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The Rise of Fundamentalism Today Calls for an Enlightenment that Contributes to Social Transformations

The recent message by Pope Francis for the 108 World Day of Migrants and Refugees on September 22nd 2022 reaffirms the UN SDGs line: No one should be left behind.  He sees migrants and refugees as persons with enormous potential, whose talents are ready to be harnessed, if given a chance. While he acknowledges migration and refugees can cause a new type of challenge to stable and established communities, there is room to open doors and welcome them. Nations that build walls without bridges are open to ridicule and attack because no human situation is permanent. Today they close doors and blow-up bridges, tomorrow they will need the same help should their regimes not be open to continuous democratic changes. Pope Francis looked at those nations where migrants and refugees were running from by posing questions around the reasons behind their fright and plight to new lands for protection. In this paper I argue that closed democracies and non-consent to social transformations make migrants and refuges to run away from regimes which are caught in a captivity of fundamentalism. These regimes have refused to continually modernize within the space of dialogue, integration, respect for differing opinions, and upholding democratic rights of every citizen.

How can society deal with fundamentalism and introduce a discipline of enlightenment that leads to social transformation? I refer to 1784 when Immanuel Kant tried to define Enlightenment[1] as, “Man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity.” He then continued to explain “immaturity” as the inability to “use one’s understanding without guidance from the other.” Some scholars have explained this to mean not having courage to think for self. In the context of fundamentalism, it means if society has despotic leaders, then they lack the spirit of dialogue, being open to divergent views and opinion. Successful democracies tend to harness those reflections into the good governance of the nation state. Immaturity in leadership then is about lack of openness and poor grasp of the expanding democratic space. This is exactly what Karl Popper in Open Society and its Enemies (1945)[2] said. He defined enlightenment as “the effort of men to free themselves, to break out of the cage of closed society and to form an open society.” The definitions give two aspects of enlightenment where we use critical reason, and the evolution of an open progressing society to build on understanding to reach high level of decision making for the greater good.  Hakan Yavuz (2013), while presenting a book titled: Toward an Islamic Movement in reference to Gulen Fethullah movement, points out that enlightenment is a process of using individual reason to re-interpret religious and cultural traditions for the advancement of society.

Therefore, enlightenment is a bundle of contradictory ideas and debates that are grounded in a particular faith, society, democracy that allows reason to bring about social, cultural, and political reforms that would promote democratic society and human rights.  Hakan makes a good point by stating that enlightenment does not mean rejection of religion or disenchantment of the world, but rather, a new way of understanding the interactions between self and society, society and politics science and society.

However, there is caution too, that while we may refer to a certain faith to be bordering ideas of fundamentalism, there are individuals, closed societies, organisations and even intellectuals who may not rise up to be enlightened but hold onto their ways as truth and right. Such thinking is already bordering fundamentalism that requires social transformation.

Our critique is based on the rise in fundamentalism manifested in popular nationalism. The outcome of popular nationalism is military take overs are becoming the new normal in parts of Africa and sections of Asia. For instance, since independence in 1960s 35 countries in Africa have experienced military takeovers. By 2022 Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Chad and Guinea are under military rule.  This reality on Africa has led Mousa Faki Mahamat, a senior African Union official, to express concern about “the resurgence of unconstitutional changes of government”.  He also cautions that military takeover is not just an African problem. The military in Myanmar took over and turned guns to its own people. Some civilian regimes are strongly militarized to keep the once ‘democratically’ elected leaders’ repressive regimes in power. The fear of repression, impunity, extra judicial killings, a negative moral authority and negative nationalism are dislocating hardworking citizens from their homes to new unwelcoming lands. The unrelenting wars in the horn of Africa have pushed a serious brain-drain of intellectuals across neighbouring countries and beyond.  Ethiopia government has worked closely with Eritrean militarized regime to fight the people of Tigray. The irony is that the Tigray region has been a great innovative and progressive society which helped stabilize the unity of Ethiopia together since the fall of Mengistu in 1990. The country’s president won a Nobel prize on 2019 built on the trust for peace with Eritrea. Why fight in Tigray today? The UN reports that the unprovoked war in Ukraine has dislocated over 12 million Ukrainians within and outside their homeland.

This calls for a serious review of global challenges and why fundamentalism is holding enlightenment hostage. Emmanuel Kant majes a point that for fundamentalism to be defeated enlightenment is to emerge from the captivity of immaturity. Q. Why is it that those who wore the mantra of liberation, social change and promised better services of their people, once in power, have turned guns against their own? These liberation heroes are ensconced in the comfort of barricades behind walls. Each day they issue commands that criminalise any response to transform their bad governance.

Therefore, when the Iranian Revolution of 1979 took place, it raised intellectual discussion about an authoritarian theocracy trying to enshrine a certain dogma that disturbs the public space. There were intellectuals who tried to follow a puritanical discipline to chastise Iran for bringing theology into the political life of its citizens.  However, what this debate elicited was how humanity ought to define its own course within a democratic space. If a certain faith is to become transformative then it ought to influence an ontological lifestyle expressed within a certain culture. Some faith orientations and cultures may exhibit characteristics of a weak ethical discipline. Some of the cultural ontologies that require transformation hinge around no respect for others who are not part of their orientation and cultures, do not tolerate freedom of expression and are not open sound criticism of bad governance. Sound critique is not always being negative, which tends to push consumers of the opposing argument to end up in violence.

If there is such a society, then there is a call for dialogue which opens to a circle of reforms and create equal opportunities for all people to thrive. The question of gender and the sensitivity of what gender relations are all about tends to dominate debate with little success.

Today, scholars are perusing through the discourse created by the 1979 Iranian revolution to question why fundamentalism is winning hearts and minds against enlightenment. Today questions once contested and frowned at in 1979, are spawning further permutations and interpretations on how the international community can continue to sustain the right values and ethics in the twenty first century.

Whose values are right and who can advise the other on the fundamentals of good happy living? The moral code, once dictated by the west is being challenged by societies which do not buy into the sacredness of moral authority. The rise of Boko Haram, Al Shabab, ISIS and other self-styled moral authorities are waging a crusade against anything coming from the west. What surprises me most is how in social media the most polished of the scholars narrow down their arguments to express thoughts harbouring fundamentalistic ideals. Then to win more votes, some leaders have gone further to push forward dogmas and ideologies that decimate the right to life. Those in the opposing camps think the life of the unborn is the only life to protect, while forgetting mercy killing of the terminally ill, the elderly in some African cultures, firing squads of their own people, extra judicial killings, are also part of that life. Now with the Talibans of Afghanistan taking over power in 2021, we see weakness in interpreting the holy book literary, to deny opportunities availabke for education of girls, women and promoting a culture of killing anyone opposed to their school of thought.

The clarion call is to find good people who can stand up for what is right and fight from within to transform such societies bordering fundamentalism. There are many examples like Mr Chico Mendes, of Brazil who stood up for the protection of the Amazon and support a more people centred sustainable ecosystem. Chico Mendes was assassinated on December 22nd 1988. His life was ended by a bullet of a paid assassin but his heroism captured the international imagination and brought Rio’92 to Brazil in 1992. Wangari Maathai of Kenya won a Nobel Prize in 2004 for working hard to protect the ecosystems being destroyed by greed for ‘concrete building economy’ in the name of affordable housing with less regard for water catchment areas and protecting the future of those to follow. Stephen Lansing (1971-2012) rallied the people of Bali, Indonesia, to reflect more about their well-organised ecological landscape from marauding champions of sustainable development, yet in this war, the development experts were destroying a holistically interconnected ethnographic ecosystem which had a cultural ontology spanning centuries according to Balinese Bible. The Balinese Subaks held an all-round faith dimension, supported by a rice growing culture within an ecosystem. They knew dangers of climate change even before the world woke up to the debate. Lessons learnt were that most development experts mean well but can bring ideas which appear to the locals border ‘irrational’ solutions. In 2012 the Balinese Subaks or water management irrigation systems, won a UNESCO heritage award. It required the local indigenous efforts supported by a hard-working international community, together, enlightened about fusing local knowledge into a discourse of sustainable development.

In conclusion, there is no time in history of humanity than now when the international community is quickly spiraling towards fundamentalism and throwing enlightenment mantra into the dustbins of incompatibility.

The pursuance of an authoritarian theocracy, negative spirit of nationalism, a closed unprogressive majority in the name of democracy. What is happening globally is a decadence of once strong democracies and introduction of weak systems of governance chided with populism and nationalism.

Therefore, echoing Pope Francis’ call to all nations to allow, protect and create an enabling environment to migrants and refugees, should cascade to protecting individual liberties in closed societies. He challenges communities that once opened borders with welcoming hands and have folded arms with walls built around borders to stop movement of oppressed people to seeking solace and freedom there.

Social transformation is a continuous reflection on daily challenges each society experiences. It means collective dialogue, building strong partnerships that contribute to giving answers to local problems like food distribution to the hungry, climate change challenges like in Pakistan where over 80 million people were affected and lives lost. It also means that when hungry these nations will call for help but when the international community criticizes the bad governance, they practice they cry foul. People once hungry and affected by floods, will quickly change tune and say respect our sovereignty. Abuse of human rights, criminalizing openness to challenging bad governance should be held in the same respect for the kind of help required.

I encourage every society, those with different faith orientations, progressive democracies and those holding any public office to respect voices of decent and find tools of dialogue that eject fundamentalism out, embrace a flow of enlightenment and bring the desired social transformation in society. The Freirean methodology of community continuous dialogue agrees with what the late President Nyerere once said. His concept of democracy in Africa was a style of governance where people discuss, discuss, discuss until they arrive at a solution. Sound democracy and ethical values cannot be bought in a supermarket nor found in violence and oppression. They are in continuous dialogue with each an every person in society.

[1] Immanuel Kant, “What is enlightenment”. In On History, ed. Ans translated by Lewis Beck (New York: MacMillian, 1964), 1-10.

[2] Karl Popper, Open Societies and its Enemies, vol.2 The High Tide of Prophecy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1945),303.