Islamic Fundamentalism: A Brief Survey (Part 1 of 7)

by Bruce Gourley


INTRODUCTION TO RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISMS

“Religious fundamentalism fits uncomfortably into this world,” declares one scholar.[1]  To fundamentalists, notes another scholar, “religious enemies are important.”[2]

The twentieth century witnessed the maturing and globalization of the modern Western world.  The century, characterized by increasing secularization, large corporations, growing wealth and consumerism, technological progress, military might, and global communications, threatened “traditional”[3] religious views both within and without the Western world.  Religious individuals and faith groups responded to and interacted with modernity in a variety of ways, ranging from integration to resistance.  During the course of the twentieth century, religious groups and individuals who clung to strict orthodoxy and whose response to modernity was centered in militant resistance became known as “fundamentalists.”

Religious fundamentalists in general have much in common in terms of worldviews.  In short, all fundamentalists view modernity as the enemy, that is, the representation of evil.  First and foremost, modern Western thought is the embodiment of a secularized and pluralistic mindset, resulting in an intellectual challenge to traditional religious constructs of a God-centered universe.  For all fundamentalists, modernity poses a profound moral crisis of faith, culture and society.  Some scholars point to Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, as a revolt of bewildered young people caught between traditional values and complex modern choices.[4]  Others note that whereas fundamentalism per se is a reaction to the perceived failures of modernization, the formation of fundamentalist movements has primarily been in response to the failure of political and religious leaders in dealing with the perceived shortcomings of modernization.[5]

Secondly, modernity as expressed in society and government is understood to be in active opposition to traditional religious values and structures, thus necessitating a defensive response for the protection of traditional values and structures within an increasingly secular culture.  Sectarian defense is based on the concept of “enclave,” that is, the preservation and harboring of a pure faith within the protective walls of the true religious community.  The enclave, representing God, holds the evil world at bay intellectually and socially.[6]

Finally, a defensive response is viewed by fundamentalists as only a partial response.  Ultimately, the “world” must be conquered (or transformed) by true believers (or by God Himself) and forced to adhere to the one pure faith.[7]

Before proceeding further, a brief discussion of the actual definition of the term “fundamentalist” is in order.  Although characterized by rigid religious beliefs and militant resistance (whether through social activism, legal means, political engagement or violent acts) to modern world views, “fundamentalist” is a word that is difficult to precisely define.  For example, although all religious fundamentalists are conservatives, not all religious conservatives are fundamentalists.  One distinguishing characteristic of religious fundamentalists, as opposed to religious conservatives, is intolerance of opposing worldviews.

In addition, although some religious conservatives may join fundamentalists in adhering to an inerrant or perfect text (referred to as the “Word of God”), the reactionary (or militant) manner in which fundamentalists utilize their particular interpretation of the “Word of God” (both within their larger faith group and in relation to society at large) typically sets them apart.  Some scholars of religious fundamentalisms oftentimes distinguish between “scriptural” fundamentalism and “political” fundamentalism, particularly in terms of Islamic fundamentalisms.  Most scholars of Muslim history, however, reserve the term “fundamentalist” to refer to political movements which seek to establish, or impose, Islamic law upon a given state (or people group).  Islamic movements which are scripturally strict but avoid politics are viewed as “revivalist” movements.[8]

Accordingly, for the purposes of this paper, “fundamentalism” (as applied to Islam) will be reserved for the political expression of the Islamic faith which seeks to impose Islamic law upon a given state or people group. “Revivalist” will refer to Islamic movements which adhere to a strict interpretation of the Quran, but which are not engaged in politics.

Islamic terrorists (or extremists) represent a violent expression of fundamentalism adhering to a rigid reading of Islamic law and utilizing offensive means (rather than defensive) to punish infidels (non-Muslims) and perceived non-compliant Muslims.

Historically, religious fundamentalisms as a whole did not emerge from a vacuum.  Political, cultural and intellectual pressures in the late nineteenth century created a foundation upon which fundamentalisms would build and develop increasingly organized responses to the pervasive secularization of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.   A brief survey of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism will allow us to place the movement within the larger context of Muslim history.

Continue to Part 2 — Introduction to Islamic Fundamentalism

(or return to Table of Contents)

                            

[1]  John H. Garvey, “Introduction: Fundamentalism and Politics,” in Fundamentalisms and the State, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 3, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 15.

[2]  David C. Rapoport, “Comparing Militant Fundamentalist Movements and Groups,” in Fundamentalisms and the State, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 3, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 431.

[3]  “Traditional” religious views herein refer to widely understood pre-twentieth century theological constructs which placed God at the center of the universe.  Following in the wake of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth witnessed scientific advances in the scholarly world.  Disputing the traditional worldview of God as the center of the universe, modern science instead placed humanity at the center of existence.  By the 20th century, this humanity-centered worldview was emerging from the realm of academia and rapidly becoming integrated into everyday life.

[4]  Valerie J. Hoffman, “Muslim Fundamentalists: Psychosocial Profiles,” in Fundamentalisms Comprehended, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 5, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 209-225.  Remy Leveau, “Youth Culture and Islamism in the Middle East,” The Islamist Dilemma: The Political Role in the Contemporary Arab World, ed. Laura Guazzone (Berkshire, UK: Ithaca Press, 1995).

[5]  James Piscatori, “Accounting for Islamic Fundamentalisms,” in Accounting for Fundamentalisms, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 4, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 361.

[6]  Emmanuel Sivan, “The Enclave Culture,” in Fundamentalisms Comprehended, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 5, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 11-68.

[7]  See Gabriel A. Almond, Emmanuel Sivan, and R. Scott Appleby, “Explaining Fundamentalisms,” in Fundamentalisms Comprehended, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 5, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 425-429.  Almond, Sivan and Appleby divide fundamentalists into four categories in terms of relating to the “world”:  the “world conqueror,” “world transformer,” “world creator” and “world renouncer” (426).  “Conquerors” take it upon themselves to eliminate the enemy (the world).  “Transformers” and “Creators” actively fight the world but rely more heavily on the work of God in eschatological time.  “Renouncers” (who are few in number) are primarily focused on inward purity.  Other scholars would contend that Almond, Sivan and Appleby’s “Renouncers,” by not actually opposing the modern world order, are not true fundamentalists.

[8]  In terms of Islamic fundamentalism, see Said Amir Arjomand, “Unity and Diversity in Islamic Fundamentalism, in Fundamentalisms Comprehended, The Fundamentalism Project, Volume 5, eds. Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 179-198.  The comparison / contrast between “scriptural” and “political” fundamentalism is largely a construct utilized by scholars of fundamentalist movements, particularly in reference to the Islamic fundamentalism.  Traditional scholars of Muslim history typically speak of pre-twentieth century strict Islamist movements (based on strict interpretations of the Quran and the hadith) as “revival” or “revivalist” movements, whereas the term “fundamentalism” (which many Muslims reject forthright) is reserved for Islamic political movements devoted to implementing strict Islamic law on the state level.  In contrast, scholars of Christian fundamentalist movements typically apply the term “fundamentalist” to Christians who insist that the final authority in all matters of existence is the “inerrant” Bible.  Unlike Islamic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists typically do not overtly seek the establishment of a theocratic government. Many, however, do advocate for legal and governmental favoritism and preference for evangelical Christians while demanding the right to discriminate against homosexuals. Political expressions of both Christian and Muslim fundamentalisms are frequently grounded in biblical Old Testament law, the root of Quranic law. Islamic fundamentalists, however, are today more likely to demand the execution of homosexuals than are Christian fundamentalists.