The Fascination of Fundamentalism


Going to talk about the present day fascination of the idea and image of fundamentalism for people who certainly do not consider themselves fundamentalists.

I’m saying that the reasons for this fascination are very similar to the reasons why fundamentalism appeals to other people.

Hence, I am disputing, on psychological grounds, the binary ‘us’ (who are not fundamentalists) and ‘them’ (who are fundamentalists) whilst working it at the same time.

Regarding fascination, there are 11 million references to fundamentalism on Google – and only 9 million for psychoanalysis

I think there is something to consider in addition to fear over alleged links between fundamentalism and political violence, so-called terrorism.

The fascination of fundamentalism is based on something deeper in addition to fear.

I am therefore talking about why I and I suppose many people here are fascinated by fundamentalism

In fact, I would say fundamentalism, as a word, as an image, as an idea, as a Gestalt, is a powerful fascinosum, in Rudolph Otto’s theological language.

Fundamentalism is a kind of mythic theme or even a sort of mythic personification for us today

The Greek and Latin etymology of ‘fascination’ is ‘an attractive, binding secret’. All are bound by fundamentalism, all in its grip. BTW, the same root as ‘fascism’.

Regarding fascination: My hypnagogic experience: asteroid, oxygen, rich people, journalists, universal peace, extinction.

Let’s keep terrorism in mind but not let our minds be taken over by a preoccupation with it. I know about this preoccupation from horrid personal experience

In a letter to the Guardian in September 2005, I wrote – not for the first time – that ‘Islam can function, not only as the significant other of the West, but also as a kind of therapeutic presence for it. Therapists are not perfect and nor is Islam, but there is much in its critiques of Western culture worth listening to’.

It was not long before ‘Islam as the therapist of the West’ became ‘Terrorists as the therapists of the West’ and the hate e-mails and letters started to flood in.

But the idea that Islam could be a sort of therapist of the West is one for you to hold in mind remembering that therapy and analysis are not easy or pleasant at times.

One Islamic critic said that people in the West ‘are living in a brothel’. Exaggerated – but what is happening in politics, business, the arts and sexuality is certainly demoralizing.


Need to say some things I am not doing:

–not pursuing the academic argument about limiting use of the term fundamentalism to protestant movements in the Western and Southern states of the US in the 1920s. I think any present-day religious or religiose movement that cannot abide modernity and bases that loathing on a sacred text may fairly be included under the label ‘fundamentalist’. It is these present-day movements that fascinate ‘us’ and appeal to ‘them’. IN BIG QUOTES.

–not following the conceit of saying that there are many contemporary fundamentalisms – liberal fundamentalisms such as the fetishization of free speech or professional fundamentalisms such as those with which psychoanalysis is riddled. It’s a valid point but not mine today that many modern movements cannot abide the diea that Truth is relative not absolute and that there are many competing truths.

‘Return to Freud’ say the Lacanians and they are not the only ones saying such things. But whilst this is an important contribution, it misses too many points for me to want to leave it there.

MAYBE OMITI know about this too –tell NYU anecdote.


So – the hinge of the paper is that what fascinates those of ‘us’ who are not fundamentalists is exactly what appeals to those who might justifiably be called fundamentalists.

Hence, ‘we’ and ‘they’ are caught up in the same cultural complex, possessed by the same set of images and anxieties.

The apparent political power and cultural domination of Western-type societies over other societies and other ways of living disguises the situation that we are all plugged into the same psychological dominants.

Four strands to this fascination on our part – and these also account for the appeal of fundamentalist organisations and ways of life to those living within them.


(i) sexuality. (ii) sacrifice. (iii) morality. (iv) aggression


–sex is always anxiety-provoking

–fundamentalism settles anxiety that attends sex including homosexuality

–fundamentalism sorts out gender relations

–fundamentalism fits with what I call unconscious gender certitude which is more powerful than not knowing about gender identity. RIFF

So it works on and fascinates us and them alike. There’s a joint hook. I ask you here and now to reflect on the anxiety sex has caused you in your lives (as well as the pleasure). What might you do to settle that anxiety?


–widespread psychological and historical theme

–at the heart of the Abrahamic religions (sacrifice of Isaac) but is much, much older as a propitiation of the Gods


–martyrdom (including of suicide bombers, if that is the right word)

–in depth psychology, sacrifice of the ego for the flowering of the wider personality in individuation

–in art and religion, sacrifice of autonomy and control to something experienced as ‘other’, whether inside or outside the self.

So this theme of sacrifice appeals to those living what we call a fundamentalistic life – but also fascinates those of us who believe we are not. I ask you here and now to recall times when giving something up produced a wonderfully fulfilling experience. Or think of how you admire someone who has made a sacrifice.


–fundamentalism uses what I call original morality as opposed to moral imagination – the pay-off is a sense of moral superiority and certitude (NB in her new book Jan Campbell writes about the difficulties of uncertainty)

–this kind of morality can be used to justify just about everything, reminded of this on a recent re-visit to Auschwitz

–there is something else in moral process that I call moral imagination but fundamentalism is not interested in this, nor in questions of forgiveness and reconciliation that are at the heart of moral imagination.

MAYBE OMITWant to illustrate ubiquity of moral imagination with reference to politics – over the heads exercise.


This section of the talk has a surprising conclusion, very much the opposite of the consensus.

Basically, I am going to say that fundamentalism seeks to avoid aggression that arises via contact with otherness, difference and diversity.

That its violent take on modernity has the hidden telos or goal of writing aggression out of its discourse.

That this is yet another hook for ‘us’ and ‘them’ because this is a pretty general ambition.

Let me explain the idea that fundamentalism seeks at some level to avoid aggression.

–those of us who know we are not fundamentalists – called in this talk for the sake of argument ‘us’ – assert that fundamentalists – called ‘them’ – are aggressive towards others who are different.

–BUT this is not the whole picture. I suggest that fundamentalism is generally terrified of aggression and seeks to manage it out of existence. …

–because aggression on the social and personal levels is usually linked to difference and diversity – but fundamentalists make sure that in their lived experience they do not really encounter difference and diversity.

They remain – often literally – cloistered. Hence they seek to avoid aggression in its full psychological and behavioural complexity.

–important not to be deceived by aggressive speech or rhetoric – to be fully aggressive there has to be contact and the goal of fundamentalist structures and organisations is to avoid such contact

–but the refusal to recognise the other and thereby avoid the aggression that inevitably accompanies recognition is something that ‘we’ non-fundamentalists have a stake in as well.

MAYBE OMIT–maybe that is why Abraham was so amenable to Sarah’s request and cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness – no contact, no aggression, that was the plan. Some hope.


I want to finish by saying more on why and how aggression and an encounter with difference are linked and I want to use the Qur’anic idea of Ta’Aruf that we find in 49:13.

The verse: ‘Oh mankind, we have created of you male and female and have made you peoples and tribes that you might come to know one another’.


E.G. (This gives a point or purpose or deeper understanding to difference: if we want to know the other, the other has to have difference from us.)

But there’s more to this than knowing the other.

In the same letter to the Guardian I mentioned earlier, I wrote ‘Full engagement and dialogue with an ‘other’ benefits the self. As the Qur’anic principle of Ta’Aruf has it, all kinds of difference – gender, national, religious – have the hidden potential to enable people to get to know one another, and hence themselves, better’.

But then aggression will arise, whether we like it or not. It’s part of relationality and recognition, that’s what I’m saying.

This is the note on which I want to conclude and I’ll just read a few lines from Wilfred Owen’s great war poem ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ which offers a completely different ending to the story of Abraham and Isaac that we could take as a profound warning of a terrible future. We pick up the narrative at the point the Angel of the Lord appears:

Lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not they hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Please send your comments via the form below.

Your Name* Your Email*
Your Comments

Please typecaptchahere: