What can anthropology contribute to an understanding of the contemporary resurgence of religious fundamentalism in Central Asia?


Religious Fundamentalism (RF) is generally seen in the Western world as something that needs to be combated.  In today’s world high-tech technology has been used as a primary tool to do this. However this has proved itself insufficient (Hannerz 2003:170). This suggests a need to take a step back to try and understand what and who religious fundamentalism is, before charging this ‘enemy’ with closed eyes. This step back will have to take into consideration many issues and layers involved in the dynamics surrounding religious fundamentalism to get a full picture. Therefore this essay will attempt to summarize as effectively as possible some of the issues that a relevant within an anthropological context.

This essay will first be looking at RF as a product of a limited interpretation of scriptures and then as a product of urbanization and the new ideological threats posed by globalization. The essay then moves on in trying to understand the other side of RF, which is grounded in the context in which the West has recently started using the category of RF whilst pointing to Islam. These different step will be illustrated with ethnographic examples from Central Asian countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan mainly, but also from the wider Islamic community.

The position taken is that RF is clearly linked to the increasing impact of the global on the local, leading to a need for guiding principles and a worshiping of concepts and words that have lost their meanings in the process. However, this essay makes clear that the phenomenon can only be explained by identifying the accuser and the context of accusation as well as the accused.


In recent years, the word fundamentalism has become increasingly popular and has started being used in many more domains than the religious one. (Nagata 2001:481) As this essay is about the recent rise in religious fundamentalism, the first point needing a clarification is precisely the link between religion and fundamentalism. Islam is often described to have a “strong textual tradition”(which can also be found in Christianity and Judaism). The Qu’ran is known for being the unalterable message from God himself, passed on to the Prophet (Nagata 2001:484), meaning that there is no need to change or add anything to this message. Therefore, some take the view that making a contextualised interpretation of what is written is the same as going against the foundations of Islam itself  (Nagata 2001:485).  The Word written in the Qu’ran becomes more important than the message it is meant to give (Nagata 2001: 483). This leads to one of the first understanding of the idea of RF: an ignorance of the meaning of the Word and a rejection of any challenging interpretations of texts.  The Word is “alienated” from the person who wrote it, from the context in which it was written and from the reason why it was written. The Word therefore becomes enveloped in a mysterious aura, gains power and sacredness, becomes an object of worshiping by itself, and anthropologists would probably be happy to use the expression “word fetishisms”!

The differences between Sufism, or “popular Islam”, and “orthodox Islam”, which is the Islam preached by people such as the Ulema scholars, can illustrate the link between fundamentalism and the written word (Olcott 2007: 36). Sufism, which has been present in Muslim countries for centuries, is a “mystical form of Islam”, that emphasizes the importance of physical movement and song as well as Quranic recitation. Historically, Sufis are known for their strong political implication against corrupted rulers who would use the name of Islam to keep their pedestal and who would stress the importance of style rather than substance in faith (Olcott 2007: 1,2). Sufism was known for it’s reluctance to apply strict rules and the Sufi mystics were popular for their understanding and compassion towards those who would come to find them seeking advice and guidance (Hassan 1987: 554, 555). The Ulemas (or dominant urban clergy), on the other hand, are known for their tendency to condense religion into a set of rules, see the practices of Sufi mystics as superstitious and extravagant and promote a purer Islam totally based on the Qur’an’s Words (Hassan 1987: 561). This has proven  to make them susceptible of falling into fundamentalism (Rajamohan 2005:119). In his article from 1987, Hassan argues that fundamentalism in Pakistan can be linked to modernisation, urbanisation and education.  He sees the diminishing folk practice of Islam, such as Sufism, as being a direct consequence of the growing educated and urban population ( 563). For instance, according to a survey made in 1981, 47 percent of the city population with a tertiary level of education did not believe in Sufi mystics, whilst only 9 percent of villagers (all of whom had no education) shared a negative vision of Sufi mystics (Hassan 1981 in Hassan 1987,564).

The growing fundamentalism in this case is not solely due to the education brought by urbanization, but also due to urbanization itself, which clarifies existing social stratifications by bringing together people with different backgrounds (Hassan 1987, 563). This has lead to a resurgence of many Muslim leaders, who use the disappointment of educated and technologically literate young Muslims to gain political importance (Nagata 2001, 486). New Protestant immigrants in America at the beginning of the 19th century felt similar social and economic changes that were hard to ignore and which were due to the same causes: industrialization and urbanisation. The rise of fundamentalism in Protestant faith at the time was a direct reaction to the disorientation that people felt and which created a call for fundamentals or explicit guidelines that would lead them through this chaos (Nagata 2001,482). In a time when many places on the planet which used to be peaceful and anchored – to a certain extent – in traditions are experiencing changes, discovering new ideas and new conceptions of the planet, it isn’t a surprise to find that some people feel the need of reaffirming their beliefs and identity (Nagata 2001,482). The resurgence of RF in Central Asia originates, to a certain extent, in a similar disorientation felt when dealing with new “values” and priorities coming from the “outside”. In his article on Islamic anthropology, Tapper describes a “sudden appearance” of a need amongst Muslim scholars to develop a branch of anthropology for which the research methodology would be based on Islam. He sees it as a proof of rejection of western values by Muslims rather than a new approach to anthropology (1995; 185,186). This phenomenon takes place in social sciences as well as economics and other schools and shows the tension between Western universals and the “culturally appropriate (non-western) alternative” (Nagata 2001,485). In this case, the limit between religious fundamentalism and concern for identity is difficult to place, but this is often the case in cultures that see their religion as an inherent part of their identity. The search for a clearly bounded identity can be felt in Edward’s description of two online bulletin boards, focused on Afghan culture and Islamic religion. One of the points that he sees as reflecting the current state of mind of many Muslims worldwide is in reference to recurrent questionings that he comes across on the platform. For instance: “Does contemporary genetic science indicate that marriage to your first cousin increases risks of birth defects?” or “What does Islam say about oral sex?” (1994, 350). These questionings prove the uncomfortable position some Muslims can be in when encountering Western or Other ideas and can explain the need for fundamentalism.

The constant need for categorization isn’t new. One can only feel safer when everything belongs to a category and when they know which category they belong to (Edwards 1994, 358). As Nagata (2001, 482) says: “for those with low tolerance for ambiguity, the attraction for a perspective fundamentalist solution are evident”. This leads us to the second part of the essay, which focuses on whoever sets the boundaries around and names the category “religious fundamentalism”. Many articles prove that it is a terminology used in the West, and that to understand this recent renewal one should look at the context of it. The terrorist attacks of 2001 resulted in an angry western population needing a clear enemy at which they could throw their rage, creating a fertile ground for the use of a term such as religious fundamentalism. The witch hunting could begin (Nagata 483) in a similar way to the one initiated by the thirteenth century pope, defending Europe against Mongolian princes whom he described as “dog-headed cannibals”(Hannerz 2003, 169). Most of those described as religious fundamentalists wouldn’t agree with their naming (Nagata 2001; 484, 487). An anecdote reported by Nagata (2001, 488) shows how the word fundamentalism will easily change meaning to suit whoever wants to use it. During a Canadian young socialists meeting in 1998, a high attendance of Muslim students was reported as the meeting’s objective was to discuss the reasons why the capitalists government linked all Muslims to fundamentalism. The meeting was going well as the socialist were proving to the Muslims that they were just another group bullied by the capitalist system and that the solution to this repression was to ally with all the other oppressed groups in a socialist movement. However, the Muslims, who at first were very interested by the discussion, suddenly changed side when the socialist students told them that there was no room for God in the socialist revolution. After having the impression of talking to extremely stubborn people (i.e. the Muslim students), one of the socialist students finally exclaimed: “well you are fundamentalists after all!”

Another proof of the ease with which some groups may be labeled fundamentalists can be found in the history of the relationship between Central Asia and the United States.  The Jihad, or Holy crusade, which today is perceived as evident active religious fundamentalism, was initiated by the USA. Indeed, in the 1980s, the US government used the dedication to Islam of billions of Muslims as a force against the Soviet Union, and according to Mamdani (2002; 770, 771) the US spent 660 million dollars to fund this rebellion. In 1985, Ronal Reagan described the mujahedeen leaders that he was hosting at the white house as being the “moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers” (Ahmad 2001 in Mamdani 768). Yet, in the late 1980s, when the political climate was changing, Nagata reports (2001, 495) that the ambitious project undertaken by the scholars Marty and Appleby to explain and define fundamentalism was sponsored by the Mc Arthur foundation. The role of this foundation was to understand the extent of the universality of the need for powerful ideologies and for dominance in humankind. At the time, Islam was slowly becoming labeled as an enemy opposed to Western ideologies and related to extremism, tribalism and pre-modern cultures. By funding Marty and Appleby’s project, the McArthur foundation was indirectly proving that Islam was fundamentalist, dangerous and hungry for power. An interesting illustration of the current understanding of Islam in the West is the analysis Winegar makes of the exposition of Muslim Art from Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries. To counter the association of Islam as a whole with religious fundamentalism, many art galleries in the West started, after 9/11, to display Islamic art. Art is understood in the West as being a proof of culture, refinement and humanity, and is therefore a great tool to defy categorized stereotypes of good and evil (2008, 652). However, the processes through which these pieces of art are chosen only accentuate the idea of an evil Islam. Indeed they portray many of the domains in which Islam is often criticized, such as the oppression of women, and take the position of the “light at the end of the tunnel”. Indeed, the message one will get by going to these kind of exhibitions is that even though Islam is cruel towards it’s women, there are still patches of rebellion amongst women which proves that there is still a bit of humanity in the barbaric world of the Other (2008, 670).

To understand further what a holistic anthropological point of view can clarify in religious fundamentalism one can look at Huntington’s (a political scientist) article about a clash of civilization. He depicts a picture where weak civilization feel threatened, leading to inevitable conflict and where globalization is the fertile ground needed for these conflicts (1993, 32) However, as Mamdani points out, this vision forgets that Islam is not uniform and that all Muslims do not have the same civilization (2002, 767). Furthermore, nothing is static and cultures –civilizations – have always been, and continue to be, involved in the dynamic process of change (Hannerz 2003, 179). Anthropologists see the processes involved in globalization as an “open-ended, pluralistic process, with many components, and replete with interior contradictions that generate new sets of relationships” and nobody knows where this will lead us humans (Hannerz 2003,178). The aim of anthropology is not to make predictions for the future, but to make people realize how the dynamics work and that at the core of those dynamics lie the people themselves. What journalists write and report in the media is influenced by many factors such as their access to local information, the need for exciting and audience-pleasing stories and the amount of time they can spend on one story, partly to secure their careers. However, these are the kind of approaches to scenarios which can lead to seeing fundamentalism everywhere. Because of it’s deep understanding based on quality rather than quantity, the anthropologist can teach people the extent of their personal participation in the dynamics that surround us, as well as the importance of their own understandings and perceptions of the world as these are part of the creative processes that build the world (Hannerz 2003, 186).


Anthropology looks at the way people build their worlds. This means that tackling such an issue as the recent growth of fundamentalism is done by primarily putting humans at the centre of the picture. This helps us understand the anchorage of fundamentalism in the narrowness of interpretation of the Word that some humans choose to have, maybe as a defense against the threat they feel emanating from the increasing presence of fundamentals belonging to other humans from elsewhere. Anthropology makes us realize that RF isn’t the action of evil humans, but part of a process linked with other global processes such as industrialization and urbanization. By taking a more holistic approach, we may realize that if RF is understood as being the work of the evil, that is because it easy to categorize the unknown other in one category and to explain it’s actions by the simple fact that it is evil. Anthropology, by giving a clearer insight in the phenomenon, makes the listener understand his own role in the categorization and the making of RF, and the fight, if a fight is needed, against the real causes of religious fundamentalism may begin.




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