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Fundamentalism as the Abolition of the Secular State and Secular Society

Saturday 6 October 2007, by Lino Veljak

The Concept of Fundamentalism

Some theoreticians believe that the concept of fundamentalism ought to be limited to religious fundamentalism; therefore, I will restrict my paper to those, albeit with a brief review of atheist forms of fundamentalism. No fundamentalist will ever admit its fundamentalism. Thus, Islamic fundamentalists will say that the term refers to Protestant fundamentalism, the form that it acquired in the 19th and 20th century in the southern states of the USA. Those fundamentalists will retort that such a qualification is malicious. They will not accept it because they think of themselves as authentic, true followers of the Christian Bible dedicated to their Holy Scriptures.

The term fundamentalism also has synonyms, like integrism, which is primarily used in Southern European countries, France and Italy. It refers to the conservative Catholic movement from the beginning of the 20th century which has been affirmed by the Vatican through the Opus Dei organization. The term fundamentalism is also used for Islamic fundamentalism, as is Islamism. The versatility of these terms should not lead to any confusion because their meaning is basically the same, with one important caveat - there is no uniform fundamentalism, there is no such thing as a fundamentalism, but rather a broad range of religions and their fundamentalist forms.

Some warn that Maoist ideology, also called Marxist fundamentalism, originated from Taoism, and that Japanese militarism, i.e. Japanese fascism in the Second World War, was a fundamentalist form of modernized Shintoism. In the same way, the term fundamentalism must be used cautiously. For example, if you are burying a loved one and the priest requires a 500 euro fee for the burial service, you are justifiably angry at this profiteer priest and say, “This priest is a fundamentalist!” He might just be a thief, not necessarily a fundamentalist. There is no causal connection between crime and fundamentalism. What are the characteristic features of fundamentalism? How can we tell fundamentalism, common conservatism, and ordinary religious zealotry apart?

One of the identifying signs of fundamentalism in terms of religious fundamentalism is a tendency towards the renewal of the conservative religious tradition, the production of constructs of tradition, and the invention of what a religion was like in its original form. The invention of the conservative tradition applies to all spheres of life. Fundamentalists announce rules about what is right and compulsory, both on the individual, the collective and the state level, with the trend of renewal attempting to create a totalitarian society and authoritarian state based on modern technology. Another important aspect is that every form of fundamentalism excludes all other interpretations of the same religion, all the more liberal, more modern and more tolerant interpretations of the same religion. It is extremely intolerant of all other religions and worldviews that are not religious.

Fundamentalists have much more respect for the fundamentalists of rival religions and find common ground with them much more easily than they can with members of their own religious community who do not wish to blindly and unreservedly follow the principles which the former deem to be the absolute truth. This exclusivity is based on their belief that they are returning to the fundamental truths and practices of the proper religion. This return is implemented in the form of rigid regulations. The differences between fundamentalists depend on whether they are in power or not and to what extent—when they are in complete control—they conduct a very rigid theocratic policy. The entire state, all the laws, all state institutions, and the private life of individuals are subject to the absolute truth that is based on respective holy books, actually, on the interpretation of the bringers of the new updated rigid version of the absolute truth. Take, for example, Iran, after Khomeini’s rise to power.

We must not overlook the fact that in all the aforementioned religions there are very strong fundamentalist movements that are dangerously threatening to seize power, or already significantly participate in power in some places. This is the case in the USA – George Bush is the follower of a fundamentalist Protestant wing. He appointed as his spokesman one of the leading Protestant fundamentalist television preachers of. This is as if Koštunica appointed Filaret to be the spokesman of the Government of Serbia.

Fundamentalism and Conservatism

If we attempt to define the difference between fundamentalism and other forms of conservatism, four basic criteria would have to be taken into account:

• Fundamentalism accepts modern technology: unlike common conservatism, it accepts it completely, but employs it to serve its purposes, using it for the affirmation of its own power; all fundamentalisms accept the important parts of modern politics.

• Fundamentalism accepts totalitarianism: The state, ruled by religious authorities, controls all spheres of people’s lives. Totalitarianism is a product of modern politics; there were no gas chambers before modern times. There was despotism, tyranny, cruelty, and violence, but totalitarianism in the sense of the state being able to control all spheres of life in a society, both individual and collective, is a modern invention. That is what fundamentalism accepts from modernity.

• Fundamentalism also accepts a participatory model: politics and public affairs are not only the duty of the chosen ones; politics is for those who have the authority and who are paid for it or designated by the king, the ruler or the president, but also everyone else’s duty. Everybody is a spy. Everybody monitors those close to them to check that they observe the religious regulations that both the law and social rules. Everyone, not only the authorized preachers, is the preacher of the truth; every person who adopts fundamentalism is called upon to fight for the truth, to stamp out heresy and dissidence. Finally, everybody is called upon and everybody is expected to prosecute enemies and denounce them. This is the perverted sense of the participatory model of politic accepted by fundamentalism.

• The fourth model that fundamentalism takes over from modern politics is egalitarianism or the request foe equality. This egalitarianism means equality to the slightest detail. Everyone must be reduced to grains of dust; only God—and his representatives on earth, who may also become worthless tomorrow—are great. We are all nil in our worthlessness; some are even lower than the lowest. This equality in insignificance is more or less present in all fundamentalist trends. In all the fundamentalisms, equality refers to equality among men; women are excluded even from the equality of the worthless lowly, of those who are merely grains of sand before the greatness of God and his harbingers upon earth, whether they be TV preachers, bishops, patriarchs, popes, cardinals, ayatollahs, imams, muftis, or rabbis.

There are two more aspects according to which we can separate fundamentalism from non-fundamentalism - reconstruction, the reforming of the existing social and state order to create a new order based on the truths derived from the fundamentalist interpretation of religion, truths that regulate individual and collective lives. The fundamentalist interpretation of religious tradition is the interpretation that provides the answers to all the questions about what a society should be like.

Fundamentalists attempt to build societies where everything will be in accordance with those rules, where it will be clearly defined whether the women have to wear scarves not only when they could be seen, but also when it is proscribed although they are not seen. In addition to external control, there is also self-control and self-censorship.

The aims of the fundamentalists are achieved by all methods, through democratic policy and also terror and violence, depending on the circumstances, depending on what is more efficient at that moment. Legal and illegal means can be used; all is justified by the absolute truth and the need to attain it, to establish a fundamentalist society, to build a new society and a new state. Such fundamentalism is in contrast with the idea of the secular state and secular society in every one of these aspects.

What are a Secular State and a Secular Society?

A secular state is a state where religion is the private affair of each individual, and where the church—religion—is separated from the state. The state has no right to interfere with religious issues unless a religious denomination or religious practice begins to threaten human rights and the freedom of others.

A secular society is a society where men and women are not identified in their public activities, appearances in public, in their places of work, in the state, or in the sphere of culture as members of one religious denomination or another. They are also not permitted to advocate their views concerning God and the immortality of the soul in these realms. It is a society where belief or absence of belief is considered to be the private affairs of each individual. Questioning anyone about them is considered as inappropriate as enquiring in a decent society about someone’s sexual habits. If you walked into a shop and asked the salesperson, “How often do you have sex?,” she would probably think that you were crazy. Asking such a question is stupid and ridiculous, but it becomes absolutely normal in fundamentalism-contaminated societies to ask people whether they are Orthodox or whether they fast. It is like asking a woman in a secular society whether she spent last night with a man, alone or with a woman.

Secular society with this decency, where religious feelings and practice are considered to be private matters, where these do not influence anyone’s social standing, is something that fundamentalists question and which they either have abolished or have been trying to abolish. What is happening in Serbia has already happened in Croatia. The consequences are not so extreme, but we must not be deceived. The fundamentalists are working on long-term goals; they do not take day-to-day steps. Only when we have seen what happens to the generations who have just been born, will it be possible to understand the elements of fundamentalist indoctrination, the first victims of which are the younger generations.

Although on this occasion only religious fundamentalisms have been considered, let me mention that other forms of non-religious fundamentalisms are also possible. I mention the fundamentalism of compulsory atheization in Albania. Secularism does not mean the absence or a ban of religion nor does it mean that the non-religious persons are more valuable than the religious, atheists are somehow better than believers or that agnostics are better than practicing believers. This is narrow-minded dogmatism. Secularism simply means that nobody can be discriminated against on the grounds of their religious beliefs, religious affiliation, religious feelings, religious practice, or lack thereof.

A democratic state is not a state where religion can be banned, but a state where the freedom of religion is understood and where this freedom is restricted to practices that do not violate the human rights and civil liberties of any individual. We must beware of false alternatives. It is a false alternative to state that all forms of spirituality are to be rejected and to proclaim every form of religion a delusion, an element of backwardness, and every religious person backward and deserving derision from us, the emancipated and educated. We have this and can see the response to it - authoritarian and repressive fundamentalism. Between the atheist and the religious fundamentalism, we should opt for what both avoid and what is not dogmatic. We should refrain from everything that claims abstract truth to be more important than the dignity of living human beings. We must choose what prevents all discrimination and oppression based on religious differences.

(Based on a lecture given during the “Warning Signs of Fundamentalism and Feminist Responses” seminar on April 27, 2007, in Belgrade, organized by Women in Black)