Why I... think universities need to start a campaign for true dissent

February 27, 2004

Religious fundamentalism makes headline news these days. While Islamic extremism attracts the most attention, religious fundamentalism is thriving everywhere. Islam has no monopoly on the phenomenon and it is worth reminding ourselves that fundamentalism was a term coined to describe extremist Christian evangelism in early 20th-century America. The American Christian right wields considerable social and political influence, Judaic fundamentalists justify West Bank settlement on the basis of returning Israel to God's "chosen people", and Hindu fundamentalists exact savage reprisals against India's Muslim population for slights real or imagined.

In each case, zealots refuse to acknowledge that other systems of belief have any validity.

More worrying for the western liberal consciousness is that a similar attitude is infecting many other areas of our culture. Market fundamentalism, laissez-faire economics in its purest form, is promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which have relentlessly imposed this model on a series of vulnerable debtor countries. Argentina speaks volumes for the damage such policies can do, even on a relatively sophisticated economy. But IMF and World Bank officials remain unmoved.

Meanwhile, Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front Party in France peddles a sinister version of nationalist fundamentalism, while the American Militia Movement's "constitutional fundamentalism" administers a nasty dose of extremist nationalism to the world's most multicultural society.

As for political fundamentalism: what religious fundamentalist group does not have political aspirations? The Christian coalition in the US, which has President George W. Bush's ear, supports the expansion of the Israeli state because a significant Jewish presence in the Middle East is a critical sign of the imminence of the Second Coming. Such views inform US foreign policy, exacerbating the region's political volatility.

Eco-fundamentalists blow up ski resorts, "on behalf of the lynx" as one group claimed, and pro-life fundamentalists bomb abortion clinics and murder their staff. Fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalists are locked in what is arguably the critical conflict of our time. At stake is cultural difference and diversity, perhaps even the notion of democracy itself.

Fundamentalism is a denial of free speech and dissent. If those ideals are to be defended anywhere in western society, it is surely in the university sector. Fundamentalism is about ideas; universities' core focus is on ideas. The difference is that one side takes the ideas as fundamental truths that must not be challenged, whereas the other, with its roots in Enlightenment thought, wants to keep subjecting ideas to scrutiny and debate. At its best, postmodernism encourages a similarly sceptical approach to authority: combine the two, Enlightenment-plus as I'd like to call it, and you have the right cast of mind to contest the fundamentalist threat.

Universities ought to be the home of scepticism, although they have had their share of true believers over the years. The more militant Marxists, poststructuralists and postmodernists, for example, have proclaimed that their system rendered others superfluous.

An Enlightenment-plus scepticism needs to be fostered, therefore, within both our teaching and research activity. We should also engage in more dialogue with our colleagues in Islamic universities, in the hope that we can convince them of the value of scepticism. The alternative is a world run by true believers - even worse, a world run by warring groups of true believers. For sceptics, that is a deeply depressing prospect. It's time to start a campaign for real dissent.

Stuart Sim is professor of critical theory in the English department at the University of Sutherland. Fundamentalist World: The New Dark Age of Dogma by Stuart Sim is published by Icon Books, £12.99.

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