Roughly speaking, fundamentalism is a label that refers to the modern tendency – a habit of the heart and mind (Marty & Appleby 1991, 1993a, 1993b, 1994, 1995) – to claim the unerring nature of a sacred text and to deduce from that a rational strategy for instrumental social action. The final goal is to achieve the utopia of a regime of the truth (Pace 1998), gain political power, and rebuild organic solidarity, in jeopardy  because of  relativism, secularism, and weakness due to the eclipse of religion’s social function  of  integration.  This   tendency  has arisen  in  various  socioreligious contexts:  in Protestantism and Catholicism, Islam and the Jewish communities (both in Diaspora and in Israel after the 1967 Six Day War), in contemporary Hinduism and Buddhism, and, to some extent, even in a particular faction of Sikhism (the  Khalsa, the  religious order  of warriors, defenders of the truth  and the sacred boundaries of the Punjab). Fundamentalism made its appearance in  contemporary times with such manifestations as the first march of the Moral Majority in the United States and the Iranian revolution  (1979); the  intensification in Sri Lanka  of the  tension  between the  Sinhalese Buddhists and the Tamil Hindu from 1977 to 1983; the appearance in Israel of many nationalist religious movements whose aim was to regain and  defend the  biblical boundaries of the people of Israel (Eretz Israel ) from 1977 to 1980; and, in the Punjab, from 1984 to 1988 there was an acute crisis in relations between the Sikhs and the Indian government, culminating in an attack by the Indian army on the Golden  Temple  in  Amritsar and  the  subsequent assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi by a Sikh.

In light of these events, many scholars hold the view that fundamentalism is a modern global  phenomenon involving the  historic  religions,  for  the  most  part.  One  of  the  most impressive attempts at a comparative analysis was  the  ‘‘Fundamentalism  Project,’’ carried out  by a team of researchers coordinated by Marty and Appleby and sponsored by the American Academy, which was published in five volumes. In summing up the authors’ analysis, five common features characterizing fundamentalist movements can be identified.

First, fundamentalism is characterized by the type of social action dominated by the attitude of fighting back. This means, on the one hand, that  the social actors claim to be restoring a mythical and sacred order of the past, but, on the other hand, they act with great innovative power of mobilization. The sacred becomes the means for gaining political power. Without this close relation between religious narrative and political rhetoric, with constant mutual contamination between the  two, it  is impossible to distinguish between the manner of fundamentalist movements and that  of traditionalist or conservative ones. The  former aim to assume the absolute and unerring truth  of the sacred text to legitimate a new social order, the order of animmanent god (the law), pure and integral, to affirm and preserve a pure collective identity. Retracing its collective memory, fundamental ism  comes up  with  a  sacred language that inspires the discipline of the body and the mind; through this, it implants common habits in the hearts of the people, an image of solidarity. In contrast to the modern idea of ‘‘atomized’’ individuals in a fragmented society, this solidarity creates a mystical community of Brothers.

The second element highlighted by the authors  of  the  ‘‘Fundamentalist  Project’’ – fighting for – is implicit in the foregoing: the ultimate  goal of  the  movement  is  political, despite the furious and intense religious motivations. For instance, at the beginning of the changes in Iran in 1977–8, Islam was perceived as a set  of instruments promoting liberation from  dictatorship  and  the  modernization  of the country run by the Pahlavi dynasty. There was an  Islamic liberation theology that  later became, when the Ayatollah Khomeini gained power, a political project to create an integral Islamic state, a process which moved away from the centralized power of the state, shifting the traditional role of the Shiite clerical institution. Up  to the time of the revolution, the Shiites were the interpreters of the sacred text without any claim to impose a single model of society or political order. Yet, after coming to power, the ayatollah began to offer a sort of state hermeneutics of the sacred text. In spite of the traditional pluralism within the Shia in the matter of interpretation  of  canon  law,  the  Khomeini regime  imposed  a  uniform,  and  unbearable, straitjacket on a society with some degree of social differentiation, accustomed to perceiving the difference between religion and politics.

The  third feature – fight with – refers to a specific repository of symbolic resources of use in the crusade for restoring identity and gaining political  power.  As  a  rule,  fundamentalists move toward a mythical past contained in  a sacred text, the shrine of the secret of the social order. Thus, they distill – drop by drop – the functional language of social action, the socio-logos of the society in question. In this sense, the fundamentalist approach to both the sacred text and social action is selective: fundamentalists actually interpret the text, whilst pretending to claim its inerrancy, it’s a historicity, and generally its  structural  refractoriness to  any rational (historical and critical) hermeneutics.

The  fourth  element is the  fight against. If fundamentalism were a label that could be applied to  any kind of (religious) politics of identity (in which case, for instance, the former President Milosevic of Serbia acted as a fundamentalist when he tried to combine nationalist rhetoric with a discourse on the Orthodox origins of the Serbian nation), it would be very easy to demonstrate the link between the fundamentalist mentality and the need for an enemy. Being a fundamentalist assumes the idea and feeling of being threatened by an enemy (real or imagined) as regards one’s identity, territory, and survival. When he assassinated Israeli President Rabin in 1995, Yigal Amir believed he was doing what was best, since Rabin, by making peace with Arafat, was yielding to the Palestinians territories that,  according to extremist movements,  belonged  to  the  promised  land given by God to his people. Finally, the fifth feature of fundamentalism – fight under God – represents a simple corollary of the  previous assumptions. It  refers to the intensity of the militants’ conviction that they are ‘‘on the right path.’’ They are certain they are called directly by a god to carry on with radical determination the struggle against the enemy. Thus, symbolic and physical violence are legitimized. Sacred violence becomes a logical consequence of the missionary function the fundamentalist feels he has received from God. The fundamentalist believes he carries out the function of defender of the rights of God and executor of his will on earth.

The term fundamentalism has given rise to heated controversy among scholars, the  most significant objection being that it has been used to classify different phenomena present in very diverse socioreligious contexts. In other words, we should guard against reducing every radical conservative religious viewpoint to a manifestation of fundamentalism. Other  scholars point out the difficulty of comparing different religions under  the  same label, fundamentalism: religions which are monotheistic with those of a non theistic or  polytheistic nature,  or  religions entailing  the  crucial  importance  of  a sacred text (the Bible, Koran, Adi Granth) with others that do not.

Apart  from  these  objections,  those  social scientists who accept the concept and assume a comparative and global approach to studying fundamentalism are divided on another issue: whether the phenomenon should be interpreted as an expression (or the quintessence) of modernity or as a simple reaction to modernity. The contrast refers to a broader debate within social theory  about  the  classic dichotomy  between tradition  and  modernity, postmodernity, and globalization.

To sum up, four main points of view emerge. In the first approach, fundamentalism is a clear reaction to modernity, a defensive protection against the individualization of belief and socio-religious identity  (Meyer 1989). The  second orientation is well represented, among others, by both Lawrence (1989) and Eisenstadt (1999); they  hold  that fundamentalism is  a  modern phenomenon, a direct consequence of modernity, characterized by the rejection of modern ism. Using the advantages of modernity (the techniques of propaganda, the  logic of social mobilization, lobbying in the public and political arena, and so on), fundamentalism, according to  Eisenstadt, is urged  on  by a modern Jacobin utopia  in  antithesis  with  modernity. Lawrence believes, on the other hand, that the disjunction between modernity and modernism enables fundamentalism to become a transnational movement claiming to give a new and absolute  basis  for  social action  and  human knowledge, to the social order and the source of political power. The third approach stresses the relationship between fundamentalism and secularization (Kepel  1991), fundamentalism being a countertendency to the gradual eclipse of the sacred many scholars had predicted two decades ago.

The last point of view underlines the importance of the political objectives of the fundamentalist   movements’  social and   religious action   (Greilsammer  1991;  Vander   Veer 2000): their struggle tends to focus all religious energy on the public arena and consequently on  political action,  according to  the  crucial hypothesis that  only through political power will it be possible to reestablish the divine law and safeguard one’s identity (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, and so on). The way the fundamentalist mentality bridges the gap between religion and politics is characterized by a double abstraction used in the hermeneutics of the sacred text, as pointed out by Bhikku Parekh (1992): by abstracting from the tradition (sometimes in contrast to the traditional authority or a consolidated school of juridical thought and theological doctrine) and inventing a  set  of religious narratives and  a political rhetoric of identity abstracted from a literal interpretation of the text itself. In this sense, fundamentalism is able to invent a tradition by reifying a sacred text and drawing from it paradigms of social action, sometimes without any substantial relation to the historical and theological context in which the sacred text was written. Even when a religious tradition does not refer to a single revealed sacred text – such as Buddhism or Hinduism – one of the most striking phenomena we have seen is the selection of one, among many other sacred texts, and the consequent construction of a sociological and cognitive map; the idea being that in the  text  we find  the  roots  of our  collective memory and identity, the sacred boundaries of the  territory  we  inhabit,  and  the  source  of political authority. When such a discourse is produced  by  an  elite of Buddhist  monks in Sri Lanka during the process of nation building (which has been going on since 1955), or by a network of neo-Hindu groups and political par ties (in India since 1979), which has gradually managed to gain power (with the Bharata Janata Party), there is no doubt that the habits of the heart and the attitudes of the mind are fundamentalist oriented.


  1. Eisenstadt, (1999) Fundamentalism, Sectarianism, and Revolution. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  2. Greilsammer, (1991) Israel: Les hommes en noir. Presse de  la  Fondation  Nationale des  Sciences Politiques, Paris.
  3. Kepel, (1991) La Revanche de Dieu. Seuil, Paris.
  4. Lawrence, (1989) Defenders of God. Harper, San Francisco.
  5. Marty, E. & Appleby, S. R. (Eds.) (1991) Fundamentalism Observed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. Marty, E. & Appleby, S. R. (Eds.) (1993a) Fundamentalism and Society: Reclaiming  the Sciences, the Family, and Education. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Marty, E. & Appleby, S. R. (Eds.) (1993b) Fundamentalism and the State: Remaking Politics, Economics, and Militance. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  8. Marty, E. & Appleby, S. R. (Eds.) (1994) Accounting for Fundamentalism: The Dynamic Character of Movements. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  9. Marty, E. & Appleby, S. R. (Eds.) (1995) Fundamentalism Comprehended. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  10. Meyer,      (1989)   Fundamentalismus.  Rowohl Taschenbuch, Hamburg.
  11. Pace, (1998) Il  regime dellaverita`. Il  Mulino, Bologna.
  12. Parekh, (1992) The Concept of Fundamentalism. University of  Warwick Centre  for  Research in Asian Migration, Occasional Papers in Asian Migration Study, No.1.
  13. Vander Veer, (2000) Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India. University of California Press, Berkeley.

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