Wluml dossier 19 February 1998 The Challenge of Fundamentalisms

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WLUML Dossier 19 February 1998


February 1998

The Challenge of Fundamentalisms
Lynn P. Freedman
Few developments in the post-Cold War era have captured public attention, stirred primal fears, stoked the fires of racism, and stymied critical thinking quite so thoroughly as the rise of fundamentalism. Although it is a force to be reckoned with in virtually every area of public endeavour, the rise of fundamentalism presents a very specific, and somewhat unique, challenge to the emerging field of reproductive health and rights. The 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)—replete with death threats from militant Egyptian Muslim groups, eschatological rhetoric from the Vatican, and a high-profile alliance among conservative forces identified with various religions— ensured that fundamentalism would push its way onto the international stage. Having captured the spotlight of the moment, what role will fundamentalism be permitted to play as the reproductive health and rights field takes shape?
The ICPD Programme of Action signals a paradigmatic shift in the way that governments purport to deal with the relationship between population, development, women's health and human rights. Moving from a model that focused on population growth as a primary obstacle to social and economic development and on the spread of family planning as the primary means for curbing population growth, the Programme of Action announces an emerging model that focuses on the promotion of women's health, rights, and empowerment as the route to both increasing development and decreasing population growth. Of course this new view, the 'reproductive health' approach, did not spring full- blown from the minds or pens of the government delegates assembled in Cairo nor, indeed, from the group within the UN charged with writing the initial drafts. Rather it was an approach carefully shaped and nurtured over the decades that preceded ICPD through writing, research, meetings, conferences, lobbying and activist campaigns nationally and internationally to change laws and policies starting in the 1970s.
Much of the post-ICPD commentary has focused on the shifting alignment of interests between the population establishment and women's health and rights advocates that paved the way for a consensus Programme that seemed almost eerily easy to enact in Cairo. While that consensus may be 'the right agenda for the right time,'1 many feel that it is a shaky coalition whose durability will be sorely tested in the years to come.2 But even if this analysis of the 'Cairo consensus' is correct, it is not the end of the ICPD story. To many others at ICPD, the dynamics of population growth and its effect or non-effect on development actually

mattered very little, if at all. For them, Cairo was a stage on which a different drama was playing out:

The scenario: a post-Cold War world riven by bloody conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the Middle East and elsewhere; by a resurgent communalism in India and other parts of South Asia; by an economic order powered by US and European interests in a relentless push for privatisation and the creation of free markets for transnational corporate capital and for a globalising media spreading a particular brand of American consumerism; and, perhaps most of all, by the rise of conservative social movements that used the language, the symbols and the intense power of religion to cloak their political goals.
The cast: In Cairo itself—the Vatican, Al Azhar University, the Muslim Brotherhood, and an array of anti-abortion forces aligned against human rights and reproductive rights activists. At home (in both the North and South)—social conservatives decrying the 'immoral, imperialist ICPD' and clashing with human rights and women's health advocates struggling to be heard in response.
The central prop: women's bodies, their sexuality, their roles in family and society.
Here, in the list of props, lies the crux of the matter. Women's bodies, their sexuality, their social roles—the tools of population policy and family planning programs, and the subject of women's rights campaigns—are also the quintessential tools of fundamentalist political projects. Thus all three forces share a common currency. And while each can retreat after Cairo into their own familiar patterns of discourse and interaction, the woman who is the object of such machinations has only one body, one womb, one life.
Much ink has been spilled to analyse the 'Cairo consensus' and its potential for overhauling population and family planning programmes, and for shaping health and development policies. But surprisingly little attention has been given to the implications of the confrontation in Cairo with fundamentalism. Indeed, if the 'Cairo consensus' does not fall of its own weight, then it may be pushed by the failure of both the population establishment and the women's health and rights movements to deal with the challenge of fundamentalism through an honest examination of their own assumptions and motivations, and a renewed commitment to the most basic human rights principles on which that consensus was first constructed.

The Phenomenon of Fundamentalism

In both academic and activist circles, there is much controversy surrounding use of the term 'fundamentalism,' first coined by American Protestant movements in the late nineteenth century to identify their own brand of literalist interpretation of the Bible,3 but transformed in recent years by the western press to refer most often to Muslim groups and to invoke an instant apprehension of Islam itself as threatening, violent, and irrational. Some feel the term has become so loaded as to be useless or worse; others feel the term levels such important differences in the varied movements labelled 'fundamentalist' that it obscures more than it elucidates; still others feel the term is politically potent and that it is important to maintain and elaborate it.4

While recognising that the term can be problematic and is best avoided in some particular political circumstances, I use it guardedly here for several reasons. First, although careful study of the distinct historical origins of each movement labelled 'fundamentalist' is no doubt absolutely essential to full understanding, I am convinced that there is a sufficiently meaningful set of 'family resemblances' among different movements to make their analysis as an international, cross-cultural phenomenon both illuminating and urgent.5 Second, such movements have shown themselves capable of allying politically across international borders (as at ICPD) and it is therefore essential to see how and why their interests and agendas dovetail. Finally, the demonisation of some religions as being given to intolerance and violence, often blinds people to the same tendencies in the history of their own or any other religious traditions. Seeing the 'family resemblances' helps keep perspective on what is inherent within a particular religion itself and what is more likely to be the result of fallible human beings who appropriate and manipulate the power of religious doctrines and symbols for their own distinctly earthly ends.
So what is this phenomenon called 'fundamentalism'? I do not attempt to give it a definitive or even provisional definition; indeed I think it important to resist seeing fundamentalism as a fixed category or school of thought to which any given group either does or does not belong. Rather I attempt here only to describe some particular characteristics of the phenomenon that seem most relevant in its challenge to the reproductive health and rights field. In making these observations, I draw on the growing body of academic work that examines fundamentalist or fundamentalist-like movements originating in a wide range of religious traditions.6 I also draw on the work of activist women's groups who, coping with quite diverse manifestations of this phenomenon in their own communities throughout the world, have found that comparative analysis opens not only new understanding, but also new possibilities of response.7

Academic studies, even when they consider gender specifically, typically focus on religious traditions and look carefully at how religious texts and doctrine are used in fundamentalist projects. This is certainly an extremely important part of what we need to do to understand and cope with fundamentalism. But activist groups add two equally important points to the analysis, drawn from their intimate, day-to-day experience of confronting fundamentalism. First, without denying that many who participate in fundamentalist movements feel deeply moved by religious faith and symbols, experience on the ground demonstrates that in many cases the use of religious language and imagery is deeply, profoundly cynical.8 To automatically credit any political project that chooses the discourse of religion as therefore 'religious' is a grave mistake.

Second, the same style of discourse and basic set of strategies that are employed by fundamentalists when religion is used to characterise a group's identity, are also employed when other markers of identity, such as ethnicity or nationality, predominate. Consequently, from an activist perspective, it is important to go beyond explicitly religious fundamentalisms and to include in the analysis events such as the war in ex-Yugoslavia with its 'ethnic cleansing' or the experience of Nazi Germany with its 'final solution'—and, indeed, to consider how religion, ethnicity or race, and nationality all relate to each other.
Surveying fundamentalist movements from this broader perspective, it is important to recognise that fundamentalists are not spiritual, otherworldly dreamers; they are pragmatic ideologues who organise themselves to engage in active, future-oriented, political projects. At the core of virtually all such projects is a profound sense of siege: fundamentalists see themselves as part of a community in danger. However they define and name the danger—whether it be secularism; the encroaching, decadent West; a pervasive immorality symbolised by abortion; or a one-world government—that danger is the source of chaos and disorder. But fundamentalists do not opt to insulate themselves from the danger by withdrawing from modern society and retreating to some golden past of timeless, enduring principles. Rather, they fight back with militancy, with absolutism, and with selective use of the implements of modernity, as they seek to control the dislocation they feel and to impose order on the broader societies in which they live.
Clearly the specific strategies that fundamentalist groups employ will vary—sometimes, but certainly not always, incorporating violence in the repertoire; sometimes, but not always, incorporating community service (eg. running schools or providing health care).9 Here I focus on some of the strategies common to almost all such movements. Perceiving grave threats to the very existence of their community and identity, fundamentalist projects virtually always fight back by constructing a view of the world premised on difference and confrontation, and on the ability to define and maintain the purity and integrity of their own community against the polluting, contaminating reach of those outside. This means building borders by making clear demarcations between self and other. But it is an invented, inflated self and other. While the fundamentalist's own community is reinvented with a righteous and glorious past, the Other is demonised and vilified, thus lending an apocalyptic quality to the battle that is looming. 'Because confrontation and opposition are essential to the dynamic of reaction, radical fundamentalism requires a worthy adversary. Thus the temporal antagonist is enhanced and enlarged no less than the protagonist. Fundamentalists name, dramatise, and even mythologise their enemies, situating oppressive dictators or Westernised elites or compromising coreligionists within the same eschatological or mythic structure in which they

see themselves.'10

For the emerging reproductive health and rights movement, what is important about this great confrontation and the boundary-building that goes with it is (i) the way that it uses women to map its territory and construct its borders; and (ii) the way that it uses law, particularly laws relating to reproduction and sexuality, to harness women to this task. But the escalating rhetoric that fundamentalists use to stage this cosmic drama should not be allowed to obscure the fact that there are other, seemingly less ominous forces operating at the global level, which also use the discourse of difference and/ or confrontation in pursuit of

their own political agendas. Perhaps the most obvious example can be found in the shifts of mainstream, US foreign policy discourse that have followed the end of the Cold War. In the new world order as sketched out by such influential and respected analysts as Harvard professor Samuel Huntington and eagerly promoted by the popular media, US and European economic interests are identified with the continued dominance of western (read white Christian) civilisation; and ‘western civilisation’ is positioning in opposition to darker, more threatening civilisations defined by religion, specifically ‘Islamic’ and ‘Confucian’ civilisations.

Such scenarios are given their own apocalyptic flavour: The instrumental use of women as the repository and protectors of culture and community identity did not end with the demise of formal colonialism, nor was it unique to the colonial situation. Today, in a post-colonial world wracked by some of history's most vicious displays of ethnic conflict, women continue to be both targets and tools in the struggle. See Moghadam V (ed), 1994. Identity Politics & Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective. Westview Press, Boulder CO. Predicting ‘the next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilisations’, Huntington surveys the world today and warns us, ‘Islam has its bloody borders’.11
Ultimately, it is the ways in which fundamentalist movements, with their intense focus on women, feed on and fuel these other global forces that poses the deepest challenge to the reproductive health and rights movements emerging in every part of the world.

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