Define fundamentalist, please

Few hot-button, “fighting words” are tossed around with wilder abandon in journalism today than the historical term “fundamentalist.”

The powers that be at the Associated Press know this label is loaded and, thus, for several decades the wire service’s style manual has offered this guidance for reporters, editors and broadcast producers around the world.

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. … 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.”

The problem is that religious authorities — the voices journalists quote — keep pinning this label on others. Thus, one expert’s “evangelical” is another’s “fundamentalist.” For “progressive” Catholics, in other words, Pope Benedict XVI is a “fundamentalist” on sexuality.

Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics “fundamentalist” has become a “term of abuse or disapprobation” that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, “sumbitch.”

“Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. … In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views,” noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. “That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch.’ … Its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ ”

This linguistic fight has spread to other faiths and, thus, affects religion news worldwide.

The Orthodox side of Judaism now consists of “ultra-conservatives,” “traditionalists,” “ultra-Orthodox” or “fundamentalists,” depending on who defines the terms. There are “fundamentalist” Hindus, as well. In Islam, journalists keep trying to draw lines between “Islamists,” “Muslim radicals,” “fringe groups” and a spectrum of other undefined doctrinal camps including, of course, “fundamentalists.”

This confusion makes it hard for researchers with good intentions to shed light on news events in complex cultures. Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report. “About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative “fundamentalism” definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s surging role in Egyptian life — a group long classified as “fundamentalist” in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in 1988.

While there is no Arabic word for “fundamentalist,” Pew researchers believe many Egyptians have begun applying a similar term to some groups of “very conservative Muslims,” according to James Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

However, he added, the complexities and even conflicts inside these new survey results make it hard to say specifically who is or who isn’t a “fundamentalist” in the context of Egypt today.

“For our Egypt survey, the term ‘fundamentalist’ was translated into Arabic as ‘usuuli,’ which means close to the root, rule or fundamental,” he explained. “It is our understanding that this Arabic term is commonly used to describe conservative Muslims. … So that’s the word that we used.”

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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.


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