The Rise of Religious Fundamentalism

José Zalaquett

José Zalaquett

Head of the Project at MOOC Chile
Lawyer, Universidad de Chile. Doctor Honoris Causa, by the Universities of Notre Dame and City University of New York.
José Zalaquett

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The international news tell us about a Sudanese Christian woman who was convicted to death for apostasy (now she’s free). They also inform us about alarming military gains made by the political- religious group called “Islamic State of Syria and Iraq”. Religious fundamentalism seems to be on the rise.

Throughout history, religion has been one of the main factors to provide a sense of identity and belonging to a community or group. Ethnic origin and gender are similarly important factors. Actually, historically religion, ethnic origin and gender have been the main grounds for arbitrary discrimination.

Together with providing a sense of belonging and identity, religion, regardless of the sincerity in practice of its adherents, contributes to define who is outside the boundaries of the community. These are called “heathen”, “infidels “ or “Gentiles “. This kind of distinction is at the roots of the them-us divide which has been the cause of most human conflicts.

That history of religious wars and religious persecution is long and cruel. Some examples of the past are: the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire in the first few centuries of our era; the Crusades; the forced evangelization of indigenous peoples by the colonial powers of Spain and Portugal; the European wars of religion; and the Inquisition. Starting in the 17th century there has been a certain periodical swing between religious tolerance and religious fundamentalism. At present the pendulum has moved markedly to the extreme of fundamentalism. Some examples: the wars of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s; the rise of Islamic religious fundamentalism in Iran, starting with the 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini which overthrew the Shah of Iran and established a theocratic Shiite regime in that country that has inspired or incited the emergence of various fundamentalist religious movements in the Arab world; the invocation of the biblical terms Judea and Samaria, by conservative governments of Israel, to allude to the ultimate political objective of the annexation of the Occupied Territories; the increasing political force enjoyed by Christian fundamentalism in the United States.

Religious fundamentalists reject the international human rights norms about freedom of conscience and religion, including the freedom to change religion or to profess none. They hold that the precepts of their religion trumps human rights. This “cultural relativism” that may in the end deny the universal value of some basic norms about life and freedom must be firmly opposed.

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