Competing Fundamentalisms: Making Sense of the Theological Features of Religious Fundamentalism

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We live in a post 9/11 world, where religious fundamentalism often engenders violent conflicts between nations and within nations, between religious communities and within religious communities. For example, religious intrastate conflicts tend to last longer than non-religious ones.[1] Moreover, negotiated peace settlements are unlikely in civil wars in which at least one belligerent party anchors its demands in a religious tradition.[2] Thus, it behoves us to pay close attention to sacred scriptures and traditions, especially how their violent interpretations foment conflicts. In his book, Competing Fundamentalisms: Violent Extremism in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, Sathianathan Clarke takes up this task. Striving for a global and inclusive understanding of religious fundamentalism, Clarke offers a conceptualisation of contemporary religious fundamentalism by shedding light on its religious features against the background of a globalised world.

For Clarke, a proper account of religious violence cannot exclude the religious ideas and stimulations that motivate people to engage in violence. For example, he identifies an inherent contradiction in the economic approaches to understanding religious fundamentalism. From a reductionist standpoint, these economic approaches reduce all cultural and religious phenomena to the economic structure of a society. This explanation, however, only applies to resource-deprived societies, where resource scarcity — not religion — leads to religious fundamentalism. In explaining religious fundamentalism prevalent in a developed society, these economic approaches appeal to social, psychological, and religious triggers — thus contradicting the very reductionist premise they are built upon.

Moreover, as Clarke points out, the psychology-centred equation, which combines unresolved anger with hate-fuelled alienation to explain religious fundamentalism, will not make sense unless religion provides both the interpretive scaffold and the platform of gathering an alternative community for psychologically displaced and socially disempowered individuals and communities. The author, therefore, breaks ranks with academic endeavours that find religious fundamentalism rooted in cultural, social, political, economic, or psychological factors. To tackle the problem of ‘strong religion’, Clarke grounds his meticulous investigation on the latest studies on Christian fundamentalism in the United States, Muslim fundamentalism in Egypt, Hindu fundamentalism in India and seeks answers to questions about the historical backgrounds of religious fundamentalism, its distinct features in the last and current century, and the particular themes of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism that religious fundamentalists draw upon.

In three consecutive chapters, Clarke investigates how three religious traditions from three continents spawned three violent movements. Chapter two on Christian fundamentalism elaborates how in the United States, biblical literalism combines with a dualistic worldview and a globally committed political theology to idealise a protestant nation that would shape the world into a Christian mould. In Chapter three, Clarke illustrates how two strands of Muslim fundamentalism — one originating in Egypt, the other in Saudi Arabia — strive to transform the Islamic world into a medieval polity that would rigidly enforce the Sharia Law in minute detail. Chapter four analyses Hindu fundamentalism around three prominent themes. These are the attempt to forge a unified Hindu community by cultivating an idealised scriptural authority, the communal dispositions to form a social body that resembles the body of God, and the monist philosophy that sustains a violent dualistic religiopolitics.

Upon exploring the religious motifs of these three manifestations of religious fundamentalism, the author identifies three theological features that bind all religious fundamentalisms into a common thread. The first is an unquestioning belief in a universal and absolute religious Word-vision that proffers a comprehensive perspective of reality applicable across time and space. The second represents fixed and straightforward World-ways that guarantee a moral lifestyle amidst various conflicting lifestyles and ethical alternatives. The third is the aspiration of building a global order that projects the unflinching Word-vision and the fixed World-ways on the world stage and replaces the man-made order with a divine one. Moreover, in their attempts to take control of the globalised world stage, imbued with a competitive spirit, Christian, Muslim, and Hindu fundamentalisms conflict with one other. Religious fundamentalisms compete with one other and with liberal interpretations of the religious traditions they represent. At the same time, they often work in cahoots in denigrating and delegitimising the common enemies — secularism and modernism.

Sathianathan Clarke concludes his book by prescribing a method of dealing with the violent verses of the Bible. Clarke argues that these divinely sanctioned violent verses cannot be expunged by confining the scripture to individual application alone, nor could they be glossed over by sculpting a non-violent canon. The former approach does not challenge the violent edicts directly, while the latter approach does not harbour a global appeal and fails to give weight to the emotional connection between the Christian community and the Bible. Instead, the author recommends a third approach, which accepts the Christian Bible in its entirety and transfers the emotional appeal of the community from the Word-vision to the enfleshed body of Jesus Christ — advancing an inclusive vision of peace and distributive justice. In a series of concrete examples, Clarke shows how to disarm exclusive and explosive Biblical texts via restorative interpretations, how to become the “stewards of God’s mysteries” and proclaimers of the “Gospel of peace”, how to walk the way of peace by consecrating the feet of the disciples of Jesus Christ.

Clarke’s observation that fundamentalism is a modern ideology and movement deserves attention. In discussing Muslim fundamentalism, the author reiterates this claim and argues that “It cannot be facilely read back into early Islam”. Clarke, nonetheless, acknowledges that certain violent and exclusive strands of theology cannot be explained away. However, these could be explained if we entertain the possibility that fundamentalism is not necessarily a modern ideology and movement but finds its manifestation across time and space at specific historic junctures when a crisis of identity engulfs a faith community or when people view this-worldly conflicts in cosmic terms. In the same way that populism lives in the permanent shadow of representative democracy (see Müller, 2016), so could fundamentalism lurk in the permanent shadow of religion.

One could draw a line of lineage between the famous ‘A model of Christian Charity’ speech delivered by the puritan lawyer John Winthrop (1588-1649) — in which he insisted that the new nation would be a ‘city upon a hill’ — with the modern Evangelical mission of civilising the world in the Christian mould. Immediately after the death of Prophet Muhammad, a violent war of succession broke out among his followers, which was as much religious as it was political (see Madelung, 1998). The bitter Sunni-Shia rivalry it spawned in the Islamic world is anything but modern. Similarly, the Brahminical fundamentalist strand in Hinduism has a two-thousand-year-old pedigree (see Chattopadhyaya, 1978). This conceptualisation of fundamentalism as an eternal shadow of religion seems compatible with the concept of ‘surrogate religion’ that Clarke has developed in his book.

While Clarke’s discussions on Christian and Hindu fundamentalisms are examples of excellent scholarship, his chapter on Muslim fundamentalism suffers from generalisations. The two trajectories of Sunni fundamentalism he identifies do not cover the whole gamut of Sunni fundamentalist movements. In addition to the Islamist militants waging violent conflicts and theocratic states enforcing the Sharia Law, there are Islamist populist parties — Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan, Ennahda in Tunisia — participating in national elections, and there are pan-Islamists — Hizb-ut Tahrir in the West — vying to re-establish the Islamic Caliphate. The latter two are fundamentalists like the former two but are more circumspect and selective in waging violence (see Tibi, 2012). Furthermore, while there are violent Salafis, there are also quietist Salafis who reject violence wholeheartedly.[3] Therefore, a distinction is warranted among violent, selectively violent, and non-violent fundamentalists in all religious traditions. In other words, despite sharing the three theological features that Clarke adumbrates in his comprehensive definition of religious fundamentalism, there is a striking variety among religious fundamentalists with regards to the question of the legitimacy of violence.

Despite these minor weaknesses, Sathianathan Clarke succeeds in accomplishing the arduous task he undertook: to offer a rich, compelling, and nuanced account of religious fundamentalism that advances a comprehensive definition of modern religious fundamentalism by locating its theological leitmotifs down to the most minute detail. Competing Fundamentalisms is an outstanding example of erudite scholarship that will play an influential role in the fight against religious fundamentalism.


About the author: Sathianathan Clarke is Bishop Sundo Kim Chair in World Christianity and Professor of Theology, Culture, and Mission at Wesley Theological Seminary.


[1] Mora Deitch, ‘Is Religion a Barrier to Peace? Religious Influence on Violent Intrastate Conflict Termination’, Terrorism and Political Violence 0, no. 0 (July 2020): 1–17, doi:10.1080/09546553.2020.1792446.

[2] Isak Svensson, ‘Fighting with Faith: Religion and Conflict Resolution in Civil Wars’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution 51, no. 6 (2007): 930–949.

[3] Frederic Wehrey and Anouar Boukhars, ‘Defining Salafism: Contexts and Currents’, in Salafism in the Maghreb(New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 8, doi:10.1093/oso/9780190942403.003.0002.



Works cited

Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism. 4th Edition. (People’s Publishing House, 1978).

Clarke, Sathianathan. Competing Fundamentalisms: Violent Extremism in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).

Deitch, Mora. ‘Is Religion a Barrier to Peace? Religious Influence on Violent Intrastate Conflict Termination’. Terrorism and Political Violence 0, no. 0 (July 2020): 1–17.

Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

Svensson, Isak. ‘Fighting with Faith: Religion and Conflict Resolution in Civil Wars’. The Journal of Conflict Resolution 51, no. 6 (2007): 930–949.

Tibi, Bassam. Islamism and Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

Wehrey, Frederic, and Anouar Boukhars. ‘Defining Salafism: Contexts and Currents’. In Salafism in the Maghreb (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).



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