Faith, Power, and Violence: The Long Debate Over Religious Fundamentalism


Why won’t Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and other liberals refer to the motivations of Omar Mateen or the self-proclaimed Islamic State as “radical Islam,” or the terrorists themselves as “radical Muslim terrorists?” The question has grown into a major Republican attack against Democrats. Donald Trump described President Obama’s remarks after the Orlando shooting, stating:

People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” There’s something going on.

Obama has insisted that groups like the Islamic State and lone wolf attackers are not truly Islamic. He has referred to the group as “thugs and killers, part of a cult of death.” Secretary of State John Kerry has said the Islamic State is full of apostates. Hillary Clinton mentioned “radical Islamism” in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting, but also criticized Trump for thinking these were “magic words.” Obama also dismissed the phrase as “a talking point,” remarking in an interview that his choice not to say “radical Islam” was simply tactical to avoid surrendering “the mantle of Islam” to extremist groups.

This back-and-forth over terminology can appear exceedingly banal, but understanding what fuels religious extremism and violence can also have major policy implications. Whether they are cognizant of it or not, politicians on both sides reflect a longstanding American disagreement over the nature of religious extremism.

Since the term “fundamentalism” first emerged in the 1920s, both academics and policymakers have cast about far and wide to explain its origins and underlying motivations. Many academics, especially scholars of Islam, have lamented the conflation of terrorism, fundamentalism, and radical Islam. Nevertheless, in the broader American discussion, these conflations have produced two distinct schools of thought.

Comparativists have sought to define fundamentalism as a reaction to modernity rooted in socioeconomic forces — religious and theological language has been treated as a cloak for baser anxieties sparked by modern global processes. Comparativists have emphasized fundamentalist behavior over belief, and they are concerned with the strategic problem of how speaking about Islam in the West affects Muslim opinion globally.

Particularists, on the other hand, have taken up key assumptions of the fundamentalists themselves: fundamentalism is primarily about religious commitments. Particularists have explained fundamentalism in terms of particular religious developments. They have regarded fundamentalists as authentic, even orthodox, outgrowths of religious traditions. Along these lines, Newt Gingrich has gone so far as to suggests that any Muslim in the United States who “believes in Sharia” should be deported, based on the idea that violent radicalism is inherent in Islam. For the particularist, clearly defining the threat of “radical Islam” is more important than accommodating potential Muslim allies.

As American politics have polarized, so too have interpretations of “radical Islam.” The debate over what to call violence perpetrated by Muslims in the name of their religion is an extension of the same basic disagreement between liberals and conservatives over abortion or gay marriage. When crafting and explaining policy, liberals (and comparativists) treat socioeconomic factors as the base structural level of concern, while conservatives (and particularists) privilege religio-cultural factors in the same way. While the two are not mutually exclusive, in practical terms, the privileging of one over the other has produced widely different understandings of the world.

These competing camps have shaped American debates over U.S. policy, especially after September 11, 2001. The Bush administration prosecuted the War on Terror based on a particularist-leaning worldview. Conversely, the Obama administration has rejected particularism in favor of a comparativist interpretation of religious extremism. Other countries, including France, have had similar debates with similar levels of rancor. Since the 1920s, as the long debate over fundamentalism and extremism has traveled from religious to academic to policy circles, it has taken on new forms with new and often surprising consequences. A genealogy of this debate not only outlines its contours, but offers some tentative suggestions on how to redirect it toward more constructive uses.

The Comparativists and Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism first appeared in the English lexicon as the name for a movement of American Protestants who rejected theological modernism. Coined by a Baptist in 1920, “fundamentalism” intended to bridge organizational and theological divides among conservative Protestants to present a united front against liberals. Fundamentalists initially regarded the term as a badge of honor. Outsiders, on the other hand, turned it into a pejorative designation for anti-modern militants. “The fundamentalist mind” soon became a regular whipping boy of progressives, liberal Protestants, academics, and even some fellow conservatives.

These anti-fundamentalist observers pioneered the comparativist pattern of flattening theological context and depicting fundamentalists, in anthropologist Susan Harding’s terms, as “the cultural other,” or an “internally orientalized” group against which to gauge the progress of American society. As this understanding crystalized, fundamentalists represented the worst of American culture: when a segment of white Americans failed to embrace modernity. The fundamentalist, according to historian Richard Hofstadter in his Pulitzer-prize winning Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1964), possessed a “generically prejudiced mind” that exhibited paranoia, intolerance, and fanaticism — “more accurately, I believe, [the fundamentalist] is quite literally out of this world.”

Even in the early and mid-20th century, this basic difference exposed two sides of an evolving debate between fundamentalists and their liberal critics over the nature of fundamentalist protest: fervent belief in religious orthodoxy or rejection of modern social and cultural norms. Contrary to the hopes and expectations of Hofstadter and other critics, fundamentalism in America would continue to thrive even amid the secularization of American society. As Ernest Sandeen observed insightfully in 1970, the two sides of this debate developed a “symbiotic relationship.” The limits of secular society created openings for religious movements, which then spurred anti-fundamentalists to continue the project of modernity.

Two developments in the 1970s reinforced this symbiotic relationship and create a crisis in understanding fundamentalism. First, a new coalition of self-described fundamentalists banded together as part of a new religious right and stormed the American political stage. Millions of voters, led by the self-described fundamentalist Jerry Falwell, endorsed a Christian political program in the 1980 elections.

A second development added to liberal anxiety. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran at the crest of the Iranian Revolution. By 1980, Khomeini had ushered in an authoritarian theocratic regime as a replacement to Reza Shah’s secular dictatorship. Khomeini’s new regime, which enacted a constitution based on Islamic law, had reversed a trend toward secular modernization in the Middle East that scholars had claimed for decades was well under way.

Thus, a comparativist interpretation of fundamentalism emerged as a useful tool to understand the rise of reactionary movements at home and abroad. Academics and journalists thought it a boon, in the words of Chicago Divinity School professor Martin Marty, to find “in Falwell…the echoes of Iranian militants.” In one of the more inclusive lists of fundamentalist threats liberals cobbled together, The Christian Century’s John Scanzoni grouped Khomenei, the new conservative Pope John Paul II, and the Marxist regime in China with American fundamentalist Francis Schaeffer’s anti-abortion rallies.

Flattening theological differences and focusing on social factors such as societal disruption, alienation, and urbanization became the heart of comparativist analysis of fundamentalism. By “emptying the term of its culture-specific and tradition-specific content and context,” as Marty wrote, Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, for example, could help explain Christian fundamentalism closer to home. With generalizable forces, comparativists could study “fundamentalism as a social phenomenon.”

Moreover, comparativists feared that fundamentalism would destroy in the cosmopolitan West its culture of “humanism”: the values of tolerance, open dialogue, and “urgent civility.” To his fellow “academic humanists,” Marty offered a long-term plan:

If “the fundamentalists are coming,” it is important, this time, to understand both their grievances and their impulses. Some reconnaissance, to determine who is in their camp and who is not, is strategically wise.

Investigating such a global fundamentalist “camp” could only be accomplished by consolidating academic energies. Starting in the mid-1980s, the MacArthur Foundation and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences sponsored a broad-ranging research project under Marty’s leadership. The Fundamentalism Project took shape as a public policy effort and academic endeavor. By 1995, the Fundamentalism Project had published five massive volumes categorizing worldwide fundamentalism.

The tension between comparable factors of fundamentalism and particular examples was born out in the final volume. The project concluded with a dizzying nine “properties of fundamentalism” that all fundamentalists tended to hold. Five properties were ideological: “reactivity to the marginalization of religion,” “selectivity,” “moral Manicheanism,” “absolutism and inerrancy,” and “millennialism and messianism.” The other four were organizational: “elect, chosen membership,” “sharp boundaries,” “authoritarian organization,” and “behavioral requirements.” In other words, fundamentalism was a “religiopolitical style” or a “religion in political guise,” not a natural development of religious tradition, but a backlash provoked by modernization.

Along with the Fundamentalism Project, a deluge of scholarship on global fundamentalism gave shape to the comparativist school of fundamentalist research in the 1980s, including major works from Bruce Lawrence, Yousef Choureiri, Jeffrey Hadden, and Anson Shupe. The nature of fundamentalism had solidified for an entire class of academics, policymakers, and politicians: Fundamentalism was a chiefly sociological phenomenon.

The Particularists and Fundamentalism

While the comparativist model grew increasingly influential, it did not go unchallenged. Especially in the work of Bernard Lewis, Islamic fundamentalism became an outgrowth of Islamic tradition. Lewis lent credibility to the particularist claim that fundamentalism was chiefly a theological movement with the goal to realign modernity to the core tenets of orthodox Muslim faith. And this claim was endorsed by fundamentalists themselves. In the 1990s, this academic divergence between Lewis’s particularism and comparativists would have significant political consequences.

Lewis only gradually, and with reservations, entered the fray over defining fundamentalism. His evolving reflections on fundamentalism over his long career reveal his initial skepticism about its use. As he wrote in 1988, for example, “The use of this term is established and must be accepted, but it remains unfortunate and can be misleading. ‘Fundamentalist’ is a Christian term.” In Islam and the West (1994), Lewis lamented that scholars overused the term on “radical popular movements, commonly if inaccurately called fundamentalist.” Even when endorsing its use, he accompanied the term with disclaimers like “what has been commonly called ‘fundamentalist’” and “what is sometimes called fundamentalism.”

Lewis’s unease is hard to remember because he became so closely associated with the term in the 1990s, especially in his pivotal 1990 article in the Atlantic Monthly, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” which has become a controversial document in the story of Islamic fundamentalism’s entrance into the American lexicon.

In this article, Lewis integrated Islamic fundamentalism into his larger argument about a clash of civilizations. He claimed that Islamic fundamentalism gave “an aim and a form to the otherwise aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses.” Thus, Lewis gave credence to the understanding of Islam as engaged in a theological struggle against the West. Fundamentalism was not a perversion of Islam, but a focused movement within the faith to confront the West.

Yet the term still bothered Lewis. In the 1980s, he had written that in its original definition, “all Muslims, in their attitude to the text in the Quran, are at least in principle fundamentalist.” This, of course, would make the term useless and also shift the very meaning of Islam to include an essential relation between Muslims and their sacred text. However, Lewis’s conclusion revealed how he related the term to the tenets of Islam.

Lewis helped catapult Islamic fundamentalism to the top of political buzzwords in the 1990s. He was crucial in challenging the Fundamentalism Project and other comparativist studies that treated fundamentalism as an aberration in religious development or a distorted reaction to modernity. While the Fundamentalism Project treated Islamic fundamentalism as a threatening manifestation of a more global phenomenon, Lewis particularized it and identified its unique role in Islamic history and societies. For Lewis, fundamentalism was an essential component of modern Islam — an Islam indelibly imprinted on by Western technological advances and Christian expansion.

Lewis’s particularistic interpretation – providing a robust role for Islam in explaining Islamic fundamentalism – attracted its own set of scholars including Fouad Ajami and Martin Kramer. Ajami and Kramer were both students of Lewis, who spent his career at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and Princeton University. For Lewis’s branch of students and likeminded scholars, Islamic fundamentalism was rooted in Islamic belief and connected to the teachings of the Quran. With this interpretation, fundamentalism had come full circle to denote a specific historical and theological movement. Set alongside the simultaneous movement of comparativist interpretations, by the mid-1990s both particularist and comparativist schools offered full-fledged explanations for the rise of religious extremism and violence in the Middle East.

Fundamentalism and American Power

The academic development of comparativist and particularist interpretations of fundamentalism played a large role in the conceptualization of American foreign policy after the Cold War. Thinkers in the 1990s popularized fundamentalism among the policymaking class. In the cases of Benjamin Barber, Francis Fukuyama, and Samuel Huntington, we can begin to see the fault lines of the contemporary debate over the “Islamic” qualities of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Political theorist Benjamin Barber was deeply indebted to the comparativist model in his blockbuster McWorld vs. Jihad (1996). Revealing the prominence of the Islamic case even in comparativist literature, Barber used the term jihad as shorthand for fundamentalism. What the fundamentalist hated was the corrosive effects of secularization as a by-product of modernization. Radicalism and militancy stemmed from a recognition that it was not war or even empire that chiefly threatened the fundamentalist’s way of life, but McWorld’s capitalistic economic penetration. Thus, Barber’s “American Jihad” consisted not of organized movements or violence as existed in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, but of “groups like Gospel Gangstas and A-1 SWIFT,” two Christian rock bands that mixed violent lyrics with calls for salvation. In making these tenuous connections, Barber revealed his sociological criterion of violence and anti-modernism as the sine qua non of fundamentalism.

Francis Fukuyama, the controversial political scientist, also developed a comparativist model in the 1990s, though one that he would modify in later writings. In his article and book, The End of History and the Last Man (1992), Fukuyama posited that the end of the Cold War signaled the end of global ideological confrontations over the organization of human society. He understood religious fundamentalism as a necessary reaction to the development of liberal democracies, terming it a “totalizing religion” of protest that he compared to fascism. As in the case of European fascism, “it is no surprise that the fundamentalist revival hit the most apparently modern countries the hardest, for it was they whose traditional cultures had been most thoroughly threatened by the import of Western values.” Also eliding theological or religious content for sociological forces, Fukuyama shared the comparativist preference for this type of explanation.

Yet Fukuyama, like Lewis, saw in Islamic fundamentalism a particularly threatening expression of anti-liberalism. “In the contemporary world only Islam has offered a theocratic state as a political alternative to both liberalism and communism,” he wrote in his original 1989 article. While policymakers like Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz would actualize this threat in a way Fukuyama later disavowed, the seeds of special policy attention to the Muslim world were already present in Fukuyama’s and even Barber’s writings.

Samuel Huntington — contra Barber and Fukuyama — drew more inspiration from particularist conceptions of fundamentalism in formulating his controversial but popular thesis in his article and book, The Clash of Civilizations (1996). The title, borrowed directly from Bernard Lewis, encapsulated the thesis that competing civilizational-cultural units would define the post-Cold War order. “Civilizations are the ultimate human tribes, and the clash of civilizations is tribal conflict on a global scale,” he summarized. With conflict inevitable, irreducibly “Western” and “Islamic” civilizations preoccupied Huntington’s analysis, the West representing the spread of universal rights and Islam representing the threat of a universal religion. He argued that Islamic fundamentalists were the crest of a global-wide “Religious Resurgence.” While theoretically comparativist, this was a practically particularist reading of Islamic civilization. Like Lewis, Huntington rejected the notion that Islamic fundamentalists were “perverting” their religion. The aim of the fundamentalists was “no longer to modernize Islam but to ‘Islamicize modernity.’”

These competing comparitivist and particularist interpretations of fundamentalism have intersected the policymaking apparatus in haphazard ways. The events of September 11, 2001 brought them to the forefront of national concern.

The Current Dilemma

Since 9/11, the United States has become more entangled than ever with the Muslim world, waging a War on Terror that has specifically targeted Muslims beginning with Osama bin Laden. Comparativist and particularist understandings have continued to inform American policy. While the Bush administration gravitated toward a particularist model, the Obama administration has leaned heavily on comparativist concepts. These moves are not surprising; we can see the roots of the particularist-conservative and comparativist-liberal polarization even in the original reaction to Protestant fundamentalism.

The 9/11 Commission Report set the tone for the 2000s when it framed the ideology of the attacks in chiefly religious terms, explaining that “[p]eriodically, the Islamic world has seen surges of what, for want of a better term, is often labeled ‘fundamentalism.’” Osama bin Laden and other fundamentalists, it went on to describe, “have appealed for a return to observance of the literal teachings of the Qur’an and Hadith.” This particularistic interpretation prioritized theological factors in explaining the 9/11 attacks, and was reinforced by the popularity of Bernard Lewis among the Bush administration’s key policymakers. Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle all cited Lewis as an intellectual influence. More broadly, the conservative milieu of the Bush administration predisposed it to interpret terrorism in religious and ideological terms.

But for all of the influence of particularism in the Bush years, comparativism did not disappear, just as it never disappeared entirely from Lewis’s own writings. George W. Bush himself often sought publicly to make distinctions between violent Islamic ideology and the Muslim world, a distinctively comparativist concern that belied the problem of public diplomacy in the War on Terror.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has privileged a comparativist interpretation and strategy toward “radical Islam.” Modifiers such as “radical” and “extremist” reveal how the entire conversation around religious fundamentalism has become more nuanced. “The goal is not to force a Huntington template onto this conflict,” CIA director John Brennan said in a recent interview. A major tactic in the administration’s battle against the Islamic State has been to delegitimize the movement by secularizing it or by attributing its actions to non-Islamic factors. This is, ultimately, comparativism as a weapon — as a defense of the liberal humanism that first sparked the comparativist impulse in the 1920s.

The Obama years have also not entirely escaped their conceptual rival. Graeme Wood, writing for the Atlantic Monthly in 2015, judged the Islamic State was not only a product of Islam, but “Very Islamic.” He explained, “Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers… But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.” A more hardnosed analysis such as that of Daniel Pipes also straddles the interpretive line. While Pipes has worked in Republican administrations and become one of the primary targets of critics of “Islamophobia,” his distinction between Islamism (an ideology) and Islam (a religious and cultural tradition), which predates 9/11, has been adopted by policymakers across the political spectrum.

By keeping in mind the long debate over fundamentalism, two guiding principles for the future stand out, neither of which is satisfactory to pure comparativists or particularists.

One principle is to give added weight to the self-described motivations of the actors. In many cases, this will supply a more particularist interpretation of religious extremism, as terrorists in particular usually couch their actions in terms of religious belief. Yet fundamentalists have also pointed to historical events to justify their actions — bin Laden cites not only the Quran to justify his violence, but also his understandings of security and freedom that he believes the United States has violated. A more fully rounded understanding of what motivates religious extremism — a more complete answer to “why they hate us” — is essential.

This nod to particularists should be counterbalanced with a second comparativist principle, which is to acknowledge that fundamentalists are a minority expression in every religious tradition. In other words, pure particularism over-predicts the size and scope of fundamentalist movements. This fact alone should limit the temptation by policymakers to ascribe to fundamentalists purely religious motivations, if only for strategic purposes of not alienating broad swaths of co-religionists.

Both principles must be judged in relation to the domestic pressures that will accumulate when an administration is perceived to be too particularistic (too fixated on religious identity) or too comparativist (too dismissive of religious identity).

Yet even if the next administration does strike a balance, the underlying debate between comparativists and particularists will continue. That is because the debate is only partially about U.S. policy. The history of defining fundamentalism haunts the current political climate, revealing a deep and abiding difference intimately linked to the American religious experience.


Daniel G. Hummel is a History and Public Policy Postdoctoral fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Harvard Kennedy School. He is currently writing a monograph on the growth of Christian Zionist ideology among evangelicals after 1948.

Image: Rana Ossama, CC