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).
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.
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.
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.