AMMAN, JORDAN — `MUSLIM fundamentalist." The term conjures images of those accused of bombing the World Trade Center, hard-eyed mullahs preaching holy war against the West, and bigoted fanatics with their minds set in the distant past.
Such Muslims cannot be seen as representative of their 1 billion co-religionists around the world, any more than Klu Klux Klan militants typify American Christians. But they are the products, albeit extremist ones, of a movement that is shaking Arab political life to its foundations: Islam as a political force.
How to describe the men and women propelling this force, or swept along by it? Almost all of them are known in general Western parlance as "fundamentalists," a convenient catch-all. But across the Middle East, these people have taken such diverse approaches to achieving their goals, and developed such a broad range of political habits, that the label seems misleading.
The word derives from Christian tradition, but to Muslims it carries little meaning. In the Protestant religious sense, all Muslims are "fundamentalists," because a central pillar of their faith is that Islam's holy book, the Koran, contains the literal word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
But the term ignores the efforts of Islamic political activists for more than a century to apply immutable Koranic principles to a world that has nothing in common with the tribal Arabian society Muhammad lived in nearly 14 centuries ago. Loaded with negative connotations, the word "fundamentalist" "has come to be used as political cover by our opponents," complains Adel Hussein, editor of a Cairo daily that is a mouthpiece of Egyptian Islamic activism.
In the Middle East, the term is used only by secularists to tar all their religious political enemies, not just those who do reject as heretical all the social, technological, and economic changes since the 7th century.
The influence of such Muslims on their fellow Arabs seems minimal. But the revival of Islamic values in private life and the resurgence of Islam in politics are growing daily.
Among all the trends in this movement, driven by wizened conservative scholars in Saudi Arabia and earnest young revolutionaries in Sudan alike, there is one common denominator. They all seek inspiration for their political action in religion. The most appropriate term to describe them, it seems, is "Islamist."