Wednesday, February 9, 2011


An accessible, in-depth introduction to fundamentalism can be found in Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Movements (Second Edition) by the late Richard T. Antoun. A professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Binghamton, Antoun was stabbed to death in his office in December 2009. Abdulsalam S. al-Zahrani, one of his graduate students, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. al-Zahrani's trial is set for February 22nd of this year, according to WSYR 9. In the wake of this tragedy, Antoun's work on religious studies, Middle Eastern studies, and transnational issues continue to educate readers.

Understanding Fundamentalism explores the worldview and themes at the heart of fundamentalist movements across the Abrahamic faiths. The book touches upon many influential fundamentalist persons and organizations from the 20th and 21st centuries. Antoun explores Christian fundamentalism around the globe, detailing conservative U.S. Bible colleges, right-wing groups such as Concerned Women for America, figures such as Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and Afrikaner followers of covenant theology. Islamic fundamentalist forces such as Sayyid Qutb, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic nationalist movements receive ample attention and analysis as well. Transnational forms of Islamic fundamentalism receive special attention in Understanding Fundamentalism's final chapter. Finally, Jewish fundamentalists, including ultra-orthodox Jews (haredim) and Israeli nationalists, also receive coverage, although not to the same extent as Christian and Islamic fundamentalists.

Fundamentalism is framed as an ideological rejection of and resistance against modernism and secularism. The Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, and the industrial revolution have replaced earlier religious worldviews with one of new ideas and rising expectations. Modern society, which values change over tradition and stability, is becoming increasingly pluralistic. Secular nationalism, which replaces loyalty to one's religious tradition with loyalty to the state, chafes those who see faith as supreme. Finally, colonialism and its aftermath, the rise of global superpowers (overshadowing other nations less able to compete economically and militarily), and the gap between rich and poor have resulted in feelings of marginalization and disempowerment among many people. Dizzying social change, displacement of religion from the center of society, and a sense of marginalization all fuel the passion of fundamentalists.

Antoun identifies several common characteristics of fundamentalism across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: (1) scriptural inerrancy, (2) a search for "purity" in an "impure" world, (3) "traditioning," or treating ancient events and ideas as relevant to contemporary life, (4) totalism, or extending the reach of religion into all aspects of life, (5) activism against established institutions, (6) framing life as a struggle between good and evil, (7) selective modernization, and (8) controlled acculturation. Many of these traits reflect a longing for certainty and stability, which fundamentalist feel are lacking in our ever-changing, pluralistic world.

I found Antoun's discussion of selective modernization and controlled acculturation particularly interesting. Selective modernization is a phenomenon whereby a group accepts certain technological innovations and rejects others, which has taken fascinating forms among fundamentalists. Antoun explores ways that Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalists have embraced communication technology, for instance, to promote their goals. In the U.S. Conservative Christian television, radio, and mass publications are all examples of successful selective modernization involving mass communication technology.

Controlled enculturation involves accepting a practice or idea from an outside culture and integrating it into one's belief system. U.S. Christian fundamentalist have successfully practiced controlled enculturation, Antoun observes, through the use of political parties, recreation, and contemporary worship formats. These phenomena are a reminder that fundamentalism rejects certain aspects of modernity while embracing others for its benefit.

Antoun claims that fundamentalism is an oppositional movement of the minority, a protest from people who lack political power, a claim I disagree with. While fundamentalism may be rooted in political marginalization in other countries, Christian fundamentalism has a strong presence in American politics and constitutes a sizable subculture in the U.S. I would rework Antoun's idea, arguing instead that while some Christian fundamentalists in America may claim to be marginalized, they are neither powerless nor small in number.

In conclusion, Understanding Fundamentalism identifies common themes and motivations that undergird fundamentalism, fueled by cultural, political, and economic changes in our evolving world. I recommend Antoun's book as a good introductory resource on religious fundamentalism.

To read excerpts of the second edition of Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Movements, click here.

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