Fundamentalism versus Modernity: Contrast and Comparison between Christianity and Islam

In the aftermath of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, a new perception of Islam took shape within the U.S. in which the hostage-takers and others perceived to have terroristic intentions within Islam were called “fundamentalists.” This usage borrowed a term that had been appropriated by an anti-modernist strain of Christianity in the late 19th century. Despite vast differences of religious thought, cultural dynamics, and socio-political viewpoint, this usage of “Islamic fundamentalism” persists. Many see this usage as pernicious and misleading. The superficially common element that putative Islamic and Christian “fundamentalists” share is an opposition to modernity. Even this opposition is significantly differentiated within the respective religious movements and their host cultures.

Defining modernity is itself quite contestable. For purposes of this essay, the key components of modernity are science, secularism, democracy, and capitalism. Christian fundamentalists have generally rejected science and secularism while they have embraced capitalism. The stance of Christian fundamentalists on democracy is more complex, but generally Christian fundamentalists accept democracy, while calling for reforming it in line with their overall agenda. So-called Islamic Fundamentalists are generally more critical of democracy and capitalism, less critical of science, and similarly opposed to secularism than their Christian counterparts. In fact, Christian fundamentalists are often vocal apologists for modern capitalism in the most ruthless forms possible.

Should a responsible examination of Islamic movements refrain from labelling certain groups and personalities as “fundamentalists”? As the term was self-chosen by specific  Christian movements, is there some serious misunderstanding that led to its application to Islam? In general, the term “Islamic fundamentalism” risks unhelpfully confounding important distinctions between the phenomena in question. However, there are important comparisons to be made between the anti-modernism(s) that they share in common.

Christian fundamentalism was first publicized as a mass movement in the publication of the “Niagara[1] Creed” of 1878 produced by the leadership of the “Believers Meeting for Bible Study” annual conference. This conference was an non-denominational effort to popularize an anti-modernist theology that emphasized the corruption and wickedness of modern culture and the imminence of Divine judgment upon the world. Apocalyptic and primitivist, the Niagara Creed emphasized the perfect infallibility of the Bible, literal interpretation of its texts, and historic orthodox doctrines of Christian salvation with an emphasis on personal conversion. This theology was a reaction to the tendency among many mainline Protestant seminaries to employ modern methods of historical analysis to the Biblical texts and to accept scientific understandings of the origins of humanity. It is doubtless significant that Charles Darwin’s controversial book, On the Origin of the Species, was published in 1859, less than two decades before the Niagara Creed.[2]

By contrast, Islamic anti-modernism’s genesis was on the periphery of Western Civilization, rather than in its Midwestern heartland. Gilsenan[3] identifies the key origin in Algeria, where Egyptian dissident exiles collaborated with local believers in a confrontation with colonial assimilation in the name of a populist purification of Islam. As a new class emerged from rural agriculture to bourgeois and petty bourgeois status, religious identity demanded redefinition. Wholesale adoption of Western culture was out of the question, but the trenchant critique of local village superstitions by these revivalists bears an eerie similarity to the Protestant Reformation’s denunciation of Roman Catholic veneration of the saints. Whereas Christian fundamentalists perceived Modernism as a foreign import that appeared as sheep’s clothing concealing infidel wolves, Islamic revivalists perceived Modernism as the unwanted intrusions of a foreign colonizer. Both oppositional movements targeted established leadership within their respective faiths as key enemy targets in failing to remain faithful to the original truths of their respective faiths.

Christian fundamentalism didn’t remain content with its largely apolitical revivalism. The rise of Communism in the early 20th Century provided a perfect target for its emergence into power politics. The “godless Atheism” of Lenin and Stalin powerfully reinforced fundamentalist fears of an end-time Anti-Christ global tyranny. In the 1970s, a new era of political engagement ensued with the formation of the Moral Majority in 1979, which along with similar organizations coalesced into what is called the “New Christian Right”. This movement focused on the issues of “abortion, the equal rights amendment, voluntary school prayer, pornography, opposing homosexuality, secular humanism in schools (including the teaching of evolution and sex education), drug abuse, atheism, gun control, military defense spending, and the protection of Christian school movements.”[4] If one collects the issues from this list that are primarily concerned with the behaviors and rights of women, then an apparently obvious parallel can be drawn with this politicized fundamentalism and its Islamic counterpart.

The emergence of “Islamism” from within the broader Islamic revivalism was first brought to the attention of the American public by the victory of Ayatollah Khomeini in securing his position as Supreme Leader of Iran and implementing his vision of a society built directly upon Sharia law. This was a similar development to that of Christian fundamentalist politics in the late 1970s in contrast to its more apolitical versions earlier in the century. Most Islamic revivalist movements were largely concerned with faithfulness to a purist vision of Islam, not primarily with political power.[5] Doubtless many of the moral issues that concerned the Moral Majority would resonate with Islamists and their revivalist predecessors, but given that the Islamic societies in which Islamism came to prominence were profoundly different from the United States, the similarities are superficial. No Christian fundamentalists of any prominence would ever consider making public veiling of women an issue, despite the fact that mandatory women’s head-coverings are asserted in an epistle of St. Paul. However, the attempt to ban abortion, defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, and the romantic assertion of a woman’s domestic role resonate quite nicely with elements of Islamic revivalism and Islamism.

In looking for comparable movements to Islamism within Christianity, one of the more interesting variants of Christian fundamentalism is the Theonomist Reconstruction movement that was inspired by the theology of Rousas J. Rushdoony.[6] In contrast to the apocalyptic and apolitical views of the early fundamentalists, Theonomists argued for a wholesale “reconstruction” of the United States politically and culturally in line with a strict Calvinist interpretation of the Bible. Rushdoony’s advocacy of Christian private schooling and the abolition of public schools resonates with the establishment of the Islamist madrassas. Considered by many in the Christian Right as extremists, Reconstructionists nevertheless can be credited with spurring the more reticent elements of conservative Christianity to consider a more militant stance towards modernism and in favor of direct political engagement. Francis Schaeffer, an influential Christian conservative thinker, credits his adoption of political activism to his reading of Rushdoony, despite serious differences between Schaeffer and Rushdoony on a number of theological issues.

Hanging over all these apparent similarities between Christian and Islamic militancy, is their differing estimations of capitalism. Whereas Christian conservatives are often leading the charge for rolling back the “welfare state” in order to halt the seeming drift towards socialism, many Islamic reformers were finding resonance between their experience as targets of colonialism and imperialism and Marxist revolutionary ideology. Ali Shariati is cited as one of the key architects of the Iranian revolution and was explicitly attempting to fuse Marxism with his Islamic faith.[7] His experiences with various leftist political parties in France, Algeria, and Iran led him to play a pivotal role in energizing opposition to the Shah of Iran. His untimely death in 1975 left a vacuum of leadership among the Iranian left, which made the right-wing co-optation of the Iranian revolution by Khomeini much easier.

This critical difference between these superficially similar movements is grounded in significant degree by the fundamentally different relation of Christian fundamentalism to Modernism. Despite their protests against secularism, science, and feminism, Christian fundamentalists are ultimately aligned with the supremacy of Western capitalism in the world, including in relation to those Islamic societies who have powerful motives to resist capitalism’s exploitation of their economic resources.

[1] The location of many of the annual conferences were at a hotel in the Niagara Falls area.

[2] Julie Scott Jones. Being the Chosen: Exploring a Christian Fundamentalist Worldview. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

[3] Michael Gilsenan. Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Middle East, rev. ed. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2005.

[4] Helen A. Moore, & Hugh P. Whitt. “Multiple Dimensions of the Moral Majority Platform: Shifting Interest Group Coalitions.” Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Digital Commons Faculty Publications of the Sociology Dept., 1986.

[5] G. P. Makris. Islam in the Middle East: A Living Tradition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007. p. 193ff.

[6] William Edgar. “The Passing of R. J. Rushdoony.” First Things: August/Septmeber 2001. Institute on Religion and Public Life.

[7] Ali Rahnema. An Islamic Utopian: Political Biography of Ali Shari`ati. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2000.


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