Definition of Fundamentalism

From: The Fundamentalism Project: Fundamentalisms and Society, Edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, 1993. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. (pp. 3-4)

Religious fundamentalism has appeared in the twentieth century as a tendency, a habit of mind, found within religious communities and paradigmatically embodied in certain representative individuals and movements. It manifests itself as a strategy, or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or group. Feeling this identity to be at risk in the contemporary era, these believers fortify it by a selective retrieval of doctrines, beliefs, and practices from a sacred past. These retrieved "fundamentals" are refined, modified, and sanctioned in a spirit of pragmatism: they are to serve as a bulwark against the encroachment of outsiders who threaten to draw the believers into a syncretistic, areligious, or irreligious cultural milieu. Moreover, fundamentalists present the retrieved fundamentals alongside unprecedented claims and doctrinal innovations. These innovations and supporting doctrines lend the retrieved and updated fundamentals an urgency and charismatic intensity reminiscent of the religious experiences that originally forged communal identity.

In this sense contemporary fundamentalism is at once both derivative and vitally original. In the effort to reclaim the efficacy of religious life, fundamentalists have much in common with other religious revivalists of past centuries. But fundamentalism intends neither an artificial imposition of archaic practices and lifestyles nor a simple return to a golden era, a sacred past, a bygone time of origins --although nostalgia for such an era is a hallmark of fundamentalist rhetoric. Instead, religious identity thus renewed becomes the exclusive and absolute basis for a re-created political and social order that is oriented to the future rather than the past. Selecting elements of tradition and modernity, fundamentalists seek to remake the world in the service of a dual commitment to the unfolding eschatological drama (by returning all things in submission to the divine) and to self-preservation (by neutralizing the threatening "Other"). Such an endeavor often requires charismatic and authoritarian leadership, depends upon a disciplined inner core of adherents, and promotes a rigorous sociomoral code for all followers. Boundaries are set, the enemy identified, converts sought, and institutions created and sustained in pursuit of a comprehensive reconstruction of society.

"Society" is understood here as the relationships among human beings as characterized by "the values [these relationships] embody, the individual and collective motivations they encourage, the incentives they inspire and sanction, and the ideals by which belief, attitude, and behavior are established and secured." In accord with this general definition, the authors of the present volume pay special attention to the "values, motivations, incentives, and ideals" that guide fundamentalists in protecting and ordering the intimate zones of life. How best is one to marry, conduct sexual relations, order family life, raise children? How best is one to understand and teach others about creation and procreation, providence and scientific evidence, morality and spirituality? These perennial questions have generated religiolegal rulings, moral and behavioral codes, and scores of leaned treatises by fundamentalist scholars and educators intent on sustaining, re-creating, or fortifying a religious enclave within a larger society that is perceived as invasive and threatening.

Because fundamentalists often live in close proximity to nonfundamentalists-or to fundamentalists of a different religious tradition--a second question is inevitably raised when one examines "fundamentalist impact," as each author in this volume does. The observer must ask not only "How effective have fundamentalist movements been in influencing their own adherents?" but also "How much impact have they exercised in the lives of nonfundamentalists?'' Inevitably this second question leads to a consideration of the fundamentalist social reformer's relationship to the "state," understood here as "the supreme public power within a sovereign political entity."

Fundamentalists are boundary-setters: they excel in marking themselves off from others by distinctive dress, customs, and conduct. But they are also, in most cases, eager to expand their borders by attracting outsiders who will honor fundamentalist norms or by requiring that nonfundamentalists observe fundamentalist codes. The state is the final arbiter of boundary disputes within its borders. In cases in which the state is "fundamentalist" (Iran, Sudan) or has been influenced by fundamentalist sociopolitical agendas (Pakistan, Egypt, India, and Israel), the fundamentalism of the enclave is encouraged or even empowered to spill over its natural boundaries and permeate the larger society. The impact in these instances is of a different order than in a society which successfully marginalizes fundamentalists within it, as does the scientific establishment in the United States or the political establishment in Japan.

By dividing this extensive study of"fundamentalist impact" into two volumes labeled "state" and "society," we do not mean to imply that the two realms are distinct one from the other; rather, they overlap and interact in complex ways. Because the stare regulates many aspects of social existence and establishes the basic political and cultural conditions within which social life occurs, fundamentalists inevitably become involved in modern political life, even when they attempt to preserve their separateness (as in the case of the haredi Jews profiled by Michael Rosenak). In so doing they participate in a common discourse about modernization, development, political structures, and economic planning--a point made in Majid Tchranian's introduction to part 3 of this volume, which is devoted to an examination of fundamentalist educational systems. Fundamentalists may nuance and modify the terms of that discourse-- they may successfully or unsuccessfully try to redirect or reinvent aspects of it--but they are contained within it and find any hope of even a partial return to a pristine premodern world, much less the construction of a purely Islamic or Christian or Jewish modern society or polity, well out of reach.

When they play politics to influence the policies of the state, fundamentalisms are thus necessarily involved in some measure of compromise and accommodation. Political involvement may alter the original exclusivist, dogmatic, and confrontational mode of the fundamentalist to such a degree that the word "fundamentalism" may no longer seem to apply. In the attempts to create alternative social and educational in situations, however, the arena of fundamentalist concern is more narrowly circumscribed for maximum effect and minimum compromise. Authors of Fundamentalism and Society use words like "pramatist" or "accommodationist" to describe their subjects less frequently than do authors of Fundamentalisms and the State. The authors of Fundamentalisms and Society discuss fundamentalist strategies designed to challenge the state selectively rather than to destroy or remake it through the proximate means of a national election, a coup, or a popular revolution. In all of the cases examined in this volume, an intense preoccupation of fundamentalists with individual conduct and interpersonal relations has had significant consequences for women in their relationship to men and to children, and for children in terms of their education and upbringing. The chapters in this volume on women, family, and education document intense and persistent efforts on the part of fundamentalists to secure what they describe as a traditional social and religious order.

Indeed, with a few important exceptions, fundamentalists have expended the greater portion of their energies, and have enjoyed the greater success, in reclaiming the intimate zones of life in their own religious communities than in remaking the political or economic order according to the revealed norms of the traditional religion. - The essays in this volume suggest a number of explanations for this pattern.

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