Muslim Fundamentalists and Married Bachelors

Did you know that the last time I saw a Muslim fundamentalist that he was a married bachelor? That is because both Muslim fundamentalists and married bachelors are logical impossibilities. By definition if you are married then you cannot be a bachelor. Also a Muslim cannot be a fundamentalist. But while we do not hear people talk about married bachelors, because everyone recognizes that they are logical impossibilities, we consistently hear talk about Muslim fundamentalists. In my academic dreams we would hear individuals talk about Muslim fundamentalists as much as we hear them talk about married bachelors. (Okay, so I do not have big dreams).

To understand why Muslim fundamentalist is a logical impossibility we have to understand what the term fundamentalist means. Fundamentalism comes from a series of essays, edited by A. C. Dixon, in books written in the early 20th century called The Fundamentals. The major purpose of these books was to create the boundaries between what the authors perceived as true Christianity and other religious beliefs in society. The tenets in these writings (Biblical inerrancy, virgin birth, resurrection of Christ) are rooted in Protestant beliefs. Thus, to be a fundamentalist, one has to adhere to Protestant beliefs. This makes Islamic fundamentalism impossible since Muslims by definition do not have the same exact religious beliefs as Protestants. For that matter there are not Jewish fundamentalists, Mormon fundamentalists, or atheist fundamentalists either.
That I listen to non-academics misuse the term fundamentalist is not surprising. Often individuals are sloppy with their use of language. Most people do not understand the history of the concept and so it would be surprising if they did not sometimes misuse this term. But when I hear scholars of religion talk about Muslim fundamentalists, I want to tear my hair out (or would if I had hair). Such individuals should know better. It was especially frustrating for me to send in a book manuscript where I discuss the proper use of fundamentalist and a reviewer state that while I was technically correct I should just accept the common layperson use of the word. Is not part of the job of academics to correct misconceptions out in the public? Evidently not according to this reviewer.
It is useful to ask why this term has been corrupted. I can only speculate about why this corruption has occurred, but I would be naïve to not consider that certain social interests are invested in having fundamentalist misused in this particular way. It is clear that the term “fundamentalist” is being used to replace the term “extremist”. While a Muslim fundamentalist is a myth, a Muslim extremist is not. Thus individuals use the term fundamentalist when what they really mean is extremist. So the misuse of the term fundamentalist can be seen as a critique of conservative Christianity. The term fundamentalist implies that conservative Christians are at the extremes of society. Thus, talking about Muslim fundamentalists becomes a useful way to stigmatize conservative Christians.
In a society where there is evidence of a culture war and conservative Christians are on one side of that culture war, promoting the perception of them as being the same as Muslim extremists is purposeful for those who oppose conservative Christians. Linking conservative Christians to images of angry Muslims, some of who may be terrorists, provides legitimization to oppose those Christians. This is not to say that everyone who misuses the term fundamentalist intends on marginalizing conservative Christians; however, it is clear that the implications of that misuse is supportive of the idea that conservative Christians should be kept at the periphery of society. It is an idea I found among cultural progressives when conducting research on them for my book.
The way we use terms does not occur by accident. It generally occurs to reflect the social ideas of those who use the terms. If we conceptualize a culture war between cultural progressive activists and conservative religious supporters, then it makes sense that progressive activists accept interpretations of fundamentalism supporting notions that those conservative religious supporters should be marginalized. Since Christianity is the major religion in the United States, comments aimed at Christians, as opposed to those of other religions, should be especially relevant to cultural progressive activists.
As a scholar I would like to see the term fundamentalist used in a proper manner. Using words accurately is vital to communicating academic knowledge. So I will consistently encourage individuals, and especially my students, to use “Muslim extremist” instead of “Muslim fundamentalist”. But I am realistic about the chances of changing the patterns of how we speak about fundamentalism. I am also realistic that the current way this misuse serves certain social interests in ways that an accurate understanding of the term fails to do. I am tilting at windmills. But if I am going to call myself a scholar of religion, then I have to be honest about addressing such mistakes no matter who’s interest is at stake.

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  • beauweston

    Phooey, George. Marty and Applebee made a solid case for the analogous use of ‘fundamentalist’ in their massive study of fundamentalism in all the world religious traditions. And the intended of salafist [‘do it like our ancestors’] Islam is precisely what Protestants intended by writing The Fundamentals. I think you are splitting hairs.

    • georgeyancey

      Oh so you can read the minds of the Islamic and the Protestants as know they were thinking the same thing? I assume that they have the same motivation but even beyond that it does not matter. If I have the same motivation while writing about communism, providing equality to everyone, as someone else has in writing about democracy it does not stand that they are a communist. It is fair to argue that there are similarities between Protestant fundamentalists and Muslim extremist. But it is still inaccurate to call Muslims extremist fundamentalist.

  • Why extremist? What is extreme about Al Qaeda or Al Shebab? I prefer something like militant, reformed Islam, which respects how they describe themselves as being a legitimate if militant reform returning to a pure Islam of the early caliphs.

    • Sven2547

      What is extreme about Al Qaeda or Al Shebab?

      Aside from the obvious?

      • It is obvious to most Americans that fundamentalists are not what Yancy is talking about here. Just because you kill people, or are willing to kill people, or believe that such killing is an act of praise to God, does not make you radical. You have dodged the question. Lame.

        • Sven2547

          It’s not “dodging the question” when I’m asking you to clarify your apparently-nonsensical statement. And I can’t say you’ve made things any better. When you say things like…

          Just because you kill people, or are willing to kill people, or believe that such killing is an act of praise to God, does not make you radical.

          …it really just raises more questions. For example, if killing in your religion’s name isn’t an example of radicalism, then what is? Do YOU believe that killing people to glorify God is a moderate or sensible thing to do?

          Oh, and by the way:

          It is obvious to most Americans…

          …that Al-Qaeda and Al-Shebab are practically the definition of radicals.

          • The author is saying that in relation to the word fundamentalist we should think of Presby history, but in relation to the word radical we should use it the way pop culture does. You can’t have it both ways. That is my problem with this article.

          • georgeyancey

            What I am saying is that radical can be applied to any group – Christian, Muslim, secular but fundamentalists comes from a specific historical religious context. Wahhabi comes from a specific, historical religious context so there is no Christian wahhabist. I am not trying to have it both ways just making a plea to use language accurately.

          • Thanks for your response here. But should you not treat the word ‘radical’ in the same way and dig up its historical origins?

          • georgeyancey

            If you can supply me the historical context whereby the term radical is not applied to a variety of groups I would be happy to hear it.

          • The first known use is 14th Century in the English, so I’m assuming it was used to relate to one specific group of people who held very certain and particular religious and/or political views. I’m not sure which specific group it was (nominalists? republicans?), but it was not a catch all term, I am certain of that.

          • georgeyancey

            I think you have to be more specific than that to make your point. If you cannot show how radical in and of itself is innately connected to a particular group then I am using it correctly as a adjective. The word “bad” likely started out to describe some group somewhere but we know it is an adjective that can be used to describe a variety of different things today.

          • Precisely my point. I know full well the origins of the word ‘fundamentalist’ but since then, the word, like the words ‘bad’ and ‘radical’ have gained a life of their own (so to speak) and their meanings have expanded beyond the original historically-conditioned. So while I’m sympathetic to your analysis, being a lover of etymology and the history of vocabulary myself, I think you should abandon this position.

          • georgeyancey

            You have not even given me the origins of bad or radical. That is how far removed those words are. If those words have meaning attached to a particular group it has long been lost which is not the case of fundamentalist. Perhaps in a few hundred years it may have that meaning but that is not the case today.

  • Sven2547

    Language is usage. While the etymology of “fundamentalist” is certainly derived from a specific set of documents and books, none can deny that the word “fundamentalist” has taken added meaning(s).

  • The 12 items of the Religious Fundamentalism scale used by Altemeyer and Hunsberger would appear to apply almost as well to a subset within Islam as the fundamentalist subset of Christianity:

    1. God has given humanity a complete, unfailing guide to happiness and salvation, which must be totally followed.
    2. No single book of religious teachings contains all the intrinsic, fundamental truths about life.
    3. The basic cause of evil in this world is Satan, who is still constantly and ferociously fighting against God.
    4. It is more important to be a good person than to believe in God and the right religion.
    5. There is a particular set of religious teachings in this world that are so true, you can’t go any “deeper” because they are the basic, bedrock message that God has given humanity.
    6. When you get right down to it, there are basically only two kinds of people in the world: the Righteous, who will be rewarded by God, and the rest, who will not.
    7. Scriptures may contain general truths, but they should not be considered completely, literally true from beginning to end.
    8. To lead the best, most meaningful life, one must belong to the one, fundamentally true religion.
    9. “Satan” is just the name people give to their own bad impulses. There really is no such thing as a diabolical “Prince of Darkness” who tempts us.
    10. Whenever science and sacred scripture conflict, science is probably right.
    11. The fundamentals of God’s religion should never be tampered with, or compromised with others’ beliefs.
    12. All of the religions in the world have flaws and wrong teachings. There is no perfectly true, right religion.

    Note some items (2, 4, 7, 9, 10, 12) are reverse coded.

    Contrariwise, the scale does not appear to be worded sufficiently broadly to allow for “atheist fundamentalists”, so there seems likely room for more improvement. (The scale they used for Dogmatism was versatile enough for finding dogmatic atheists, too.)