Religious Beliefs

Is there an Islamic fundamentalism?

Unfortunately, the term “fundamentalist” has become virtually synonymous with “Muslim” in contemporary American usage. This is unfortunate because, when applied to Muslims, “fundamentalist” has been simultaneously linked to terrorism. It is fair to say that most devout Muslims interpret their scriptures conservatively and quite literally, as do the vast majority of devout adherents to many traditions. Islamic fundamentalism is not inherently more likely to be expressed in extreme behavior than any other brand of fundamentalism. One can of course point to examples of such behavior in virtually every tradition—including the assassination of abortion providers by American Christians and the burning of Christian villagers by angry Hindu mobs in India.

Extreme and violent behavior that claims religious justification invariably has a great deal to do with predominant political and social climates in particular places and times. Non-Muslims often apply the epithet “fundamentalist” indiscriminately to widely diverse situations. For example, so-called militant fundamentalists in Algeria attempt to justify their activism on very different grounds than do, say, Shi’a factions in southern Lebanon, the Palestinian organization called Hamas, the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the revolutionary government of Iran. On the other hand, Muslim-led states whose leaders are avowedly secularist in orientation are responsible for at least as much violence against their own people than avowedly “Islamist” states. In other words, while the term fundamentalism has value in describing some religious phenomena, it has become so imprecise as to be virtually useless as a way of describing Muslims.


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