Even 15 years later, Richard Antoun can recall with great clarity the first time he encountered Islamic fundamentalism.
Antoun, a social anthropologist, was working in the Jordanian peasant village of Kufr al-Ma studying transnational migration and its effect on village life. He’d been in the village off and on for 25 years. He had read the Koran with the local village preacher many years before. On this particular Friday, he was confronted by several young men who insisted that because he had read Islam’s sacred text and was no longer ignorant of the path to salvation he was obligated to convert to Islam.
“I had read the Koran,” Antoun recalls. “They were worried that I was going to hell if I did not convert.”
Reflecting on the change in attitudes towards his presence in the village and at Friday services, Antoun recalled, “I suddenly realized that something had changed.”
The anecdote about events of 1986 is one of several personal observations about the nature of Islamic fundamentalism that can be found in Antoun’s latest book, Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic and Jewish Movements.
The book was released in August by AltaMira Press, a small publishing house devoted to scholarly works. But, since the September 11 attacks on the United States by Islamic fundamentalists, the work has gotten considerable academic and media attention.
Antoun had not intended to write the book. He had been working with the publisher on his transnational migration study, hoping to excite interest in getting it published. During that time, Antoun said his editor had been reading his vita and noticed that he’d taught a course on religious fundamentalism since the late 1980s. Soon he was being urged to write a book on the topic.
“I didn’t know if I could write such a book,” he said. But after writing the introduction, finding himself satisfied, he completed the project.
Fundamentalism, in Antoun’s view, is an intellectual and emotional way of looking at the world. The book explains fundamentalism as an “ideal type” and illustrates its attributes with particular groups and movements. He notes that fundamentalism is a label that is often rejected by groups that are considered fundamentalist.
“Fundamentalists are ideal types,” he said. “No one individual or group is completely fundamentalist or completely lacking in fundamentalist attitudes.”
While he sees the worldview of fundamentalists as the same across cultures, Antoun emphatically notes that the cultural content of the various brands of fundamentalism and the historical events that give rise to fundamentalism vary.
What unites fundamentalists across religious boundaries, in Antoun’s view, is their agreement on a number of broad themes. His non-inclusive set of common themes includes:
- An orientation to the modern world, both intellectually and emotionally, that focuses on and protests rapid change. Generally, fundamentalists are in the minority — the “outs” struggling against the “ins” politically.
- A literal belief in the infallibility of sacred scripture, known as scripturalism. Sacred writings are used by fundamentalists as a justification for their actions and beliefs and as a reference point for their lives.
- Their attempts at “traditioning”—the making of the scriptural accounts and ancient traditions, both real and mythic — immediately relevant to present-day events.
- Their belief in “totalism” or the taking of religion out of the worship center and into all facets of life including family life, finances, governments, schools and the arts.
- A use of activism or confronting the establishment, both religious and political, by protests — non-violent and violent.
- Their view of the world as a constant struggle between good and evil.
A process of selective modernization so that modern technology or ways of social organization (definitions of “family” and “marriage”) are adopted and adapted to fit the group’s ideals. Christian fundamentalists, for instance, are selective in the technology they adopt—embracing television and radio to their benefit, but not the Internet. Some other groups control the amount of “modern” culture they adopt through living in controlled communities that reject Western mores and cultural norms in preference for traditional dress and action.
Antoun says fundamentalists react with protest and outrage at the secularization of society and seek to undo cumulative societal changes and replace them with a purified religious institutions and ethics.
Islamic fundamentalism, which started later than its Christian or Jewish counterparts, is driven by the Western economic and cultural penetration of the Islamic world that came about during Western colonialism. It has continued and grown because the fundamentalists often see the non-colonial governments as a “change of masters” from Westerners to Westernized Muslims.
Looking at the events of September 11, Antoun notes that his perspective does not completely explain what happened with the attacks on the United States, but may help us understand the cultural background leading to the terrorist attacks.