Start at the beginning. What is a fundamentalist? For our purposes, I will define a fundamentalist as an individual who literally interprets a religious creed, political belief, or social movement in such a way as they believe they adhere to an exclusive truth about the universe. From the fundamentalist’s point of view, those who subscribe to such a belief are inside the circle of truth, while those who do not are on the outside of what is true and right. Such a vague definition applies to millions of Muslims, Christians, Orthodox Jews, political conservatives, environmentalists, and atheists. Such people constitute the first of four levels of fundamentalism.
Simply holding fundamentalist beliefs does not necessarily lead to destructive or conflictual behavior. If I believe I am going to some form of heaven because of what I believe, and you are going to some form of hell because you do not believe it, our different beliefs matter little if I am willing to interact with you in the necessary transactions of life and accept you as a member of my society or community, even if you are a heathen member.
The drama begins at the second level of fundamentalism – those who seek to shape their surroundings in the image of their exclusive beliefs, yet still work through the existing social and political system. Socialists in Italy who campaign for Parliament in order to implement a socialist economic system fall into this category, as do evangelical Christians in the United States who protest against gay marriage. The activities of level II fundamentalists cause conflict, but not necessarily violence. They accept as legitimate the current system and work within its parameters to change the world to their exclusive view of the truth.
Problems begin (depending on your perception) at the third level of fundamentalism – those who are willing to commit violence to implement their world view. They believe their vision is important enough and different enough from what is actually happening to justify acting violently outside the accepted social and political system. Christian ministers who have killed abortion doctors fall into this category, as do the Sadr Shiite militias in Iraq. Before we completely condemn the third level fundamentalists, the American colonists who fought British rule also fall into this group, as would the Chinese who fought for independence against Mongol rule in the 14th century.
The fourth level of fundamentalism is the most dangerous to an established world order – the apocalyptic visionaries. It is those who believe divine or cosmic support of their exclusive view of the truth is so strong, nearly any means are justified in fighting against the established world order. Islamic suicide bombers falls squarely into this category, as did David Koresh and his followers who died in Waco, Texas. This group will not stop until their divine interpretation of the true nature of the universe comes to fruition, or until they are dead. Their view of truth is so radically different from the reality of the world, they are irreconcilable with modern life. Usually, they die, killing along the way.
Most would agree the first two levels are relatively benign, while the danger of the third depends on your perspective. Certainly most Americans believe the colonists were justified in violently breaking away from the British Empire, and that the people of Eastern Europe had a right to resist Soviet communist domination. But what about Taliban insurgents attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan? Or Sunni insurgents combing U.S. convoys in al Anbar Province of Iraq?
What is it that drives someone to become a fundamentalist who will resort to violence, willing to risk everything in the name of a cause? In part, it is because they have so little to risk. When lack of opportunity intersects significant threats to self identity, violent fundamentalism provides an emotional anchor to internally stabilize troubled individuals. Lack of opportunity does not have to be economic; it can be cultural or social. The middle class (or better) Muslims who flew planes into American cities six years ago were not suffering from a lack of material needs. Their stale cultures did not provide them a meaningful avenue toward self fulfillment. Combine that with the threat modern global culture arrays against traditional Islamic values, and the conditions are ripe for spawning apocalyptic fundamentalists, willing to die for their cause.
The key question is, where else in the world is lack of opportunity and threats to identity intersecting to spawn the next wave of violent fundamentalism?