Recent Lessons in the Politics of Fundamentalism

Clearly, we have a much easier time spotting fundamentalisms "over there" than we do in our own backyards. It is time we turn that critical lens on what passes for mainstream America.
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Less than two weeks ago, I was sitting in a hotel room in India when the international news focused on a breaking story: Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab Province in Pakistan, had been shot and killed by one of his own security guards. He had been an outspoken proponent of secularism and campaigned to repeal laws against blasphemy that prescribed "a mandatory death sentence for anyone convicted of insulting Islam." A Christian woman had been sentenced to death in November.

A few days later, as I sat watching television in the Delhi airport, it was like déjà vu. Another politically motivated shooting; this time it was in the U.S. In Tucson, Ariz., a shooting rampage targeting Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords left her critically injured and six others dead.

The most interesting analysis I have found of these seemingly unrelated tragedies was on the listserv for Sociologists for Women in Society, where Sociologist Afshan Jafar offered:

"On the surface they seem to have nothing in common. But there is something that ties both these incidents together. It is fundamentalism. In the case of Pakistan it is religious fundamentalism, and here in the United States, it is political fundamentalism, spearheaded by the Tea Party. To view the Arizona shooting simply as an act of a "deranged" individual ignores the context within which this act took place. Just as terrorism takes place within a particular context, backed by a particular rhetoric of religious fundamentalism, the Arizona shooting also took place within a particular context, backed by the heightened rhetoric of political fundamentalism. Violent crimes, such as the two mentioned here, are enacted by individuals who may or may not belong to a particular religious or political party. It is simply sufficient for them to believe that given the particular context, their acts of violence are justified."

Jafar's insights are essential if we are to seriously address such violence. It is this same fundamentalist ideology that has provided the backdrop of previous incidents of domestic, home-grown terrorism, such as the Oklahoma City bombing. According to the Rev. David Ostendorf, Executive Director of the Center for New Community, "The political climate surrounding the shooting [in AZ] has stunning parallels to the Oklahoma City bombing 15 years ago, which also took place within an atmosphere of intense anti-government rhetoric." The CNC sees this most recent shooting as "the culmination of months of toxic political rhetoric in the state."

What is it about fundamentalism that creates the context for violence? In a follow-up interview with Dr. Jafar, I asked her to expand upon her analysis.

"What do fundamentalists believe and how can we apply it to current American politics? Fundamentalist ideologies have the following beliefs in common: 1) They resist 'change' and often refer to a glorious past which they wish to resurrect. They often cite a document which they see as an essential guide for their actions, and this document is not open to change or negotiation (a holy text, or the Constitution in this case). They only allow narrow interpretation of these texts and use it selectively for their causes. 2) They believe that agents of "change" are forcing us to move away from an "authentic" ideal, and towards something that is undesirable (westernization in the first kind of fundamentalism, and socialism or communism in the case of the second). The idea of a "threatened" identity is one of fundamentalists' main preoccupations. 3) Women and minorities often become the groups that are the focus of "contested issues" (rights of women, religious and other minorities, and immigrants, to name just a few). 4) And now with the escalation in the call to arms to 'take back our country,' 'Don't Retreat, Instead -RELOAD' and turn to "second amendment remedies", we can check off another commonality between religious fundamentalism and political fundamentalism--violence, as a means to achieve the 'ideal society'."

The belief that the society is moving towards some undesirable state need not be based on reality. Current right-wing fear-mongering about the U.S. moving toward socialism, or tyranny, have no empirical grounding. But that doesn't matter -- all that matters is some people have been convinced this is the case.

Political Research Associates warned of such dangers in their report, Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating, and argue that right-wing pundits now "must share some portion of moral responsibility for creating a dangerous environment."

So what are the significant differences in the manifestations of fundamentalism we see in these two recent shootings?

"Besides the frequency of occurrence of such events there is only one major difference that I can think of that still remains between religious fundamentalism and political fundamentalism: We are rightly fearful and critical of the rise of religious fundamentalism, but we have failed so far in identifying what's happening in this country as a brand of fundamentalism. Thus it hasn't created the fear it should," Jafar says. "For my part, I fear that the Arizona shooting is only the beginning."

Clearly, we have a much easier time spotting fundamentalisms "over there" than we do in our own backyards. We are also quick to call out fundamentalists when they are not white, male or Christian. It is time we turn that critical lens on what passes for mainstream America.

Jafar agrees: "It is also easy to view fundamentalism as something that happens on the margins. We fail to see how aspects of a fundamentalist ideology slowly seep into the mainstream. You only need to look at the immigration debate in Arizona or polls of the American public regarding Obama and the "direction" of this country, or the popularity of the belief of a "threat of the West" in many Muslim countries, to see how much of a fundamentalist ideology has become mainstream. This is what makes fundamentalism (religious or political) so dangerous and so difficult to fight. It is among us and we don't see it."

To examine the growing threat of fundamentalism in the U.S. , Political Research Associates, and The Center for New Community(and their blog, Imagine 2050), are great places to start.

Afshan Jafar is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. Her forthcoming book "Women's NGOs in Pakistan" (Palgrave Macmillan, August 2011) uncovers the overwhelming challenges facing women's NGOs in Pakistan and examines the strategies used by them to ensure not just their survival but an acceptance of their messages by the larger public. She can be reached at

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