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Fundamentalism really is ordinary

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At a time when many are concerned with fundamentalism in faiths and when schools are obliged to consider ‘fundamental British values’, Linden West, Professor of Education in the Faculty of Education, asks us to reconsider what we mean by the very term ‘fundamentalism’.

fundamental dictionary entryRaymond Williams, the cultural theorist and adult educator, once described culture as ordinary. An interest in learning the arts can be simple, pleasant and natural. So too can the desire to know what is best, and to do what is good. But there is a darker side to our humanity that closes down the desire to know; that considers we already know everything, that we already have the truth and nothing but the truth.

When we do think in such ways, we can shout and rage at those who think differently, or who do not have our purity of spirit. We can wish to annihilate them, whole groups even, in the seminar room or the public forum, metaphorically speaking of course. We may also seek a gang of people just like us, a gang of our own, who collectively know best. Fundamentalism is ordinary: a vote for absolute belief rather than doubt, for certainty rather than curiosity, for dogma rather than questioning and experiment.

Fundamentalism is no mystery, the work of the devil or of evil minds beyond our comprehension. When we witness barbarism on the streets of Brussels, Paris, Beirut and countless other locations, we can recognise, if pausing for a moment, some equivalent potential, however small, in ourselves. We, like them, may rant and rage, grab at absolutes, at stories promising the earth or paradise, ones that annihilate complexity and make the world comprehensible. Fundamentalism is ordinary, rooted in our vulnerability, in our desire to know everything, and to be noticed, important, recognised. It can be driven by anger at exclusion or phantasies of the all-powerful, threatening other who must be expunged.

Fundamentalism as a term emerged at the end of the nineteenth century, coined in California by Protestant movements (p.7). The movements consisted of people who wanted to assert the inerrancy of the Bible – the direct creation of the world and humanity ex nihilo by God as opposed to Darwinian evolution – and the authenticity of miracles and the Virgin birth.

Fundamentalism may, however, have diverse manifestations but all may share certain characteristics.  Following Wittgenstein, a word, like fundamentalism or games, can be usefully applied to seemingly disparate phenomenon, to establish similarities across obvious differences. Like the word ‘games’ – as in board games, Olympic Games, Roman games. They have things in common, to do with play, challenge, striving, perhaps, although the Roman games, especially, evoke a darker side of humanity. In the spirit of Wittgenstein, fundamentalism, in general, can represent retreat from complexity, difficulty, and otherness. It can be characterised by a grabbing at certainties, rooted, perhaps, in the terror of ignorance or of feeling overwhelmed and impotent.

Of course, differences matter too and not every person we call a fundamentalist reaches for a Kalashnikov or reeks destruction on the streets of major cities. We may legitimately distinguish violent extremism from other fundamentalisms. But there may also be similarities, which matter: as in hostility to difference, to those with a different point of view, to the other and otherness. Moreover, turning to violence itself is really ordinary; jihadis have often lived lives of hopelessness, exclusion, family breakdown and mental illness, as chronicled in my own research. Such phenomena are familiar. Fundamentism, even in its nasty and destructive incarnations, is ordinary.

The fundamentalist preaches that there is no alternative, like fierce neo-liberals. Markets are best, the public realm inconsequential. Don’t even bother to think, the world is like this and always will be. It’s for the best. In the case of Islamism, or Communism and fascism in the last century, people were offered a ‘divine’ text, a story that obliterated complexity, that knew the future, and where past blame lay. Fundamentalism in Islam shares with fascism hostile attitudes to the stranger and a fear of pollution, a loss of purity. It too is terrified at appearing vulnerable or feminine and unmanly. Witness posturing jihadis or Anders Breivik. Fundamentalism is deeply defensive as well as anti-educational. It is ordinary.

We might recognise similar dynamics or echoes of some of the above in ourselves. In times of stress and uncertainty, when we feel out of our depth and can’t cope, we easily grab at facts or certainties and find scapegoats to punish. Or, as children, we may retreat into the known and familiar when threatened at school, and close down to the outside world. Schools and other educational institutions are now obliged of course to have due regard of the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. There is a state school in London largely catering for Muslim girls. Pupils suggest items to talk about in weekly discussion. After the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris, nothing was raised. When the teacher asked about this, the pupils replied that their families had told them not to talk about such matters, because it might mean being put on a register. Intemperate actions can have this effect, closing down communication and inhibiting the free and open discussion of ideas. Children and adults can retreat into the known and familiar, feeling unable to question and challenge. Traits can develop such as dogmatism, rigidity and a need for order and power, and these should be familiar to us, because we no doubt have occasionally been heir to them. The need for external sources of absolute authority or truths, for discourses of complete certainty, is a widespread human phenomenon.

I have written in depth about all of the above in a recent book, Distress in the city, racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education. The basic contention in this work is how each and every one of us is prone to fundamentalist responses, including in educational settings. Prone, for instance, to avoid difficult, challenging thoughts and to seek something simple, child-like, infantile, a commodity, because that’s what we paid for. In the history of workers’ education, in which I have long been interested – like Williams was – there could be a leftist fundamentalist of, say, a rigid Communist Party kind who would quote particular texts with quasi-religious fervour. Workers’ education was rooted in a spirit of non-conformity, the strengths of which challenged received wisdom or the idea that the poor man (and woman) at the gate really should know their place. But weaknesses lurked there too, in dogmatism, and in the idea that people who thought like us always knew best. These phenomena are really quite ordinary. The poet Keats wrote about negative capability: a capacity to live in uncertainty without grabbing at facts or being seduced by offers of total truth. Keats was alluding to the need for a good education. Our only hope is that education becomes more ordinary.



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