What is fundamentalism?

Fundamentalism is the interpretation of religions as ideologies.

Fundamentalism proceeds from the notion of a Golden Age, in the case of the Hindu concept of Hindutva, dating back some 5,000 years.  On the other hand, this notion attracts the imagination of the people because it seems also to offer a ‘harmonious social order’ (Ibrahim: 64) on earth and a complete system for society and government.  Fundamentalism, therefore, is a system of views and norms claiming popular representation. In this manner, it seeks to re-form society through a concept of religion as the all-pervasive life force. It interprets religions and their symbols selectively, issues codes of conducts and other ‘fundamentals’ (dharma, sharia) for the members of fundamentalist organisations as well as for society.

Fundamentalism could be seen as a response to a perceived developing crisis of modernity. In this context, ‘fundamentals’ are a means of bridging the gaps in society allegedly caused by modernity, for example expressed in nationalist separatism in states. The ideological messages of fundamentalist organisations had effects on society, as the organisations recruited members who were literally ‘prepared to fight for them’. Still, their social effects have been contradictory in that they also developed non-violent strategies, various social programmes and activities as well as coalitional party politics.

Historically, fundamentalism constituted a new direction in the close relationship between religion and politics in nations. In the case of South Asia, the religio-political concepts of its nations were developed by the organisations such as Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh and Jamaat-i Islami through a long historical build-up since the advent of the electoral process in the 1920s.

The specific form these ideological movements took was determined by the fact that, when the movements were founded, India was in the process of becoming a modern nation-state. Nations require identity, and for these movements, religion was the defining factor for the new national identities of India and, eventually, Pakistan. While Juergensmeyer has described these movements’ ideologies as ‘religious nationalism’ (1994: 4–6), it is concluded here that this term does not sufficiently reflect the ideological background of the movements and their correspondingly fraught and ambiguous relationship to nationalism as fundamentalists advocate universalism.

In India, the Hindutva movement’s Hindu-based identity for the whole region and beyond was shaped primarily in a contest with the Indian National Congress’ vision of India as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation. Pakistan’s identity was formed from the idea that India’s Muslims needed a nation-state of their own, as formulated by the Muslim League in 1940. On the founding of Pakistan in 1947, the Jamaat and Maududi made the ‘Islamisation’ of Pakistan their chief objective.

Some analysts have concluded that religious fundamentalism – including these specific movements – as a global phenomenon is a reaction to the reduced role of religion in society and politics, i.e. to the onslaught of Western-style secularism. However, this conclusion does not appear self-evident when applied to South Asia. Religion is a strong factor in Indian public debate and politics in pre- and in post-independent times.

Rather, fundamentalist movements seemed to be motivated primarily by their particular ideological visions: once the question of national identity was opened to public debate, they had a clear view of it, and one which was coupled to authoritarian concepts of statehood and the individual. It therefore seemed the theoretical breaking-point which could transform these movements, from actually and potentially violent to peaceful and non-authoritarian, was not the degree of religion in politics and society – as Juergensmeyer (1994) suggested – but the movements’ embrace of equal citizens’ rights and individually-based civil rights and freedoms.

In any case, the fundamentalist message of harmony contrasted sharply with the complexities of real society and politics. Therefore, fundamentalists seemed not been able to solve either imagined or real social crises. On the contrary, their restricted notion of the individual and individual rights have, in the long run, only aggravated insufficiencies in state law and administration, and provided further legitimacy for political violence.


Ibrahim, I.A. (ed.) (1997) A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam. Houston, TX: Darussalam.

Juergensmeyer, Mark (1994) Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Mårtensson, Ulrika/ Bailey, Jennifer/ Ringrose, Priscilla/ Dyrenda, Asbjørn (Eds.), Fundamentalism in the Modern World, Volume 1 – „Fundamentalism, Politics and History: the State, Globalisation and Political Ideologies“, London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2011


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