How to follow AP; avoid the ‘f’ word

From the very first days of this weblog’s existence, and up to the recent past, your GetReligionistas have been asking mainstream journalists to meditate on the following passage found 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.”

Notice that the text correctly notes the Protestant roots of this term and correctly states that it is a fairly new term in the religion marketplace. It also stresses that there are people who accurately use this word to describe their own beliefs, such as the late Jerry Falwell. Notice that the Stylebook wisely urges journalists to avoid abusing this hot-button term in coverage of disputes among Christians.

So what are we, once again, to make of the following reference in a recent Washington Post story?

CUNIT, SPAIN – This sunny little resort on the Mediterranean shore has long been a favorite for weekenders seeking to escape the congestion of nearby Barcelona for a dose of sandy beaches and sea breezes.

But Cunit has gained a new distinction: It is famous in Spain as the town where a Moroccan-born Muslim woman with a master’s degree and a head of curly hair says she was threatened by Muslim fundamentalists because she took off her veil and tried to live like a Spaniard.

A few lines later, the label changes and then changes right back again:

The conflict roiling Cunit and its 12,000 inhabitants has shown Spaniards that they are not exempt from the growing tensions in Western Europe over Muslim immigrants who seek to preserve their home-country ways — and sometimes to impose a conservative strain of Islam — in societies based on secular democracy and Christian tradition. …

(The) the feelings surfacing in Cunit have revealed a quiet resentment among many people who think that traditional European values are being challenged by fundamentalist Muslims.

Once again we face the question: What precisely is a “fundamentalist” Muslim? Are the beliefs of a “fundamentalist” Muslim the same in Spain as in, let’s say, Saudi Arabia? How about Egypt? How about on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.?

While we are at it, what beliefs and traditions separate a “conservative” Muslim from a “fundamentalist” Muslim? And here is the most crucial question: Do Muslims use these terms? Have they actually adopted a term — fundamentalist — taken from debates in American Protestantism to describe their own beliefs?

I have my doubts.

However, if you would like to see how to cover this kind of complex story without resorting to inaccurate uses of these kinds of terms, click here and read the New York Times update on the case of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, an American convert to Islam who used a semiautomatic rifle to open fire on a military recruiting center in Little Rock — killing one soldier and wounding another.

Notice, in particular, how the changes in the young man’s life and beliefs are described — primarily through the testimony of family members — without the use of labels. Here is a typical passage:

Eight months after the shooting, Mr. Muhammad’s family is still sorting through the confusing pieces of his shattered life. A gentle, happy-go-lucky teenager, he had become a deeply observant Muslim in college, shunning gatherings where alcohol was served. He traveled to Yemen to study Arabic, married a Yemeni woman, was imprisoned and then deported for overstaying his visa. After returning to Memphis last year, he stewed with anger about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We are told that he had become a “deeply observant Muslim,” a term that is certainly not offensive. Then we are given examples of how his faith helped shape his new life.

Later, the father says that his son was “brainwashed” by “evildoers.” These are harsh words, but they come from a man at the heart of the story.

Read the whole story. Note the simple use of attributed facts that describe Muhammad’s faith. It seems so easy, doesn’t it? Why not use this approach and follow the AP Stylebook? That’s a rather basic question, isn’t it?

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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.

  • dalea

    Karen Armstrong’s work The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Harper Collins, 2000) does use the ‘f’ word in ways contrary to the style book. Apparently such usage is acceptable in academic and scholarly discourse. I don’t know if this can carry over to the press, but it might.

  • bob smietana


    I know you’ve got strong feeling about the use of the term fundamentalist.

    What do think of the way that Martin Marty and Scott Appleby used the term in the Fundamentalism Project back in the 1990s?

    Seems like Marty showed some ways in which fundamentalism can be used to describe a wide range of religious movements.

    His discussion here is pretty helpful:

    Fundamentalisms, fundamentalist-like movements, or movements with “family resemblances” to fundamentalism tended to include features like these:

    1. They rose where a prior conservative, traditional, orthodox religious culture was present;

    2. People in such cultures were threatened by the erosion or assault of what they considered to be “modern”;

    3. They were patient if wary so long as the assault came from the Other, the outsider; but when members of the culture began to “turn modern” or to adapt and turn moderate, the emerging fundamentalists feared that their own identity and belief system would be jeopardized unless they acted;

    4. Therefore, they re-acted; reactivity (more than reaction) came to be a decisive gesture for them and term for us; they argued that all true believers had to transcend apathy and must react, drawing the terms of battle from the corrosion of the moderate modernists and the threats of radical outsiders;

    5. Their instruments and weapons for reactivity were “the fundamentals,” the real or presumed foundational elements of belief and practice, story and law (depending on what the various religions in question regarded as fundamental). They engaged in what we called “selective retrieval”: not bringing back and employing the whole past, but only those features that would help them fight back;

    6. On the basis of these they developed philosophies of history that had to deal with beginnings and ends (as, in the West, in “creationism” and “apocalypticism”) and the meaning of present-day action;

    7. Thus they had to summon an elect people who would work “under God,” toward specified ends, no matter what the day-to-day empirical situation held. They became agents of the divine, their groups are often choosing to be separatist and demarcated within precise boundaries.

  • tmatt


    I am in favor of trying to follow the AP Stylebook.

    I am in favor, as Poynter likes to say, of making sure that words are accurate according to the stakeholders in a story. If you are writing a story about the Marty work, then you need to spend a bunch of ink to define his use of the term, when using it in this new meaning.

    Meanwhile, I am in favor of using information, not labels, when at all possible.

    I keep thinking about the radio journalists I met from Afghanistan, who had to CREATE a new word and a new concept in their language in order to use a word that Americans kept trying to pin on people in their nation, a word to describe a concept that does not exist in their culture.

    As the New York Times self study of 2006 said, this is simply the kind of labeling that journalists need to avoid. Journalists do not need to go there.

  • bob smietana

    Hi Terry

    I wonder if the AP stylebook should be updated to reflect Marty’s work. Marty makes an important point that there’s a difference between orthodox/traditional faith and practices — and fundamentalism– which is religion that’s at war with modernism.

  • tmatt


    There are many parts of traditional faiths that clash with the evolving standards of modernity. Under those standards, there is no question that the pope is a fundamentalist, ditto for the ecumenical patriarch, most Orthodox rabbis, etc., etc.

    I believe that the Marty standards will fade from frequent usage due to their complexity. They are certainly too complex for 500-word wire service copy.

    Why are you so fond of labels as opposed to the approach offered in the NYTs piece praised in this post? Why do you disagree so strongly with Bill Keller and the NYTs self study? To echo your earlier language, you seem to have very strong feelings about the need to label people as fundamentalists.

  • Mollie

    The problem with labeling people fundamentalists is that it’s derisive.

    Also, though, the Marty standards seem imprecise. I mean, I read #6 and I think “environmentalist doomsdayers” but I somehow doubt that we’ll be calling them fundamentalists any time soon.

  • Will

    AIDS revisionists have resorted to labeling the mainstream viewpoint (that it is caused by a specific virus) “HIV fundamentalism”.

    A word which needs to be defined every time it is used belongs on the linguistic junkheap, with “fascist” and “cult”.

  • david s

    Has anybody else noticed that this view that the word “fundamentalist” is derogative seems to have led to the near disappearance of the word “fundamental”? Is it only in academic writing that one sees “foundational” used where “fundamental” would have been used in the past? The Martin Marty features listed above are a good case in point: he uses unattributed quotes around “fundamentals” which he describes as “foundational elements of belief.”

    Back in the day, I don’t think “foundational” was even a word. I wonder if the old “Reading Is Fundamental” program still exists?

  • Will

    Oh, it hasn’t disappeared. Like in the story where the new president of [some organization I have repressed] insisted that she was a real Catholic, even though (in the NYT reportage) she “disagrees with many fundamentals.” As Arthur Dent would say, this must be some strange sense of “Catholic” and “fundamental” I was not previously familiar with.

    And in my Magicknet days, one poster claimed to believe that “fundamentalists” are so called because “they think education should be restricted to the fundamentals.” Yeah, and rationalists want to feed the kids C-rations.

  • Bob Smietana


    In general, I agree with you–the word fundamentalist is often used inaccurately–often as a synonym for orthodox or traditional religious faith. It should be used judiciously–unless you’re writing about The Sword of the Lord--whose readers are fundamentalists and proud of it.

    That said, I think Marty and Appleby’s work, especially Fundamentalisms Observed, shows how the word can apply to non Protestant groups.

    There’s a difference between orthodox/traditional religion and hostile religion–which is what fundamentalism is. It’s hostile toward secular culture, and hostile towards religious folks who are seen as betraying the faith.

    Which is why it seems to fit in the post story — about a Muslim woman being targeted by other Muslims for taking off her veil.

    But that may be too much insider baseball.

  • tmatt

    But why use a label from American Protestantism?

    Their actions scream their approach to Islam. Describe their beliefs and their actions. It works.

  • Patton Dodd

    Marty’s overview is about fundamentalism’s history, or its origins. The Fundamentalism Project is helpful in explaining how the term spilled its original Christian borders, but when we start talking about ultra-conservative, militant religious believers in our own times, and how they do and do not relate to other religious believers, things get really murky really quickly.

    Academic works may use “fundamentalist” to describe a broader range of conservative religious belief and practice, but they also often open with introductions (or even prefatory pages called something like “A Note About Terms”) that explain exactly what they mean by the term, and acknowledging its relationship to other labels. Reporters, obviously, can’t do that. Which is why the AP Stylebook should be consulted…

  • Tyson K

    It’s an important point to make that academics often use terms in very precise and specific ways that do not necessarily gel with all the connotations or meanings the mainstream public attaches to those words. They can do this because they define their terms very carefully and even at times explicitly give new meanings or shades of meaning to commonly-used words. If they fail to use this precision with the terms they use, their colleagues and peers will call them on it.

    Journalism, on the other hand, is a completely different ballgame. Since the meanings of words are of course completely arbitrary, constructed, and constantly-changing, journalists have to be very, very careful that they words they use convey just the meaning they desire and nothing more (at least as far at that’s possible).