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How should one understand the rise of ‘fundamentalism’?

With the current wave of “terrorist” attacks, not only in France, but in other parts of the world such as Nigeria and Mali, too, “fundamentalist” organisations have become the focus of many questions, including the one concerning the reason why (particularly young) people join these despite risking their lives in the course of performing their assigned tasks. Rather than speculating aimlessly about such issues, it is more productive to place them in a conceptual framework that imparts a specific meaning to them.

What I therefore want to do here is to draw from the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire (Harvard University Press, 2001), where they peg fundamentalism(s) as a “symptom of [the historical] passage” that is in progress in the global world, from what one might broadly call the modern era of nation-states to that of what they term “Empire” — a new kind of sovereign power operating globally at various levels, including the political, cultural, social and economic.

Hardt and Negri see the emergence of “Empire” as being inseparable from the “ … irresistible and irreversible globalisation of economic and cultural exchanges” (p. xi). “Empire”, they add, “is the political subject that effectively regulates these global exchanges, the sovereign power that governs the world”. While they grant that, as many commentators have argued, the sovereignty of nation-states has declined (no nation-state is a sovereign authority any longer, but is tied in with global and regional alliances) this does not mean that sovereignty as such does not exist today. Hence the fundamental hypothesis of their book, namely, that sovereignty has assumed a new form, consisting of a series of national and trans-national structures that obey the same “logic of rule”. This novel type of sovereignty is precisely what they call “Empire”.

In contrast to modern imperialism of the 19th century, Empire has no centre of power in a territorial sense, nor does it have any geographical boundaries. Instead, it is “ … a decentred and deterritorialising apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers” (p. xii). Unlike the supposed (but illusory) stable identities and fixed hierarchies of modern imperialism, Empire is characterised by hybrid identities and flexible hierarchies that operate hand in hand with multiple exchanges along rhizomatic global networks of power.

Furthermore, the advent of Empire signals a new stage in capitalist production that goes beyond the industrial phase of production by means of factory labour, even if it still exists in reduced format. The actualisation of the world market is inseparable from it, but far from implying trade between discrete geographical territories, the spatial boundaries between developing and developed countries have become fluid, resulting in their continual intermingling. This has been made possible by, among other things, a transformation of the dominant processes of production. According to these thinkers the postmodernised global economy prioritises labour of a cooperative, communicative and affective kind, and inclines increasingly towards so-called “biopolitical production”, or “ … the production of [a certain kind of] social life itself, in which the economic, the political, and the cultural increasingly overlap and invest one another” (p. xiii).

Fundamentalism as a “symptom” of the transition to fully fledged Empire must be understood against this background. Strictly speaking there are a variety of “fundamentalisms”, usually connected by their perceived “anti-modernism” or attempts at “de-modernisation” (p. 146). “It is more accurate and more useful, however”, Hardt and Negri claim (p. 146-147), “to understand the various fundamentalism [sic] not as the re-creation of a premodern world, but rather as a powerful refusal of the contemporary historical passage in course”.

If this sounds unintelligible, remember that the passage to Empire entails a reconfiguration of power relations globally, which no country, and no one in them, can escape from. It is probably the case that Empire’s impact is felt most tangibly in economic terms (currency values, eg), but culturally (television programmes, eg) and militarily (drone warfare, eg), too, it is inescapable.

The contemporary media tend to reduce “fundamentalism” to “Islamic fundamentalism” which is further reduced, they point out, to “a violent and intolerant religious fanaticism that is above all ‘anti-Western’ ”, despite its having a long history in the modern era and assuming diverse forms. Islamic radicalism today displays clear similarities with its predecessor movements (p. 147). Nevertheless, “Islamic fundamentalisms are most coherently united … in their being resolutely opposed to modernity and modernisation” (p. 147). Why is this the case?

One should recall that a secularising effect has been inseparable from modernisation in political and cultural terms, against which Islamic fundamentalisms have insisted on the centrality of sacred texts to political constitutions, and on the political leadership and power of religious figures (p. 147). In this sense Iran, with its theocratic structure, may be seen as a fundamentalist state. Just like Christian fundamentalisms in the US, their Islamic counterparts appear as movements directed against social modernisation and its secularising effects, in the place of which a comparatively static and rigid religious order is promoted according to an imagined past society (p. 147).

However, Hardt and Negri (p. 148) argue that to imagine fundamentalism(s) as a “return” to a premodern society obscures more than it reveals, because the conditions they believe to have existed never did; rather, they (Christian as well as Muslim) are fictional — “ … a new invention that is part of a political project against the contemporary social order”. Even Muslim scholars like Fazlur Rahman (quoted on p. 148) emphasise the “original” character of contemporary Islamic radicalisms — they are only “fundamentalist”, he points out, insofar as they claim that the foundation of Islam consists in the Prophet Muhammad’s “Sunna” and the Qur’an.

Paradoxically, then, these fundamentalisms amount to the “ … invention of original values and practices, which perhaps echo those of other periods of revivalism or fundamentalism but are really directed in reaction to the present social order. In both cases, then, the fundamentalist ‘return to tradition’ is really a new invention” (p. 149).

Hence Hardt and Negri’s perhaps surprising claim (p. 149), that: “The anti-modern thrust that defines fundamentalisms might be better understood, then, not as a premodern, but as a postmodern project. The postmodernity of fundamentalism has to be recognised primarily in its refusal of modernity as a weapon of Euro-American hegemony — and in this case Islamic fundamentalism is indeed the paradigmatic case. In the context of Islamic traditions, fundamentalism is postmodern insofar as it rejects the tradition of Islamic modernism for which modernity was always overcoded as assimilation or submission to Euro-American hegemony.”

To back up their claim, they draw on the Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed (p. 149), who confirms that while, in this context, to be a modern Muslim meant the embrace of Western technology and education, to be postmodern would entail rejecting the modern and returning to traditional Islamic values. Hardt and Negri recognise that Islamic fundamentalism is culturally paradoxical insofar as it is postmodern only insofar as it historically succeeds and opposes modern Islam. In addition, for it to be postmodern AND fundamentalist is an “odd coupling”, given that these are mostly in opposition — the former valorises difference, mobility and hybridity, while the latter values identity, stasis and purity (p. 149-150).

They explain this strange phenomenon as a simultaneous response to the emergence of Empire, but at opposite extremes of global power hierarchies. Hence, “ … postmodernist discourses appeal primarily to the winners in the processes of globalisation and fundamentalist discourses to the losers … the current global tendencies toward increased mobility, indeterminacy, and hybridity are experienced by some as a kind of liberation but by others as an exacerbation of their suffering” (p. 150).

What Hardt and Negri detect as the truly novel element in the current resurrection of fundamentalism is its forceful “ … refusal of the powers that are emerging in the new imperial order” (p. 149). This, coupled with the values that are fundamental to it, especially “identity”, might explain why many young people are embracing it at a time when many may feel that they are rudderless in a globalising sea of “mobility, indeterminacy, and hybridity”.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. johnbpatson johnbpatson 23 November 2015

    It is worth a conference or two, and bits of the theory can stick when you look at the history of what was probably the first modern “fundamentalist” revolt — that of the Mad Mullah in Sudan — he who killed Gordon and re-introduced slavery.

    It covered all neighbouring countries, involved suicide squad attacks, and involved foreign volunteers from as far away as present day Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    It was crushed by a mix of military and political (colonial) force.

    Is that the best way to crush the present fundamentalists?Some might say the present Sudanese dictator is still a result of it and the country has not got over that episode in its history.

  2. Rory Short Rory Short 24 November 2015

    I at 76 am also effected by the fluidity etc. of modern life but I have not thought of turning to fundamentalism of any kind for comfort in these tumultuous seas.

  3. Voldemort Rupert Voldemort Rupert 26 November 2015

    So I think for me being a luddite is a fundamentalism born from opposition to the empire. I’m not hankering for a return to some mythical past, just agitating for all life to rise up and destroy the corporate takeover. #CullFromTheTop.

  4. ian shaw ian shaw 3 December 2015

    Is the rejection of neoliberalism also an offshoot of fundamentalism?
    Some nations that managed to exist over a thousand years reject EU-style neoliberalism which include the discarding certain traditional religious, moral and social values shared by most of their population. For this they are being vilified, called racist, antisemitic, cold-hearted and inhumane. Yet all they want is to be freed from what they consider as alien influences trying to force them into a straight jacket that serves only some overweening economic interests. Is therefore an objection to the recent migrant invasion a manifestation of fundamentalism?

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