The Many Faces of Fundamentalism

THE word ``fundamentalism'' seems to appear with increasing frequency in explanations of religious and political events. It is cause for astonishment and gratitude when a single concept seems able to explain so many events in so many different contexts. Of course, it may be that the term fits these various contexts because it lacks definite meaning, or because it describes the attitude of the observer. It is my suspicion that both of these problems are present in the current enthusiasm for the term, and that this enthusiasm is well-illustrated by much contemporary discussion of Islamic fundamentalism.

On a recent trip to Israel, prior to the kidnapping of Shiek Obeid, I encountered many people who predicted Israel's future while making frequent references to Islamic fundamentalism. The most widely held opinion was that Arabic countries are so preoccupied with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism they have little time, or inclination, to pursue their grievances against Israel, thus assuring Israel a limited security.

My interest deepened when I noticed that the most frequently cited examples of this involved movements led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and, the still very lively, Muammar Qaddafi. When I asked one Israeli what Hebrew word he was translating into English as ``fundamentalist,'' I was somewhat shocked to hear him say, there is no Hebrew word; one simply uses the English word ``fundamentalist.''

Movements believed to influence the political destiny of the Israeli people deserve a label more precise than this casual borrowing of an English word. Yet as I continued to listen, I began to discern that the term functioned in their discussions much as it does in many American circles.

In America, fundamentalism is both a negative and a dismissive term used to describe persons and groups considered to be anti-modern, anti-intellectual, and woodenly committed to strict legalistic patterns of social life. It is often used to describe people who are easily persuaded to fanatically support tyrannical leaders who appear to champion their goals.

Fundamentalists are the overly religious, the zealots. They are at best avoided, and at worst a cause for anxiety. For modern, progressive, sophisticated people, there is little apparent reason to learn more about fundamentalists. For them, the term raises red flags much in the same way that ``secular humanism'' strikes people labeled as fundamentalists.

The negative and dismissive use of the word has caused enough mischief in this country. Now it has been spread abroad. Confusion arises as it has been used to brand all sorts of religious movements that people dislike, or suppose they would dislike if more was known about them. One result of this narrow use of fundamentalism has been a general failure on the part of many intellectuals, and others, to comprehend the rich variety of religious impulses joined together in the new religious right.

As George Marsden has so powerfully documented in his work ``Fundamentalism and American Culture,'' there are significant differences between various Protestant and Roman Catholic conservatives, evangelicals, pentecostals, holiness groups, etc., and fundamentalists. He also reminds us that groups we might more properly call fundamentalist have created a complex intellectual life with roots in the science of Issac Newton, the epistemology of Francis Bacon, and the metaphysics of the Scottish common sense philosophers like Thomas Reid and Sir William Hamilton. In essence, those called fundamentalists are not the same, nor so narrow, as some might suppose.

But I believe even still more is at stake when we substitute a negative dismissive for careful investigation of the world scene with respect to Islamic fundamentalism. Such careless rationalizing not only blinds us to reality, it may also make us naive about how we obtain relief from religiously based movements we regard as dangerous.

Daniel Pipes, in his work ``In the Path of God: Islam & Political Power,'' develops a useful definition of fundamentalist. His analysis suggests the need for great care in analyzing events in Iran and Libya, not to mention other parts of the Islamic world. He reminds us that Islamic fundamentalism must be distinguished from traditionalism as well as from reformism.

According to Mr. Pipes, the model for traditionalism is the medieval synthesis that prevailed over a large part of the Islamic world for several centuries, combining some aspects of the sacred law, especially in the private sphere of life, with a more pragmatic approach to political institutions and events. While Islamic fundamentalists often portray themselves as ``traditional,'' they depart from traditionalism in many important respects. He observes, ``Traditionalists accept the medieval synthesis, fundamentalists aspire to implement the Shari'a [sacred law] in its totality. Traditionalists usually stay away from politics, fundamentalists get actively involved.

Pipes also emphasizes that fundamentalists attempt to reject Westernization while affirming modernization, but doubts whether this can be achieved.

On the basis of Pipes' definition, the political movement associated with Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran clearly deserves the name, but it does not compare strongly with American fundamentalism. It's difficult, for instance, to foresee anything analogous to the so-called Christian Zionism of American fundamentalists emerging in Khomeini's fundamentalism. Furthermore, the developments associated with Colonel Qaddafi in Libya - although a different view exists when we look at his activities outside the country - do not qualify as fundamentalism at all. His thoughts and actions are neither fundamentalist nor traditional. In terms of many visions of Islam, he is clearly a heretic.

My brief comments cannot serve as an adequate analysis of events in Iran or Libya in particular, nor of events in the Islamic world in general. Nor do they refute the statements that I heard so often in Israel. It is, however, my intention to raise doubts about those often repeated statements.

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