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God Against The Maelstrom: Fundamentalism and Modernity.

Fundamentalism is a term that originated in the United States. Early in the 20th century, Protestant groups adopted the designation to differentiate themselves from forms of liberal Protestantism and secularists (Jones, 2010). The recent coinage of fundamentalism suggests that its development is related to modernity, and while fundamentalist movements are characterized by their commitment to traditional belief-systems, they are often highly innovative adaptations to the modern experience. In this paper, the relationship between fundamentalism and modernity will be analysed; first by elaborating the concept of modernity and then reviewing the theoretical literature on the defining characteristics of religious fundamentalism, which will be tied together with two specific case studies: Protestant fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. It will be shown that religious fundamentalism is a defensive strategy employed in response to the uncertainties and rapid shifts of modernity.

The concept of modernity is elusive and has acquired several different connotations, each contested against each other (Joyce; 1995, p. 73). It can be employed both to denote a historical period and an attitude towards history. However, Marshal Berman (1997, p. 15) defined modernity as the experience of being swept up in the maelstrom of creative destruction and continual adaptation in which, as Marx and Engels put it, “all that is solid melts into the air”. This definition of modernity highlights the fleeting and ephemeral aspects of contemporary life, which are in turn dependent upon a series of social, political and economic forces that drive the maelstrom. “The bourgeoisie cannot exist”, Marx and Engels’ (1950, p. 36) argued, “without constantly revolutionising of the instrument of production” which overturns existing relations of production and causes “disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”. Thus, in a more definitive sense, the experience of modernity is the experience of modern capitalism and its related political, social and cultural trends. In the contemporary period, it is the experience of globalization, the processes of industrialisation and deindustrialization, nation-states, secularism and the Enlightenment world-view that constitute modernity (Berman, 1997). Fundamentalism developed in response to the trends of modernization.

Fundamentalism, like the concept of modernity, has been defined by various features observed through empirical research and some convergence of understanding has been achieved. While the term was originally applied to one religious movement, within American Protestantism, it has now come to be applied to a wide range of movements across many religious traditions (Armstrong; 2009, p. 140). Fundamentalism is, according to Altemeyer and Hunsberger (1992, p. 118), defined as the belief that a religious tradition contains the absolute truth with regards to the laws of god and the rightful place of man, which have been neglected and opposed by malevolent forces that need to be combated to restore balance to the world. Hunter (1990, p. 58.) conceptualized fundamentalism as orthodoxy in conflict with modernity: modernity comprises a largely secular and sexuality infused popular culture that somewhat homogenously spread world-wide by the processes of globalization, which is culturally anathema to several religious traditions. Though, as it will be argued later, fundamentalism is both doctrinal and anti-doctrinal, fundamentalists adapt received scriptural traditions in furtherance their aims and cannot be considered strictly a form of orthodoxy. However, it can be argued that, as Hunter (1990, p. 58) continues:

‘‘All fundamentalist sects share the deep and worrisome belief that history has gone awry. What ‘went wrong’ with history is modernity in its various guises. The call of the fundamentalist, therefore is to make history right again.”

The notion that the world requires rectification is a prominent feature of North American Protestant fundamentalism that arose during a period of industrialization that displaced millions of people late 19th and early 20th century (Salzman ; 2008, p. 319). The origins of Protestant fundamentalism can be dated between 1910 and 1915 with the serial publication of twelve pamphlets, called The Fundamentals, which asserted the inerrancy of the bible and proclaimed a return to the fundamentals of faith against the influence of “higher criticism” from biblical scholarship and an opposition to the teaching of evolution and moral turpitude in the form of alcohol (Munson; 2003, p. 34). Protestant fundamentalism suffered an early defat with the Scopes Trail in 1925 and remained relatively dormant until it was revitalised during the era of stagflation and economic woe in the late 1970s with the emergence of the Jerry Farwell’s Moral Majority (Armstrong; 2009, p. 141). The perceived decline in Family values associated with the breakdown of the nuclear family and the granting of reproductive rights to women motivated a more publically visible fundamentalist movement (Munson; 2003, p. 34). Thus, in line with Marty and Appleby (1991, viii-x) conceptualization of fundamentalism, it is engaged in militant opposition to modernity: “militant, whether in the use of words and ideas or ballots or, in extreme cases bullets”.

The term “Islamic fundamentalism” has been applied to forms of Islamic ideology that developed during the early to mid-20th century in the context of Western cultural and political incursion into Middle East and repressive governments that attempted to imitate the West’s secular version of modernization (Armstrong; 2009, p. 141). The Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb, often regarded as the founder of Islamic fundamentalism, was subject to political repression as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood by Nasser’s secular regime and developed the notion that secularism and Islam were incompatible (Armstrong; 2009, p. 144). His opposition to the cultural and political influence of the West, and the repressive regimes that imitated Western modernization, lead him to expand the concept of Jahiliyya, or pre-Islamic ignorance, and redefine the duty of Muslims as opposition to jahiliyya which he applied to modernity throughout the world without distinction (Euben; 1997, p, 442). The redefinition of Jahiliyya was a major theological innovation, which demonstrates the adaptability of fundamentalist ideology, at once stridently doctrinal and implicitly anti-doctrinal (Armstrong; 2009, p. 144). Islamic fundamentalists are militant in their opposition to jahiliyya, which is equivalent to opposition to modernity en masse, which further underscores the relationship between the modernity and the rise of religious fundamentalism.

The concept of modernity, an elusive attempt to conceptualize the ephemeral and neoteric, has been defined as the experience of modern society and the economic, political and cultural trends that mark the era. Globalization, the process of economic and cultural interaction and acculturation, the processes of industrialization and deindustrialization that contribute to the maelstrom of modern capitalism have led to defensive reactions by religious groups known as fundamentalist. Fundamentalism is defined by the strong adherence to religious traditions, such a Protestant fundamentalists belief in the inerrancy of the bible and Islamic fundamentalists belief in the absolute truth of the Qur’an, and the belief that history’s proper path has been disrupted by malevolent forces that require militant opposition from true believers. Economic malaise and uncertainties conjured up by the rapidly shifting condition of modernity can accentuate the appeal of religious fundamentalism as an explanation of current woes and panacea for insecurities. But, while attached to the idea of traditional values, fundamentalists can be both doctrinal and anti-doctrinal. Sayyid Qutb’s use of the Islamic concept of Jahiliyya as the functional equivalent of modernity demonstrates this tendency. In this sense, fundamentalism is not orthodoxy in conflict with modernity: Fundamentalism is a defensive and innovative response to modernity, which attempts to arrest the maelstrom of uncertainty and rectify the world.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Altemeyer, B. and Hunsberger, B. (1992), “Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, Quest and Prejudice”, The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Vol. 2., pp. 113-133.

Armstrong, K. (2009), Islam: A Short History, London; Phoenix.

Berman, M. (1997), All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience Of Modernity, London; Verso.

Euben, R. (1997), “ Premodern, Antimodern or Postmodern? Islamic and Western Critiques of Modernity” , The Review of Politics, Vol. 59, No. 3, p.429-459.

Hunter, J.P. (1990) “Fundamentalism in its Global Contours”, N.J. Cohen (ed.), The Fundamentalist Phenomena, Michigan; William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, p. 56-72.

Joyce, P. (1995), “The End of Social History?”, Social History, Vol.20, No. 1, pp. 73-91.

Marty, M.E. and Appleby, R.S. (1991) Fundamentalism Observed, Vol. 1, Chicago; University of Chicago Press.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1950), “Manifesto of The Communist Party”, Selected Works, Vol. 1, Moscow; Foreign Languages Publishing House, pp. 33-61.

Munson, H. (2003), “‘Fundamentalism’ Ancient & Modern”, Daedalus, Vol. 132, No. 3.

Salzman, M.B. (2008), “Globalization, Religious Fundamentalism and the Need for Meaning”, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 318-327.


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