Religion & Public Life
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Making sense of fundamentalists

Origins and characteristics of fundamentalism

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

A quest for purity
“Fundamentalists have a minority ethos – fear – because they live in a world that doesn’t agree with them.”
– Richard Antoun

The modern phenomena of religious fundamentalism has existed throughout the world for about 150 years, and it is here to stay, according to Dr. Richard Antoun, the late professor of anthropology at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

Fundamentalism has several distinct attributes, among them a “quest for purity in an impure world”; the struggle of good against evil; and protest and resistance to the modern world. While fundamentalism as an idea can be described, generalized and categorized, the people who embody fundamentalism are all unique, and fundamentalist movements are constantly changing.

“Fundamentalist movements are always adjusting to new economic, political, and demographic circumstances,” Antoun said. “Like other historic movements, fundamentalist movements wax and wane.”

As an anthropologist, Antoun said he views fundamentalism in a comparative, cross–cultural manner, rather than focusing on only one religious tradition.

A case study
“I had read the Quran and, therefore, had no excuse for not converting to Islam since I knew the truth.”
– Richard Antoun

In 1959, Antoun traveled to Jordan and took up residence in the village of Kufr al–Ma in order to conduct an ethnographic study for his doctoral dissertation. He subsequently returned to the village nine times.

Antoun said he was initially welcomed into the village and treated with respect and hospitality. He became friends with the local imam, read the Quran with him on a weekly basis, and attended mosque services every Friday.

Antoun, whose background was Lebanese Christian, said he avoided debating religious matters, so as not to stir conflict and wear out his welcome. Throughout several visits to Kufr al–Ma throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Antoun said his presence in the society was unproblematic. Then during a visit in 1986, he encountered a group of young men – some of whose fathers and grandfathers he knew – who made persistent attempts to argue with him about religious matters and convert him to Islam.

“They were concerned with the destiny of my immortal soul. I had read the Quran and, therefore, had no excuse for not converting to Islam since I knew the truth,” Antoun said. “Ignorance was not an excuse available to me. Therefore, on judgment day I would be cast into Hell. I was shocked because no one had ever told me this before.”

The change Antoun observed provides the backdrop for his book, “Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic and Jewish Movements.”

Fundamentalism defined

Antoun defines fundamentalism as a particular world–view and ethos (an emotional attitude toward the world) characterized by the following attributes:

  • The quest for purity in an impure world.
  • A struggle of good against evil.
  • Protest, outrage, certainty and fear.
  • Strict adherence to traditions.
  • Standing up against the rapid change of the 20th century.
  • Opposition to the ideology of modernism.
  • Opposition to the secularization of society.
  • Infusing daily and leisure activities with religious meaning.

Antoun said there is no perfect fundamentalist who embodies all of these elements of fundamentalism. A fundamentalist might have some of these characteristics, but not all.

“In that sense, fundamentalism is an ideal type with living human beings only imperfectly fitting the description,” he said. “Nobody, not even Ayatollah Khomeini possessed all attributes of fundamentalism. On the other hand, most of us who don’t consider ourselves fundamentalists have some attributes of the fundamentalist world view or ethos – an emotional attitude characterized at one and the same time by fear and certainty.”

Fundamentalism always represents a minority movement within a particular religion. Even in theocratic states such as Iran, a small minority of clerics seek to impose their view on the rest of a society that often yearns for a freer state, according to Antoun.

“Fundamentalists have a minority ethos – fear – because they live in a world that doesn’t agree with them,” Antoun said.

Emotional impact
“The implication of ‘emotional’ is irrational. But fundamentalism is no more irrational than any other ideology.”
– Richard Antoun

An important element of fundamentalism is “scripturalism,” the literal belief in an inerrant sacred scripture. Comprehension of fundamentalism sometimes ends there. Antoun expands on the idea of scripturalism to include an anthropological, societal and cultural perspective.

“The most important aspect of scripturalism is its emotional and inspirational quality for believers; its relation to the numinous (the mysterious, powerful and awe–inspiring); its serving as a grounding for militant nationalism; its
use as proof–texts for guidance in everyday life, and its provision of certainty,” he said.

The powerful emotional impact of prayer is also highly compelling for very religious people. But Antoun cautions not to equate fundamentalism with emotionalism.

“The implication of ‘emotional’ is irrational. But fundamentalism is no more irrational than any other ideology. And given their assumptions, fundamentalists are just as rational as anybody else. They demonstrate this by their acceptance of many aspects of the modern world such as bureaucratic organization, business norms, and technology.”

Antoun also cautioned not to dismiss fundamentalists simply as fanatics.

“Fanatic implies deranged, which fundamentalists are not,” he said. “They have certain assumptions about the world; they see the world differently than most people, and their emotional disposition is different. But they are people who function in the modern world and are usually very successful.”

The sub–‘isms’ of fundamentalism

Fundamentalists of all kinds express themselves in certain ways and have common attributes, among them:

  • Totalism – taking religion out of the worship center and private life and into many other domains, such as schools, business, government and other aspects of public and private life.
    “Fundamentalists have to have meaning in a total and comprehensive way,” Antoun said. “That means, get it back in government; get it back in school; back in the marketplace; back in journalism.”

  • “Traditioning” – making the ancient immediately relevant to contemporary society. This involves a religious concept of time – such as biblical time, Koranic time or totemic time – in which the importance of ancestors is emphasized.
    “Fundamentalists go back to scriptural time to explain what is happening today,” Antoun said.
    Devout or fundamentalist Muslims, for example, often refer back to the time of the prophet Mohammed (570–632). “They go to the Koran and say, ‘What did the prophet say or do?’ They go back to the original time as a model for all time. What happened before scriptural time is irrelevant; so in a sense, you’re erasing history,” Antoun said.

  • Millennialism – Fundamentalists believe that history has an end, or an “end of times.”

  • Activism – confronting establishments (political or religious) by protest, sometimes violent.

  • Selective modernization – Fundamentalists appreciate what the modern world has to offer, but they accept it only selectively.

  • Literalism (vs. scriptural interpretation) – “Fundamentalists often say they are following the scripture literally, as opposed to some kind of interpretation, but the ‘literal’ interpretation is in itself a kind of interpretation. They aren’t taking it literally. They may say that, but they have an interpretation,” Antoun said.
Reaction to modernism

Fundamentalists have a particular problem with certain aspects of the modern world – its economy, ideology and rapid change. The values of modernism that bother fundamentalists include:

  • Change over continuity.
  • Valuing quantity over quality.
  • Commercial efficiency, such as production and profit, over human sympathy, traditional values and close interpersonal relations found in traditional patron–cleint relations.
  • The modern, secular state.
    “Fundamentalists are very suspicious and sometimes hostile to the state, which they feel often does things that undermine their values,” Antoun said.

Fundamentalists, however, often apply the tools of the modern world to their advantage. For example, televangelists and Christian radio hosts have succeeded in bringing their message to the world through use of technology and modern management techniques. Christian fundamentalists played a major role in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 by using available technology and computerized voting lists to mobilize voters. These are all examples of “selective modernization.”

Fundamentalists are often practical, highly educated and visible people, Antoun said. “Fundamentalists are ‘men of the world’ who want to take religion out of the worship center and into the world.”

Fundamentalists are usually are not priests or theologians:
Among well–known American Christian fundamentalists, Pat Robertson is a Yale–trained lawyer; James Dobson, host of the radio show, “Focus on Family,” holds a Ph.D. in child development; Jerry Falwell was an ordained minister, but he makes his living as a televangelist.

Antoun added that televangelists, although they are the most visible group of Christians, do not represent moderate or mainline Christianity.

“Mainline Christians avoid televangelism because they do not want to look like hucksters,” he said.

Fundamentalism in action

Fundamentalists are people who take action to fulfill their faith. Sometimes that action is drastic. Such action may include:

  • Flight: For example, the Boer (Afrikaner) trek from Cape Town to the Transvaal in South Africa to escape the British; the Mormon trek from the Midwest to Utah to escape persecution. Such action fulfills biblical–like events, i.e., Exodus.

  • Radical separation: When groups remain within a general geographical area but voluntarily segregate themselves, such as ultra–orthodox Jews.

  • Institutional separation: The establishment of religious schools, universities and other institutions.

  • Confrontation: Fundamentalists have an internal and an external enemy. For Muslims, the external enemies are the “Zionists,” “Crusaders” and “imperialists.” The internal enemies are the state and the moderates, Antoun said.

The word translates as “struggle,” which can be applied in both internal and external terms.

Internally, jihad is the struggle against sin.

Jihad as a holy war is a minority interpretation of the Koran, Antoun said. Extreme Muslim fundamentalists believe that one can’t live a pure Islamic way without an Islamic state, and therefore violent jihad is justified to achieve that pure Islamic state.

See more on jihad in “Inside the Global Jihad” with Steven Simon.

Women and fundamentalism

Most of the fundamentalists of the world are men, Antoun said. Women are often involved, but their roles are diminished.

In moderate Islamic societies, however, women have achieved a large degree of rights and freedoms.

“Through controlled acculturation, women have acquired education, have become literate, and achieved economic mobility,” Antoun said. “I don’t see Islam as being incompatible with the rights of women.”

But in general, Muslims prefer no mixing of sexes.

“They believe if unrelated man and woman are left alone, something bad is going to happen,” he said.

Civil society
“In Jordan, those institutions of trust and cooperation are ensconsed in tribal modes of conflict resolution and consensus.”
– Richard Antoun

Western ideas about civil society differ greatly from societies in the Middle East and other tribal systems. Elections, political parties, universities, independent newspapers and voluntary associations are integral to the Western notion of democracy and civil society, but not in the Middle East.

Using Western notions as benchmarks of civil society, some argue that civil societies are either weak or nonexistent in the Middle East and elsewhere. Antoun applies a broader definition of civil society, focusing on institutions of cooperation, trust and conflict resolution.

“Civil society is NOT defined by elections, political
parties, voluntary associations, or human rights committees, but rather by the institutions of trust and cooperation that allow society to carry out its affairs and meet its needs,” Antoun said. “In Jordan, those institutions of trust and cooperation are ensconsed in tribal modes of conflict resolution and consensus.”

Political expression and voluntary association do not exist in the Arab world nearly to the degree as the West, but Antoun said these are not the essence of civil society in the Middle East.

“In these societies, there is no ‘division of house’ that elections would foster. Consensus is more important,” he said.

Islam in America

With Muslims immigrating to America and establishing new lives here, Antoun said their religion will inevitably change and in turn influence Islam back in their home countries.

“They are constructing new Islam in culture where they are the minority, and this affords many interesting opportunities for change,” Antoun said. “What happens to Muslims after they’ve been here for 30 years? This is a very exciting story.”

Further reading
Civil Society, Tribal Process, and Change in Jordan: An Anthropological View

Richard T. Antoun, 2001, published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 32 (2000) 441–463.
“The problem for all societies in the modern world is how to create public trust to accomplish social goals while making some accommodation for the rights of the individual. ... This essay argues that civil society is constituted by universal processes of trust and cooperation that have separate inflections in different cultures. That inflection in Jordan and other tribal cultures in the Middle East is the process of consentual, ad hoc conflict resolution within the context of wide–ranging social networks.”

Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic and Jewish Movements

Richard T. Antoun, 2001, AltaMira Press
“The aim of this book is to identify themes that cut across the three monotheistic traditions to bring out the commonalities in thought and action, belief and practice. ... This book is a cross–cultural comparison of the phenomenon of fundamentalism, defined as an orientation to the world, a particular worldview and ethos, and as a movement of protest and outrage against the rapid change that has overtaken the people of an increasingly global civilization at the end of the twentieth century.”