New Insights On Religious Fundamentalisms
The Forum hosted multiple concurrent breakout sessions, which allowed smaller and more focused discussion and debate on a wide range of issues affecting women’s rights and movement building in the world today.
The following presents an edited and abridged transcript of New Insights on Religious Fundamentalisms.
Organized by: AWID
Presenters: Shareen Gokal, Deepa Shankaran, Saira Zuberi, Cassandra Balchin and Juan Vaggione
To read more about the Breakout sessions at the Forum, please click here
Please see attachment below for downloadable pdf with design and photos
For more information about the Challenging and Resisting Religious Fundamentalisms program and to download copies of related studies and reports, visit http://www.awid.org/eng/About-AWID/AWID-Initiatives/Resisting-and-Challenging-Religious-Fundamentalisms
Shareen Gokal: We’ve heard a little bit about what is religious fundamentalism, and who is a religious fundamentalist. I’d like to talk a little about the impact of religious fundamentalists on women’s organizing. [In our survey], we wanted to learn more deeply, where is the impact being felt? [We therefore asked this] as an open-ended question, and received more than 600 very detailed examples from all over the world, which we tried to sort into some broad categories. Because there are so many examples, I can’t really go in depth with each one, but what I’ll try to do is maybe pull out some of the [common threads] along with the more obvious impacts.
Control of women’s bodies and issues of sexuality: About 50 percent of the examples concentrated on or mentioned reproductive rights as a major challenge in terms of the obstructions of those rights in their contexts: things like access to contraceptives, criminalization of abortion or resisting any changes to legalizing abortion, sex education. But we also got examples that talked about broader health issues. For example, both Muslim fundamentalists and the Vatican had opposed polio vaccinations, which led to many deaths but that we may not relate to religious fundamentalisms. Issues of morality and sexuality were also often mentioned. We found that these took different manifestations in different regions, but they were all linked to issues of controlling morality and defining norms around morality and sexuality. LGBTIQ communities were most frequently targeted – in about 75 percent of the cases we reviewed.
Violence against women: We received a lot of very stark examples of violence against women perpetrated by religious fundamentalist groups. But also included amongst these examples were more nuanced examples of violence where religious fundamentalist groups were, for example, encouraging women to stay in abusive situations or not allowing counseling for women to get out of those abusive situations. There was even some silence on the part of some religious authorities that let violence go on within communities.
Negative impact on development: We know that religion in its more positive and progressive forms can be quite a transformational force, but with very fundamentalist interpretations of religion, it wasn’t playing that role. In fact, fundamentalist religions were very complicit with the power structure of the day, and keeping those very unjust power structures in place. So there is also a negative impact on development, despite all the rhetoric of helping the poor.
Negative impact on civil society: We had a lot of examples where religious fundamentalists were either directly harassing, threatening, or obstructing the participation of women’s rights in civil society. But women’s rights activists [also] told us of [indirect impacts] – for example, that they’d diverted so much energy fighting this backlash that all of the resources and the energy the might have put into other things – such as sustainability issues, equity issues, economic justice issues – were taken up in the fight on reproductive rights and sexuality.
Public policy: this is important to mention because there are many negative examples of how public policies have been affected by religious fundamentalist groups. The example that we have from the US is just one in terms of a leader that comes in with very fundamentalist tendencies and issues the global gag order, for example. We received examples of the effects of public policy in a range of areas, like reducing the minimum age of marriage, or criminalization of abortion, of sex outside marriage, or pornography, of sex work, etc.
Women’s rights activists also talked about the very divisive influence that religious fundamentalisms were having, [by] undermining pluralism and tolerance, and this shows up in different places. For example, in India it shows up as a heightening of communal tension, and in Pakistan as sectarian violence. In many countries in the West, for example, they’re fighting for separate school and separate legal structures, which just shows the very insular nature of fundamentalisms. There’s also the creation of “in-groups” and “out-groups.” Groups that follow the norms set up by religious fundamentalist groups, and everyone that doesn’t falls into the out-group.
Lastly, there is the psychological impact. A lot of women’s rights activists referred to this in terms of religious fundamentalism narrowing the space for thought and action on the part of women. [This narrowing] makes women’s rights activists conform to a very narrow set of identities and uses psychological violence, fear, and intimidation in a way that other political forces do not.
Cassandra Balchin: Shareen has talked about the highly negative impact of religious fundamentalisms but I’d like to add a bit of a word of caution here. I think we also need to remember that there are other aspects to religious fundamentalists. So, for example, they’re also pro-poor, they campaign against poverty, they provide essential services, they remind us of the essential importance of family in human society, they’re also less corrupt and more honest than other political forces, they defend national and local traditions in the face of the onslaught of globalization, and finally, aren’t they just a political force, like any other political force, and don’t they have the right to operate in a democratic space?
Actually our research revealed that every single one of the statements that I just made to be largely a myth. And there are many, many myths that women’s rights advocates hold about religious fundamentalisms, and many myths that religious fundamentalists would like society to believe about them. In our research, we focused on ten of the major myths. We don’t have time to present all the myths in detail, but they are in one of our publications.
Juan Marco Vaggione: Briefly, [these first two] myths are like two faces of the same coin. One myth is making us believe that simply to follow religion is the same as being a religious fundamentalist. The other myth, which is the opposite, is thinking that religious fundamentalisms are like any other political force, that they are purely political. It’s clear that religious fundamentalism doesn’t have to do exclusively with religion. But it isn’t purely political either. The symbolism, the presence of texts, and the appeal to the divine are all aspects of religious fundamentalisms. It is in this duality of the religious and the political where the strategies to confront religious fundamentalisms have an important place.
Cassandra Balchin: I’m going to look in more detail at the myth that religious fundamentalism is like any other political force, and that we should allow them the democratic space. The way this works is that very often, national governments as well as multilateral agencies insist that space be given to religious fundamentalists as part of the democratic space. So, for example, you have a foreign embassy in Bangladesh talking frequently with religious fundamentalist groups who have serious criminal charges against them. When they challenge [this practice], women’s rights advocates are told “yes, but they are part of your democratic political space.”
I really want to challenge this [assertion] that religious fundamentalists are like any other political force. Indeed they’re not. The way they operate is very, very different. Religious fundamentalists are not like any other political force because they claim to have god on their side, and that is an extremely powerful weapon. It becomes very difficult to challenge something when you’re told, for example, that gender roles are natural and god-given. That’s very difficult to challenge because you can’t provide empirical proof. Metaphysical questions are very difficult to challenge. So, for example, you have huge emotional rallies called by evangelical groups in Brazil that bring people together to answer the question of why do they exist. Other political forces don’t do that. Other political forces can’t do this.
Religious fundamentalisms are not ordinary political forces because they’re absolutist and intolerant. They’re also extremely violent. They’re violent against political opponents, they are violent against other religions, and they are violent against political opponents within their own religion. They’re also fundamentally anti-pluralist, anti-democratic. To give just one isolated example: Hindu fundamentalists in India have attempted to make villages Muslim-free by violently chasing out Muslim families. In other contexts, they have polarized society between the religious and the non-religious. We were given many, many examples of how religious fundamentalists have attacked the public education system and tried to divide it along religious lines, so that society in fact is not pluralist, but atomized and divided up.
We were also given very concrete examples of how religious fundamentalists seek to de-fund their political opponents. For example, in Mexico, the fundamentalist-influenced minister of health obstructed funding for all NGOs that were working on lesbian-gay-transsexual-transgender issues. In Bangladesh, the fundamentalists were able, through a coalition government, to take over the ministry of social welfare and de-register progressive NGOs. In Canada, the evangelical-influenced conservative government has cut funding precisely for those women’s organizations that were doing accountability work on the Canadian government.
Religious fundamentalists also attack feminists and collective organizing. They may claim to promote democracy or democratic activism, but they attack collective organizing. For example, the progressive church in the United States was strategically undermined throughout the 1980s and 1990s by religious fundamentalists. And in Latin America, there have been attempts, for example, to de-register Catholics for Free Choice. The religious fundamentalists’ love affair with democracy is very self-serving.
Juan Marco Vaggione: Another myth has to do with religious fundamentalisms existing only in some regions or religions. This myth has two different faces. On the one hand, sometimes there is the belief that this is something that happens in another place, somewhere else, or to other people. On the other hand, there is the belief that this happens to me only, my region, my people, my struggle. What stands out in our study is that despite regional and religious differences, there are many similarities in the opinions and attitudes of women’s rights activists when they tell their experiences or describe religious fundamentalisms. We believe that these similar conceptualizations open important spaces to think about transnational strategies.
Deepa Shankaran: [Another myth is that] religious fundamentalisms stand for the poor and the downtrodden, for justice for the little guy. That’s because flying the banner of justice is a powerful way of gaining support for the fundamentalist cause. Fundamentalist movements are able to gain legitimacy through service delivery and charity, and in some cases, by co-opting the language of human rights and even gender. In this way, they gain support from governments and aid agencies. Some are even able to partner with development organizations and even some women’s rights groups. [Because of these tactics], it becomes crucial to unpack the rhetorical campaigning of fundamentalists groups and to measure it against concrete actions and impacts.
While religious fundamentalists claim to stand for the poor, in practice, they are often parasitic upon the economic and social stresses of communities. Many women’s rights activists note that service provision is a band-aid solution, superficial and short-lived. They encourage passive acceptance of existing economic structures and urge people to turn inwards for salvation rather than supporting communities to challenge the root causes of poverty and inequality.
Religious fundamentalists do not protect the poor nor do they stand up for the little guy. In human rights language, to stand for justice is understood as promoting and protecting the right to non-discrimination and protecting the marginalized. The AWID survey revealed, on the contrary, that marginalized groups – including LBGTIQ groups – are frequently targeted by religious fundamentalists. Ethno-nationalist discourse, homophobic discourse, and racist discourse are all exploited by religious fundamentalists. The targeting of women is also widespread: over 77 percent of women’s rights activists say that women are frequently or sometimes targeted for verbal or physical attack. This means that they are subject to fundamentalist violence simply because they are women.
Saira Zuberi: The next myth that we looked at was that religious fundamentalists defend our traditional ways and our authentic identities. Religious fundamentalists portray and position themselves as defenders and upholders of “our true authentic selves,” portraying their particular interpretations as representing the “true” church, or “pure” Islam, or “correct” Buddhist, Jewish, or Hindu practice. They claim that these ideologies defend us from foreign or western domination. At times, these claims make it difficult to separate ethnic, nationalist, or cultural supremacist ideologies from religious fundamentalist ones.
The emphasis on the way of being “true” or “correct” or “authentic” to any religion can make religious fundamentalisms very difficult to challenge. From the survey responses, however, and the interviews conducted, we’ve seen many examples of how purportedly “true” ways of practicing a religion are not actually traditional at all. They are often products of the 20th century, and of powerful transnational organizations such as the Opus Dei, the Hindu RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the Muslim Brotherhood, and the World Jewish Union. The extent to which these religious fundamentalist ideologies are defending authentic local ways and identities is called into question by our research repeatedly. One survey respondent points out how advertisements that are talking about the pro-life movement in Puerto Rico use actors that don’t actually have Puerto Rican accents. So, you can see how the actual materials for marketing these advertisements are created in one market and used in other markets – it’s very transnational.
Shareen Gokal: The last myth that we’d like to expose about religious fundamentalisms is a really good one: the fact that they’re not invincible. While we don’t want to deny the influence of religious fundamentalisms, we also don’t want to overstate it. The fact is that they want to be portrayed as very credible, legitimate, influential forces in society, and often they’re not. We should be careful not to give them credit and legitimacy, or to overstate their influence. In fact, it was women who were living or had lived under the most oppressive religious fundamentalists regimes who told us that we shouldn’t think that they are invincible or larger than life forces – that in fact when they come to power, they’re often exposed for their true selves as being illegitimate, corrupt forces who can’t, even themselves, live up to what they preach. Unfortunately, that comes at a really great cost in terms of women’s rights and human rights when that does happen. But the fact is that we shouldn’t let them take too much power. They often sow the seeds of their own destruction when they come into power, [because they] cannot live up to their own ides that they preach.
At the same time, we also want to remember the strength of our own movements. The fact is that even though our research has shown that religious fundamentalism is on the rise, we have been able, as women’s rights movements, at the same time to [achieve] many gains in light of religious fundamentalisms. So, we shouldn’t forget all these gains that have been achieved.
It’s on this kind of more positive note that we’d like to end the session and give you a chance to tell us what you think about it. Is this what you are experiencing in your own context? Are there questions that you have for us in terms of the research that we’ve done?
Questions and Discussion: Edited Excerpts
Participant: In terms of fundamentalism being a political force and the claims about democracy and being part of a democratic process, I see a real danger in trying to counter that with playing into efforts to counter other political forces that are seen as marginal or undesirable. My question is how do you suggest dealing with those claims of fundamentalism being democratic without threatening other groups that see their own laws as democratic?
Participant: I’m the director of Catholics for a Free Choice in Mexico. I want to congratulate AWID for this investigation. I think that what you’re doing is right. I wanted to ask if there was something related to strategies to deal with fundamentalisms.
Participant: Given the list of the myths that you have outlined, I note that actually what we are calling religious fundamentalisms is a belief system, and religion is just one part of those belief systems. There are other beliefs in cultural systems like in our communities or societies. Genital mutilation is a belief system; it’s not a religious system but it is fundamental in its outlook. So, I think that religious fundamentalism is only part of the belief system, and what we are talking about is belief fundamentalism.
Shareen Gokal: I can respond directly to the strategies question. In fact we did a call out for strategies from women’s rights activists to resist and challenge fundamentalisms this summer, and we received about 200 responses to that call. We’ve done a selection of case studies based on those responses. Eleven of the authors are here at the forum, and will be doing a two-part session tomorrow. We invite you to attend that session. What we hope to do by next year is have a publication that documents those strategies as well as 12 other shorter strategies, across regions and across religions.
Cassandra Balchin: How do we deal with religious fundamentalisms claiming to be democratic? Precisely by exposing them through the examples that we gave, and through the examples in your own contexts of how anti-pluralist, absolutist and intolerant [they are]. What do they do that undermines the essence of democracy? Democracy may have its own manifestation in your local context, but it’s going to fall into some basic patterns that we would all recognize as democracy. What is it that religious fundamentalists do in that particular context that is fundamentally anti-democratic? We found some commonalities: they are anti-plural, they are anti-collective organizing, and most importantly at least for me, they go out of their way to de-fund other people. You can say that certain other right-wing ideologies are anti-pluralist, but we found very clear examples of religious fundamentalists trying to de-fund everybody else. Also, the fundamentalist’s instrumentalization of democracy is very self-serving, and that’s also useful to expose.
Juan Marco Vaggione: Just to add something from a more Latin American perspective on the issue of “well, they claim to be part of the democratic arena, what should we do?” In Latin American, the idea of laity or laic states has become a crucial strategy for saying, OK, you want to be public, you want to have a space in democracy. Well, democracy requires some dimensions, for example Church-State separation. So, you can be public, you have a role in democracy, but the role has limits like every organization, every political party, every individual. Democracy has rules that should also be obeyed by religious fundamentalists. So, thinking in the Latin American context, democracy in itself provides the strategies to say what are the limitations for fundamentalists actors when they act publicly.
Cassandra Balchin: As regards the third question on religious fundamentalisms as a belief system: clearly religious fundamentalisms are part of a broad complex of right wing ideologies, and we recognize that. In some instances, it’s very difficult to separate religious fundamentalisms from other fundamentalisms, particularly from ethnic fundamentalisms. So, again, the example of Sri Lanka, which is a very clear example of ethno-religious fundamentalisms working together. We wanted to look specifically at religious fundamentalisms [in our study], because there seems to be a particular way that they were operating that was different. This comes back to the myth we were talking about earlier, about being able to claim [that certain things are] god-given. It’s something that makes the impact of religious fundamentalisms quite different, and what we wanted to do with the research is actually look at what it is particularly about religious fundmentalisms that have meaning for women’s human rights.
Participant: I’m with the Women’s UN Report Network, and we monitor cases like this every single day. I can say truly in the past five years I’ve seen an increased polarization of religious fundamentalism intersecting with government power. Whether it’s five women buried alive in Pakistan or an honour killing, the intersectionality of religion and politics is profound. But no government wants to be embarrassed, and one of the one of the ways we’ve been able to move these issues forward is to document then, to put up pictures. Another way is to continue to keep the pressure on, day after day. This study is brilliant, but putting it out once isn’t enough. It’s got to go out again and again.