religious fundamentalism. On the other side of the conflict we are dealing with another religious fundamentalism, one that is not generally recognized as such. The Buddhist theologian David Loy has described faith in the free market as a religion, a religion with a transcendent god, a god that is worshiped and that its adherents have a deep yearning to embrace and to be at one with — and that god is capital. It also has a theology in the form of economics, a fundamentalist ideology that excludes all others. Its cathedrals are the shopping malls, and there is paradise or the promise of paradise for those who get on board. It is the fastest growing religion in the world today.
“If you look at the language of [President Bush], his notion of absolute evil and complete abhorrence, as well as Osama’s language of complete abhorrence, neither recognizes the possibility of any grace on the other side. Both espouse very hardened kinds of fundamentalisms.”
“I really believe that fundamentalism is a mindset… Fundamentalism can be economic, or it can be feminist. There are all sorts of fundamentalisms.”
Recent polls show that more Americans view Islam favorably than unfavorably, and that more believe that it is a religion that espouses peace rather than conflict. There have been extraordinary displays of support for Muslim communities across the country, including a number whose mosques have been vandalized. The president and members of Congress have stood side by side with Muslim and Sikh leaders, as have Jewish and Christian clergy. But there have also been some reactions against the idea that all religions deserve equal treatment or that they are valid paths. In the most recent example, a Lutheran pastor in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been accused by other pastors of his Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in St. Louis, of worshiping publicly in the company of unbelievers. For that, they say, “he stands guilty of heresy and idolatry,” according to an article in the New York Times for February 4, 2002. The cause of the charges was the national prayer service at Yankee Stadium organized and led by Oprah Winfrey and held just 12 days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Pastor Benke shared the stage with a Muslim imam, a rabbi, Cardinal Edward M. Egan, and Sikh and Hindu holy men, along with Mayor Giuliani, Gov. Pataki, and other elected officials.
“The strength we have is the power of love,” pastor Benke prayed. “And the power of love you have received is from God, for God is love. So take the hand of one next to you now and join me in prayer on this field of dreams turned into God’s house of prayer.”
The Lutheran pastors accused Benke of “tolerating syncretism, the combining of Christian and non-Christian views.” One of the pastors calling for Benke’s censure and possible removal, the Rev. Steven Bohler of Crookston, Minn., was quoted as saying, “When we’re dealing with those who are not Christians — Hindus and Muslims — in those cases, St. Paul talks about not being yoked with unbelievers. It gives the appearance that their God and our God are the same, and they are not, or there are valid other religions, and there are none. Christianity is very exclusive in that Jesus Christ is the savior.”
The concept that no religions other than one’s own can be valid is at odds with many mainstream Christian, Jewish, and Muslim institutions, although it is still embraced by conservative exponents of those faiths.