Fear fuels fundamentalist protests

Over the last few months, coverage of protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Catholics has managed to knock news about Muslim extremists off the front pages of many newspapers.

Their protests against 'indecent clothing' and 'blasphemous' art have sparked demonstrations and counter demonstrations. The key to understanding the clashes is fear.

Gender segregation and blasphemy

In Israel, clashes between ultra-Orthodox Jews - Haredi - and liberal and secular Jews have been escalating for some time but recently two stories made headlines around the world. Haredi men frequently try to force women to ride at the back of buses passing through ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods of Jerusalem; however, in December, one woman refused and the confrontation made the headlines and prompted an ministerial conference on gender exclusion.

That incident was followed by a far more serious one: an eight-year-old girl from Beit Shemesh (a town near Jerusalem) told her mother she was afraid to walk to school because she was being verbally abused and spat upon by ultra-Orthodox men. They claimed the child was indecently dressed. A wave of protests and counter protests erupted after the story was aired on the evening news.

In France, fundamentalist Catholics waged a sometimes violent campaign against theatre productions they consider blasphemous and Catholic extremists destroyed an artwork in Paris.


Fundamentalists from various religious faiths have made their views and beliefs more vehemently known since the early 1990s says sociologist of religion Sipco Vellenga. According to the University of Amsterdam professor, fundamentalist believers feel threatened, even in countries that protect religious freedoms:

"It is very evident in the number of European countries, even here in the Netherlands. You see it in the discussions about freedom in educational institutions, tolerance and intolerance toward civil servants who refuse to perform same-sex marriages and the ban on blasphemy. Here in the Netherlands, the bill proposing a ban on ritual slaughter created a huge debate. The discussions also made some members of orthodox groups to feel threatened; many felt as though the freedom that they had previously enjoyed was being taken away."

The sometimes violent protests and by fundamentalists and ultra-orthodox in France and Israel generated huge counter protests. Israel's Chief Rabbi and French bishops denounced the violence in no uncertain terms and also called on all sides to respect freedom of religion.

Ultraorthodox Muslims in Europe feel that the increasing pressure to adapt to a western secular society is a way of restricting their religious freedom.

In Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews wield considerable political power and appear to be testing the limits of that power; however, verbally abusing an eight-year-old girl was a step too far and it resulted in huge protests - by liberal, orthodox and secular Jews against the ultra-Orthodox.

Out of the bottle

According to Ronny Naftaniel of the Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI), realising a national status quo is the only solution. The world of the ultra-orthodox, who want to devote their lives to the study of the Torah and Talmud, clashes with the world of liberal and secular Jews, who see nothing wrong with shops opening or buses running on the Sabbath.

"The genie has to be put back into the bottle. But it will be very difficult; it would be incredibly offensive to the ultra-Orthodox if the Jerusalem authorities suddenly decided to allow public transport to run on Saturdays or to allow shops and cafes to open up. One also has to respect their beliefs but on the other hand, they also have to respect the fundamental laws of the land."


In order to keep the peace, tolerance has to come from both sides. But the fundamentalist religious groups aren't the only ones who feel threatened: liberals and atheists feel threatened by the increasingly vocal and politically powerful religious right. Despite that, the influence of fundamentalist groups in Europe is rather over estimated.

After the great changes of the 1960s, the dominant view was that society was secular and the importance and influence religion would gradually diminish and disappear. Those (few) who wished to hold on to a religious belief would have to adapt. Professor Vellenga says reality is a little different:

"The dominant view now is that religion is a political and social force and ultra-orthodox believers do not adapt to the secular state. And if they are given the chance, they will attempt to turn back the clock and get rid of secularism. People are beginning to believe that they have to fight to protect the secular state. This is creating tensions between the various groups."

New debate

The tensions have not been solved. Vellenga has called for a fresh debate on the position and space for religious minorities and a re-evaluation of the achievements of the secular state. "That will demand concessions from both sides," says Vellenga.

The debate has already started in Europe but representatives from all the groups have to join in and participate. What are people afraid of, what drives them? Vellenga adds, "an open and honest conversation can sometimes work wonders."