[This is an excerpt from my article, “The tragedy of a comic: fundamentalists crusading against fundamentalists,” published in Contemporary Islam (2007, Vol. 3, #1).]

The issue of religious fundamentalism has been raised both in the popular media and by academicians as one of the most critical global challenges to a smooth transition into the third millennium. The Y2K alarm over cyberspace as the clock turned over 2000 was only the Book of Revelation in digital imagination. Debating the death of God, especially in the halls of Academe, has had little impact on the perpetual panopticon of apocalyptic scenarios literally decoded out of the Bible. The Catholic church and mainline Protestant denominations have largely left behind the baggage of prophecy as contemporary politics, though in the past Christian clerics of all persuasions had no trouble conjuring enemies, including the Ottoman Turks, as anti-christened candidates. In Christianity biblical literalists today are often, and erroneously, dismissed in blanket condemnation as “Fundamentalists” because of what they reject rather than what they believe. The problem with being a “Bible believer” is that this implies rejecting rationalism, modern science and theological reform. The problem with being labeled a “Fundamentalist” is that most people fit into the category do not use or accept the term.

“Fundamentalism” as a term should be of interest to scholars who study the phenomenon not only because of what it is said to represent, but also because it is “our” term – a word coined almost a century ago within American Protestantism to define a self-proclaimed conservative religious movement contra a liberal shift in mainline denominations.(1) In millenarian fashion, the conservative controversy was jump-started with a popular text, The Fundamentals.(2) This is the title of a book series published privately, but with a widespread public debut, between 1910 and 1915 by two wealthy Los Angeles brothers. That one of these, Lyman Stewart, was also the head of an oil company may be of interest to conspiracy theorists regarding Fundamentalist antipathy towards Islam, but is relevant here because his financial underwriting brought the views of 64 conservative Protestant writers to some three million potential readers. Stewart’s faith-based giving in fact targeted students, professors, missionaries and clergymen with free copies.

What was fundamental in The Fundamentals was hardly new to the catechism. Of all the doctrines elaborated in the volumes, the top five fundamentals – or dare I say pillars – of this Christian view continue to unite more conservative Protestants in principle than any ecclesiastical body has ever managed. “Fivers,” then, believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, virgin birth of Christ, atonement of Christ as the Son of God for all men, bodily resurrection of Christ and “His” imminent Second Coming. These are essentially doctrinal points, but were directed at a rapidly changing cultural context in which the church itself was seen as failing to enforce teaching of and respect for such fundamentals. Although post-Scopes-Trial Fundamentalists were commonly portrayed in the popular media as backward and uneducated bumpkins, the text that gave the movement its name was an intellectual manifesto that resonated well at the time across a wide spectrum of mainstream and upstart Protestant denominations.

Up until the late 1970s the only fundamentalists in linguistic sight were Christian, although many who favored the five fundamentals had begun to abandon the popularly tainted label and adopted terms like evangelical and neo-evangelical. The earliest appropriation of fundamentalism to describe Muslims is hard to document. Morroe Berger applied the Western terms “modernism” and “fundamentalism” to Islam in his popular The Arab World Today (1964:416), but only in a generic comparative sense. One of the first scholarly efforts to define Islamic fundamentalism was made by R. Stephens Humphreys in 1979, although he considered it “more a tendency than a current social reality” (1981:290).(3) Its use became common enough to appear in book titles by the mid 80s. Historian of Religion Bruce Lawrence (1998:40) associates its first consistent application with the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979.(4) Other mutating monikers in the haphazard essentialization of contemporary Islamic socio-religious change range from militant, reformist, revivalist and traditionalist to reassertion and resurgence. The alternative of Islamism, seemingly more indigenous and straightforward, has gained in popularity to the point of eclipsing the offending term “fundamentalism,” which is now commonly bracketed to the dubious terminological limbo of quotation marks.(5) However, “Islamism” in either noun or adjectival form only serves to add insult to injury by implying that Islam itself is readily transformable into an extremist religion.(6) Imagine the neologic shock among historians of Christianity if someone suggested we replace fundamentalism with “Christianism,” even while retaining it as a capital idea. To make sense of this terminological jumble we should heed the advice of Bruce Lawrence that “All blanket words such as revivalism, reformism, or fundamentalism are arbitrary invocations of the English language; they do not, and cannot, describe the varying degrees of Islamic loyalty and protest” (1998:40).

I suspect that the stimulus for transfering “fundamentalism” began among journalists due to the low esteem held for both the rising Moral Majority and newsworthy Islamic “terrorism” rather than from scholars in Islamic Studies. Historians of Christian fundamentalism did little initially to dispel the equation. For example, George Marsden pointed out “striking” similarities and differences between the fundamentalisms of the two faiths, but still agreed that it was appropriate “to borrow” the American term in view of Islam’s “militant opposition to much of modern culture” (1980:227). He argues, quite ethnocentrically, that Muslims have been more prone to combine “religious militancy and actual military force” than in Christianity. Further, he claims that Islamic fundamentalism “has arisen and flourished” in nations where modernization had to be imported, and where there still remains “a memory of golden ages belonging to their distant past.” While there is little to be gained in quibbling over who started the crusades, the underlying assumption I find problematic here is that Muslim fundamentalists are represented by Marsden as “militant” rather than as a socio-religious reform movement that has spread widely across Sunni and Shia sects; ironically, many Muslim fundamentalist spokesmen – especially in Egypt and Syria – had been suppressed by the military machine of Islamic states.(7) To approve a terminological transfer because of Islam’s touted “extremism” actually disguises what most Islamic reform movements share with the origins of Protestant fundamentalism – a call within a formally educated middle class for reform from within rather than riots in the streets. Equally uninformed is Marsden’s simplistic understanding of the relation between Muslim “fundamentalists” and modernization. The broad appeal of Islamic fundamentalism among many Muslims is precisely because it offers a program to modernize in an indigenous Islamic mode. The founders were not Amish-like escapists running away from technology and murmuring about modernity, nor should they be conflated with the recent Taliban. Their beef was not with internal deletion of the fundamental pillars of their faith, which no mainstream authorities were advocating, but with the encroachment of Western cultural hegemony and corrupt local politics.(8)

Unfortunately, “fundamentalism” is still the term most journalists and far too many scholars unthinkingly apply to describe those elements of Muslim societies which are said to threaten the hopes for a more peaceful and more rational millennium to come. There is much to be said for rejecting this baggage-laden term outside of its Christian context.(9) The most powerful argument, in my mind, is that of Muslim scholars themselves. As anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi reminds us, this is “an imposed notion deriving mainly from Western Christianity that is conceptually inappropriate, ethnographically inaccurate, and ethnocentric” (1999:xiv).(10) Akbar Ahmed similarly laments the misuse of the term by Western commentators, who have a habit of labeling Islam in Christocentric language. For Ahmed, “fundamentalism” may be useful in a Christian context, but it confuses his own religion “because by definition every Muslim believes in the fundamentals of Islam” (1999:9).11 In this respect “fundamentalism” is of a piece with the term “Orientalism,” which no longer comfortably defines the range of scholars who interpret the Middle and farther reaches of the East. If indeed, as Edward Said and others have fervently argued, we create the “Orient” in contradistinction to how we perceive our superior, modern Westernity, then the idea of a Muslim fundamentalist might best be judged against how we categorize and fear Christian fundamentalists in America.(12) Is it not difficult to say what makes a Muslim – or even a Hindu – a fundamentalist when in fact we have a complex rhetorical history invested in the conceptualizing of religious fundamentalism in our own society? This is not just the case for the tabloids and talk shows but also for those of us who speak from the secular bully pulpit of a university post.

1 There are many nuances in the use of “Fundamentalist” for certain Protestant Christians in America (see Harding 2000:xv-xvi). I follow Harding in capitalizing Fundamentalism in reference to Christians and using a small f for its application elsewhere. Related, at times quite loosely, terms include Bible-believers, born-again Christians, conservative Christians, the Christian Right and evangelicals.
2 For a succinct account of this text’s creation and reception, see Sandeen (1970:188-207).
3 According to Humphries, “We may define Fundamentalism as the reaffirmation, in a radically changed environment, of traditional modes of understanding and behavior” (1981:289). He actually borrows three terms from the American vocabulary: fundamentalism, modernism, secularism. In a later work Humphries (1999:xvi) defends use of “Islamic fundamentalism,” but laments that it is indiscriminately applied in the media.
4 It is noteworthy that the term “fundamentalism” is not mentioned by Said (1981) in his scathing critique of academized media coverage of Islam in the wake of the hostage crisis; nor does it appear in Martin’s (1985) survey of approaches to Islam in religious studies. In searching the catalog of the Library of Congress for titles with “Islamic fundamentalist” or its variants, the earliest I found was Sivan (1985), also published in Hebrew, which is a polemical work comparing it with anti-Semitism. In 1988 Watt published Islamic Fundamentalism and Modernity. In all I can document no more than a dozen books on Islam that contain the term in a title before 1990, after which there is a surge of such labeling.
5 Even Prince Charles (1994:70), in a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, cautions against use of “that emotive label, ‘fundamentalism’.”
6 The term “Islamist” is used to serve in the more general sense for Muslims “who believe in the necessity of establishing a society based on Islamic principles and governed by their own understanding of Islamic law and values” (Elias 1999:86-87) or “someone who places her or his Muslim identity at the centre of her or his political practice” (Sayyid 1997:17); of course, this has been an ideal since the inception of the faith. One of the first to employ the term, in the sense of religious revival, was Sharabi (1970:106). Unfortunately, the term “Islamist,” like “Islamicist,” has also been applied to Western scholars who study Islam (e.g., Martin 1985:10).
7 At the time of Marsden’s writing, just around the Iranian revolution, Islamic fundamentalism was portrayed synechdotally by the American media as bearded clerics wielding kalashnikovs. This link between fundamentalism and militancy is perpetuated in the rational provided by Marty and Appleby for The Fundamentalist Project. They claim there: “It is no insult to fundamentalists to see them as militants, whether in the use of words and ideas or ballots, or in extreme cases, bullets. Fundamentalists see themselves as militants” (1991:ix). Who, I wonder, bothered to ask Muslims how they view themselves?
8 This point was eloquently made by Edward Said (1993). Nuanced analyses of the complexities in so-called “fundamentalism” among Muslims are readily available, e.g., Lawrence (1998).
9 Marty and Appleby introduce The Fundamentalism Project by arguing that the term “fundamentalism” is “here to stay” (1991:viii). I note that the same rationale was once used for terms like “Mohammedan” and “Negro.” Despite several important discussions of Islamic fundamentalism in the volumes of The Fundamentalism Project, books still get published in which “leading Islamic fundamentalists” include intellectuals like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Iqbal and Ali Shariati alongside Khomeini and Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman (Davidson 1998:17). I agree with Metcalf, who observes: “‘Fundamentalism’ has been applied as a blanket term to describe virtually all modern Islamic movements that use a religious vocabulary and encourage fidelity to Islamic practice. This imprecision, coupled with the term’s pejorative connotations, make its use in relation to Islam particularly problematic” (1994:706).
10 El Guindi writes as an anthropologist, a Muslim, a feminist and a filmmaker. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Islamic and Latin American societies.
11 I do not read this as an apologetically circular argument that anyone who does not believe the pillars can not be a “true” Muslim. Note that the Christian “fundamentals” are entirely doctrinal and at the time had been subjected to a liberal dose of demythologizing within mainstream Christian theology, while the Islamic “pillars” are primarily concerned with ritual; nor does belief in one deity and a human prophet require as great a leap of faith from Enlightenment rationality. If all Christians had to do was believe in one God and that Jesus is God’s messenger, almost all Christian sects would have to be labeled fundamentalist.
12 Ironically, Said tolled the death knell for “Orientalism” in 1978, just as “fundamentalism” began to be applied to Muslims. For a critical assessment of Said’s Orientalism thesis, including its reception by Muslims, see Varisco (2007).


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Daniel Martin Varisco