Fundamentalist whack-a-mole

Long-time readers of GetReligion know that since the beginning of this blog we’ve been playing whack-a-mole with reporters who misuse the term “fundamentalist.”

We’re not asking for much. We’re just asking for reporters to follow the sensible AP stylebook guidelines — “fundamentalist” is a word that has a specific definition in a religious context. So why does the Washington Post in particular have such a problem with this? Tmatt took them to task in February for their reference to “Muslim fundamentalists”:

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.

Good questions! Then in March, Tmatt noticed the Post was playing fast and loose with the F-word again, also in reference to Muslims. Then yesterday, the Post published this report from their foreign service, about a new law in Belgium banning full face veils for Muslim women and a similar law being considered in France:

These are uneasy times for the estimated 15 million Muslims of Western Europe, not only for fundamentalists such as Selma, but also for the vast majority who want to find their place as Muslims without confronting the Christian and secular traditions of the continent they have adopted as home.

So what’s the deal here? Is “fundamentalist” now officially the Post’s preferred way of describing Muslims whose beliefs and practices are a source of conflict in Christian and secular contexts? I realize it’s more difficult to explain to the reader what the Muslims in question actually believe, but unfortunately accuracy and understanding suffer when you fall back on inadequate and inaccurate appellatives.

And unfortunately, that’s not all that’s wrong with the Post’s report on what’s going on in Belgium. We do get some good information on anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe, but things are awfully one-sided:

Public sentiment has gone further, though. In recent discussions about the ban and during a government-sponsored “national identity” debate, several French Internet sites closed down reader comment sections because of an outpouring of hate mail. A Muslim butcher shop and a mosque were sprayed with automatic-weapon fire in southern France last month, after Sarkozy decided to pursue a full ban, and vandals last week desecrated a graveyard for Muslim soldiers who died fighting in the French army.

The writer then goes on to quote one Muslim woman who calls the law “racism and a form of Islamophobia.” The closest thing to balance is a quote from a Muslim who says that he doesn’t think full-face veils are necessitated in his reading of the Koran — but even then the new law’s alleged anti-Muslim underpinning still concerns him. There’s not one secular or Christian European quoted in the story, nor anyone on record as being in favor of the law and explaining their reasoning for supporting it.

I also think that the way the article is framed is problematic, noting that the new law concerns the “vast majority who want to find their place as Muslims without confronting the Christian and secular traditions of the continent they have adopted as home.”

Well, to understand Belgium’s new law and France’s support for a similar measure, I think it would be important to note that aside from the “vast majority” of Muslims who don’t want to confront secular and Christian traditions of Europe — there’s a very active minority who is confronting those traditions head on. For instance, you might note that anti-Semitic incidents “skyrocketed” in Belgium last year and “the perpetrators mostly belong to Muslim groups,” or that France seems to be having perpetual problems with Muslim riots. Do these issues have anything to do with the development of this new law? If not, what is the context for why this new law was written?

Further, the article raises the question: Of all the things about Muslims in Western Europe that creates friction, what is it about female head coverings that seems to be the thing that gets focused on by Muslim critics? Sure, there’s some obvious answers in terms of how women’s rights are preserved and the general difficulty of having to interact with someone when you can’t see their face. But I think probing this question a bit would be interesting.

And as a chaser to this discussion of Muslim head coverings being a flashpoint in Europe, I will refer you to the YouTube video to your left.

As tmatt highlighted last week, Swedish artist Lars Vilks — one of the cartoonists whose drawings of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper set off an international firestorm — was attacked by Muslims while giving a lecture at a Swedish university last week (and his house was hit by suspected arson this weekend). Many people saw the video of the attack on the internet.

What you probably didn’t see is this video of people involved in the attack being arrested outside the building. You’ll notice that the Swedish police let a civilian intercede in the middle of the arrest. It’s a Muslim woman putting a hijab on the exposed head of one of the women being arrested.

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  • Dave

    Of all the things about Muslims in Western Europe that creates friction, what is it about female head coverings that seems to be the thing that gets focused on by Muslim critics? Sure, there’s some obvious answers in terms of how women’s rights are preserved and the general difficulty of having to interact with someone when you can’t see their face.

    What would be interesting is an explanation of why the law is a way of addressing it. I know that one state of the US (Florida iirc) stirred up a fuss when it forbade women wearing a full head covering from driving unless she had a bare-faced photo of herself on her driver’s ID. That, at least, has a rational relationship to a state interest. This stuff in Belgium and France needs to defend not just a particular law but law as an instrument.

  • joe

    The use of fundementalist, does seem to get used in place of the “R” word, which, on the other hand, must not be spoken, or written!! A good UTube vid that explains fairly, I think, the “R” word, the use of the law with regard to muslem ideology, and the use of terms, is one on Col. West. On an even note, the “lecture”, that Lars Vilks gave, of which only a snip is shown in the UTube vids, was, in my opinion, quite a disgusting “lecture”, and perhpas should have had XXX warning on the outside of the university?

  • Mark Smith

    Keep wackin’ those moles tmatt, maybe they will listen, and then maybe not. I like to play wack-a-mole, too- on journalists who write those lame quick-build Kingdom Hall stories- you know the standard dog bites man stuff.
    Continuing, I don’t see how Christianity can claim the fundamentalist moniker exclusively for themselves- it’s not a trademark. If Muslims don’t object to that word, then why should you? Suppose I said you are an amazing journalist, tmatt, and you didn’t object to a term that was really not very descriptive, then the issue is not the word, but what is being said. Hitler was an amazing person, but almost everyone agrees it has a negative connotation in that context. The problem is that the fundalmentalist word when tagged to a religion is defined by the eye of the beholder, not by the journalist and that I believe, is the problem for you. Religion writers could explain just what a fundamentalist Muslim is, when they use that term, but that could possibly open them up to criticism. Not good for the career, so self censorship is the rule of the day.

  • Sophie, England

    I just wandered in here from a link – some of your pieces are interesting but I hope they’re better informed than this one. As an Englishwoman I know nothing of the American stories you discuss so I can’t evaluate them. However the issue of Muslims in Europe is one that most Europeans are familiar with. I would recommend you stick to commenting on stories you understand and on issues you have experienced.

    The British media tend to use the word Islamism for the extreme and violent form of Islam that’s emerged in recent years. Sure, there are fanatics. But there are huge numbers of moderate Muslims in Europe – do you not remember the Bosnian Muslims? Moderate Muslims in Europe don’t wear veils. Many of the women in rural areas wear something over their heads, just as Catholic and Orthodox women do. In the cities moderate Muslim women look like everyone else. These Muslims (there are lots of different groups and nationalities) have been part of the cultural and political landscape for centuries. This sudden violent extremism among their co-religionists is very disturbing for them too.

    I would point out that in the UK, although we have had home grown terrorism, the police have been able to prevent attacks after tip-offs from moderate Muslims. I could write a lot more, but I just wanted you to know the European picture is much more nuanced and complex than your piece suggests. Above all, you need to appreciate that not all Muslims are immigrants. They are indigenous to parts of Europe.