The danger of American fundamentalism

November 29, 2018

Nagesh Rao discusses the growth of religious fundamentalism in South Asia and asks what lessons this history holds for the U.S. left and its fight against the far right.

I WANT to start off by urging readers to listen to the Better Off Red podcast, particularly episode 34 (“Lance Selfa on the midterms; plus the meaning of life”), with its insightful and nuanced discussion of religion, and episode 36 (“Sean Larson on history’s lost revolution; the return of anti-Semitism”), with its equally insightful discussion of the resurgence of anti-Semitism and the Pittsburgh massacre.

As the comrades who host the podcast point out, some years ago, we might have said that anti-Semitism was a fringe phenomenon because it had been thoroughly discredited by the experience of the Nazi Holocaust. But since Trump’s election, there’s been a troubling rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes and attacks.

I agree fully with them that our analysis has to emphasize the political, social and ideological functions of anti-Semitism. Corresponding to these lenses, we must identify and critique how anti-Semitism fits with the politics of white nationalism; how it’s a form of racism that serves a divide-and-rule function for the ruling class; and how it is a scapegoating tactic to shift the blame for worsening economic conditions.

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Furthermore, as they remind us, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, because Zionism is not Judaism. Zionism is, at root, a political project and not a religious one. The charge of anti-Semitism is used cynically by the Israeli state, and we should fight hard against these efforts to conflate the political interests of the Israeli state with the religion of Judaism.

Having said this, I want to add something from a South Asian perspective. We would be remiss to discount the distance that the U.S. has to go to become a fully secularized society. I think that in our effort to not alienate the religious person who is headed in our direction politically, we sometimes play down the danger and threat of religious fundamentalism and obscurantism in this country.

As we can learn from the experiences of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, religious fundamentalism is a toxic thing, and once it has taken root, it is difficult to counter, let alone uproot.

WHEN I became a socialist in the early 1990s, I was still new to U.S. politics and learned a lot about the U.S. from comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO). I remember how animated and agitated comrades would get when they talked about the “new right” that had grown to hideous proportions during the Reagan-Bush years of the 1980s.

This was the Christian Right — from mega-churches and televangelists to Klansmen and Nazis. In the decades following, this fundamentalist base has been key to popularizing creationism, the claim that life begins at conception, climate-science denialism and a host of other obscurantist assertions that are now central components of far-right dogma.

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But lately, I see little mention of these folks in our discussions about the resurgent far right. So while we are right to expose how Zionists falsely accuse their critics of anti-Semitism, and to emphasize the politics of anti-Semitism, we must not forget about fascists who are anti-Semites for reasons of faith — that is, because they are religious zealots and bigots.

In India, the Hindu far right currently runs the central government, its cadres regularly wreak havoc on the streets, and its ideas have become hegemonic, particularly among the urban middle classes. What can we learn from the Indian experience?

1. Even a highly syncretic and pluralist body politic can cleave along religious and/or sectarian lines under certain conditions, or to put it in terms more germane to the context, a syncretic culture can become “communalized” under the right conditions. Neither liberal pleas for tolerance nor exegetic disputations can successfully counter the rise of religious fundamentalism once it has taken root among some critical mass of zealots.

I appreciate the “Jesus was a socialist” argument, but in India, attempts by liberal and progressive Hindus to reclaim religion from the fundamentalists have been spectacularly unsuccessful.

2. Recourse to legal methods to stem the growth of religious fundamentalism is similarly bound to fail. We may cheer certain decisions made by the courts that set back the fundamentalist cause, but the cultural rot, once begun, is difficult to contain.

(Not to mention that in India, these same courts condone reactionary censorship, including bans, of secular historiography on the grounds that it may “hurt the sentiments of a certain community.” Moreover, these same courts authorized the clandestine execution of an innocent Kashmiri Muslim man, Afzal Guru, saying he needed to be executed to appease “the conscience of the nation.”)

3. The task of building a united front against fascism falls invariably on the shoulders of the socialist/communist left, and if this left is incapable of responding proportionately to fascism’s cultural and ideological assaults (and not just its political ones), then it quickly becomes a losing battle for popular hegemony.

In other words, the struggle against right-wing authoritarianism must be fought on the terrain of civil society just as energetically and emphatically as it is waged in the political sphere.

4. Hindu fundamentalists have successfully rewritten textbooks to reflect their view of Indian and South Asian history. Just like the Creationists have in the U.S., the fundamentalists have convinced considerable numbers of Indians to see (Hindu) mythology not just as a peer competitor of history but as indistinguishable from it.

Purely academic efforts, or efforts from within academia alone, have been unsuccessful in stemming this assault on secular historiography. A wider social movement approach is needed, and the socialist left is best positioned to propose such an approach within a broader anti-fascist united front.

5. The fundamentalists peddle myth as fact, astrology as astronomy, and narrative as testimony to counter rationalism and the scientific temper in discussions of socio-political and cultural matters. The Indian Marxist left has been central to the popular science movement (successful but with limited geographical reach), and we should learn more about their efforts — their successes and failures.

KEEPING THESE lessons in mind, how should we integrate the struggle against Christian fundamentalism with the broader fight against the far right and fascism, and what are some of the challenges we’ll face?

I think we are already active on some of these fronts, and we are visibly involved in struggles against the fundamentalists, particularly around abortion rights.

Socialist publications should more widely report on and discuss activism against Christian fundamentalism: for example, movements against Creationism being taught in schools, or students who refuse to take the Pledge of Allegiance. Socialists should try, where possible, to work with and strengthen these efforts.

Religious obscurantism is a fertilizer for right-wing authoritarianism, and Marxists have rightly been at the forefront of efforts to popularize science and tackle irrationalism on a cultural/ideological level. We should help amplify “science for the people” initiatives as part and parcel of a socialist project.

Progressive Black churches, other progressive and activist churches, unions (especially teachers’ unions), schools, PTAs, community organizations and college campuses have a role to play in anti-fundamentalism work within our larger anti-fascist united front coalitions.

We should think through what it would mean to combat Christian fundamentalism while simultaneously building solidarity with Black churches under attack and Black pastors who fight back against white nationalism and white supremacism.

From the other direction, we will have to distinguish our critique of Christian fundamentalism from that of the “new atheists” who do not distinguish between majoritarian and minoritarian expressions of religious identity. In other words, we must be able to critique religious obscurantism without giving ground to the Islamophobia that often parades as secular atheism.

Complacency about religious fundamentalism is dangerous. For too long now, the U. S. media and politicians have propagated the myth that we live in an exceptionally tolerant and secular society, so that religious fundamentalism is seen as something that only afflicts Muslims and Muslim-majority nations.

It’s time to tackle this myth head on as we fight back against the far right.

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