Religious fundamentalism and human rights.

Author:Vyver, Johan D. van der

The concept of religious fundamentalism is in the eyes of the beholder. What could be regarded by one person to be a legitimate exposition or practice of religious obligation might be perceived by others as the manifestations of unbecoming extremes. And, of course, "fundamentalism" can signify different things to different people.

In current parlance, "fundamentalism" in matters of religion has acquired a distinctly negative connotation. As commonly understood, fundamentalism is associated with certain trends within a particular religious community. Precise definition of fundamentalism within these general confines seems impossible. Martin Marty and Scott Appleby therefore suggested another way to define fundamentalism, namely "as a generalized tendency, a habit of mind, that may inspire a variety of specific activities."(1) One can at best single out certain trends in religious thought and practice that signify a tendency toward fundamentalism.

Gabriel Almond, Emmanuel Sivan and Scott Appleby thus included amongst the "properties of fundamentalism" the following general considerations:(2) Although fundamentalists profess to be upholding religious orthodoxy (right belief) or orthopraxis (right behavior) and hold themselves out as being instrumental in preserving religious traditions from erosion, they in fact embark upon ideologies, practices and organizational structures that are quite new and unprecedented in established or mainstream religions. Most fundamentalists would deny the novelty of their dogma, procedures and institutions, for claiming the authority of a sacred past is crucial to the fundamentalists' sense of mission. Marty and Appleby again, depicted as "general traits" of fundamentalist movements the tendency toward self-separation from those not of their particular creed, and redefinition of the religious community in terms of disciplined opposition to unbelievers and those perceived to be "lukewarm" believers, as well as a male-dominated (charismatic and authoritarian) leadership that defies the conventions of church hierarchies.(3)

Fundamentalism in the broadest possible sense may thus be said to thrive upon a belief that God sanctions attitudes and behavior developed and executed in strict obedience to what the faithful observer perceives to be holy commandments. It develops an uncompromising commitment to basic principles believed to be eternal and immutable. It enhances a spirit of repristination: condemnation of contemporary perceptions, institutions and conduct, coupled with glorification of the past and endeavors to restore the ways of the supposedly "good old days." It derives its main support from the victims of suffering and deprivation, or those frustrated by an underdeveloped personality or unfulfilled aspirations. It seeks to develop a strong sense of solidarity amongst its flock and often finds strength in isolating its circle of adherents from the secular world, and from alternative religious influences. It fosters a sense of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness and promotes ruthless condemnation of, and intolerance toward, all competing forces. It is in several of its varieties conducive to xenophobia.

Of course, these trends, seen in isolation, would not necessarily constitute fundamentalism of any particular kind. It is the combination of all, or most, of those trends that would attract the fundamentalist badge. Given the distinct variables that could thus be depicted as instances of fundamentalism, one might distinguish several meanings of that epithet.

In its most extreme sense, fundamentalism signifies profound radicalism which, if put into practice, would adversely affect the disposition or interests, even the safety or lives, of particular individuals or groups within, or exterior to, the creed encompassed by the fundamentalist's faith.

In a different sense, religious "fundamentalism" may also denote a conservative adherence to old and established dogma enunciated in bygone times. Fundamentalists of this fabric emphasize the immutability, in time and space, of religious norms and their concomitant decrees; and, in addition, firmly adhere to ancient definitions, interpretations and expositions of those norms and decrees.

"Fundamentalism" is quite often also attributed to activists within the religious community who oppose, through word and deed, injustices within a political society, and who seek to find legitimization for their condemnation of such injustices from within a decidedly religious value structure. Depicting the testimony and conduct of such activists as a manifestation of fundamentalism is mostly intended to discredit those actors. However, it is worth noting that condemnation in these instances almost invariably emanates from those whose repressive policies in the first place provoked the activists' reproach.

Religious fundamentalism may, to be sure, have many other shades of meaning. For the purposes of the present survey, intended to construct a bridge between fundamentalism and human rights, the above will suffice. For the sake of convenience, the three manifestations of "fundamentalism" alluded to thus far may be depicted respectively, as radical fundamentalism, intransigent fundamentalism and pro-active fundamentalism.

Radical Fundamentalism

In recent times, the kind of fundamentalism that represents the dark side of religion has been evidenced by several criminal atrocities.

On 23 December 1995, the bodies of 16 members of a religious cult, the Solar Temple, were found in an Alpine forest near Grenoble in south-eastern France; and earlier, in October 1994, the bodies of 53 members of the same sect were found in Switzerland and Canada. The Solar Templars were believed to have taken their own lives, but there were also indications that those who resisted the religiously inspired mass suicide were either killed or forced to participate in the deadly ritual.

The fate of the Solar Templars is reminiscent of the self-destruction of Jonestown in Guyana in 1978. Jim Jones, a former San Francisco city official and founder of a cult called the Peoples' Temple, relocated his original headquarters in the Bay Area to the jungles of Guyana, taking with him more than 900 faithful followers. Some time later, on 18 November 1978, seeing his religious utopia crumbling around him,(4) Jones gave instructions for a soft drink to be mixed with cyanide and gave it to the residents of Jonestown to drink, causing the deaths of 913 people.

Also, there was the case of the Waco conflagration of 19 April 1993. The Branch Davidians, while applying "strict Christian principles," followed their leader, David Koresh, in isolating themselves on a secluded farm, the Mount Carmel compound near Waco in Texas. The American authorities would have nothing of it, because the sect permitted polygamy and accumulated an arsenal of firearms in anticipation of the end of the world. Following a 51-day stand off, an assault on the compound was carried out by the authorities with military precision in order to penetrate the domain of the Davidians. In response, the inmates of Mount Carmel allegedly set the compound on fire, killing 81 of their number -- men, women and children. The Waco massacre is perhaps not entirely on a par with the instances of mass suicide recorded above. It was evident, namely, that the residents of Mount Carmel died against their will; and the cause of the fire, particularly the question whether it had indeed been set by the Davidians themselves, remained obscured in controversy.

On 4 November 1995, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated in Tel Aviv by a Jewish student. The assassin, Yigal Amir, confessed to the killing, showed no regrets, and proclaimed that in eliminating Rabin, he executed the will of Good. The incident occurred immediately after a rally where 100,000 Israelis demonstrated support for the Arab-Israeli peace process, of which Rabin had been a driving force. At his trial in January 1996, Amir told the Israeli court that in shooting the Prime Minister, he acted "for the glory of God." His motive was an attempt to derail Rabin's peace initiatives in regard to the occupied Palestinian territories.

On 19 October 1995, a group of seven young men entered the adjacent homes of human rights activists, Hina Jilani and her sister Asma Jahangir in Lahore, Pakistan and attempted to murder them and their families. The attempt was warded off by the timely intervention of an armed guard allocated to the families following earlier threats of violence against them. A member of the gang arrested shortly after the attempt, Abdul Quyyum (alias Quma), told reporters that the accomplices had formed a Sunni Tehrik (death squad) and planned the assault in response to the sisters having successfully defended in court two Christian youths. The accused, Salamat and Rahmat Masih, had been sentenced to death on 9 February 1995 on charges of blasphemy but were acquitted on appeal by the Lahore High Court. Quma also told reporters at a press conference that members of the group had confessed to the killing of "extremist religious leaders," Master Muhammad Yahya and Qari Muhammad Yousaf.(5)

On 20 March 1995, sarin nerve gas was released in the Tokyo subway killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000. And on 19 and 20 April of the same year, 2 further gas attacks occurred in Yokohama, resulting in the hospitalization of more than 300 people. The persons responsible for these attacks belonged to a religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth). Amongst those arrested was the near-blind leader of the cult, Shoko Asahara,(6) its "chemical squad" leader, Masami Tsuchiya, and its "home affairs minister," Tomomitsu Niimi.

On 5 November 1994, Professor Johan Heyns, a theologian of the (white) South African Dutch Reformed Church, was shot and killed at his home in Pretoria while playing cards with his wife and three grandchildren. Heyns had been the moderator of...

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