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Strictly speaking, fundamentalist is a term applied to a subset of conservative Protestant Christians. It derives from a set of pamphlets, The Fundamentals, written in the United States shortly before the First World War, and ultimately deriving from denominational orthodoxies of the seventeenth century, and revivalist movements in America and Britain during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Among the cornerstones of Christian belief designated by The Fundamentals are the divinity of Christ, his atoning sacrifice on the cross, the Virgin Birth, and the inerrancy of the Bible interpreted in a literalistic fashion. The Fundamentals were published to shore up the faith in response to the perceived threats posed by scientific advances and other forms of cultural change.

Some more liberal Christian groups had reacted with flexibility to the discoveries of Darwin and of early biblical scholarship, reasoning that the creation narratives and other scriptural passages should be interpreted allegorically. To many conservatives, though, such revisionism was profoundly unsettling. Their hardline reaction illustrates the paradox that fundamentalism is a product of the modern era that it deplores, rather than a genuine expression of Christian tradition. For this reason the number of fundamentalists did not decline during the twentieth century in line with the spread of education and other developments. On the contrary, fundamentalist groups mutated, and tended to resist change with ever-greater vehemence. As a research document produced at the University of Chicago in 1988 put it, “fundamentalism is an approach, or set of strategies, by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their identity as a people or group by a selective retrieval of doctrines and beliefs...”. [1] Disputes over the teaching of evolution in schools, among other examples, are thus at root symptoms of a broader conflict about who gets to define a way of life.

Islamic fundamentalism

During recent decades, the fundamentalist label has increasingly been applied across the board to those – whether Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist – who are convinced of the infallibility of their world view, and liable to demonise those who disagree with them. So-called Islamic fundamentalism has received most attention, despite a problem over definitions. It stems from Wahhabism, a Saudi Arabian-based movement with an especially conservative understanding of sharia law. As historians of Islam have pointed out, however, there is no tradition of liberal or modernist interpretation of the Qur’an against which conservatives can react. The violent repudiation of the West seen in groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan is more a political matter premissed on a simple (and, to critics, highly simplistic) equation between Western power and alleged imperialism.


Author: Rupert Shortt