Accordingly, the term Islamic fundamentalism is often marshaled in arguments about human rights and the threats to them. It is applied, for instance, to Muslim organizations that do not recognize Israel's right to exist. It is also applied to Muslim movements that are thought to want to limit the religious freedom of non-Muslims and of Muslims who are not fundamentalists.

Of course, the term is also used to describe Muslim groups who are seen as hostile to the rights of women. Indeed, some observers have gone so far as to argue that in essence, Islamic fundamentalism is simply a movement to reassert old patriarchal norms. According to this view, Islamic fundamentalism has an essence, and that essence is a determination to limit the rights of women. As one scholar has asserted, all fundamentalists seek to "control" women. All of them are committed, as another scholar has argued, to "radical patriarchalism." (The scholars I have in mind here are Lamia Shehadeh and Martin Riesebrodt.)

The term Islamic fundamentalism is often used to identify movements that stand in the way of progress. Consider, for example, an opinion piece by columnist David Brooks that appeared in the New York Times in February 2006, ostensibly addressed to wrong-headed Muslims throughout the world. The writer asserted "You fundamentalists have turned yourselves into a superpower of dysfunction." He claimed, "We in the West were born into a world that reflected the legacy of Socrates and the agora." You fundamentalists, he wrote, refuse to live in such a world. Instead, you retreat into "an exaggerated version of Muslim purity." The contrast (between "us" and "you") could not be any clearer: "Our mind-set is progressive, rational and rooted in the Enlightenment. Your mind-set is medieval."

At several levels, then, the phrase "Muslim fundamentalist" does a great deal of cultural work. At the same time, however, it is a shorthand that obscures at least as much as it clarifies.

Scholarly Skepticism

On a cold Sunday morning in November 2006, a group of scholars assembled in Washington, D.C., to analyze the concept "Islamic fundamentalism" in a panel sponsored by the Study of Islam Section of the American Academy of Religion. (The American Academy of Religion—the AAR—is made up mostly of professors who teach in religion departments or seminaries in North America. It is comparable in many respects to the Modern Language Association or the American Historical Association.)

Nearly two hundred scholars packed the session on Islamic fundamentalism. The panel included scholars from Concordia, Emory, University of Nebraska, Temple, and Yale. Each spoke briefly—twelve minutes or so—and then members of the audience asked questions and made comments. It quickly became apparent that the people who had given the talks and the members of the audience did not completely agree with one another. The two groups expressed differences of opinion, sometimes with a little passion, as the discussion gathered momentum.

That was, of course, to be expected. What was surprising was what did not happen. Almost no one in that rather large group of scholars from throughout the United States and Canada was willing to mount a sustained defense of the category "Islamic fundamentalism." To be sure, a couple of audience members made it clear that they did not think the term was completely useless. So did one panelist.

But the weight of opinion was clearly on the other side. Almost everyone seemed to be familiar with some of the standard arguments against the concept, and almost everyone seemed to have concluded that the category was not helpful. Some people critiqued it. It seemed to this observer that others thought it was too patently ridiculous to be worth serious critique. Therefore, while the phrase "Islamic fundamentalism" continues to be used in politics and in the media, scholars of religion have largely rejected the term as analytically unhelpful. It is worth asking why.

For one thing, many scholars have concluded that "Islamic fundamentalism" is simply too polemical to be of much use in describing the world in which we live. Calling someone a fundamentalist is really not much different from classifying the person as extreme, fanatical, or radical. The term predisposes writers who use it to assume that the phenomenon they are studying is "a problem" or even "a danger."

Many scholars believe that because it seems to involve a moral as a well as an analytical judgment, the term "Islamic fundamentalism" has very little utility when one is trying to do empirical research. Even an apparently straightforward question—such as: what is the number of Muslim fundamentalists in the world?—turns out to be unanswerable. Many definitions are framed in a way that makes it nearly impossible to tell the difference between a Muslim who is a fundamentalist from one who is not. The concept is, in the lexicon of social scientists, difficult—perhaps even impossible—to operationalize. According to some estimates, there are only 500,000 Muslim fundamentalists in the world today. According to other estimates, there are over five million.

Many scholars have also come to believe that there is something fishy about defining Islamic fundamentalism as a reaction against "modernity and modernization." Such scholars point out that there is, in principle, no reason scholars have to make modernity the key to understanding what Muslim traditionalists are struggling against. One might as easily say that such Muslims are struggling against corrupt regimes that fail to meet the most basic needs of their citizens, or against neocolonialism or hypercapitalism. Such scholars also argue that in the world in which we live now, the terms modernity and modernization can seem somewhat anachronistic. They seem rooted in a place and time—perhaps the United States in the early 1960s—where it seemed natural to assume that the world was moving toward a single and quite predictable goal. People throughout the world were becoming less religious, more enlightened, and more progressive. We knew that history was somehow on our side.

By talking about modernity and modernization, scholars summon those assumptions, assumptions that seem less plausible now than they did, for example, during the years when John F. Kennedy occupied the White House.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Thus far, I have made it sound as if the work scholars have done on the phenomena to which Islamic fundamentalism refers has been purely negative. That is not the case. Scholars have not simply been saying what will not work. They have also been creating new—and quite promising—ways of approaching those phenomena.

One promising line of inquiry has to do with rethinking the relationship between Western Christendom and the rest of the world. Rather than allowing ourselves to fall into the trap of using the history of "the West" as a yardstick that provides norms against which the rest of the world can be judged, we can remind ourselves that the history of Western Christendom, like the history of India or Africa, simply illustrates one of a number of the different ways for societies to change over time.

Rather than assuming, for example, that it is somehow natural or inevitable for religious organizations to be separate from governmental ones, many scholars are now emphasizing how the degree to which the separation of church from state that took place in modern Europe is something of a historical anomaly. Separation of church and state is not, such scholars insist, natural. It is—depending on one's commitments—either an unfortunate experiment or a hard-won accomplishment.

A second line of inquiry is largely linguistic. Many scholars are experimenting with terms to describe so-called Muslim fundamentalist movements that are not as pejorative as is the term fundamentalist. Phrases such as very religious, revivalist, maximalist, and traditionalist are not perfect. But they have the great advantage of not censuring the class of human beings that they create. They are not normative to the core.

The third line of inquiry is both the most laborious and the most promising. Scholars are creating books and articles—a few of which are listed in the attached bibliography—that are based on careful empirical research about Islamic revivalism that give us a three-dimensional representation of Muslim movements. Such representations are, I think, far more useful than the cartoons and caricatures that so often result from talking about Muslim fundamentalists.

The descriptions of Muslim movements in these books and articles are not always comforting. They certainly do not make it seem that Muslim revivalists have precisely the same values as those that prevail among American academics. However, these portraits are complex, nuanced, and subtle. Such portrayals can do more to help us understand the world in which we live than do cartoons that push us to regard Muslim revivalists as nothing more than dangerous others who must be subdued or eradicated.