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UMW Action Alert - Fundamentalism: A Barrier to Peace and Justice
Contact: Office of Public Policy GBGM-Women's Division 100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530 Washington, DC 20002 (202)488-5660 Fax:(202) 488-5681
Office of Public Policy
GBGM-Women's Division
100 Maryland Avenue, NE Room 530
Washington, DC 20002
Fax:(202) 488-5681


Suggested Actions for this issue.

Politicians and journalists in the United States have often used the term “fundamentalism” to explain the global events of the past few years. In many accounts, fundamentalism is identified with Islam and its followers, and “Islamic fundamentalists” are blamed for much of the political violence and terrorist activity currently aimed at the U.S. and its allies. In its current usage in politics and the media, fundamentalism has been used to describe a variety of religious and political movements. Extremism is another term that has been used to describe fundamentalist movements that advocate the use of violence to achieve political ends, often blending political ideology with religion.

The term “fundamentalism” has its historical roots in American Christianity. In the early part of the 20th century, intellectuals and scholars from the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian and Lutheran churches in the United States felt that some of the social and cultural currents of the time were leading Christians astray. They identified a set of essential Christian beliefs, among them the resurrection of Christ, the literal truth of the Bible, and the second coming of Christ. They called these beliefs the fundamentals, and followers of this movement were called “fundamentalists.”

Fundamentalists, in the contemporary sense of the word, can be followers of any faith or political persuasion, including members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in India, the Christian Coalition in the United States, and followers of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. Such fundamentalists use religious rhetoric to promote a particular set of political objectives. For example, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in India uses a fundamentalist version of Hinduism to define an alternative vision for the state of India. Turning away from Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of religious pluralism and multiculturalism, members of the VHP believe that Hinduism should form the foundation of the state of India and that members of the country’s religious minorities (e.g. Muslims, Jews, and Christians) should accept the supremacy of Hinduism over all other religions. In 1984, the VHP formed a committee to “reclaim” a Hindu holy site at Ayodhya currently occupied by a mosque. VHP members tore down the mosque in 1992, setting off widespread riots between Hindus and Muslims, resulting in the deaths of over 2,000 people. After an attack on a train carrying Hindu activists returning from Ayodhya, violence broke out again in 2002 with over 1,000 dead, mostly Muslims.

Professor Richard Antoun, a professor of anthropology at Binghamton University – State University of New York has identified common characteristics of fundamentalist movements. They often take root during times of social upheaval and rapid political or cultural transformation. In the face of such changes, fundamentalism aims to bring people back to traditional values and practices that are seen as being “truer” or “purer.”

Fundamentalism, in its many forms, can also be understood as a reaction against life in the modern age and the challenges that accompany it, including industrialization, technology, and globalization. When facing the uncertainty and chaos caused by “outside influences” (e.g. other cultures, new ideas), fundamentalist movements offer pure, unchanging, universal, often divine, truths that dictate how the world should be. 1

Often, fundamentalist movements arise from the clash between religion and secularism, the separation of church and state. Fundamentalists across the spectrum share a desire to see the merging of politics and religion and feel threatened by secular society. They feel that religion in the modern world has been pushed to the margins, and they advocate for the return of their version of religion to the center of society. 2

Part of the attraction of fundamentalism, both religious and political, is that it seems to offer quick solutions to complex issues. Fundamentalism simplifies problems like poverty and ethnic violence, often by blaming a specific group of people or segment of society for social ills that in reality result from a diverse combination of factors. Fundamentalism also feeds off of people’s fear of the unknown (i.e. unknown cultures, religions, people, or political viewpoints), which usually stems from ignorance.

There are many fundamentalist groups around the world and here in the United States. These groups are guided by their beliefs in their religion. Some of the tactics used by these groups are to use violence to achieve their goals while other groups opt to get involved in politics to make changes at the government level based on their religious beliefs. These fundamentalist and extremist groups represent a wide range of faith perspectives and they all have a wide variety of goals they seek to accomplish.

“Practically all of the world’s major religions are patriarchal. Fundamentalists are simply more extreme, usually in a manner not in the best interest of women. Religious fundamentalism tends to be detrimental to female rights.” 3 Fundamentalism in all religions infringes on women’s rights. There are many examples throughout the world that prove this. Polygamy, honor killings and dowry deaths are among some of the many examples of how women are subject to mistreatment and kept unequal to men.

Polygamy, a marital practice in which a person has more than one spouse simultaneously,4 is used by fundamentalist followers of many religions. Here in the United States it is estimated that there are at least 30,000 polygamists, a majority of which belonging to a religious group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “Women and girls who have fled polygamous families report that religious teachings emphasize their duty to submit to the authority of their fathers, husbands, and male religious leaders, and make spiritual salvation contingent on polygamous marriage.” 5 This practice creates conditions for women where they are vulnerable to violence, coercion and abuse.

Honor killings are also another practice used by fundamentalists from many religions. Honor killings are “an ancient practice in which men kill female relatives in the name of family honor for forced or suspected sexual activity outside marriage, even when they have been victims of rape.”6 In 1997, some 300 women were killed in the name of ‘honor’ in just one province of Pakistan.7 Honor killings occur mostly in countries where the concept of women as the image of the family reputation predominates.”8

Dowry deaths are very widespread in India. Brides are killed because “they did not bring what in-laws considered satisfactory dowries or, sometimes, because the grooms were not happy with brides chosen by their families.” In 1997 there were more than 6,000 “bride burnings” or other dowry deaths reported in India.9 Dowry deaths and all of the other mentioned practices are some of the methods fundamentalists use to oppress women.

To understand why women are treated in this manner by fundamentalist groups, it is good to analyze these groups and their beliefs and their methods of spreading their beliefs. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the crusades were expeditions undertaken, in fulfillment of a solemn vow to deliver the Holy Places from Mohammedan tyranny.”10 European Christians, guided by their religious beliefs, and threatened by the Byzantium Empire and Muslim tribes began a violent holy war starting in 1097 and not ending until after 1270. Fundamentalist Christians today, guided by their own interpretation of their beliefs, use various other methods to push their beliefs onto others or try to establish a governmental regime guided by Christian beliefs and understandings. Here in the United States many of these groups are known as hate groups and they use their religion as a basis for racism and the use of violence. One of these movements in the United States is known as the Christian Identity Movement. Organizations included in this movement are the Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan, World Church of the Creator, and Kingdom Identity Ministries among many others.

The Christian Identity Movement involves many small organizations throughout the United States without a unified structure. The movement took shape in the early 20th Century and today “ most people who know anything about the Christian Identity Movement associate it with preaching hate and condoning or advocating violence against minorities, especially Jews.”11 Since the Christian Identity Movement consists of many diverse groups there is no one core belief. Some of the beliefs gathered from the various groups include, “a very conservative interpretation of the Christian bible;” “a view of the white race, the ‘Adamic race,’ or ‘True Israelites’ as superior.12

There are also a variety of Jewish fundamentalist groups that use violence in some cases and politics in other cases to push their religious agenda. Two extremist Israeli groups have used violence to pursue their goals of expanding Jewish rule across the West Bank in Israel and expelling the Palestinians. These groups are known as Kach, Hebrew for “only thus,” and Kahane Chai, “Kahane Lives.” These groups’ goals are to restore the biblical state of Israel. Both groups were declared terrorist organizations by the Israeli and United States governments.13 “Both groups grew out of the anti-Arab teaching of Rabbi Meir Kahane, an American-born extremist who founded and led Kach until he was assassinated in New York in 1990.”14 These groups have used terrorist attacks to accomplish their mission. In February of 1994 a Brooklyn, New York born doctor and Kach supporter opened fire with a machine gun inside a mosque in Hebron, Israel killing 29 people and wounding dozens.15

Rabbi Meir Kahane established the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in 1968 “for the declared purpose of protecting Jews by whatever means necessary.”16 JDL is still in existence today and has used violence since its establishment. Its followers have conducted numerous bombings, takeovers and other forms of harassment against mosques, Arabs and Arab sympathizers, all of which were conducted in the United States. Recently in December of 2001, two JDL leaders in California were charged with planning bomb attacks on a mosque, a Muslim advocacy organization and the offices of an Arab-American congressman.17 There are many other forms of fundamentalism in Israel also. Irving Moskowitz, a Miami-based millionaire helped finance the move of 11 Jewish settlers into an 11,000-member Arab district to prevent it from being turned over to Palestinian rule in a final peace settlement.18 The belief that those lands are rightfully the lands of the Jewish people leads to actions like this one.

The American public has become more familiar with Islamic fundamentalist groups since the attacks on September 11th. As with all of the religions discussed thus far, Islam also has a wide variety of interpretations and different beliefs. Some groups have strict interpretations of Islam and use violence against people who threaten their beliefs and who do not share their beliefs. Some countries have incorporated their strict interpretations of Islam into government and use it to govern every aspect of life. Some of the groups which use violence to promote their mission include Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Jemaah Islamiyah.

Hamas is the Palestinians’ major Muslim fundamentalist movement. It is the major opposition to Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Hamas is the acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas has an extensive social service network and a terrorist wing that has used extreme violence against Israelis to establish a Palestinian state. Hamas’ aim is to combine the ideas of Palestinian nationalism and religious fundamentalism to “try to destroy Israel and replace Arafat’s government with an Islamist state on the West Bank and Gaza.” 19

Hezbollah, a Lebanese group of Shiite militants, has used violence and politics to accomplish its mission of creating a Muslim fundamentalist state in Lebanon modeled on Iran. Hezbollah means “party of God.” It is believed that Hezbollah receives assistance from Iran and Syria. The US State Department has stated that this group receives “substantial amounts of financial, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational aid from Iran and Syria.” Although Hezbollah is based in Lebanon, it has a global reach from all parts of the world.

Al-Qaeda has been identified by the U.S. State Department as an international terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden. This group seeks to “rid Muslim countries of what it sees as the profane influence of the West and replace their governments with fundamentalist Islamic regimes.”20 Osama bin Laden has called for a “jihad,” interpreted as striving or struggling in the way of God, against the West and Arab sympathizers of the West. In addition to the September 11 th attacks in the United States, Al-Qaeda was responsible for car bombing attacks in Saudi Arabia, bombing of a French tanker off the coast of Yemen, bombings in Pakistan, bombing against the U.S.S. Cole and the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.21

Open dialogue can counteract the growth of fundamentalism by providing people with an opportunity to express their fears, discontents, and frustrations. Community education that opens people’s eyes to other religions, political perspectives and cultures helps to dispel stereotypes and break down barriers to communication and cooperation between communities.

January 2004


  • The President in his State of the Union address announced his support of the USA PATRIOT Act. The PATRIOT Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001. This piece of legislation represents the U.S. government’s response to the acts of violence committed by fundamentalists that took place on September 11. The law is intended to protect Americans from terrorism, but at the same time it poses a serious threat to civil liberties.

    Over 233 communities all over the nation have taken a stand to defend civil liberties by declaring their locality a civil liberties safe zone, including Boise, Idaho, Greensboro, North Carolina, and Flagstaff, AZ. In these safe zones, communities affirm their commitment to safeguarding the rights laid out in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and authorize local government officials and law enforcement to protect citizens’ civil liberties.

    Additional threats to civil liberties include measures from a piece of draft legislation nicknamed “PATRIOT II” that are being inserted into current congressional bills. These measures call for an extension of law enforcement powers at the expense of privacy and civil liberties, among them issuing subpoenas without having to show probable cause and denying bail to anyone accused of domestic or international terrorism, a violation of the 8th Amendment. For an overview of the USA PATRIOT Act and more information about PATRIOT II, contact the Bill of Rights Defense Committee: (413) 582-0110 or online at http://www.bordc.org

  • How do you think the USA PATRIOT Act protects you from fundamentalism that originates in the U.S. and globally? We would like to hear your thoughts. Send your letters to our mailing address on the bottom of the first page of this Action Alert.
  • Review #79: Called to Be Neighbors and Witnesses – Guidelines for Interreligious Relationships (Book of Resolutions 2000, pp. 220-229.)
  • People all over the globe are working to counter the effects of fundamentalism by promoting peaceful solutions to religious conflicts all over the world. Below are some organizations that you can contact for more information:
    • Rabbis for Human Rights is the rabbinic voice of conscience in Israel, giving voice to the Jewish tradition of human rights. They promote justice and freedom, while campaigning against discrimination and inhumane conduct.
      Rabbis for Human Rights
      42 Gaza Road
      Jerusalem, Israel 92384
    • Southern Poverty Law Center was founded in 1971 as a small civil rights law firm. Today, the Center is internationally known for its tolerance education programs, its legal victories against white supremacists and its tracking of hate groups.
      Southern Poverty Law Center
      400 Washington Avenue
      Montgomery, AL 36104
      (334) 956-8200
    • Women Living Under Muslim Laws was created to break women’s isolation and provide linkages and support to all women whose lives may be affected by Muslim laws.
      Women Living Under Muslim Laws
      International Coordination Office
      P.O. Box 28445
      London N19 5NZ
    • Women Against Fundamentalisms was launched in 1989 to challenge the rise of fundamentalism in all religions.
      Women Against Fundamentalisms
      Email: nadje@gn.apc.org

1 Murray, Bruce, “Making sense of fundamentalists,” http://www.facsnet.org/issues/faith/antoun.php3, December 2001.
2 Ibid.
3 Seager, Joni, The State of Women in the World Atlas, 1993.
4 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy
5 USA: Polygamy related abuses in Utah, http://www.wluml.org
6 UNICEF website, UNICEF Executive Director targets violence against women, http://www.unicef.org/newsline/oopr17.htm
7 Ibid.
8 Mayell, Hillary, “Thousands of Women Killed for Family ‘Honor,’” National Geographic News, February 12, 2002.
9 Crossette, Barbara, “UNICEF Opens Global Drive to Halt Killings of Women,” The New York Times, March 9, 2000.
10 Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IV, Online Edition, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/o4543c.htm
11 Religious Movements Homepage: Christian Identity Movement, http://religiousmovements.lin.virginia.edu/nrms/identity.html
12 Ibid.
13 The Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, Israel website, http://www.ict.org/il
14 Council of Foreign Relations, Terrorism: Q&A, http://www.www.terrorismanswers.com/groups/kkc
15 Ibid.
16 Anti-Defamation League website. Backgrounder: The Jewish Defense League, http://www.adl.org/extremism/jdl_chron.asp
17 Council of Foreign Relations, Terrorism: Q&A, http://www.terrorismanswers.com/groups/kkc
18 Prusher, Ilene R., “An American’s Move in Jerusalem Strains Relations Between Jews,” Christian Science Monitor, September 22, 1997.
19 Council of Foreign Relations, Terrorism: Q&A, http://www.terrorismanswers.com/groups/hamas
20 Council of Foreign Relations, Terrorism: Q&A, http://www.terrorismanswers.com/groups/alqaeda
21 Ibid.

Date posted: Jan 30, 2004