What's in a Name?: The Meaning of 'Muslim Fundamentalist'
Language and Politics
Is it a death tax or an estate tax? Are they dead civilians or collateral damage? Was he a member of the resistance or a terrorist? Is it a cult or an innovative branch of the Christian Church? These sorts of questions remind us of a point made long ago by George Orwell: modern political life is concerned, in very large part, with language. The words we use do not just reflect reality: they shape the way we perceive that reality. In so doing the words we use also become a part of the world we are trying to understand. One cannot understand contemporary American politics without understanding the keywords that define it and that shape the way the American public perceives reality.
Among the most potent of those keywords in our politics right now are “Muslim fundamentalism/ist” and “Islamo-fascism/ist.” Take these examples:
In February 2008, the Ottawa Herald—a newspaper in eastern Kansas—published an opinion piece by one of its employees, Gary Sillett, about Barack Obama’s rhetoric. Sillett’s piece, titled “Don’t Betray Your Heritage for Obama’s ‘Change’” made use of a keyword that is on many people’s lips these days: fundamentalism. In his essay, Sillett argued that the junior senator from Illinois was not to be trusted: “Barack Hussein Obama hit the campaign from nowhere” and had gained an amazing amount of momentum by exploiting “generic catchphrases” given to him by his handlers.
Sillett said that there was nothing wrong per se with words like “hope” or “change,” and implied that he could sympathize with a desire to install a new person in the White House who was very different from George W. Bush. However, turning over the reins of government to a “Muslim fundamentalist” like Obama would be a tragic mistake. Electing him president would be like “spitting on the graves of the victims of 9/11.” The Democratic Party, Sillett said, “intends to put a Muslim fundamentalist in the White House.” Right-thinking Americans have a duty to thwart that plan. To allow the Democrats to hand over the government to a man like Obama would be to betray America’s heritage. Of course, Senator Obama is neither a Muslim fundamentalist, nor even a Muslim. Sillett clearly does not like Obama and calling him a “Muslim fundamentalist” was simply the easiest way to convey that.
During his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for President, Fred Thompson spoke with great passion concerning the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. “We have yet to come to terms fully with the threat that Islamic fundamentalism presents to this country,” Thompson said. “The whole world is watching and waiting now, friends and foe alike, to see how we are going to react to the pressure they are going to put on us.”
John McCain’s pronouncements on this issue have been no less emphatic: “The struggle against Islamic fundamentalism is the most transcendent foreign policy challenge of our time.” McCain has made it clear that he is fully committed “to winning this battle, enhancing the stature of the United States as a beacon of global hope, and to preserving the personal, economic, and political freedoms that are the proud legacy of the great sacrifices of our fathers.”
These terms are so commonly used now we might assume that we all know what they mean. In fact, we do not; these phrases mean different things to different people and in different contexts. If we are going to understand and evaluate our current political debates, we ought to take some time to examine this language.
The History of the Term
For starters, there is no universally agreed upon definition for the term "Islamic fundamentalism." In general, the phrase is applied to Muslims who are thought to adhere strictly to ancient doctrines, to literal readings of the Koran, and are determined to resist modernity and modernization. It is also used for Muslims who want to use the traditions of Islam as a blueprint to build a more just society through the application of Koranic law.
More generally, the words “fundamentalist,” “fundamentalists,” and “fundamentalism” were all created in the 1920s. In the years between 1920 and 1978, the category fundamentalist was almost never used except in reference to people who were Protestant Christians. It is very hard—though possible—to discover any examples of commentators using the concept to analyze Muslims in those years. Thus, as late as the mid-1970s, a writer who referred to a Muslim as a fundamentalist ran the risk of confusing his readers. Muslim fundamentalists were as rare and as oxymoronic as Muslim Presbyterians.
Already in the 1920s, fundamentalism and fundamentalists began to accumulate a set of extremely negative connotations. Under the tutelage of men such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, H. Richard Niebuhr, Talcott Parsons, Richard Hofstadter, and Martin Marty, Americans learned to think of fundamentalism as a dangerous byproduct of a “sociopsychological” fact: many people have trouble adjusting properly to “modernity and modernization.” (Those phrases come from Martin Marty's article “Fundamentalism Reborn.”) Americans thus came to associate fundamentalism with anti-intellectualism, backwardness, and obscurantism. Fundamentalism was a label that was affixed almost exclusively to Protestant Christians who were thought to stand in the way of progress.
This began to change in 1979 when the Iranian revolution deposed the US-backed Shah. Starting with that event, Muslims have been and continue to be characterized as fundamentalists with great frequency. Indeed, it is quite possible that in contemporary English the term is now used more frequently to refer to Muslims than to Christians. When we hear the word today we are, I suspect, more likely to conjure up an image of a stern-faced Muslim cleric than one of William Jennings Bryan or Carl McIntire.