National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Winter Books
Issue Date:  October 10, 2003

By Gabriel A. Almond, R. Scott Appleby and Emmanuel Sivan
University of Chicago Press, 281 pages, $19
World fundamentalism examined

An 'enclave culture' spawns a worldwide movement that is here to stay

Reviewed by WAYNE A. HOLST

Close to a decade ago, Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby were putting the finishing touches on a penetrating study known as the Fundamentalism Project (1988-96). Five resulting volumes were published by the University of Chicago Press. This interdisciplinary effort, sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, engaged scholars worldwide and offered a global assessment of the nature of fundamentalism in the 20th century. It provided timely wisdom when misinformation and misunderstanding were already fomenting national and international conflict.

The project leader’s summary volume was titled Fundamentalisms Comprehended (1995). It concluded with essays by R. Scott Appleby, Emmanuel Sivan, and the late Gabriel Almond (the current book’s authors) that evaluated the entire project, providing an explanatory framework for understanding and comparing fundamentalisms around the world.

Contemporary realities beg the question: What did they find out then that has the staying power to help us engage an even larger, more foreboding fundamentalist threat?

Strong Religion ably answers this and other questions. Essentially, it is a revised, updated version of the original study and offers help, even encouragement, in our current struggles.

To that end, the book pulls no punches. “Fundamentalism,” it begins, “is one of the most significant political phenomena of our time.” While the term was originally used to describe a conservative “back to the biblical basics” 1920s movement within American Protestantism, fundamentalism is now pan-religious and universal in scope and influence.

“We call our book Strong Religion,” say the authors, “because these movements are militant and highly focused antagonists of secularization. They call a halt to the centuries-long retreat of the religious establishments before the secular power. They follow the rule of offense being better than defense, and they often include the extreme option of violence and death. We intend the notion of ‘strength’ to suggest that these are the movements to reckon with seriously.”

Perhaps ironically, the authors state, “fundamentalism” is now used more often to refer to Islamist, not Christian, movements of varying size, shape, social and ethnic composition.

Sound, multifaceted perspectives and principles are needed to understand and deal with these multidimensional phenomena. The book seeks to address local, regional and global contexts that spawn fundamentalist movements. It investigates the triggers and common characteristics of these movements. It proposes viable strategies based on good research that, it is to be hoped, will facilitate a better rapprochement with mainstream politics and religion.

An opening chapter on the “enclave culture” describes the nature of fundamentalism. Another on genus and species defines nine of its ideological and organizational characteristics using such definitions as reactive, absolutist, millennial and authoritarian. Twenty specific case studies -- “pure,” “synergistic” and “marginal” examples from around the world and differing religious traditions -- are presented. These are compared and contrasted to locate parallel agendas and behavior patterns.

Chapter 4 posits four fundamentalist orientations to the world. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorists are de-scribed as a “world conqueror” movement. American Protestant fundamentalism represents “world transformation.” Based on their own self-definitions, Lubavicher Hasidic Judaism and the Lefebvrist Catholics of France are portrayed respectively as “world creating” and “world renewing.” A helpful table in the appendix shows dominant and evolving patterns over time of all 20 of the studied cases. The resulting model is tested with respect to politics, ethnicity and strategy as well as religion.

The most intriguing chapter of all, the last one, envisions the evolution of fundamentalisms in the future. The authors are provocative in their views about how fundamentalism will cope with developments in science, democratization and globalization. Does the terrorism of Sept. 11 represent a new long-term trend, they wonder, or a quirk in the evolution of fundamentalism?

Hot-button issues related to Islamic fundamentalisms are addressed forthrightly. The book proposes that the key Islamic grievance is not against America per se, but against corrupt and godless Islamic national leaders who have sold their souls to Western values. The majority of Islamic religious leaders, the book contends, do not consider bin Laden spiritually authoritative.

The supposed “clash of civilizations” between Christian and Muslim states is more accurately a conflict between moderates and fundamentalists within Islamic cultures themselves. Many radical Islamic fundamentalists, the book advises, are not traditionalists at all, but rather “innovative manipulators” who seek to justify and prove authentic their violent motives.

The best way to thwart the future spread of fundamentalism in Islamic lands, the book concludes, is to implement economic reforms that result in more equal distribution of wealth for the masses and more equitable engagement in political decision-making.

Fundamentalism will certainly survive well into the 21st century. We may hope that a wiser world will help potential recruits to consider other means than violence as a way of giving vent to their oft-valid concerns.

Otherwise, non-fundamentalist pastors, educators, politicians, diplomats and scientists will ignore the plight of the terrorists to their peril.

Wayne A. Holst is a writer and educator who has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary in Canada.

National Catholic Reporter, October 10, 2003

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