By George Yancey
November 16, 2013
Did you know that the last time I saw a Muslim fundamentalist that he was a married bachelor? That is because both Muslim fundamentalists and married bachelors are logical impossibilities. By definition if you are married then you cannot be a bachelor. Also a Muslim cannot be a fundamentalist. But while we do not hear people talk about married bachelors, because everyone recognizes that they are logical impossibilities, we consistently hear talk about Muslim fundamentalists. In my academic dreams we would hear individuals talk about Muslim fundamentalists as much as we hear them talk about married bachelors. (Okay, so I do not have big dreams).
To understand why Muslim fundamentalist is a logical impossibility we have to understand what the term fundamentalist means. Fundamentalism comes from a series of essays, edited by A. C. Dixon, in books written in the early 20th century called The Fundamentals. The major purpose of these books was to create the boundaries between what the authors perceived as true Christianity and other religious beliefs in society. The tenets in these writings (Biblical inerrancy, virgin birth, resurrection of Christ) are rooted in Protestant beliefs. Thus, to be a fundamentalist, one has to adhere to Protestant beliefs. This makes Islamic fundamentalism impossible since Muslims by definition do not have the same exact religious beliefs as Protestants. For that matter there are not Jewish fundamentalists, Mormon fundamentalists, or atheist fundamentalists either.
That I listen to non-academics misuse the term fundamentalist is not surprising. Often individuals are sloppy with their use of language. Most people do not understand the history of the concept and so it would be surprising if they did not sometimes misuse this term. But when I hear scholars of religion talk about Muslim fundamentalists, I want to tear my hair out (or would if I had hair). Such individuals should know better. It was especially frustrating for me to send in a book manuscript where I discuss the proper use of fundamentalist and a reviewer state that while I was technically correct I should just accept the common layperson use of the word. Is not part of the job of academics to correct misconceptions out in the public? Evidently not according to this reviewer.
It is useful to ask why this term has been corrupted. I can only speculate about why this corruption has occurred, but I would be naïve to not consider that certain social interests are invested in having fundamentalist misused in this particular way. It is clear that the term “fundamentalist” is being used to replace the term “extremist”. While a Muslim fundamentalist is a myth, a Muslim extremist is not. Thus individuals use the term fundamentalist when what they really mean is extremist. So the misuse of the term fundamentalist can be seen as a critique of conservative Christianity. The term fundamentalist implies that conservative Christians are at the extremes of society. Thus, talking about Muslim fundamentalists becomes a useful way to stigmatize conservative Christians.
In a society where there is evidence of a culture war and conservative Christians are on one side of that culture war, promoting the perception of them as being the same as Muslim extremists is purposeful for those who oppose conservative Christians. Linking conservative Christians to images of angry Muslims, some of who may be terrorists, provides legitimization to oppose those Christians. This is not to say that everyone who misuses the term fundamentalist intends on marginalizing conservative Christians; however, it is clear that the implications of that misuse is supportive of the idea that conservative Christians should be kept at the periphery of society. It is an idea I found among cultural progressives when conducting research on them for my book.
The way we use terms does not occur by accident. It generally occurs to reflect the social ideas of those who use the terms. If we conceptualize a culture war between cultural progressive activists and conservative religious supporters, then it makes sense that progressive activists accept interpretations of fundamentalism supporting notions that those conservative religious supporters should be marginalized. Since Christianity is the major religion in the United States, comments aimed at Christians, as opposed to those of other religions, should be especially relevant to cultural progressive activists.
As a scholar I would like to see the term fundamentalist used in a proper manner. Using words accurately is vital to communicating academic knowledge. So I will consistently encourage individuals, and especially my students, to use “Muslim extremist” instead of “Muslim fundamentalist”. But I am realistic about the chances of changing the patterns of how we speak about fundamentalism. I am also realistic that the current way this misuse serves certain social interests in ways that an accurate understanding of the term fails to do. I am tilting at windmills. But if I am going to call myself a scholar of religion, then I have to be honest about addressing such mistakes no matter who’s interest is at stake.