The Appeal of Fundamentalism

The Appeal of Fundamentalism

by Frances Kissling

Fundamentalism responds to people’s fear of the modern world, and there are some very good reasons to be afraid. We are experiencing economic downturns and loss of security on a worldwide scale. In the developing world in the 1960s, ’70s, and even the ’80s, there was a sense of hopefulness about economic progress that no longer exists today. In Western industrialized countries and in the former Communist bloc, social safety nets are being yanked away. And governments now have little credibility.

This climate helps conservatism flourish. Conservation is not a bad word — it depends on what we are trying to conserve. The problem is that the Roman Catholic Church and Islamic fundamentalists are trying to conserve patriarchy. They’re finding an audience because when men face failure and humiliation in the public sphere, there’s a desire to hold on to power at home.

Of course many women today also confront problems in the public sphere and want to come home and have their needs and desires respected and taken seriously. In socially generous times it’s more possible to negotiate equality without serious loss to men. In times of scarcity and insecurity, the desire to hold on to power becomes stronger.

Feminists need to respond rapidly to the challenge of fundamentalism. First we need to understand and respect people’s fears — fears for our own security and for the world’s. We need to acknowledge those worries and advocate strongly for equality and a rise in women’s status, while being sympathetic to men’s fears.

This does not mean trying to find a common ground with conservatism. We may not have any common ground. We do not want the same world they do and shouldn’t blur the differences. Fundamentalism is the belief that your values are the ones that everyone must have. Conservatives are not looking for common ground — they’re looking to dominate state policy, to win. That’s one of the reasons for their success.

We need to expose how the behavior of fundamentalists differs from their rhetoric, how they hurt people. For example, the Roman Catholic Church presented itself in Beijing as the protector of women, the primary server of health care and education to women. And to some extent it’s true: They have provided a lot of service. But, for example, in Mexico the Catholic schools won’t accept illegitimate children — children of single or divorced mothers. Conservative systems are extremely punitive. Moreover, Catholic education was accomplished on the backs of women — nuns who worked for almost no pay and, in the U.S., no social security.

We need to develop a clear agenda of what we stand FOR and put forward a positive, plural, tolerant, liberating vision of the future. When the right was out of power for a long time in the United States, they started dozens of think tanks where they honed in on, first, what they believed in, and, second, how to express it to persuade masses of people. This is something we should be doing now.

Women often rightly complain that we don’t have time to sit back and think. Our visions tend to be very practical. We end up with a laundry list of problems, which is not something that captivates people’s imagination. We believe we’re a majority movement, but in fact we haven’t yet found a way to mobilize large numbers of women. So along with getting out alerts on the latest abuses, we need the luxury of taking approaches that will not get immediate results — such as analyzing the tactics and views of those we disagree with and taking the time to figure out how to get people on our side. I strongly disagree with the view that feminism is a relic of the past. But in the next decade we do need to understand social change and apply feminist values to the new, specific situations we face. We need to experience fluidity — without a loss of core principles.