Another win for vague “fundamentalism”

I have been mulling over a Los Angeles Times story about Iran for several days. I get stuck on something like this every now and then. I used to work on a copy desk.

Once again, I am upset about that troublesome word “fundamentalist” being used in a way that leaves it totally undefined. Here, for example, is the headline for the online version of reporter John Daniszewski’s report from Tehran: “Iran’s Runner-Up Puts Fundamentalists in Race.”

Then we have the first two paragraphs.

TEHRAN — From his childhood as the impoverished son of a blacksmith, to his youth as a student activist against the shah of Iran, to his manhood as a soldier fighting in Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a fierce attachment to Islam and to the teachings of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Now the 48-year-old appointed mayor of Tehran appears to have the backing of much of the military, fundamentalists and loyalists of the country’s supreme leader in a runoff election Friday with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. If Ahmadinejad wins, it would be seen as a victory for the most fundamentalist wing of Iranian politics and a devastating setback for reformers.

Forget the outcome of the election for a minute or other recent developments. Just focus on the words. It would appear that “reformers” is the doctrinal word that is the mirror image of “fundamentalists.” Yet “fundamentalist” is defined, by context, as someone with a “fierce attachment to Islam.”

What am I missing? So, essentially, anyone who is unusually devoted to Islam is a “fundamentalist” and some who is not all that devoted is a “reformer”? So the word “fundamentalist” is bad, since it is against reform. Reform is good, since it involves a lack of strong belief in the historic doctrines of a particular faith?

“Fundamentalist” Catholic vs. “reform” Catholic? “Fundamentalist” Protestant vs. “reform” Protestant? “Fundamentalist” Anglicans vs. “reform” Episcopalians? This has all kinds of implications, doesn’t it?

So the goal of American policy — or at least the reporters covering it — is to prevent the rise of “fundamentalists” in the Islamic world and to encourage the “reformers” who are not as devout? What do Islamic religious leaders think of that? Maybe we don’t want to know the answer to that question.

Meanwhile, let us again meditate on these fading words in The Associated Press Stylebook:

fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

UPDATE: Election results are in. He won.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • jjayson

    Reading too much into “reformers”? The word “reformers” has been used to refer to Iranian seeking to change the political system. It isn’t something that Daniszewski thought to apply himself. The reform coalition included a number of people from current President Khatami to Moin the candidate that lost last week. They are poilitical reformers, not necessarily religious reformers. Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson is even a prominent reformer now.

  • Will Linden

    I recall earlier Times coverage, this about Moslems in the US, opposing “fundamentalist Muslims” and “secular Muslims”.
    “Secular Jews” I could just about understand, but does this mean that “fundamentalists” are to be constrasted with “secular Christians”? With its possibly even more troubling implication that only “fundamentalists” can be really religious.

    As for “reformer”, that has become a signal that “these are the Good Guys”. In similar fashion, factions of all sorts have taken to exerting emotional blackmail by using “reform” for whatever it is they want. “Abortion reform” and “marijuana reform” on the left, “immigration reform” on the right; and of course, how could anyone be so depraved as to oppose “campaign finance reform”. I could quote Roscoe Conkling’s observation, but that would probably inflame things even more.