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Back | Programme Area: The Social Effects of Globalization

Religion, Fundamentalism and Ethnicity: A Global Perspective



In recent decades, religion has had considerable impact upon politics in many regions of the world. The belief that societies would invariably secularize as they modernize has not been well founded. Technological development and other aspects of modernization have left many people with a feeling of loss rather than achievement. By undermining “traditional” value systems and allocating opportunities in highly unequal ways within and among nations, modernization can produce a deep sense of alienation and stimulate a search for an identity that will give life some purpose and meaning. In addition, the rise of a global consumerist culture can lead to an awareness of relative deprivation that people believe they can deal with more effectively if they present their claims as a group. One result of these developments has been a wave of popular religiosity, which has had far-reaching implications for social integration, political stability and international security.

This paper provides a global perspective on the relation between religion, politics, conflict and identity. Using a wide range of cases from various parts of the world, it examines the complex ways in which religious values, beliefs and norms stimulate and affect political developments and vice versa; the social conditions which give rise to religious movements as well as how such movements are promoted and sustained over time; the relations between religious leaders and followers; and the links between social mobilization and the pursuit of particularist objectives.

The paper contends that the defining characteristic of the relationship of religion and politics in the 1990s is the increasing disaffection and dissatisfaction with established, hierarchical and institutionalized religious bodies. Contemporary religious movements seek instead to find God through personal searching rather than through the mediation of institutions. They also focus on the role of communities in generating positive changes to members’ lives through the application of group effort. In this regard, the paper argues that religion’s interaction with political issues carries an important message of societal resurgence and regeneration, which may challenge the authority of political leaders and economic élites.

The first part of the paper provides an overview of the relationship between religion and modernization. It surveys the contradictory effects of modernization on social values in different cultural and religious settings. Given the uneven impact of modernization in developing countries, the relationship between religion and politics has always been a close one. Political power is underpinned by religious beliefs and practices, while political concerns permeate to the heart of the religious sphere. Therefore, attempts in many countries to separate politics from religion have been largely unsuccessful, especially as economic crisis and global restructuring undermine previous arrangements for promoting social and political cohesion.

Part two develops a typology of religious movements in order to demonstrate the political significance of religion as a global phenomenon. Four types of movements are highlighted based on whether religion is used as a vehicle of opposition or as an ideology of community development. Groups which link religion to the pursuit of community development are categorized as community-oriented while oppositional movements are classified as culturalist, fundamentalist, and syncretistic. Threats from powerful outsider groups or from unwelcome symptoms of modernization largely sustain the oppositional movements; community movements on the other hand derive their raison d’être from state failures in social welfare development.

The remaining parts of the paper provide detailed discussions of the dynamics of these four movements. Culturalist movements emerge when a community, sharing both religious and ethnic affinities, perceives itself as a powerless and repressed minority within a state dominated by outsiders. Culture (of which religion is an important part) is mobilized as part of a wider strategy aimed at achieving self control, autonomy or self government. Cases examined include experiences of Sikhs in Hindu India, the struggles of the peoples of Southern Sudan against Arabization and Islamization, Tibetan Buddhist opposition to the Chinese state and the African-American movement of self-development, the Nation of Islam.

Syncretistic religious movements are said to be found predominantly among certain rural dwellers in parts of the Third World, especially in Africa. They involve a fusion or blending of religions and feature a number of elements found in more traditional forms of religious association, such as ancestor worship and healing practices. Sometimes ethnic differentiation may form part of syncretism. Religious and social beliefs supply the basic elements for building group solidarity in the face of threats from outside forces, such as the state, big land-owners, transnational enterprises or foreign governments. The paper examines several African, Latin American and Caribbean cases where such threats have given rise to syncretistic religions, including the Napramas of north-eastern Mozambique, the Lakwena and Lenshina movements in Uganda and Zambia, the cult of Olivorismo in the Dominican Republic and Sendero Luminoso in Peru.

Religious fundamentalist movements aim to reform society by changing laws, morality, social norms and political configurations in accordance with religious tenets, with the goal of creating a more traditional society. The paper highlights two broad categories of fundamentalist groups: those based on the Abrahamic “religions of the book” and nationalist-oriented derivatives of Hinduism and Buddhism. For the first type, scriptural revelations relating to political, moral and social issues form the corpus of fundamentalist demands. Their political orientations vary considerably: some are deeply conservative (US Protestant evangelicals), some are reformist or revolutionary (many Islamist groups), some are essentially moralistic (Protestant evangelicals in Latin America), and some are xenophobic or racist (such as the banned Kach and Kahane Chai groups in Israel). In the absence of any clear set of scriptural norms, Hindu and Buddhist fundamentalisms are indistinguishable from movements with aspirations for national or cultural purity.

Community-oriented movements often emerge from attempts to improve community livelihood; these tend to be popularly driven and may have either conservative or reformist orientation, and are found typically, but not exclusively, in Latin America. Especially prominent in this regard are local community groups, mostly Roman Catholic in inspiration, which have grown in importance over the last 25 years in Latin America, the Philippines and in parts of Africa. Many derive their ideas from the tenets of radical liberation theology. In addition, there has been a strong growth in several Latin American and African countries of popular Protestant evangelical churches. What all these groups have in common is that local self-help groups are formed to improve qualitatively communities’ lives at a time when central and local governments are unable to satisfy popular developmental needs.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 May 1995
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1012-6511
    From: UNRISD