Why literature is the answer to fundamentalism

For years we have been trying to defuse various kinds of militant fundamentalism by offering alternative messages: Islam is a religion of peace, Hinduism is all-inclusive, America is a nation of immigrants, etc. Such messages have had very little effect on the fundamentalists concerned. As a consequence, liberals and decent conservatives — all those millions of well-meaning people at the centre and a bit to its right or left — often exclaim in rare unison: “Nothing seems to make a difference! What can be done?”

Of course, nothing seems to make a difference, because the solution does not lie in the message of any religious, cultural or political text. Not the message of a text, but the process of reading it is the antidote to fundamentalism.

You might be wondering what this process that I am talking about might be. Well, let us start at the beginning. Let us ask: what is it that all fundamentalists share?

Refusal to engage

Despite the fact that different religious fundamentalists seem anxious to chop off each other’s heads, they share two features. Of these, one I have written about in the past: a bid to control women. But there is another feature that is shared by all of them, and even by their secular counterparts. This is their common tendency to reduce texts, including their own sacred ones, to a singular message.

It is no coincidence that Islamists do not allow Muslims to discuss the holy texts of Islam openly and historically, and Hindutva fundamentalists want certain readings of their holy texts — even A.K. Ramanujan’s scholarly thesis about the various rewritings of the Ramayana and Mahabharata — banned. There are Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. who get upset if the mythical Santa Claus is played by an African and who are unwilling to concede that Jesus, a Jew from West Asia, must have looked more like an Arab than like Donald Trump.

There is a total refusal among fundamentalists to engage with texts and stories in a contemplative, critical and historical manner. Not only do they want to ban certain texts, but even the ones they accept are reduced to limited, sometimes singular, messages. Secular fundamentalists do this too, as the Communists did with Karl Marx’s complex texts in the past, and as neo-liberals are doing today, by reducing even capital to only one of its forms, finance capital.

To argue that wealth trickles down is a message that runs contrary to the complexities of economics and experience, just as it is a form of fundamentalism to reduce the state of health of a national economy to basically the indicators of the share market. Social Darwinists reduced and continue to reduce Darwin’s complex texts on evolution — and other texts that followed Darwin — in a similar manner.

All fundamentalists — secular or religious — take the complex realities of life and language, and reduce them to a few parameters. They not only ban certain texts, they mostly even confine the ‘sanctioned’ texts to a single message.

Learning again how to read

This runs against everything that literature does and that students of literature were trained to do. No significant literary text offers only one message. In that sense, the trend to append simplistic morals to literary works is a serious misreading. Even early religious texts — such as the Indian epics — make full sense only in the multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations that they offer. Unfortunately, with the demise of the Arts, this necessary engagement with texts is dying out: even literature is marketed in a singular manner today, reduced to a ‘selling point.’

Fertile ground for fundamentalism

The technocratic nature of today’s society is partly to blame. It is not a coincidence that so many of the founders of Hindutva had a technocratic education, as had many European National Socialists, and so many Islamists seem to be technocrats too. Unlike the Arts and pure Science, technology has singular applications. You can use a screwdriver to peel an orange, but it is basically meant to turn a screw. The numerical logic of capitalism — two plus two equals four — has combined with our adoration of technology and its current digital pundits to create fertile grounds for fundamentalism.

The antidote to this trend is not to offer other messages but to learn again how to read — and hence think — with complexity. Facile as it may sound, the best way to counter fundamentalism is to teach our children the skills of literary exegesis.