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 Global Perspective

April 23, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 4

global perspective
Virginia Saldanha is a woman activist working in India for the empowerment of women through Church institutions as well as networking with secular organizations in the struggle for justice and peace.



"This simultaneous rise [of fundamentalism in world religions] has produced a domino effect of hatred and violence that is causing problems for people who strive for an inclusive social activism and particular problems for Christians in Asia."

Fundamentalists are not rooted in the truth of their religions

By Virginia Saldanha

MUMBAI, India -- Watchers of the world scene have witnessed many scenes of violence in the last year, much of it laid at the feet of religionists.

  • In Gujarat, India, months of violence and killing, sparked off by the torching of a compartment of a train traveling towards Ayodhya (a site long under dispute by Hindu and Muslim Indians.)
  • Pakistani Muslims have attacked Christians in Pakistan to avenge what they perceive as Christian America's actions against Muslims.
  • The relentless tit-for-tat violence in the Middle East.
  • Last, but not least, the spouting of U.S. President George Bush in his efforts to form his coalition against terrorism. For social activists outside the United States, Bush's speeches smack of religious fundamentalist thinking that make them nervous. (A Christian political leader is professing to bring peace and security to our world by waging war! Nothing could be more contradictory. This makes me, a Christian living in Asia, very uncomfortable.)

The extreme right wings of the world's four main religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism) seem to be on the rise and gaining strength. Furthermore, the rise is coupled with the consolidation of political power by an elite class of politicians and business interests.

We have seen this process unfold in India. Religion in India had always been considered a private matter. People worshipped, celebrated festivals, and held their beliefs privately. India also has a history of being very tolerant of different religious traditions. Groups who fled persecutions in their home countries -- like the Parsees and Jews -- were welcomed here. Problems began to surface when the colonialists brought with them missionaries who promoted Christianity aggressively. Some would say religion was being used to consolidate political and economic power. In contemporary times, Hindu fundamentalists seem to have taken their cue from their experience with their colonial masters.

While India has seen the rise of Hindu fundamentalist groups, Muslim countries have their own local brands of fundamentalist groups, and the Christian West has a special brand of preachers who are seemingly more adept at drawing out money than demons. It seems that the growth of fundamentalists in all religions has evolved as a response to each other. As an activist recently told me, "All fundamentalists have the same agenda, namely, gaining political power to boost their economic power."

This simultaneous rise has produced a domino effect of hatred and violence that is causing problems for people who strive for an inclusive social activism and particular problems for Christians in Asia.

  • Part of the agenda of any religious fundamentalism is the suppression of the women's movement. Religious fundamentalists fear women speaking out against their pernicious plans and policies, so they put women into purdahs and veils and limit woman's space to the home.
  • People's movements also suffer. With governments or religious leaders assuming absolute power under the guise of faithfulness to a religious tradition and national security, it is convenient to use the state machinery to eliminate bothersome people. Social activists are a common casualty.
  • Fundamentalists feel no compulsion to redress economic injustice. In fact, the widening gap between rich and poor becomes a convenience for them. Simple people are mislead into supporting their schemes and are even used as foot soldiers in violent attacks. In some countries these may comprise motley groups and in others they may be the legitimate armed forces.
  • In addition, the fundamentalists' business partners like to have a poor exploitable base to use as cheap labor. All of this is why fundamentalists favor charity to the poor (to keep them alive) rather than economic justice.
  • People of minority religious groups living within a nation or society dominated by another religious tradition can easily become "soft targets" for extreme religious groups. This has been tragically played out in Pakistan, Indonesia and India in the last year. But instances of such prejudice have also surfaced in the "Christian" United States.

This last point is most worrisome for me, a Christian living in Asia.

To Asians, the powerful West is synonymous with Christianity. It is also synonymous with military, political and economic domination. Asian countries struggling to come into their own as economic and political entities have much to fear from Western domination. President Bush's strongly "fundamentalist Christian" ideology reinforces these fears. Hence in some countries in Asia where Christians are minorities, they are looked upon with suspicion and become soft-targets for majority religious groups venting anger against the West.

Civil society the world over is trying to raise a voice, but this voice is being ignored. Where do we go from here? people ask. For those of us with inclusive religious beliefs, the answer to the question is in our religious traditions - whatever those may be.

Fundamentalists achieve their goal by using religion to gain control over the lives of people. Fundamentalists interpret religion to suit their own ends. They claim to speak and act in the name of God. They prescribe religious rituals that absorb people's attention rather than help people to think and analyze situations for themselves.

Fundamentalists are not rooted in the truth preached by the founders of their religions.

Religious people who struggle for a more inclusive and peaceful world should return to the roots of our religions where we will find the truth. Those of use who are Christians will remember the words of Jesus spoken in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the poor in Spirit …Blessed are the peace makers, Blessed are those who work for justice, …."

In the struggle against fundamentalism, we can also remember the words, "Those who live by the sword die by the sword."

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