Competing Fundamentalisms

Violent Extremism in Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism

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Sathianathan Clarke
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , March
     2017.
     192 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664259884.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his engaging study, Competing Fundamentalisms, Sathianathan Clarke examines violent religious extremism across the three largest world religions: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Clarke links contemporary religious violence to fundamentalism, characterizing the latter as a modern global phenomenon with regional, national, and local expressions across religions. As a central question, Clarke asks why religious actors around the world carry out violence in the name of God. Challenging approaches that blame religious violence on nonreligious phenomena like economics, he responds that religious beliefs and motivations must play a central role in understanding religious fundamentalism. To support this argument, Clarke focuses on three case studies: Christian fundamentalism in the United States, Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, and Hindu fundamentalism in India. By adopting a comparative lens, he is able to demonstrate how the three religions have shared elements that foster violence and aggression while remaining attentive to the unique sociohistorical and geopolitical factors that make each context unique. After persuading the reader that religion is part of the problem, Clarke asserts that religion must also be part of the solution. He concludes the book with an ethical call for “restorative readings” of authoritative religious texts to combat violent extremism and promote inclusion and peace. 

Clarke begins with a critique of existing theories that take religion out of religious violence. He confronts cultural, political, economic, and psychological approaches to fundamentalism, arguing that each is reductionist. In doing so, Clarke acknowledges the importance of economic and political grievances while also asserting that social and psychological alienation ought to be considered when interrogating the motivations of religious fundamentalists. For example, he identifies poverty “as an embedded condition that impels the activity of religious militants” (25). However, he takes issue with how these approaches reduce religious conflict to politics, economics, culture or psychology, stripping religion of substance and agency. In order to address these incomplete framings, he is concerned with the “multidimensional role” that religious motivations and convictions play “to stoke conflict and terrorism” (26). 

In his three case studies, Clarke ambitiously examines historical trajectories and social and political contexts before engaging with actual beliefs held by religious militants. Each case, Clarke argues, saw fundamentalism arising during the same period—the 1920s—in response to some political or cultural crisis. However, each movement had its own key figures and organizations, grievances, and political goals. For American Christians, fundamentalism grew from a rejection of secularism and perceived challenges to Christian hegemony by non-Christian others, including immigrants. For Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, the context was interactions with the Ottoman, British, and French empires. Fundamentalism emerged with the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood and flourished under corrupt secular or nominally Muslim regimes. Hindu fundamentalism was born out of the trauma of multiple Mughal and British conquests of India and was later spurred by the perceived failures of Nehru’s secular regime. Each movement intensified around the end of the twentieth century and has asserted itself with renewed ambition and a competitive spirit. For Clarke, fundamentalism is a uniquely modern phenomenon fostered by aggressive globalization. Clarke points to Christian fundamentalism’s permeation of the United States after 9/11, “operat[ing] stealthily through covert forms built into the power of a robust nation-state that also has global reach and influence” (36). In the Egyptian case, the Muslim Brotherhood has made substantial inroads to gaining national power, while Islamic fundamentalism throughout the Middle East has expanded its national aspirations into transnational ones. In the Indian case, Hindu fundamentalism has recently taken hold of Indian politics through the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with violent results for Indian Muslims and others.

Clarke’s identification of key players, historical events, and political, economic, and social conditions is skillfully crafted and theoretically significant. By historicizing each case, he precludes us from essentializing any one religion or even the category of fundamentalism (directly contrasting with common Western depictions of Islam as inherently fundamentalist or fundamentalism as Islamic). However, as Clarke intends, his largest theoretical contributioncomes from his careful attention to beliefs and convictions, especially from his identification of common motifs across the three religions. Clarke observes in Christianity and Islam a dualistic worldview that pits believers against non-believers in a battle of good versus evil. Likewise, he identifies the Hindu belief that society is a sacred body that ought to be ordered to mirror the Divine as a notion that has cultivated exclusionary attitudes toward non-Hindus. Broadly, Clarke asserts that unwavering confidence in and complete submission to the “Word-vision” (e.g., biblical literalism) is an essential characteristic of each fundamentalism. Blind obedience to selectively read texts goes hand in hand with scriptural inerrancy. Further, fundamentalism is characterized by fixed, mandatory “world-ways” that call for an imposition of a Christian, Muslim, or Hindu way of life onto society at large. By exposing the way that religion provides the “interpretative scaffolding for psychologically displaced and socially disempowered individuals and communities,” Clarke ultimately succeeds in demonstrating that beliefs are central to an understanding of how and why militants generate and justify violence (31). And perhaps most impressively, he does this without perpetuating negative tropes or placing all the blame on religion.

Competing Fundamentalisms is mostly an analytical study, though Clarke concludes with a normative project, arguing that beliefs must play a role in mitigating fundamentalist violence. He praises churches and activists already promoting peace and calls for more work in training religious leaders and adherents to reinterpret “toxic” texts. Within his own religion, Christianity, he provides specific suggestions for how to reframe the Bible by emphasizing peaceful elements and confronting violent passages head on with reinterpretation. Fortunately, he leaves the hard work of rereading Muslim and Hindu texts to Muslims and Hindus. Clark’s ethical call, though admirable, is perhaps more interesting to confessional rather than secular scholars. Even so, his recuperative theology does not overshadow the academic contributions of his study.

Aside from the general strength of his work, there are a couple of places where Clarke over-simplifies important terms. For example, in routine assertions that “Christian fundamentalism started out with a thorough rejection of the Enlightenment” (61), he tends to describe the Enlightenment as a monolithic and all-encompassing cultural phenomenon. The term “modernity” is used similarly throughout the book. Nevertheless, these categories are not crucial to the crux of his argument, and his analysis is otherwise sensitive to real-world context. 

Competing Fundamentalisms is both widely accessible and intellectually stimulating, and it will certainly be of interest to scholars of international and global studies as well as theology and religious studies. More broadly, this is a must-read for anyone concerned with understanding religious violence.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Neace is a doctoral student in the Study of Religion at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
September 20, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sathianathan Clarke is the Bishop Sundo Kim Chair in World Christianity and professor of theology, culture, and mission at Wesley Theological Seminary. He has taught previously at United Theological College in Bangalore, India and as visiting faculty at Harvard University Divinity School. Clarke is the author of Dalits and Christianity and coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies, Dalit Theology in the Twenty-First Century, and Religious Conversion in India.

Keywords: 

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