April 2017

Fundamentalism: a threatening global reality

In this special feature, internationally respected anthropologist and theologian Father Gerry Arbuckle analyses the global reality of fundamentalism. He says: “The disturbing fact is that every individual and culture is capable of fundamentalist attitudes and actions”.

BY Gerald A. Arbuckle SM

Fundamentalism in its multiple different expressions is a global reality. It is today vigorously alive at home and abroad. Pope Francis is right: “Fundamentalism is a sickness that is in all religions”. It is a form of organised anger in reaction to the unsettling consequences of rapid social and religious change. The atmosphere is ripe for the unsophisticated solutions offered by populist and charismatic leaders.

Fundamentalists find rapid global change emotionally extremely disturbing and dangerous. Cultural, religious and personal certitudes are shaken. Consequently, fundamentalists simplistically yearn to return to a utopian past or golden age, purified of dangerous ideas and practices. They band together in order to put things right again – according to what they decide are orthodox principles. History must be reversed.

To get things back to ‘normal’, fundamentalists react to threats to their identity in militant ways, whether in the use of words and ideas or ballots or, in extreme cases, bullets and bombs. Because fundamentalism is at depth an emotional reaction to the disorienting experience of change, fundamentalists are not open to rational discussion. Here in Australia there is a political fundamentalist movement to preserve the ‘pure, orthodox Australian culture’ from the ‘endangering ways of foreigners’, particularly Muslims. It matters little to adherents that such a culture has never existed.

Role of religion

Religion has re-surfaced as a global social force in the rise of fundamentalist movements. Since religion is an important basis of moral certainty, people frequently and passionately turn to it as a motivating force in shaping identity, values and movements.

Yet we must broaden our understanding of religion and cease making religion synonymous only with traditional institutional religions. Religion is whatever offers people an ultimate means of interpreting the world in which they live. Understood in this sense, people can change any belief into a religion. “For where your treasure is, there your heart is also” (Matthew 6:21). Thus people can become so attached to free market economics, that is, markets unrestrained by government interference, or to nationalism, that they turn them into religions. They become idolatrous, a substitute for God, as Pope Francis indicates.


For most people, fundamentalism in the modern world has become synonymous with a radical form of Islam. Islamic fundamentalism has supplanted communism as the ghost haunting many Western minds, a ghost that looms ever larger following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC, September 11, 2001, the recent appalling terrorist assaults in London, Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul, Baghdad, Dhaka, Nice and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, and the ostensible incapacity of the Western powers to destroy the shadowy, furtive and murderous al-Qaeda network, and the public butchering cruelty of the Islamic State (ISIS). In the Middle East Islamic extremists are slaughtering fellow Muslims and persecuting, even murdering, Christians and other minorities.

The West, however, has yet to realise that the military response may provide interim solutions to terrorism, but in the long term they are most likely to intensify religious anger and more fanaticism. We first need to understand the multifaceted political, economic and social causes of Islamic fundamentalism.

Yet, Islamic fundamentalist movements have received a disproportionate degree of media attention in recent times due to the physically vicious nature of their actions. This is unfortunate because fundamentalism in many shapes and forms is very much present in our Western societies, though most often less observably violent. Right-wing, populist, anti-immigrant movements are on the rise in Europe, United States, Australia and elsewhere. We in the West have to stop thinking of ourselves as virtuous and that Islam is evil incarnate. After all, the Western world has significantly contributed to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Contemporary populism

Fundamentalist movements often become populist movements. That is, the main quality they share is an appeal to the people as a whole, with an emphasis on the ordinary citizen as opposed to political and religious power elites. The elites are described as trampling in an unlawful manner upon the rights, values, and voice of the legitimate people. Populist leaders, with the use of extremist language and behaviour, assert that innocent citizens are plagued by remote, powerful and malign enemies who must be named and marginalised or silenced.

Populism is increasingly evident in Asia, for example, led by Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and on both sides of the Atlantic today. Right-wing populism is active in Europe: Nigel Farage and other initiators on Brexit; Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National in France, once compared Muslims praying in the French street to the Nazi Occupation; Geert Wilders, Party for Freedom, believes that Muslim immigration should be halted; Siv Jensen, leader of the Progress Party in Norway, has achieved large popular gains through her attacks on Muslim immigration. In Germany in early 2016, the Alternative for Germany Party (AFD) achieved double-digit results in elections in three German states; the party officials have said it may be necessary to shoot at migrants trying to enter the country illegally and they have mooted the idea of banning mosques.

The supporters of these movements are angry because unemployment in Europe is high and rising. They complain that immigrants grasp unemployment benefits, commit crimes and scoff at local customs. Above them, overseeing the financial crisis and Europe’s stagnation, they assert there are impotent self-interested elites in Brussels. In addition, particularly the refugee crisis and international jihadist networks are further eroding confidence that state governments can continue to protect their citizens. Even in Australia the right-wing movement under Pauline Hanson is a growing political force. She persistently taps into the fears that people have of migrants from Asia and Islamic countries.


In the United States Trumpism is a fundamentalist movement. Followers of populist Donald Trump are feeding on the economic and cultural turmoil that they believe has been overwhelming the nation for some time. For liberals, the chief anxiety for the past 40 or so years is the assumed injustices of the economy – near income stagnation for most workers, huge financial benefits for the top one per cent, made worse by the hesitant economic recovery from the most recent recession.

For conservatives, the main worry is what we might broadly term ‘culture’. This is the anger and bitterness felt by older white Americans. They complain that the country is no longer ‘their own’. Their former social status and authority have slipped from them. The ‘culture’ that they now loathe and fear embraces a number of issues – immigration, especially illegal and Muslim immigration; a black president in the White House; and same-sex marriage. They sense that this ‘cultural disease’ is deeply infesting every institution in their once-great-nation. It is destroying the nation as they look powerlessly on.

When Donald Trump began to campaign with the catchcry “Make America Great Again”, this existing anger and xenophobic bitterness reached a new level of vicious cultic fundamentalism. It continues to flourish under his demagogic leadership. He has become a ‘rage machine’ striking out at whatever his followers feel furious and resentful about.

At various times he has demanded a total and complete shutdown of America’s borders to Muslim migrants and visitors, proposing to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants en masse, building a wall along the Mexican-American border to be paid for by the Mexican government, and inciting violence against protesters at his rallies. In addition to using belittling words of women, he has referred to Mexicans crossing the border as rapists, called enthusiastically for the use of torture, and advocated killing the families of terrorists. The more vulgar and intolerant he has become the more his widespread following has increased. His popularity is being built on fostering ever-increasing fear in his audiences, hatred and violence.

Like his Tea Party followers, Trump has vowed to overturn Obamacare legislation that ensures the poor have medical insurance. No one has been spared his abuse, even accusing President Obama of having no legitimate American birth certificate. He has little respect, and to some degree, outright antipathy, for his party’s leaders. And his followers have been unable to get enough of his unrestrained conspiracy accusations and anger. God destines America to be great and Trump’s task is to make it great again!


“Fundamentalism is a sickness that is in all religions… Religious fundamentalism is not religious, because it lacks God. It is idolatry, like idolatry of money… We Catholics,” says Pope Francis, “have some – and not some, many – who… go ahead dirtying the other with calumny, with disinformation, and doing evil… This is not the gospel.”

The disturbing fact is that every individual and culture is capable of fundamentalist attitudes and actions. Imprisoned in their prejudices, fundamentalists are absolutely certain they are right and people who differ from them have nothing to offer them.

We need to be alerted to the danger that our own prejudices, if left unchecked, can solidify into fundamentalist behaviour. Rudyard Kipling’s comment is right: “We learn that ‘All good people agree. And all good people say, All nice people like Us, are We. And everyone else is They’.” We personally, first and foremost, learn tragic prejudices about other people through absorbing, so often unconsciously, the prejudices already existing in our own culture. Who are the “They” in Australian culture? Are “They” Muslim people? Or people from Asia? Or other minority groups in Australia?

Prejudice, the jumping to conclusions without considering the facts, has two dimensions: the meaning and feeling aspects. The meaning aspect is commonly referred to as a stereotype, that is a pre-formed image or picture that we have of things or people; it is a shorthand, but faulty method of handling or grasping a complex world. The stereotype is a negative pre-judgement. It is the judgement that I make without first checking the facts about things or people.

The feeling aspect is the ‘blinding power’ in prejudice, that is, it obstructs objectivity; it forces the prejudiced person to see only what they want to see, even to see things that are not there at all. Jesus described how people received John the Baptist and himself: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say: ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (Matthew 11:18-19). No matter what Jesus does, his enemies see only evil in him!

Thus, a fundamentalist will see evil in every person or group that does not think or believe as they do. Pontius Pilate claimed to be an open Roman ruler, a so-called liberal thinker, but he remained a fundamentalist. “Pilate asked [Jesus Christ], ‘What is truth?’” “After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again” (John 18:38). He was so committed to his prejudices that he refused to listen to any opinion to the contrary. He asked his question of Jesus, but immediately rushed off to avoid hearing the answer. The truth Pilate did not want to hear was the revelation that Christ brings from the Father, the revelation that God loves us and that we are called to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Jesus Christ, by example and parables, fought against all kinds of racial and sexist prejudices of his day. Remember a basic axiom of Christ: “So always treat others as you would like them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12). And love must always be the motivating force.

At the time of Christ, Jews looked on Samaritans in a fundamentalist and racist manner; they were pictured as stupid, lazy and heretical. And the Samaritans had similar stereotypes of their Jewish neighbours. Scripture scholar John McKenzie writes this out: “there was no deeper break of human relations in the contemporary world than the feud of Jews and Samaritans, and the breadth and depth of Jesus’ doctrine of love could demand no greater act of a Jew than to accept a Samaritan as a brother”.
Hence, when Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, his listeners would have been left in no doubt about its meaning for them (Luke 10:29-37). A man is left to die on the roadside. Some very important people in the Jewish hierarchical social-status system see him dying, but excuse themselves from any obligation to do anything because they are too busy. But the one considered by the Jewish people to be stupid and uncouth – a Samaritan – sees the dying Jew and immediately goes to his aid. Jesus’ listeners must have been stunned to hear him say: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10: 37).

They could no longer live as Christians and at the same time hold on to fundamentalist ethnic or racist prejudices. The same choice is spectacularly clear for each of us today.

Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad: Analysis and Pastoral Responses will be published in May 2017 and is available via Liturgical Press and Garratt Publishing.

Gerry Arbuckle

Dr Gerald A. Arbuckle is a Marist Father, cultural anthropologist and an award-winning author. His most recent books include "Catholic Identity or Identities: Refounding Ministries in Chaotic Times" (2013); "The Francis Factor and the People of God: New Life for the Church" (2015); and "Intentional Faith Communities in Catholic Education" (2017). His book upon which this article is based will be published in May 2017: "Fundamentalism at Home and Abroad: Analysis and Pastoral Responses".

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