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Ward, Colin. Fundamentalism

When I was asked by the Anarchist Research Group to talk here today, I resolved to tackle a difficult subject which we tend to ignore because it doesn’t fit our view of the world but which is going to affect us all, anarchists and non-anarchists, increasingly : the rise at the end of the twentieth century of religious fundamentalism. [1]

Among the classical anarchists, the characteristic statement on religion came from the most widely-circulated work of the Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin, God and the State. It is a fragment, written in 1871, in which he deplores the fact that belief in God still survived among the people, especially, as he put it, ’in the rural districts, where it is more widespread than among the proletariat of the cities’.

He thought this faith in religion was all too natural, since all governments profited from the ignorance of the people as one of the essential conditions of their own power, while weighed down by labour, deprived of leisure and of intellectual intercourse, the people sought an escape. Bakunin claimed that there were three methods of escape from the miseries of life, two of them illusory and one real. The first two were the bottle and the church, ’debauchery of the body or debauchery of the mind ; the third is social revolution’.

Social revolution, Bakunin believed, ’will be much more potent than all the theological propagandism of the freethinkers to destroy to their last vestige the religious beliefs and dissolute habits of the people, beliefs and habits much more intimately connected than is generally supposed’.

Bakunin then turned to the powerful, dominant classes in society who, while too worldly-wise to be believers themselves, ’must at least make a semblance of believing’ because the simple faith of the people was a useful factor in keeping them down.

Finally, in this particular statement of his attitudes, Bakunin turns to those propagandists for religion who, when you challenge them on any particular absurdity in their dogma relating to miracles, virgin births or resurrection, loftily explain that they are to be understood as beautiful myths rather than literal truths and that we are to be pitied for our prosaic questions rather than them for propagating mythology as truth.

Bakunin’s opinions were much the same as those of his adversary Karl Marx, one of whose best-known phrases was his description of religion as the opium of the people. And the historians of ideas would categorise liberalism, socialism, communism and anarchism as products of the period known as the Enlightenment, the result of the Age of Reason, the ferment of ideas and the spirit of enquiry between the English Revolution of the 1640s and the American and French revolutions of the 1770s and 1780s.

In parochial English terms, one slow, grudgingly-conceded result of the Enlightenment was religious toleration. We tend to forget that England has a state church, founded because of a row that Henry VIII had with the Pope over one of his divorces. It claimed its martyrs as the long history of suppression of dissenters reminds us, as does the continual struggle for religious freedom. It wasn’t until 1858 that legal disabilities were lifted from believing Jews and not until 1871 that people who could not subscribe to the 39 Articles of the Church of England were admitted to the ancient universities. The Church of England may be a joke to us and the majority of British people, but it is a reminder of an important social and political fact. One result of the Enlightenment was that the people who wrote the constitutions of a great many states sought to learn the lessons of history and the horrors of religious wars, and insisted on the absolute separation of religious practices from public life. Religion was to be a private affair. This was true of the founding fathers of the United States of America, whose ancestors had fled religious persecution in Europe, it was true of the French republic and consequently of those countries which with immense lost of life liberated themselves from French imperialism. And it is true of many new republics similarly founded as a result of the collapse of imperialism in the twentieth century. Some key examples are the republics of India, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria or Israel.

"The Scream"
Edvard Munch

Now, all over the world, the secular state is under threat. Secular political regimes in, for example, Turkey, Egypt, Israel or Algeria, are threatened by militant religious movements, and there is a growing fimdamentalist threat to the secular constitution of the United States. This isn’t what Bakunin or Marx or any other political thinker from the nineteenth century, from John Stuart Mill to Alexis de Tocqueville, predicted.

I am like the rest of them, but I don’t have a speculative turn of mind and never ponder over the big philosophical issues that worry some people, like the nature and purpose of human existence. What interest me are the issues that bind us together, like the need for housing, food and the production of goods and services, rather than those that set us apart, like nationalism, tribalism and religion, which seem to depend on geographical accidents and aesthetic choices. Just as there is no point in arguing over the relative merits of Mozart, rock or flamenco, there is nothing to be gained from disputes about the great variety of religions on offer. It is more sensible to stress, in terms of getting on with the art of living together, the principle which many of them have in common and with most of us non-religious people. This is the principle of reciprocity, or ’do as you would be done by’, described by Kropotkin as Mutual Aid.

So it never seemed important to me to be involved in anti-religious activities, dismissed by Bakunin as ’the theological propagandism of the freethinkers’, and it has always seemed to me to be pointless to solemnly set out arguments intended to prove that God does not exist. I took it for granted that the increasing secularisation of life, reflected in Europe at least by declining attendances in places of worship, would make religion an issue we didn’t have to bother about. ’Live and let live’ is my attitude, and I would never dream of troubling people who didn’t trouble me.

I live in a country which is not a secular state, and which actually has a state church, attended by a small minority of the population, and actually has a law of blasphemy. Everyone thought this law was a dead letter, but it was actually invoked a few years ago in a private prosecution by Mrs Mary Whitehouse of the journal Gay News, its editor and distributors because of their publication of a poem by James Kirkup. The revelation that we still had such a law led to a demand that, simply out of fairness, it should be extended to cover other religious faiths beyond Christianity and the Church of England. This demand for a new non-discriminatory blasphemy law was supported not only by representatives of that church but by those who claimed to represent Catholics, Jews and Muslims, and could happen, just for lack of political opposition. It was left to Nicolas Walter, in his book on Blasphemy, Ancient and Modern, to remind us that such a law ’would still discriminate between religion and other forms of belief’ and would ’dramatically increase the power of fanatics to impose their views on the majority and to have them protected from criticism’.

Plenty of anarchists may think that a more immediate diminution of civil liberties will result from the present government’s Criminal Justice Bill, about to become law. This is a calculated attempt to criminalise a wide spread of dissidents including traditional gypsies, travellers, squatters, protesters and demonstrators of every kind. A legislature which can approve so appalling a threat to every kind of non-parliamentary opposition will not hesitate to approve the protection from criticism of religious beliefs of the major kinds.

What makes this a disastrous prospect is that, in our media-managed world where news-worthiness displaces human values, it is always the extreme expression of views that dominates the media. We never hear about the views of those millions of fellow citizens who would feel outraged by anti-religious propaganda but have made their adjustments to secular society. They make a token observance of ancient beliefs, out of respect for their ancestors, for births, marriages and deaths or festive occasions, and fill up the statistics of believers. But they don’t make news and, as a result of the media, it is taken for granted that the spokesman for the non-Catholic majority in Northern Ireland is the Reverend Ian Paisley, or that the spokesman for the majority in Israel, a nation-state founded by socialist atheists, was the late Rabbi Meir Kahana, a New Yorker, or the spokesman for the Muslim world was the late Ayatollah Khomeini, or for that matter that the Catholic world shares the opinions of the current Pope. Daily experience confirms that this is not so.

The unexpected and unwelcome change in the religious atmosphere is known as fundamentalism, and arose from a trend in Christian revivalism in the United States after the First World War which insisted on belief in the literal truth of everything in the Bible. The use of the term has spread to describe trends in the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Shinto religions which, to outsiders like us, present similar features. They present a threat, not only to the hard-won concept of the secular state, which anarchists may not feel important, but to the hard-won freedoms of every citizen. Writing in Freedom recently, Nicolas Walter urged us to take this threat seriously, pointing out that : Fundamentalist Christians are trying to suppress the study of evolution and the practice of contraception and abortion in the West and the Third World. Fundamentalist Jews are trying to incorporate the whole of Palestine into Israel and to impose the halachah, the traditional law of Judaism. Fundamentalist Muslims are trying to establish Muslim regimes in all countries with Muslim populations (including Britain) and to impose the shaa, the traditional law of Islam. And fundamentalists of all faiths are using assassination and terror all over the world to suppress freedom of discussion of such matters.
This is an absolute tragedy for that majority of citizens in any country who are simply concerned with the ordinary business of living, feeding a family and enjoying the ordinary pleasures of life, as well as for those who aspire to make life better through community action and social justice. Governmental suppression of religion never works. The Soviet Union witnessed seventy years of state hostility, sometimes violent and sometimes benign, to religious activity. When the regime collapsed, there was a huge revival of the Orthodox faith and a happy hunting ground for American Protestant evangelism.

In Soviet Central Asia, one historian suggests that

’the local elites, attached to Islamic customs and recognising a degree of affinity between Islamic and socialist values, cheated on their anti-religious activities as assiduously as they faked their cotton-production figures. Gatherings of old men reading the Koran would be described to zealots of the Society for Scientific Atheism as meetings of Great Patriotic War veterans’. In Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, who also shared Bakunin’s views on religion, embarked on a dictatorial policy of what we might call ’de-Islamification’.

His current successors are prevented from presenting a democratic facade, precisely because of the threat of the return of religion. On a different time-scale, Iran, where the Shah was a ruthless Westerniser, was succeeded by a regime which no one predicted. Egypt and Algeria are torn apart between rival elites of the secular or religious state. In the United States the most poweriul of all political lobbies is that of the Christian Coalition with a growing infliuence in the Republican Party. It denies any responsibility for the murder of the last doctor who dared to perform an abortion in the American South.

It is both tragic and unexpected that among all the other issues facing us, we, who thought that wars of religion belonged to the past, have to confront issues of the recognition of difference while we move on to the issues which unite, rather than divide us. My own approach is that of the anarchist propagandist Rudolf Rocker, ninety years ago in the Jewish community of Whitechapel. Some secularist allies had chosen the propaganda of provocative behaviour on Sabbath mornings outside the synagogue in Brick Lane. Asked his opinion, Rocker replied that the place for believers was the house of worship, and the place for non-believers was the radical meeting. The anecdote has resonances. For the same building that has seen many faiths come and go, as a Huguenot church, a dissenting meeting-house and a Jewish synagogue, is now a mosque. And anyone harassing the emerging worshippers today is not a secularist Bangladeshi but an English racist, menacing and heavy, and bent on instilling fear and making trouble. The scene has changed.

It has changed for me too. On the rare occasions when I have thought about this issue I have agreed with the view expressed about, for example, the BJP Party in India who succeeded in spreading communal violence into parts of the Punjab where different communities had previously lived in harmony together, that the name of the disease is not fundamentalism but ethnic nationalism. This view fits other parts of the world like Northern Ireland. And in such instances, as in many parts of the Islamic world, we can choose to put the blame on the endless humiliations and devaluations of the local culture inflicted by Western imperialism. Edward Said, for example, claims that :

The fear and terror induced by the overscale images of ’terrorism’ and ’fundamentalism’ - call them the figures of an international or transnational imagery made up of foreign devils - hastens the individual’s subordination to the dominant norms of the moment. This is as true in the new post-colonial societies as it is in the West generally and the United States particularly. Thus to oppose the abnormality and extremism embedded in terrorism and fundamentalism - my example has only a small degree of parody - is also to uphold the moderation, rationality, executive centrality of a vaguely designated ’Western’ (or otherwise local and patriotically assumed) ethos. The irony is that far from endowing the Western ethos with the confidence and secure ’normality’ we associate with privilege and rectitude, this dynamic imbues ’us’ with a righteous anger and defensiveness in which ’others’ are finally seen as enemies, bent on destroying our civilisation and way of life.

To my mind, Said’s difficult prose envelopes a big truth. The countries of the Near and Middle East were for centuries subjected to one imperialism or another, their culture ridiculed and patronised and even their boundaries formed by lines drawn on the map by European government and business. They are valued today according to their oil resources or as potential markets, while they are awash with weapons left over from Cold War bribes. The Western secular religion of conspicuous consumption was readily adopted by Eastern rulers, but could offer nothing but frustrated hopes to their poor subjects.

But although Islamic fundamentalism is the version that makes news, other varieties with quite different backgrounds are observable in the West. The best source for the ordinary reader (as opposed to scholars with access to an academic industry called The Fundamentalism Project, with its series of books from the University of Chicago Press) is a book by a French author, Gilles Kepel, with the apt title The Revenge of God.

He studies the phenomenon in terms of the three major religions known as ’Abrahamic’, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, though he might have extended his study, not only to other old religions but to various new ones. I would have extended it to cover the worldwide trend over the same period to Marketism, the worship of the Market, of which the Thatcherism of the 1980s in Britain is just one reflection, permeating every aspect of our lives. The least observant of us must have noted how, as if by magic, even our language has changed, so that the user of public transport once described as a ’passenger ’is now a ’customer’ and that what was once ’health care’ is now a ’product’. There is a theology at work here, and its universal acceptance is part of our enquiry into fundamentalism.

Kepel’s aim is something different. His task is to persuade us that the scene has changed since the days when elderly rationalist anarchists like me formed out view of the world.

He argues that

’The 1970s was a decade of cardisnal importance for the relationship between religion and politics, which has changed in unexpected ways during the last quarter of the twentieth century’ and that around 1975 the whole process of secularisation went into reverse as ’a new religious approach took shape, aiming no longer at adapting to secular values but at last recovering a sacred foundation for the organisation of society - by changing society if necessary’.

These movements, he explains,

’had come into being earlier, but none had attracted a large audience until that time. They had not drawn the masses after them, and their ideals or slogans appeared outdated or retrograde at a time of widespread social optimism. In the postwar period, earthly utopias had triumphed : in Europe, which had emerged from the nightmare of war and destruction and had discovered the horror of the extermination of the Jews, all energies were turned to building new societies that would exorcise the morbid phantasms of the past. The building of socialism in the East and the birth of the consumer society in the West left little room for the expression of ideologies seeking to draw upon religion for the guidelines of the social order. The improved standard of living resulting from the considerable advances in technology fostered an uncritical belief in progress, so much that "progressiveness" itself became a criterion of value’.

And to remind us that we cannot simply explain the rejection of secular values on the traumas of the post-colonial world, he draws our attention to political realities in America.

’We may recall’, he reminds us, ’that in 1976 the fervent Baptist Jimmy Carter was elected President of the United States, and deployed his moral and religious convictions in cleansing the American executive of the sin of Watergate. In 1980 his rival, Ronald Reagan, was elected largely because he captured the votes of most of the Evangelical and fundamentalist electors who followed the advice of politico-religious bodies such as the Moral Majority. Created in 1979, this movement aimed at making America ... into a new Jerusalem. There too, the religious movements of the 1970s touched all levels of society ; they were not confined to the rural, conservative southern states, but attracted members both from the black and Hispanic minorities and from the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and developed a huge preaching and financing network thanks to their exceptional mastery of television and the most sophisticated forms of communication. Under Jimmy Carter, and above all Ronald Reagan, some of them had easy access to the White House and the highest political circles ; they used it to promote their vision of a society founded on the observance of "Christian values" - from school prayers to the prohibition of abortion’.

Kepel was writing in 1991, and since then what is now called the Christian Coalition now dominates the Republican Party in the United States and this summer all the Republican senators have signed a letter to the Democratic president Clinton demanding that he should ’repudiate’ the attack on the religious Right as ’bigotry’. He knows that his party too depends upon the organised Christian vote and will have to employ all the skills of his media advisors to learn how best to accede to this demand. The point to note is that anyone who wants to protect the secular state from religious propagandists is a bigot, while those who you or I would regard as bigots claim the protection of the state in imposing their attitudes on the rest of us.

The secular state of consumerism and the religion of economic growth and free trade will always come to terms with the fundamentalists of a variety of other religions if they provide markets for military equipment, but somehow this kind of economic fundamentalism is not considered as an irrational ideology but as a law of nature. But in terms of the discussion of those ideologies normally classified as religions, anarchists, with their all-embracing criticism of authority whether that of the state or of capitalism, have been by-passed by the resurgence of religious belief.

Since we know that traditional anti-religious propaganda fails to change people’s minds and since we know that enforced attempts to suppress beliefs simply encourage them to spring up again the moment the pressure is relaxed, we (or rather our successors in the next century) have to explore other routes, and we have few ideas about what they are.

One is the obdurate defence of civil liberties and of freedom of expression. Supporters of Amnesty and readers of the journal Index on Censorship will know that all over the world this claims its martyrs every day, not only among those bold enough to speak out but among those caught in the crossfire. In fact, of course, every newspaper reader knows this too. But since the media need a new horror to report every day, even our familiarity with the disasters of religious or ethnic nationalism or tribalism tends to obscure the fact that most people have a huge vested interest in simply keeping society going, and don’t share the lethal preoccupations of the zealots. In the background of the shocking images on television are the municipal employees dedicated to ordinary public services like the water and power supplies, the fire brigade, ambulance and hospital provision, cleaning up the mess that the ideologists and true believers leave behind. They hadn’t heard the news from the market religion of the enlightened West that these things are simply commodities.

This leads me to another approach to the religious revival, which I will call accommodation. No doubt you, like me, have met believers in some religion or other with whom we have one attitude in common, which is of disgust at the world of advertising and public relations that surrounds us, concerned solely with ensnaring us all into consuming more. It might be that rejection of the way in which the culture of contentment of the consuming classes of the rich nations are squandering the world’s resources, an issue that links anarchists with the Green movement, also joins people like us to one element in various religious movements. It isn’t a matter of puritanical anti-materialism. We all want a society where people are adequately fed, clothed and housed, and plenty of us felt disinclined to conduct theoretical arguments with members of that movement known as Liberation Theology in Latin America or with other believers in other faiths who were impelled to tackle issues that their rulers neglected.

Let me illustrate this from my experience. While uninterested in God, I am interested in housing, so I get asked to present what I see as an anarchist point of view at conferences where the well-housed discuss the problems of the ill-housed. At one of these I found an ally in a woman with vast experience of self-help housing by poor people. She wore the hijab or veil and I learned later that this was why she was forbidden to teach about housing at the University of Ankara. There are, of course, neighbouring countries where she would be forbidden to teach unless she was veiled.

This encounter leads me to a further speculation. Perhaps the most effective counter to fundamentalist threats to the liberty of all will be the women’s movement. Women are certainly its first victims. In Algeria, schoolgirls were killed in the street for not wearing the veil and in March this year two girls wearing the veil were shot outside their school. Aicha Lemsine comments in the current issue of Index on Censorship.

It was the first time that girls wearing Islamic dress had been killed. Suddenly it was not only women journalists and writers - ’modem’ women - who were being targeted ; simply to be a woman was enough. Caught between the ’democratic fundamentalists’ and the ’religious fundamentalists’, regardless of age, Algerian women became a human shield, the animal brought to slaughter, marked down for the final solution by madmen.

It is evident that the Bible Belt of the United States has vast numbers of women who couldn’t wait to escape. And the same must be true of the new more-orthodox-than-ever-before Jewish households in that country or in Britain or in Israel. One of the reasons why there has been such a widespread recent interest in Emma Goldman and her views is because she was an exemplar of women’s emancipation from the culture of the shtetl, which male theologians have sought to reproduce in New York, London and Jerusalem. The implications of this and its equivalents in other religious traditions, Hinduism and Islam, are spelled out in an absorbing book on women and fundamentalism in Britain called Reusing Holy Orders.

Another aspect of the same theme comes from the Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi who made a study of Women and Islam, when she was asked to write a preface for an English translation of her book. She concluded :

When I finished writing this book I had come to understand one thing : if women’s rights are a problem for some modem Muslim men, it is neither because of the Koran nor the Prophet, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite. The elite faction is trying to convince us that their egotistically subjective and mediocre view of culture and society has a sacred basis.

You will know that for expressing similar views a Bangladeshi doctor and writer, Taslima Nasreen, author of a novel Shame about the persecution of the Hindu minority in Bangladesh, has been obliged to flee her country and take refuge in Sweden. She was reported as saying that ’It is my belief that politics cannot be based on religion if our women are to be free’, and on 4th June this year ’the Bangladeshi government issued an arrest warrant under Article 295a of the Penal Code ; the relevant legal clauses refer to "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings" ... It is ironic that the law under which Taslima Nasreen was charged was originally a British law introduced in colonial times to prevent inter-religious strife’. It is evident that she was allowed to slip out of the country to avoid a confrontation between the secular government and the fundamentalist lobby. Unlike Fatima Mernissi, who writes from within the Islamic tradition, Taslima Nasreen says :

I dream of a world without religion. Religion gives birth to fundamentalism as surely as the seed gives birth to the tree. We can tear the tree down, but if the seed remains it will produce another tree. While the seed remains, we cannot root out fundamentalism.

These two brave women have quite different views on fundamentalism. I think that the evidence of twentieth century history is that religious impulses can’t be rooted out. The power of the state can be used to subdue them but they keep springing up. It is going to be a battle in the next century just to insist that they are a private matter, and that the zealots are prevented by the secular majority in society from imposing their preferences and prejudices on the rest of us, destroying civil society in the process.

This is a muted conclusion, which I reach through watching what is actually happening in the world. I should add that at 3pm tomorrow afternoon in the library in this building, you can hear Nicolas Walter talking, far more analytically than I could, on ’Fundamentals of Fundamentalism’.


[1Talk at the Conway Hall, London, on Saturday 22nd October 1994, 2pm. The Raven, No. 27 (Autumn 1994)


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Ward, Colin. Fundamentalism,
Dernières modifications : 27 avril 2015. [En ligne].
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WARD, Colin (14/8/1924 – 11/2/2010)
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