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VCU Menorah Review Winter 2004
Number 60
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic and Jewish Movements by Richard T. Antoun
Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press

A Review Essay by Peter J. Haas

The term “fundamentalism” comes from a series of pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth published between 1910 and 1915. The point of the pamphlets was to counter the advance of modernism and liberal theology that were seen by conservatives as overtaking American Christianity at the turn of the century. By now, nearly 100 years later, the term has moved beyond its historical meaning and has become a generalized term with a much broader, and much less clearly defined, meaning. It is used, almost promiscuously, as a general description of movements of any type, Western or Eastern, that use religious language, rhetoric and imagery as part of their protest against the prevailing political and/or social reality of their situation. So we talk of Christian fundamentalists in North America in connection with advocating, say, prayer in the public schools; Jewish fundamentalists in Israel in connection with demands that major thoroughfares be closed on the Sabbath; Islamic fundamentalists in connection with sending suicide bombers into Israel; and even Hindu fundamentalists in connection with battling Muslims in India regarding who controls certain sacred ground. It seems to me that it is still an open question as to whether or not all these diverse events really share some common feature that legitimates their all being gathered under the label of “fundamentalism.” But the unquestioned assumption of the book before us is that all of these are indeed instances of “fundamentalism” and that they do share some feature, or rather set of features, in common. The book sets out to identify what that shared set of features might be.

The book, to my mind, fails at some foundational level. The reason is that the author, an anthropologist who did some field work in a Jordanian village, too often lets description, even some fairly thick description, substitute for explanation. This is not to diminish the importance of his descriptive work. Antoun has a good anthropological eye and he does help us see the inner dynamics of many of his encounters, whether with a village preacher in Jordan, a teacher at Bethany Baptist Academy in America, Afrikaner celebrants of the Day of the Covenant in South Africa or the life of a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel. What is lacking is any deeper analysis as to what these diverse descriptions might be pointing to at a more rudimentary level and any discussion of what deeper structural or semiotic features they share under the surface.

This is not to say the book is without any methodological foundation. In his Introduction, Antoun, in good anthropological practice, tells us a good bit about himself and so his possible biases and innate perspectives. He also introduces us briefly to five different theories or postulates about the nature of “fundamentalism” that will serve as the scaffold for his own study. These five approaches are: (1) Henry Munson’s claim that fundamentalism is a world view of being on God’s side, a conclusion based on Munson’s archaeological fieldwork in Morocco; (2) Bruce Lawrence’s observation that Muslim fundamentalist movements tend to be dominated by frustrated, often middleclass educated males; (3) A qualification on this through the sociological analysis of American Protestantism and Iranian Shiite revolutionaries done by Martin Riesebrodt, who argues for shared experiences that cross class and social lines; (4) A linkage to political activism as noted by Ian Lustick in his study of the Israel right-wing group Gush Emunim; and (5) A complex reaction to change, urbanization and modernization as noted by Daniel Levine and David Stoll in their study of the spread of Protestantism in Latin American. Antoun is not in the least interested in choosing among these alternatives. Quite the opposite, he tells us that all contain some truth and that every instance of fundamentalism includes one, and usually several, of these characteristics.

Before moving on, it needs to be noted that even to bring these five views together in conversation is to make two big assumptions. One is, as we have already noted, that they are all talking about the same “thing,” namely “fundamentalism.” The other assumption is that these five views are on the same methodological plane; that is, that by juxtaposing them we are comparing apples to apples and not apples to oranges or even to bicycles. These assumptions are never stated, let alone argued for. In fact, no case is made for why just these five approaches and not, say, only three of them or why others are left out. Instead, the book proceeds simply to assume these five and, in each of the next five chapters, takes one as its central motif. In each case, the approach is not examined or analyzed but is taken pretty much at face value. The chapter fleshes it out through anecdotal illustrations. As noted above, many of the descriptions and cross religious comparisons are interesting, even compelling, but there is no methodological depth to their application, no investigation as to how, or to what extent or in what way, each illustrates, qualifies or reshapes the paradigm under consideration. The facts, as they are presented, are allowed to speak for themselves. Nor is there any attempt at the end of each chapter to draw conclusions about either the paradigm or its application in the real world. The end result is a book of thematic anthropological descriptions and little else. We learn nothing new about the five models, how they apply or how Antoun’s observations give them new form, quality or depth.

The book does serve another, more modest yet still important, function, insofar as it gets us to think of diverse religious actions and modes of rhetoric as somehow related to this general post-modern phenomenon we have come to label “fundamentalism.” It does point in the direction of a conclusion that what appear to be diverse sorts of religious conflicts may in fact share some features that legitimately can be understood, or partially understood, in terms of the other. (Whether “fundamentalism” is an apt term for this commonality is another question entirely.) For students, the book can well serve as a launching pad for a discussion of what fundamentalism might or might not be. And it helps place some of the religious violence in Israel, Ireland and India into a more understandable common framework, showing that they all bear some structural, or at least anthropological, similarities to religious patterns closer to home with which we are more familiar, say in Indianapolis. With its readable style and wealth of real-life descriptions, this book can be a good tool for students. It is just that for scholars looking to understand fundamentalism on a more theoretical level, this is not the book.

Peter J. Haas holds the Abba Hillel Silver Chair of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University, and is a contributing editor.

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