The Fundamentalism Project, directed by Martin Marty and Scott Appleby of the University of Chicago, has produced a three-volume study of politicized religion in the twentieth century. Fundamentalisms Observed, Fundamentalisms and Society and Fundamentalisms and the State collect articles by international scholars from a wide range of disciplines. The contributing authors analyze conservative politico-religious movements in their respective areas of expertise, including the Americas, the Middle East, South and Far East Asia. The project is also accompanied by a three-part PBS/NPR series and its companion volume, The Glory and the Power, which targets a broader audience. Three additional volumes are projected.

This ambitious study seeks to thematize a wide range of movements that would appear quite disparate. Its greatest strength lies in placing movements from all major religious traditions under the same scrutiny. This review focuses on the way the project’s larger arguments adhere in case studies of Islamist politics. [1]

This analysis of Islamism, and religion more generally, is consistent with the assumptions of theories of modernization that regard religion as antithetical to the development of democratic, modern societies. Islamism and other politico-religious movements are considered to stand outside of modernity, opportunistically using its achievements but inherently inimical to its logic and development.

This conception of religion allows the authors to analyze a wide range of movements through the single category of “fundamentalism,” thereby reducing heterogeneous religio-political thought and action to a substratum of religious dogmatism and political conservatism. This study also omits the crucial roles that geopolitics and the forces of international capital have played in creating the contemporary dynamism of religio-politics.

Marty and Appleby define the term fundamentalism, and all the contributors, with slight variations, abide by these parameters. The editors, well aware of the historical specificity of this term, apply it “whether members of a given group like it or not, to a certain kind of intentionally disruptive movement that can erupt in any conservative religion, in any traditional culture.” Using terms such as “modern,” “religious,” “liberal” and “secular” in parallel ways, they argue that cross-cultural comparisons of fundamentalism allow us to empty “the term of its culture-specific and tradition-specific content and context before examining cases across the board to see if there are in fact ‘family resemblances’ among movements commonly perceived as ‘fundamentalist.’” Although the authors intend to erase the original marks of analytic categories, such concepts do not adequately delineate the phenomena they allege to capture, and their deployment is not entirely innocent.

The authors define fundamentalists as those who resist the modernist attempts to reduce religion to ideology alone, and who “attempt to provide a thoroughgoing and integrated system that does not readily yield to the compartmentalizing tendencies of the modern social sciences.” They depict five key characteristics of fundamentalists: They fight back the challenge that modernity poses to their essential identity; they strive for a changed civil polity; they employ a selective reading of a “pure past”; they oppose moderates who seek a middle ground, whether from inside or outside the group; and, finally, they fight in the name of God (or some other transcendent reference), purporting to carry out a divine purpose. The most significant characteristic of fundamentalisms is that “they are movements of resistance against liberal or ‘enlightened’ models of modern society.”

As for the post-colonial world, the contributors contend that fundamentalist movements developed “during or immediately after the colonial period organized in conscious imitation of the West.” Islamist movements represent a “delayed reaction to the psychological hegemony of European colonial rule” in the post-independence period. They are “selectively traditional and selectively modern,” appropriating Western technologies and “instrumental, if not substantive, rationality” without adopting Western ethos. One may ask whether there is any possibility, in this framework, to see modernity in non-Western cultures as anything other than derivative of a distinctly Western ethos.

Other scholars of the Middle East have argued that twentieth-century Protestant fundamentalism assumes particular relationships among clergy, scriptural interpretation and the ordinary believer that do not hold for Islam. [2] One of the project’s contributors, John Voll, points out that in the case of Egypt “if one looks at those who are actively involved in some way in the Islamic resurgence, then the number of people is in the millions and, in some respects, represents the majority of the society.” Can we reasonably categorize the majority of Egyptians as fundamentalists?

The editors and contributors claim that they are making the concept of fundamentalism transparent and non-specific by emptying it of any socio-historical specificity. In fact, this exemplifies a scholarship that utilizes European history as a privileged referent to social and political developments in the non-Western world. [3] What “should” be confined to the realm of the private — religious faith — is instead imposed and practiced in the public domain. The theme of “inadequacy and failure” in supposedly traditional societies runs through a majority of the chapters on Muslim societies. “Modernization,” says Abdulaziz Sachedina, discussing activist Shi‘ism in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, “proved unable to eradicate the social and political ills suffered by the Muslims. This failure was due in some measure to the inability of Muslim modernizers to establish adequate political institutions capable of easing the transition to technologically based society and generating a positive attitude toward the government and its development program.”

It is curious that secularism is rarely problematized as a universal ideal. After all, the relegation of religious practice to a “personal and private” sphere is a product of a historically situated eighteenth-century Christian conception of a privatized form of religion. The possibility that this notion does not necessarily explicate other systems of religious observance and social ideals at least merits investigation by scholars who espouse the liberal-humanist doctrine of religious tolerance. The experience of modernity, furthermore, has rarely been one of “tolerance, civility and reason” for large numbers of people around the world. Nowhere in these texts is this analyzed.

If the notion of modernization was to carry the burden of its colonial and neo-colonial history, then the authors would have to deal with complicated issues of international capital and Western interests in shaping the development of religio-political movements such as Islamism. In the three articles devoted to the analysis of Pakistan as a state theocracy under Gen. Zia ul Haq, there is no analysis of the US military and economic aid that supported his dictatorship and transformed Pakistan into a staging ground for “fundamentalist” Afghan guerrillas. Similarly, Olivier Roy’s article, “Afghanistan: An Islamic War of Resistance,” provides important insights into the constellation of forces in Afghanistan but downplays the US role in selecting the most fanatical of the mujahidin groups (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar&;rsquo;s Hizb-i Islami) as the prime aid beneficiary. A large number of contemporary Algerian and Egyptian militants are reported to be former US-trained mujahidin. [4] The authors’ tendency to ignore the intertwined histories of Islamism and Western interventionism reduces religio-political activists to paragons of unreason whose activities emerge in a vacuum.

The project paints disparate Islamist groups opposed to contemporary Middle East governments with the single brush of fundamentalism. Those who profess to work within the system of electoral and coalition politics (such as ‘Adil Husayn, editor of al-Sha‘b at that time, interviewed in The Power and the Glory) are considered as “fundamentalist” as the armed militants who attack civilians and government officials in Egypt.

Curiously, the Saudi and Kuwaiti monarchies are spared close scrutiny. Ann Elizabeth Mayer explicitly argues that “the official Saudi policies in the areas of law and politics can hardly be labeled ‘fundamentalist’ as long as one sticks rigorously to Marty’s categories,” as if the Saudi and Kuwaiti regimes have not fought against moderate socio-political formations inside their borders and regionally.

The conceptual contradictions exhibited by this approach to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are matched by the lack of criticism for secular regimes which annul the results of parliamentary elections (Algeria and Tunisia) and commit grave human rights abuses against Islamist (and other political) activists (Egypt among others). Suspicions about the verity of certain Islamist organizations’ stated commitment to the creation of democracy should be extended to the lack of “plurality, democracy and civility” under the secular regimes and US allies in the region.

In studies of fundamentalism in other countries, the editors distinguish between Protestant fundamentalism on the one hand and liberation theology in Latin American or the church’s role in the civil rights movement in the US on the other, on the basis of conservative versus progressive politics. It is equally important to describe the competing visions inherent in a broad-based movement such as Islamism, emerging on several continents under a wide range of political regimes. This is especially true of those strands of Islamism that are mobilizing against Western hegemony and the failure of nation-states to provide for its citizenry, so as not to yield the religious terrain to conservative forces alone.

The Fundamentalisms Project fails to interrogate many of the political and conceptual challenges posed by religio-politics in the twentieth century. It ignores the critical role that Western nation-states have played in the development of politico-religious movements, thereby reducing them to mere conservative reactionary mobilizations. The use of normative concepts derived from Western European history hinders this inquiry. Despite the rich details presented in many articles, the analysis remains shackled to arguments of modernization theory paradigms.

Author’s Note: The author would like to thank Talal Asad, Joel Beinin, Carol Delaney, Charles Hirschkind and Rich Wood for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this review essay.


[1] All four volumes are edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, Vol. I (1991), Vol. II (1993a), Vol. III (1993b), Power and Glory (1992) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).
[2] See Ervand Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993); and John Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
[3] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Provincializing Europe: Postcoloniality and the Critique of History,” Cultural Critique 6/3 (1992), p. 339.
[4] Chris Hedges, New York Times, March 12, 1993 and April 1, 1993; Robert Friedman, Sheikh Abdel Rahman, the World Trade Center and the CIA (Westfield: Open Magazine Pamphlet Series, 1993).

Correction: The review of the Fundamentalism Project criticizes the fact that the project deliberately excludes from critical consideration Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Unfortunately, our editing of the paragraph making this point leaves the suggestion that Ann Mayer, whose chapter deals with Iran, Sudan and Pakistan, shares an intent to spare from scrutiny regimes closely allied to the US, in particular Saudi Arabia. Mayer’s writings, including Islam and Human Rights (reviewed in MER 179, November-December 1992), have extensively critiqued both Saudi Arabia and US policies in these regards. We regret any implication to the contrary, and any misattribution of responsibility for the failings of the Fundamentalism Project in this regard was unintended.

How to cite this article:

Saba Mahmood "Islamism and Fundamentalism," Middle East Report 191 (November/December 1994).

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