Scholars Analyze Global Spread of Fundamentalism : Beliefs: For all their differences, every group wants to change society. And each believes that it alone has the answer.


In the quiet of middle America, the faithful of Operation Rescue protest and picket abortion clinics.

In the tumult of India, half a world away, hundreds of Muslims and Hindus die during a week of riots when a sacred mosque is destroyed.

The two news events have a common element: Both are tied to fundamentalism, one of the world's fastest-growing religious movements. For all their differences, in the eyes of some scholars, they share two goals--they want to change society, and they believe they and they alone have the answer.

"Everything in the fundamentalist's world is we vs. them, God vs. Satan, black vs. white," said Martin Marty, noted religion scholar and professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School. "They don't want to be popular. . . . To be persecuted or spoken against is a sign they have the truth."

Marty is director of the Fundamentalism Project, a five-year study examining these movements in seven major religions spanning five continents. About 150 scholars have helped produce three of six projected volumes; the program leaders have written two spinoff books and consulted on a TV and radio series, and their work is believed to be influential in State Department circles.

The scholars, who are in the final year of their work, come from as many corners of the world as the tens of millions of subjects under their academic microscope. They include a Shiite legal scholar, a Sikh political scientist, an Egyptian historian-commentator and an American feminist.

Together, they have analyzed fundamentalist groups that are often at odds with one another but unified in their pursuit of political power. Usually, the quest for power is peaceful, but occasionally their 'fight-back' philosophy leads to riots, terrorism--and death.

"All these religions emphasize . . . nonviolence," said R. Scott Appleby, associate project director and a university research associate. "But one can always find an escape hatch, a statement in the holy book, a teaching of a guru (that says) when the faith itself is under moral attack, one must pick up the sword."

When they do, they frequently make headlines. Among some higher-profile fundamentalists:

Radical religious Zionists who have pushed for expansion of settlements in the West Bank; the Islamic Group in Egypt, whose disciples were convicted of trying to topple the government and whose leader, Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, a blind cleric, preached to some of the suspects in the World Trade bombing; the VHP, or Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the cultural arm of the Hindu nationalist party, tied to the destruction of a Muslim mosque and riots last December; the Rev. Donald Wildmon and his American Family Assn., and Operation Rescue in the United States.

Fundamentalism is one of the world's two fastest-growing religious movements--the other is Pentecostalism--and thrives in turbulent times, Marty said. The fall of the Iron Curtain, disintegration of the Soviet Union and famine in the Third World make this a ripe era for conversion.

"In the midst of upheaval . . . when the regular regime can't fulfill their promises, fundamentalisms have great opportunities," Marty said. "They make promises and they fill the void in your life."

Fundamentalist groups have become powerful enough to threaten the stability of governments in Egypt, India, Jordan, Pakistan and Algeria, Appleby said.

"Fundamentalists tend to be more aggressive," he said. "They're very, very savvy politically. . . . They are shrewd observers and imitators of secular politicians."

And although their message may appear old-fashioned, "they think modern communications and technology are perfectly fine to be manipulated for the glory of God," Appleby added.

Though fundamentalists sometimes rally around a leader--the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, for instance--they are very different from those in religious cults, such as the Branch Davidians and leader David Koresh, who holed up in Waco, Tex., for 51 days before their fiery deaths in April.

"A cult usually arises around one charismatic figure or a family," Appleby said. "Cultists also tend to be apocalyptic. Much of their appeal and the hold on their followers . . . is based on an analysis that, 'We are in crisis, we are the chosen and the end is coming.' "

"Fundamentalists are not focused on tomorrow as the end of the world," he added. "They want to rebuild society in the image of a sacred nation or a homeland."

These groups do not like being lumped together, and some conservative Christian organizations, for instance, say it is offensive and unfair to even be included in a broad category of fundamentalists.

"We bear more similarity to Martin Luther King in our strategies and our faith than to Middle East fundamentalism," said Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, which claims about 400,000 members.

Project researchers say that although fundamentalists do not share any religious doctrine, they seek to create a world that fits one profile: It is patriarchal or anti-feminist, so God is always male and the man in the family is the ultimate authority; it is anti-pluralistic, so subscribers do not believe everyone should be given their fair say, and it is anti-liberal, so freedom only makes sense in the context of what is sacred.

Reed takes issue with that description too. "I would defend with my life the right of people to propagate a viewpoint with which I totally disagree," he said. "That is not true of Middle East Shiite Muslims."

Researchers say fundamentalists have another common theme: They all have an enemy.

"They need scapegoats," Marty said. "You always need opposition. You always need a foil, a personification of the force coming at you."

Often that enemy is the West, branded "the great Satan."

"They're fighting against a world operated by rational principles alone, whether that's a market economy, human rights . . . or a government that accepts the separation of religion and politics," Appleby said.

In the United States, the enemy of choice was communism.

But with the demise of the Soviet Union, American fundamentalists have discovered others: liberals, feminists, abortion rights and anti-censorship proponents, Hollywood and President Clinton.

Marty said that U.S. fundamentalism will remain a cause, but is not growing as fast as in other nations. "It's hard to stay fundamentalist in America," he said. "There are too many lures, too many attractions, too many compromises, too many corruptions."

U.S. fundamentalism is also changing direction, from Washington-based lobbying to grass-roots campaigns.

In New York this month, conservative Christian groups, acting in response to a proposed curriculum that would have taught first-graders tolerance of homosexuals, backed at least 50 candidates for local school board seats.

Nationwide, the Christian Coalition will sponsor 78 seminars this year to teach about 5,000 members how to be effective activists, Reed said.

A fundamentalist, Marty said, "thinks, 'If I give up anything, I'll lose everything. . . .' For fundamentalists, there are no negotiations."

Marty predicts that fundamentalists' hard-line attitudes will shake up the world in upcoming decades.

"They're going to keep ripping up governments," he said. "They will win some governments. They will change some constitutions. There will be a lot of turmoil. There will be a lot of blood. There are generations of rough stuff ahead, no doubt about it."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World