Purity or danger? Human rights and their engagement with fundamentalisms.

Author:Sahgal, Gita
Position:Human Rights and Fundamentalisms - Proceedings of the One Hundredth Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: A Just World Under Law

As the city blazes, the watchman

Sleeps happily, thinking "My house is secure.

Let the town burn, as long my things

Are saved."

The fifteenth-century poet Kabir, who is cherished across South Asia for his challenge to caste and religious authority in both Hindu and Muslim traditions, could have been warning of "the covenant of security," the Faustian pact that the British state has made with leading fundamentalist organizations to control the threat of terrorism.

But many analysts and scholars of human rights remain curiously unwilling to face this threat. As a founding member of Women Against Fundamentalisms (WAF), which was formed in the wake of the Rushdie affair to campaign against fundamentalism in all religions, I clearly think that not only is the broad umbrella term a useful category of analysis, but one that it is imperative to adopt within human rights discourse--not least because it is precisely people who are facing the threat most who demand that we do so. In WAF we fought simultaneously to counter racist discourses around minorities who were deemed fundamentalist as well as challenging fundamentalisms from many religions. (1) The phenomenon will not disappear because the use of the term is problematic.

The first international meeting of women's human rights defenders last year identified fundamentalism as one of the most serious threats that they faced, as had regional meetings in the run up to Beijing+10. A year previously, a meeting at the Center for Rights and Democracy in Montreal attended by senior leaders of the human rights movement could not agree on a definition of fundamentalism, and resolved instead to work on the issue of non-state actors. (2) This is indeed one of the key issues facing the human rights movement today. But fundamentalist movements are both state and non-state movements and, as I hope to show, a combination of the two.

While some of these movements may be represented by traditional power structures, such as the Catholic Church, many fundamentalist political formations are modern, frequently global, political movements, which draw their strength from large diaspora support and while insisting on "purity" and "authenticity" have little relation to traditional religious formations (which may be patriarchal and oppressive but are not necessarily fundamentalist). They recreate "tradition" to provide new meanings to older practices, and in doing so invent traditions just as nineteenth-century European nationalism did. (3) WAF defined fundamentalist movements as modern political projects that insist that their version of the text is the only true one. The question of origins is a preoccupation of many fundamentalist movements leading to disputes over history and science. Scholars of Indian history, most recently in relation to textbooks in California, have had to challenge fundamentalist versions of history and archaeology, just as Christian right battles are fought over creationism and intelligent design.

The construction of these "imagined communities" of modern religious affiliation have been problematized curiously little by the analysts of identity politics, particularly those looking at expressions of religious identity of minorities in the Western diaspora. Numerous sociologists, post-modernists, and post-colonial discourse theorists have written about the failures of the left, the disillusionment with grand narratives of socialism and secularism, the disenchantment with democracy and the disgust at war and conflict, to explain the turn to religious identity politics. Remarkably few have examined the origins of these reified identities or the political formations that have driven their identity politics. They...

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