Gideon Aran: Body, Violence and Fundamentalism – Introduction

We are now twenty or thirty years after the eruption of fundamentalism onto the global stage. Since the spectacular events that made contemporary radical religion so notorious – such as the Khomeini revolution in Iran, the political salience of Protestant Bible Believers in U.S, or the assassination of the Egyptian president Sa’dat – two generations have passed.

Gideon Aran

Gideon Aran, Hebrew University

Scholars now have the advantage of a time perspective through which to gauge this set of phenomena. Major transformations have occurred in historical circumstances that constitute the political and social context of fundamentalist movements. Consequently the latter have changed substantially, both as a result of their environment’s reaction and of their own ‘internal logic’. In any case, we are no longer in the early charismatic phase that has been given so much media attention and that was the focus of much academic preoccupation. The initial impression left by this formative stage has produced much of the public imagery and scholarly understandings of fundamentalism. Indeed, such ideas that were formulated during the 1980s and 1990s have been awarded a canonical status in the guise of the five volumes of the Fundamentalism Project (Marty and Appleby, eds.). Since the conclusion of that impressive scientific enterprise, however, the fundamentalist scene has changed markedly. This has usually not been as dramatic as it was at the beginning and only occasionally has fundamentalism regained the headlines as it did during the attacks of September 11. Quite a few cases – like the Islamic movements in Turkey or Algeria – have come to terms with wider society.

It is hard to assess the extent to which entirely new fundamentalist movements have recently emerged. Yet one can reasonably argue that there have been movements that expired, whether as a consequence of external pressures or internal implosions, while others continue to exist in different formats or have gone underground. Many movements, however, continue to pursue their original goals and quite often struggle for their very survival in the midst of repression and crack downs by regimes that feel threatened by them. Others have lost the original attraction or momentum that provided them with support or at least some living space in the past. Of course, there are a number of movements that have achieved quite a lot, and continue to develop and aim for further goals. A noteworthy case is that of the Shiite movement in Iran that has taken over the regime (Arjomand, 1993). But as we learn from this case and others, even in the wake of impressive success there are certain crises and compelling needs forcing them to adjust to new conditions. This holds even more so in those countless cases that cannot be conclusively defined either as successes or failures. Necessary adaptation of movements may involve changes in targets or strategies, like appealing to new potential recruits and altering the geopolitical arenas of action. (Al-Queda is an outcome of various such adaptations). Yet, the one challenge that all movements must face is the shift from the revolutionary to the post-revolutionary stage: all the fundamentalist movements discussed in the literature undergo the inevitable process of institutionalization and routinization (following Troeltsch, 1931; Weber, 1964). Most scholarly writing however tends to miss this process and it is to this lacunae that we address ourselves.

Present-day fundamentalist movements now confront the same kinds of problems that various historical movements like the Bolsheviks in Russia encountered during the first decades after the revolution or the Mormons during the first decades after the death of their prophet. With the passage of time, the crucial need for institutionalization and routinization is related to the emergent needs of a second and third generation of fundamentalists. The founders now have children and grandchildren and many of the movements’ members have been born and grown up within them. For these people, the world of fundamentalism is a given. This fact has far ranging implications for the structure and dynamics of fundamentalism. Thus, for example, the emphasis in the agenda of the movements is naturally diverted from the objectives of propaganda, mobilization and conversion, to the indispensable tasks of socialization and social control. In this new reality, the fit between the inclinations and preferences of members and the norms and values of the movement cannot be taken for granted anymore and might become an issue that requires the movement’s attention.

One could well assume that the founding activists of the first generation joined the movement voluntarily and selectively, and that they shaped the movement according to their image and predispositions. In this way, the basis for a homogeneous and effective collective characterized by eager conformism was established (Barr, 1978; Ammerman, 1987; Lawrence, 1989; Sivan, 1991; Aran, 1991). This trend was further strengthened by early enthusiastic activity that blurred deviations and neutralized oppositions, or made highly committed and agitated believers overlook breaches of discipline and potential schisms. The result was an illusion of full congruency between the group and its individual members. In such circumstances any divergences that might harm the integrity of the movement tended to be relegated to the margins of the attention of activists and observers alike. It is only later, with the maturing of new generations and when non-conformism and controversies became apparent, and members started questioning the self-evident reality of the fundamentalist world, that observers might become aware of the very existence of several relevant variables, including some that are crucial for the movement’s cohesion and goal attainment.

Among such issues that previous scholarship has glossed over, or underestimated their import and problematic nature, is a particular mix of temperamental or behavioral dispositions and corporeal properties that characterizes fundamentalists. This is a typical syndrome that consists of such elements as physicality, manhood (or, masculinity) and other related categories, like action seeking, sexuality, impulsiveness, sensuality, assertiveness and the like. As we shall see soon, all of these are associated with the issue of violence. While these concepts are analytically distinct from one another and theoretically independent, they tend to impinge on each other and partially overlap. In lieu of the above we suggest the use of a well-developed general concept, namely the body and body practices (i.e. the set of particular social arrangements by which bodies are constructed), and embodiment (the concrete expression of culture and society in the corporeal body).

In the scholarship on fundamentalism the body has not been presented as a problem and has not been mentioned as a relevant dimension for analysis. We maintain that it is worthwhile to introduce the body into the agenda of fundamentalism studies since this move may reveal certain hitherto unexplored aspects of radical religious movements. Furthermore, we propose the existence of what may be termed a “fundamentalist body.” What are the characteristics of this body and in what way is it unique? Whence the particular problematic of the “fundamentalist body” and why is it significant for better understanding fundamentalism?

Gideon Aran is a professor of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

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