Religious Fundamentalism-Extremism-Violence

EDITORIAL, 8 Feb 2016

#414 | Johan Galtung - TRANSCEND Media Service

To navigate these difficult conceptual waters we need some rules. Here are three suggestions (the violence can be direct–as sometimes prescribed by the Abrahamic religions–or structural as by Hinduism):

  1. Anchor “religious fundamentalism” in religious scriptures taken literally according to the fundamentalists, not as “interpreted”;
  2. Anchor “extremism” in violent action, verbal or physical;
  3. Anchor “religious extremism” in violent action justified-legitimized by religious scriptures, by fundamentalists or not.

Fundamentalism has to do with inner faith, belief. Extremism has to do with outer violence against Other, and against Self (like flagellation for being a sinner). Keep them separate. And be careful.

We can have fundamentalism without extremism. The fundamentalist may believe much, beyond the beliefs of others, yet not cross the border to violence. We may say: let him-her do so; it is not obvious that fundamentalists are more violent than non-fundamentalists.

We can have extremism without fundamentalism. Most people exercising violence believe in nothing, beyond “doing their job”.

There are two criteria for “religious extremism”: violence and religious legitimation. That legitimation may be fundamentalist or not; could also be well-know quotes from the Scriptures. We might even speculate that for the fundamentalist faith may be sufficient.

The combination in “religious extremism” is vicious if it implies that violence will be supported by divine forces and/or that failure to be violent will incur their wrath. Probably a declining category.

Today’s secularizing, “enlightened” world brought us statism, nationalism, and their combination; secular fundamentalists and extremists, and their combination. They have given the world more violence for victory for whatever cause they design than religions. But with a rationality that may open for solving underlying conflicts.

How about the traditional “world religions” in this perspective?

The three Abrahamic and Hinduism with divine forces; and Buddhism, Daoism-Confucianism and Shinto without? Where do we find religious extremism as defined above; and where not? Obviously, some of it everywhere, nothing somewhere, but generally speaking?

Judaismn has religious extremism as right and duty to conquer and defend the Promised Holy Land (Genesis 15:18, wrath of divine forces in Deuteronomy, for structural violence Isaiah 2:1-4).

Christianity has religious extremism built as violence against non-believers (Luke 19:26)–hence also to spread Christianity–but has rules against retribution (turning the other cheek).

Islam has norms against spreading Islam by the sword, but uses violence against infidels, particularly against apostates, and uses violence for “retribution with moderation”.

Summary: Judaic religious extremism is territorial, Christian is missionary, Islamic is punitive. SUM: ex occidente bellum.

Hinduism has internal structural violence built into the caste system, with a history of direct violence to establish it and keep it. Nonviolence to cows serves as an opening to nonviolence in general.

Buddhism has violence in obscure texts but generally prescribes nonviolence. If Buddhists are violent (Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand) it is not qua Buddhists, but as defenders of a state with Buddhism.

Daoism is ambiguous: every human holon has forces-counterforces, not necessarily violent; but a rising yin or yang may be “helped”.

Confucianism deplores “bad emperor” violence, but is feudal structural violence, with rights and duties both high up and low down.     Shinto is peaceful, but state Shinto was a construction inspired by Christian state religions justifying warfare external violence under Sun Goddess Amaterasu-o-mikami and Her offsprings, the Emperors.

Conclusion: not good enough to declare ex oriente pax.

How about the secular counterparts to religions, the ideologies, the isms? Backed by human forces of rationality and compassion, and by social forces across the domestic and global faultlines nature-gender-generation-race-class-nation-territory. Religions see them as parts of the divine order; secularism sees them as changeable, for worse (slavery, colonialism, war), for better (human rights, Art 28).

Enlightenment came with capitalist growth against nature and the working classes; with the rule of Men, Old/middle-aged, White; class with competitive mobility; nationalism and statism. Isms emerged, as dualist-manichean as God vs Satan, promising Paradise vs Hell, pitting Self- good vs Other-evil, with mechanisms for picking winners-losers.

Nature fights back, now possibly winning. Women, young and old, non-whites struggle nonviolently for parity. Afterlife Paradise and Hell no longer available, political parties fight for paradise=upper class rewards from capitalist growth against hell=poverty-misery; meaningful only if inequality prevails over distribution. Nationalism and statism struggle for parity and dominance, even globally; the mechanisms being war by the military and negotiation by the diplomats.

Secular fundamentalism means strong attachment to one side in the one faultline seen as fundamental: with this issue (gender, race, class, nation, state) solved, the others will follow automatically!

Secular extremism, fundamentalist or not, uses violence against the Other in gender, race, class, nation, state; if fundamentalist for the salvation of humanity, with paradise on earth around the corner.

Secularism is Western. It is rejected by Islam and Hinduism. Buddhism focuses on means: nonviolence; China on process: yin-yang. Only Japan under Abe follows US war logic. Western secularism may actually turn out to be an episode, yielding to religious revivalism.

Rather work nonviolently on very many conflicts and traumas than on one giant step toward salvation-paradise, even with violence.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He has published 164 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 8 Feb 2016.

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2 Responses to “Religious Fundamentalism-Extremism-Violence”

  1. Je' Czaja says:

    I disagree that Christianity has violence “built in” because of that one scripture reference. No doubt Christians have done violence, but they get no sanction for that in the New Testament-they pulled warlordy stuff out of the Old Testament. Like I tell my violent fellow believers, we have a New Testament for a reason.

    • Rant Deldano says:

      But isn’t it all in the reading and the interpreting? If a violently inclined person reads a text that he or she wishes to draw on to legitimize their preference of violent options, …