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Fundamentalism explained

Edna Fernandes' book reveals fundamentalism is not a singular scourge that afflicts any particular religion.

india Updated: Jul 12, 2006 16:36 IST

By Manish Chand

Holy Warriors - A Journey into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism
Author: Edna Fernandes
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs.450
Pages: 332

Fundamentalism is not a singular scourge that afflicts any particular religion - it's certainly no expertise of Islam - but this extreme brand of bigotry cuts across all faiths, argues a new book by a British journalist of Indian origin.

Edna Fernandes' Holy Warriors takes readers on a psychic journey into the dark heart of Indian fundamentalism and exposes some of the post 9/11 clichés that equate Islam with terrorism. In quest for a more accurate diagnosis of this modern fret and fever that often erupts in hatred and violence, the author traverses a terrain that stretches from Kashmir to Gujarat and Punjab to Goa to find out some essential truths about this malaise.

A reporter with a gift for details (she has worked with The Financial Times and Reuters in London), Fernandes weaves together voices of key actors as well as innocents caught in the cleft of history to explain the seductions of fundamentalism and its many pernicious variants.

More than any metaphysical lure of 'jannat' (Paradise, in Islam) or rewards in afterlife, the author zeroes in on more immediate causes to explain terrorism. Economic and political disengagement, deep-seated alienation and fear of modern life and Western values are some of the common elements that go into the making of holy warriors.

Likewise, the author argues that it is bread and butter issues rather than religion or religious ideology that forms the defining challenges of contemporary India.

 

The author sees no future for divisive communal politics - what she has evocatively described as "an unhealed scab, itching and waiting to be picked off" - based on fervid appeals to exclusivist religious identity. She cites the surprise defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2004 general election as a cautionary tale for practitioners of religious politics.

There are genuine flashes of wit and a talent for mockery that make the book a racy read. In a chapter aptly titled "Weapons of mass distraction," she caricatures a desperate BJP roping in vacuous beauty queens like Yukta Mookhey and film stars to refurbish the fading appeal of the saffron warriors to a jaded electorate.

Likewise, she mercilessly lampoons Bal Thackeray whom she calls the Godfather of Hindutva politics. The sight of Thackeray chanting, "Why can't we be proud to be Hindu?" while sipping juice on his massage chair is almost ludicrous.

The portrait of young Muslim students reading Jane Austen at madrassas in Deoband is bristling with ironies and dramatises Islam's love-hate relationship with modernity.

But despite extensive interviewing and research reflecting in the book, one wishes that the author took a more empathetic look at some of the genuinely deluded who fall prey to the seductive propaganda of rabble rousers and jihad recruiters.

The book also shies away from exploring the holy unrest that lies at the heart of modernity - the genuine longing for faith in a seemingly mindless modernist carnival, a sense of the sacred and a sense of belonging in the schizoid world we live in. Relentless attempts by some self-styled secularists to deride and vilify the religious-minded betray another form of bigotry.

And herein lies a trap for those wishing to free the world from god-drunk terrorists. The secular fundamentalist, if that is the term for it, forgets that by fanatically insisting on the rightness of his worldview, he is only nudging the believer into the embrace of communal impresarios.