Why Fundamentalism?


  • Stephen Cowden Senior Lecturer in Social Work Coventry Univeristy http://orcid.org/0000-0002-2549-8760
  • Gita Sahgal Executive director the Centre for Secular Space
  • Stephen Cowden
  • Gita Sahgal




This article is intended to generate a discussion about religious fundamentalism. We begin by proposing a definition and arguing for the value of ‘fundamentalism’ as an analytical category that allows the understanding of common political discourses, interventions and practices across different religions and diverse contexts.  We then delineate key components of fundamentalist movements, looking in particular at the construction of a neo-patriarchal political order as a key objective.

We then move to trying to understand why fundamentalism has emerged at this particular point in time.  We argue that the weakening of a commitment to a secular politics has occurred through the convergence of several related factors.  Firstly we see the crisis of both ‘progressive’ versions of nationalism as well as of the political Left (locally and internationally) as having provided a major opportunity for religious fundamentalism, which it has adeptly occupied.  Secondly fundamentalists have interpolated the massively disruptive social changes caused by neoliberal globalisation taking place particularly but not exclusively in the developing world.  Thirdly we see intellectual understanding of the fundamentalist threat to human rights and women’s rights in particular has been significantly impeded by the rise of postmodernism and postcolonialism where the romanticisation of essentialised ‘other-identity’ claims has prevented the development of a critique of the fundamentalist agenda.  


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Author Biographies

Stephen Cowden, Senior Lecturer in Social Work Coventry Univeristy

Stephen Cowden is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Coventry University. Stephen is also a joint commissioning editor for the series New Disciplinary Perspectives In Education for the publisher Peter Lang. His research is concerned with Social Work ethics, Critical Pedagogy and the Sociology of Multiculturalism and Religious Fundamentalism. With Gurnam Singh he is co-author of Acts of Knowing: Critical Pedagogy In, Against and Beyond the University

Gita Sahgal, Executive director the Centre for Secular Space

Gita Sahgal is the executive director of the Centre for Secular Space. She is also a writer and documentary film maker, and the co-editor of Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain (1992). She has written on gender, fundamentalism, and human rights for the American Society of International Law, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and openDemocracy, and has made documentary films on forced marriage and human rights violations during the Bangladeshi war of liberation. She was a member of Southall Black Sisters and a founder of Women Against Fundamentalism and Awaaz: South Asia Watch
Jaishri Abichandani - Holy Family Detail, 2016






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