Why is fundamentalism attractive to many?

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Why is fundamentalism attractive to many?

Dinyar Godrej writes about the fight for reason.


A Hindu nationalist puts a flag on a church in Muniguda in India’s Orissa state. In India Hindu groups often attack minority communities and burn churches © AP/Press Association Images

Joshua Blahyi is a mass murderer who did terrible things in the 1990s in the first Liberian civil war. He called himself General Butt Naked. That is perhaps the only funny thing about him.

He said he had special powers that made him invisible from Nyanbe-a-weh, a god in his Krahn ethnic group. Blahyi and his gang killed thousands of people and they only wore shoes.


Joshua Blahyi ( he was General Butt Naked) talks about peace in Monrovia, Liberia. James Fasuekoi/AP/Press Association Images

‘Before we went to fight we got drunk and took drugs, then we killed a teenager, drank the blood, then took our clothes off,’ he said in 2003 in an interview. ‘We’ killed anyone we saw, cut their heads off and used them as footballs. We were naked, we had no fears, we were drunk but we thought about what we did. We killed hundreds of people’ Later he said he and his group killed 20,000 people.

But in 1996, he had a vision – he saw Jesus Christ as a very bright light and he changed his life and said he was sorry and asked people to forgive him. He is now an evangelical priest and is President of the End Time Train Evangelistic Ministries Inc.

He works hard to tell the people in his church to do what is right and he is busy asking the people he ruined to forgive him. It is difficult to watch him when he asks his victims to forgive him. It feels like theatre and it is full of strong feeling and a kind of danger.

He is still in contact with the young men who were part of his group. He asks them to stop violence and finds ways to help them in their unhappy lives.

He told the truth about himself at Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008, but he hid in Ghana for years because he was afraid people would find him and attack him. He now believes that his crimes came from Satan. Some people think he will say this as a defence in a future trial. He has been asking Liberia to start a war crimes court to try people like himself. At the moment he is still completely free.

He is a complicated man who thinks he is in the hands of the supernatural. He has exchanged one extreme position for another. First there was the darkness of Satan, and then a bright light.

Blahyi’s life is impossible to understand but we can see him as a prisoner of his own very strong ideas.

Fundamentalist ideas

Very simple and very strong ideas are part of different fundamentalisms. The word ‘fundamentalism’, in religion is a new word. In 1910, religious Californian brothers Milton and Lyman Stewart used their money from oil to pay for the printing of texts called The Fundamentals to save Protestant Christianity. They were worried that people did not know any more about the important ideas of Protestant Christianity – for example, that the Bible is perfect in its teaching, the truth of the miracles in the Bible, and God’s creation of the world.

These early fundamentalists were worried and replied in a very traditional way and not much has changed.

Opposition is the important part of fundamentalist ideas. It might be holding on to a limited and literal understanding of scripture. It might be saying that only they know the truth. It might be saying that only they are the pure and the chosen. Or it might be looking back to the past.

Fundamentalists hate different opinions, discussion, and open minds. They think that religion is not a private matter between a person and their god. They think that they must always force religion on people and that no one can disagree with them. Violence is often the result.

Young people are often unsure about their place in society and they like the certainty of fundamentalist movements. Others also like this certainty. Now that the world is suffering from the bad effects of capitalism, uncertainty is a way of life. There is austerity and the end of materialism. Communities are breaking down. Many people feel isolated and are looking for some kind of connection. The 1980s was the time when the market became more important than human life. So it is not a surprise that fundamentalist movements really began around the world in the 1980s.

One good thing is that we have many more multicultural societies but more traditional people find that worrying. The big life problems can lead many people to look for a way to make some kind of difference. I am moved by the poetry of the following: ‘Make your heart pure. Forget the world. It is time not to play but to meet Truth. We have wasted so much of our lives! Let’s take actions to bring us near to God.’ These words are part of the final instructions to the 9/11 terrorists.

‘Simple, attractive ideas’

People have studied the backgrounds of young people in the West who are ‘radicalized’ by Muslim fundamentalists. The young people often have past histories of racism, exclusion, and distant parents. Not many have strong religious backgrounds. They find it difficult to find a place in society and the fundamentalists used this as a way to ask them to cut off from the society they live in, and give their lives to the religious ideas they are selling. Society dislikes these young people and this makes the situation worse and sadly they get deeper and deeper into their new beliefs. Now faith and ideology will rule their lives and be used for wrong political ends.


An ISIS fighter in Raqqa, Syria. Handout/Alamy

In the Majority World, recruitment of young people can be easier where there is corrupt government and poor education that doesn’t help people to think for themselves, as in northern Nigeria. This is where Boko Haram is active. Fatima Akilu is a psychologist who runs the country’s Countering Violent Extremism Programme. He says, ‘The Boko Haram message is simple and attractive... It’s the same reason a lot of young people join gangs because you have a connection, a group, a family. You have a way to feel important. You feel you are doing god’s work. For some people it’s an adventure, for some it’s economic – Boko Haram gives them money to use to get married.’

Violent fundamentalism today is a problem in mainly Muslim countries. Azeem Ibrahim is a security analyst. He says, ‘The fight is not between Islam and secularism. It is a fight between the most extreme groups in Islam and everyone else, it doesn’t matter if they are Muslim or Western. Most of that fight is in the Islamic world. In some Muslim country there is terrible violence worse than the Paris attacks nearly every day.’

Death group

In the centre of things now are ISIS, who want the deaths of all who do not follow them. They want the deaths of the followers of ‘false’ religions, and also of approximately 200 million Shi’a Muslims. They think the Shi’a Muslims have made changes to try to improve the Qur’an, which is already perfect. Their use of social media is 21st century, but they want to recreate a seventh century state based on the earliest days of their faith – as they imagine it. Killing is their way of trying to make the world pure for the end times they see coming, when they know most of them will die as well. There is a Christian version of this kind of thinking in the groups before the millenium who expected to go straight to heaven while all others died at the end of the world. Some US strict Christians have said no to climate change or any action to help stop it.

The ISIS killers can quote verses from scripture, and use them to justify slavery, child rape, and killing. They have attracted12,000 mainly young foreigners A large number have converted to ISIS’s kind of Islam just to live and die in a real-life computer game. They are making children their killing machines. In the same way Joseph Kony used the Ten Commandments in the Bible to make his Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.


‘The boundaries of freedom’ by Dutch cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards. cartoonmovement.com

ISIS has taken an area the size of Britain with a population of eight million. One possibility for the end of ISIS is that it will be contained and die as it is surrounded by enemies.

With ISIS, all the stories of historic Muslim protest are going in another direction. The history goes back to the Crusades or to when the British and French divided the Middle East into colonies. It goes back to when they supported terrible governments to suit Western ends. It goes back to the support of oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which has been executing people in public for far longer than ISIS. And it goes back to the way the West was not worried about the use of Saudi money to spread fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology and when the problem arrived in the US, as 15 of the 19 9/11 terrorists were Saudis. In Pakistan, the US supported the dictator Zia-ul-Huq, who introduced the notorious blasphemy laws that stop the nation speaking. And the CIA gave money for madrassas (religious schools) to send extremists against the Soviets who occupied Afghanistan. So are the invasions of Muslim majority countries to support democracy or for oil? People on the Left and people of Muslim backgrounds have not spoken against Muslim fundamentalism because they were afraid that people would see them as supporting these Western ideas. But ISIS has stopped that. The vast majority of Muslims are moderate and other Muslims are suggesting to them that it is not enough to ignore ISIS and to say they are not true Muslims. They need to be active against ISIS. Religious texts say different things. The Qur’an talks about actions in violence and in peace and accepting other beliefs. The fight is for human rights, which fundamentalists of all kinds want to stop.

People say that ISIS is clever with social media. But many anti-fundamentalist liberal Muslims on the internet are calling for human rights for all, for democracy, and for an end to fundamentalism.

Supporting opposing ideas

Some people think that fundamentalisms are stronger when people in society are less religious or follow no religion. This may not be true for fundamentalism everywhere. One thing is certain: fundamentalisms begin with socio-politics and not religion. We can see them as irrational answers to the empty world of “Late Capitalism”. Fighting them will take a long time.

In Nigeria the troops are fighting back against Boko Haram. Fatima Akilu knows military action is necessary but it is not the end of the story. She wants to ‘rebuild spaces for young people where they feel they can belong’, including community centres for poor children. She talks about the need for education to help children think critically and logically so they can resist the ideas of fundamentalist leaders. Her programme works with young Boko Haram followers who are now in prison. The programme gives tehm therapy, job advice, art and sport, and contact with liberal imams. It’s very different from the work of the fundamentalists. The government also has a victim support programme. It is early days, and progress is not easy to see, but it does seem like the right direction.

We must also listen to opposing opinions. Every country with a fundamentalism problem will have serious people who are risking a lot to support different ways of thinking. Muslim anti-fundamentalists often say that we do not hear their ideas in the media. In a big country like India, where Hindu nationalists do a lot of damage by inciting the Hindu majority for political ends, there are many groups fighting against this.

Fundamentalist movements have men as leaders and they often get women to speak against women’s rights. We also need to support women’s movements against this.

Fundamentalism wants people to follow some higher authority – usually humans with ideas different from the religions they say they serve. But when we stop thinking clearly, we make monsters.

I think about the words of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. He was sentenced to 10 years’ in prison and 1,000 lashes in May last year for operating the Saudi Arabian Liberals website and running the Liberal Muslim Network. He wrote: ‘We want life for those who call for our deaths. We desire life and rationality for those who desire ignorance for us.’

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/2015/06/01/fundamentalism-keynote/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).