Thursday, 10 September 2009

What is Fundamentalism?

Dan Rickman has written a piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free site entitled "Fundamentalism's flaws". A few things interested me about this article. The first was that at no point does Dan attempt to make any argument about the flaws of fundamentalism. The second is that the article itself seems to be little more than a moan about how Jews in the UK are becoming more religious and starting to believe the things that their ancestors believed for millennia.

But what was most interesting was one line in the opening paragraph:
Fundamentalism is hard to define
It's always, I think, an odd statement to say that a word is hard to define. Since words are nothing other than human constructs to convey a meaning if they were hard to define they would have little use to us. Words become hard to define only when an attempt is being made, or has been made, to change the meaning of the word or to use it for purposes other than the simple conveyance of an idea.

Thus the word "terrorist" is hard to define because its primary use is as a political tool. This is recognised by the BBC's reluctance to use the term (see their editorial guidelines). I looked at online dictionaries and found a simple definition for the term: "strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles". It carries no judgement about the truth value of those ideas or principles. It is simple and meaningful.

Dan prefers a definition based on a book by Sol Schimmel under which Orthodox Jews are defined as fundamentalists because they believe that the Torah was divinely revealed which is an "unreasonable" belief given the evidence to the contrary. Suddenly the term makes a value judgement about the truth of the beliefs.

My problem here is that the term is now drained of its meaning and is left as a simple pejorative. If a fundamentalist is someone who holds a belief which it is unreasonable to hold then calling someone a fundamentalist is no more than saying "I'm right, you're wrong but you're too stubborn to admit it!" Since the only criteria for being a fundamentalist are now that you won't accept the opinion of your interlocutor and that your opponent believes they are obviously correct both sides are entitled to call the other fundamentalist when the discussion ends without agreement.

Seemingly we can go further. If the term is used only as a pejorative to indicate ones belief that the other person is too stubborn to admit they're wrong then using the term is the verbal equivalent of stamping one's feet and storming off in a huff. Having failed to convince the other person of the truth of your own position you label him a fundamentalist and leave. It's a case of last word-manship: "I'm obviously right but he just won't accept it".

So I make this appeal - use the word correctly where appropriate and not at all where it's not. And then, Dan, you'd find that it isn't hard to define at all.


lone_voice_of_reason said...

hi my response to your comments is at

Appreciate your producing a blog post and linking back to mine - thanks for that. The "original" use of fundamentalism of course applies to 1920s Protestantism and it has gained currency in a more general context, given today's date one of course recalls the events of 8 years ago. Malise Ruthven has written about this e.g. in Fundamentalism The Search for Meaning from there "Fundamentalism, he concludes, is a problematic term that defies easy definitions". That is why I try to define my terms, given the article's length I had to be succinct!

I don't want to denigrate anyone here but I do want to discuss an issue which concerns me and others e.g. see the Samuel Heilman article and I can provide other references as well. There can be a fine line between "passive" and "active" fundamentalism and this worries me. Further the mindset of absolutism is deeply troubling in a modern pluralist environment and we need to say so.

As for the title, this was chosen by the Guardian and I like the alliteration - I hope I exposed some "flaws" in any case;-)


A Jew said...

Hi Dan, thanks for replying to my post. This is an interesting topic of discussion and a very important one since the words we use are crucial.

My original objection was that the word "fundamentalism" has a clear definition in the dictionaries and is not, itself, difficult to define. It simply means "a strict adherence to a set of beliefs and principles". You have not, I think, shown why this definition is not good.

My point is that in its true meaning it passes no judgement on the set of beliefs and principles being adhered to. I think the trouble starts when you wish to use the word to convey not only the real meaning but also some kind of moral judgement. If you want to force the word "fundamentalism" to carry with it a verdict on the target then you have problems providing a definition.

I can appreciate what is happening here, I think. We are looking for a word that will be useful for us to distinguish between one type of Muslim (in this case) and another. But fundamentalist isn't the right word. to say that Islamists are Muslim fundamentalists (as you have implied in this post here) is to suggest that a basic belief of Islam is to murder non-Muslims (at least in some situations). Thereby those who strictly adhere to this belief and carry out the murders are fundamentalists and those who don't are not strictly adhering to their religion.

This is wrong. Islamism is not Islam it is a different set of basic beliefs and principles and to call Islamists "Muslim fundamentalists" passes judgement on Islam when it shouldn't.

As I say, this is an interesting discussion topic and I hope you find the time to reply. If you like we could continue the discussion by email.

lone_voice_of_reason said...

Hi thanks for that. Fundamentalism as a term in fact originated with 1920s protestantism and has spread in usage to cover other faith traditions.

Of course, when one says "fundamentalist" nowadays one thinks of the Islamic manifestation however I stand by what I say that there is "fundamentalism" in all the major faith traditions.

I don't agree that we are looking for a word - this word has rather been thrust upon us and it is over-used - the dictionary definition doesn't help much here and we therefore need to make sense of what this could mean and whether this is a coherent concept. This is a point that is well recognised - as I mentioned Malise Ruthven and others such as Sol Schimmel have written books on this subject!

I take the point that the word fundamentalist has been pejorative - in suggesting all orthodox Jews (including myself) are "fundamentalist" this wasn't my intent and I'd suggest that you note that I put the word in quotes in that sentence deliberately - perhaps too subtle in hindsight.

My concerns regarding orthodox Jewish fundamentalism remain and I see this as an attack on modernity and enlightenment values. Fwiw, I have put an earlier version of the article on my blog which may explain better for Jewish readers what the concerns are.

I'd note as well that the situation in Israel is worse, not least because this is a place where Jews do have power and also because the orthodox generally take the view that "dina de-malkhuta dina" doesn't apply there...

Happy to continue via email - if you send me a comment on my blog you could include a suitable email address if that is ok?