What's in a Name?: The Meaning of 'Muslim Fundamentalist'

Editor's Note

This month, Origins presents a different kind of essay than we usually do. Professor David Watt asks us to look beyond recent events themselves and examine the language with which we talk about those events. In this case, he points out that Americans have grown accustomed to the language of “Islamic fundamentalism” to discuss our current struggle against terrorism. He argues that upon closer inspection that language may muddy matters more than it clarifies.

Language and Politics

Is it a death tax or an estate tax? Are they dead civilians or collateral damage? Was he a member of the resistance or a terrorist? Is it a cult or an innovative branch of the Christian Church? These sorts of questions remind us of a point made long ago by George Orwell: modern political life is concerned, in very large part, with language. The words we use do not just reflect reality: they shape the way we perceive that reality. In so doing the words we use also become a part of the world we are trying to understand. One cannot understand contemporary American politics without understanding the keywords that define it and that shape the way the American public perceives reality.

Among the most potent of those keywords in our politics right now are "Muslim fundamentalism/ist" and "Islamo-fascism/ist." Take these examples:

In February 2008, the Ottawa Herald—a newspaper in eastern Kansas—published an opinion piece by one of its employees, Gary Sillett, about Barack Obama's rhetoric. Sillett's piece, titled "Don't Betray Your Heritage for Obama's 'Change'" made use of a keyword that is on many people's lips these days: fundamentalism. In his essay, Sillett argued that the junior senator from Illinois was not to be trusted: "Barack Hussein Obama hit the campaign from nowhere" and had gained an amazing amount of momentum by exploiting "generic catchphrases" given to him by his handlers.

Sillett said that there was nothing wrong per se with words like "hope" or "change," and implied that he could sympathize with a desire to install a new person in the White House who was very different from George W. Bush. However, turning over the reins of government to a "Muslim fundamentalist" like Obama would be a tragic mistake. Electing him president would be like "spitting on the graves of the victims of 9/11." The Democratic Party, Sillett said, "intends to put a Muslim fundamentalist in the White House." Right-thinking Americans have a duty to thwart that plan. To allow the Democrats to hand over the government to a man like Obama would be to betray America's heritage. Of course, Senator Obama is neither a Muslim fundamentalist, nor even a Muslim. Sillett clearly does not like Obama and calling him a "Muslim fundamentalist" was simply the easiest way to convey that.

During his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for President, Fred Thompson spoke with great passion concerning the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. "We have yet to come to terms fully with the threat that Islamic fundamentalism presents to this country," Thompson said. "The whole world is watching and waiting now, friends and foe alike, to see how we are going to react to the pressure they are going to put on us."

John McCain's pronouncements on this issue have been no less emphatic: "The struggle against Islamic fundamentalism is the most transcendent foreign policy challenge of our time." McCain has made it clear that he is fully committed "to winning this battle, enhancing the stature of the United States as a beacon of global hope, and to preserving the personal, economic, and political freedoms that are the proud legacy of the great sacrifices of our fathers."

These terms are so commonly used now we might assume that we all know what they mean. In fact, we do not; these phrases mean different things to different people and in different contexts. If we are going to understand and evaluate our current political debates, we ought to take some time to examine this language.

The History of the Term

For starters, there is no universally agreed upon definition for the term "Islamic fundamentalism." In general, the phrase is applied to Muslims who are thought to adhere strictly to ancient doctrines, to literal readings of the Koran, and are determined to resist modernity and modernization. It is also used for Muslims who want to use the traditions of Islam as a blueprint to build a more just society through the application of Koranic law.

More generally, the words "fundamentalist," "fundamentalists," and "fundamentalism" were all created in the 1920s. In the years between 1920 and 1978, the category fundamentalist was almost never used except in reference to people who were Protestant Christians. It is very hard—though possible—to discover any examples of commentators using the concept to analyze Muslims in those years. Thus, as late as the mid-1970s, a writer who referred to a Muslim as a fundamentalist ran the risk of confusing his readers. Muslim fundamentalists were as rare and as oxymoronic as Muslim Presbyterians.

Already in the 1920s, fundamentalism and fundamentalists began to accumulate a set of extremely negative connotations. Under the tutelage of men such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, H. Richard Niebuhr, Talcott Parsons, Richard Hofstadter, and Martin Marty, Americans learned to think of fundamentalism as a dangerous byproduct of a "sociopsychological" fact: many people have trouble adjusting properly to "modernity and modernization." (Those phrases come from Martin Marty's article "Fundamentalism Reborn.") Americans thus came to associate fundamentalism with anti-intellectualism, backwardness, and obscurantism. Fundamentalism was a label that was affixed almost exclusively to Protestant Christians who were thought to stand in the way of progress.

This began to change in 1979 when the Iranian revolution deposed the US-backed Shah. Starting with that event, Muslims have been and continue to be characterized as fundamentalists with great frequency. Indeed, it is quite possible that in contemporary English the term is now used more frequently to refer to Muslims than to Christians. When we hear the word today we are, I suspect, more likely to conjure up an image of a stern-faced Muslim cleric than one of William Jennings Bryan or Carl McIntire.

The Appeal of this Language

The appeal of the category "Islamic Fundamentalism" is not at all mysterious. For one thing, it gives those of us who are not especially knowledgeable about the Muslim world a way of trying to make sense of people such as the Ayatollah Khomenei. Thus in 1979—when American newspapers were full of stories about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson—the category Islamic fundamentalism gave us a way of talking about the unfamiliar developments in Iran that made those developments seem less bizarre and less inexplicable.

Another appeal of the category Islamic fundamentalism is it that one can use it to resist the tendency to assert that all Muslims are dangerous. Writers can assert that many Muslims are peaceful and moderate and that we have no quarrel whatsoever with Muslims like that. Our only problem, they argue, is with the fundamentalists. The writers can hasten to observe that all religions can spawn fundamentalism. A Christian fundamentalist, they say, is just as wrong-headed and dangerous as a Muslim one.

Which brings us to a third reason the term is so appealing. It can be used to identify a dangerous "other" against which all men and women of good will can unite. "We" can use it to say who we are not and to name what it is that we fear. In this respect, fundamentalism is simply one of a long line of labels—anarchism, communism, and totalitarianism are some others that come to mind—that Americans have used to mark the boundaries between themselves and those who are perceived to be threatening.

Thus when public intellectuals such as Daniel Pipes testify before congressional subcommittees, they can call on the United States government to do all in its power to limit Islamic fundamentalism's power. The less power fundamentalism has, Pipes could say, the less "mischief" it can make.

When senior government officials gave commencement addresses at the Naval Academy, they could make similar arguments to the midshipmen. They could assure the cadets that "radical Islamic fundamentalism" poses a great threat to the United States—a threat comparable to those posed by communism or Nazism—and that it was therefore imperative that United States possess enough military force to keep the dangerous fundamentalists in check. (When he was Vice President, Dan Quayle gave such a speech.)

The use of fundamentalism as a label to identify a dangerous other was quite common in the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, the events of September 11, 2001 certainly did nothing to decrease Americans' fears concerning fundamentalism. Many Americans concluded that fundamentalism caused those events, assured that there are men who are plotting to take away American's freedoms are fundamentalists.

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.

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Suggested Reading

Brown, Wendy. Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Campo, Juan Eduardo. "Hegemonic Discourse and the Islamic Question in Egypt." Contention 4 (1995): 167-194.

Euben, Roxanne Leslie. Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Harris, Jay M. "'Fundamentalism': Objections from a Modern Jewish Historian." In Fundamentalism and Gender, edited by John Stratton Hawley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kramer, Martin. "Coming to Terms: Fundamentalists or Islamists?" Middle East Quarterly (Spring 2003): 65-77.

Mahmood, Saba. "Islamism and Fundamentalism." The Middle East Report 24 (1994): 29-30.

Sayyid, Bobby S. A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism. London: Zed Books, 1997.

Watt, David Harrington. "The Meaning and End of Fundamentalism." Religious Studies Review. 30 (October 2004): 271-274.
---."Jews, Fundamentalism and Supersessionism." Fides et Historia 40 (Winter/Spring 2008): 1-23.

Waugh, Earle H. "Fundamentalism: Harbinger of Academic Revisionism?" Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65 (1997): 161-68.

Webber, Jonathan. "Rethinking Fundamentalism." In Studies in Religious Fundamentalism, edited by Lionel Caplan. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Some Recent Explorations of Islam and Politics

Franks, Myfanwy. Women and Revivalism in the West. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Hirschkind, Charles. The Ethical Soundscape. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Lia, Brynjar. Architect of Global Jihad. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Starrett, Gregory. Putting Islam to Work. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.