The Future of World Fundamentalisms

Marty’s April 1996 Report to the American Philosophical Society at the conclusion of the 6-year Fundamentalism Project. Here Marty envisions that militant fundamentalism, once seen as on the margins of religious history, is now central in war, diplomacy, economics, and more. Published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 142, No. 3, September 1998.


An image offered by the late social philosopher Ernest Gellner, a foreign member of the American Philosophical Society, captures something of what scores of scholars from around the world hypothesized or discovered during a six-year, five-volume study of modern religious fundamentalisms around the world. Gellner saw and foresaw three contesters for dominance on the world scene:

  1. Religious fundamentalism
  2.  Relativism, exemplified for instance by the recent fashion of “postmodernism”
  3. Enlightenment rationalism, or rationalist fundamentalism {1}

Gellner, a true son of the Enlightenment, who wanted a chastened and critical form of reason to prevail in the world’s future, thus saw it countered by the two other forces he mentioned before it. On the one hand, he feared that “postmodern relativism” was becoming dominant in the Western academy. Such an outlook also reflected what we might call the “pop relativism” of much of the public. This contester undercut belief and conviction. It easily led to nihilism.

The other counterforce, mentioned first, concerns us here. Anyone looking into the future, thought Gellner, had to reckon with the power of religious fundamentalism in its almost inevitably political forms. He chose to concentrate on what not only seemed to him to be a pure form or ideal type, but also stood the best chance of destabilizing governments in the Arab Muslim world and impinging on world politics and markets: Shi’ite Islamic fundamentalism. As a participant in the Fundamentalism Project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1988–93), Gellner often pondered how and why this religious force outlasted the ideology and polity of Soviet communism. To condense his argument, stated in several instances: the Leninists propagated an absolute and totalist ideology. They not only asserted that it was true, but also declared that its truth could be empirically verified by anyone who would take pains to note its effectiveness in creating an economic order. In the late 1980s, Gellner suggested, Soviet peoples observed the records and results of the decades of economic failure even as they questioned the ideology. Soviet communism and its regime simply imploded.

Meanwhile, Shi’ite and other forms of Islam outlasted the Soviet regime and doctrine. In fact, during the years between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the collapse of 1989, Shi’ism in many places had taken the new form of fundamentalisms. While Gellner never quite put it that way, Shi’ite Islamic fundamentalism, along with other advantages and appeals it possessed, suggested what we might call “eschatological verification.” Whatever happened in an economy or a polity or elsewhere in the empirical world, one had to wait and see—beyond one’s own death or the world’s end—whether it was “true” or not. Such was the case with Islam.

In the contexts of discussing these contestants, Gellner offered the image mentioned in the first line above:

Contrary to what outsiders generally suppose, the typical Muslim woman in a Muslim city doesn’t wear the veil because her grandmother did so, but because her grandmother did not: her grandmother in her village was far too busy in the fields, and she frequented the shrine without a veil, and left the veil to her betters. The granddaughter is celebrating the fact that she has joined her grandmother’s betters, rather than her loyalty to her grandmother. {2}

So much for the grandmother. I would like to take the liberty of inserting the mother into the Shi’ite family tree, basing this insertion on observation of scholarly approaches to the revolution in Iran in 1978–79 and similar subsequent movements in Algeria, or among the Gush Emunim in Israel, and elsewhere. The issue now shifts from Gellner’s economic and class analysis to the sociological, psychological, and religious issue of identity. So we might say:

Contrary to what outsiders generally suppose, the typical Muslim woman in a Muslim city doesn’t wear the veil because her mother did so, but because her mother did not. Her mother had begun to adapt to modern and Western ways, encouraged by the prospect that she might profit from Westernizing, semi-secular, accommodationist but still nominally Islamic regimes. The daughter was in on some of the mixed benefits of such secularization, but both as an ideology and an ethos, it failed to produce. The mother having exchanged attendance at the shrine for attendance at the cinema and the university left her daughter in a situation of reaction: she was back to the shrine and back to wearing the veil.

To elaborate: this typical or typifying grandmother was not a fundamentalist. She was orthodox, conservative, traditional, sure of her identity, unchallenged by outsiders, confident in her acquaintances, likely never to run into people who might challenge her by being, as the fashions of our day put it, Other. No one observing the grandmother—neither friends nor enemies, scholars in the Arab or Western world, nor people in statecraft and mass communications—called the grandmother fundamentalist, or any of the cognate terms used to describe reactive and militant Islamic revivalism.

The typical or typifying mother was also not a fundamentalist. Her orthodoxy, conservatism, and traditionalism were relaxed, and she was turning moderate. She was seeking a new identity for herself, hoping to become an insider in the world of secular adaptation. In the course of a day in the city, or certainly through exposure to cinema and television, she would make the acquaintance of many alternative styles of believing and living. Because of her adaptations, no one, neither friends nor enemies, scholars, statespersons, broadcasters, or publishers, called the mother fundamentalist or anything that translates to what the word “fundamentalism” is intended to denote and connote.

Just as fundamentalisms tend to rise only where there has been a religiously orthodox, conservative, and traditionalist base, so they need the presence of a generation or a minority of moderates, who negotiate riskily and generously with modernity, however that is to be defined. The fundamentalist movements rise after a tradition has been challenged or at least eroded because moderates were seen to have compromised, dealt positively with the Other, and thus threatened to become indistinguishable from the others. It is the moderates and adapters who prompt and trigger reaction, the key word in the revivals that get called fundamentalist.

The symbolic or representative granddaughter, then, gravitates toward leadership that enforces the wearing of the veil, or similar behavioral symbols and signals. She and her cohort believe that mere orthodoxy, conservatism, and traditionalism, which a decade and more ago scholars confused or mingled with emergent fundamentalism, are too passive. They leave her defenseless and unprotected. She and her brother must become more aggressive and provocative than were the current bearers of the tradition.

What of the prospects of a great-granddaughter? Historians are not in the futures business, so the “futures” of our title have to do with prospects and projections, and even they must be very tentative. It is almost impossible to find the term “fundamentalism,” as in “modern religious fundamentalism,” in any texts dated before the 1920s. It was coined and figuratively patented around then by reactive conservatives in American Protestantism, whence, like so many other such terms, it traveled and was translated. To the nominalist, the invention of the term signals that it may have been necessary, and was convenient, to describe a new phenomenon. Modern religious fundamentalisms turned out to be anything but fossilizations, leftover traces from happenings in earlier strata of human experience. They were and are adaptive, inventive, innovative, and improvisatory.

Similarly, it is hard to find a social philosopher or a political or religious analyst at mid-century or even well into the 1960s who foresaw the second round of fundamentalisms—this time more directly assertive in the political realms where world religions survived—in Islam, Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, and elsewhere. They, we, were largely taken by surprise. In retrospect, of course, we can come up with many accountings and explanations. Scholars do this on the lines of what Leszek Kolakowski calls the law of the Infinite Cornucopia. The historian’s version of such a law suggests that causes can inevitably be discerned and located for any event or phenomenon. It may have been unexpected, extraordinary: never mind, says Kolakowski: whatever happens will be explained. Still, documentation that suggests a scholarly foreseeing of either the first or the second round of fundamentalisms around the world is very sparse.

Having said all those cautionary words, there are reasons to foresee something of futures, most of them illustrating why the word in our title is plural: fundamentalisms. They seem to be expansive in both the minority Arab and the majority non-Arab Islamic worlds, reaching all the way to Indonesia and Malaysia, far from Mecca or Teheran or Algeria. This means that they are assertive both where their Muslim ancestors have “run” a polity for a millennium or more as well as where they have had to share political, cultural, and religious influence with non-Muslims.

These fundamentalisms have promising futures among both rich and poor nations and peoples. That is: class plays some part in the rise of reactive and revivalist religions. Yet fundamentalisms attract all levels, including middle-class elites. Someone taken on a tour of aggressive fundamentalisms in American Protestantism today would not be taken to vestigial mule-driven or Model A Ford cultures in Missouri or Tennessee, the proverbial Bible belts. They would more likely come upon fundamentalists at Southern Baptist churches whose parking lots are crowded with Lincolns and Cadillacs in the Sunbelt, or Oldsmobiles and Chryslers in megachurch lots in northern suburbs. These machines are not all going to rust tomorrow, nor will the lots turn potholed and then emptied.

Fundamentalisms have futures where they win, as in Iran; where they stand some chance of bringing down regimes and prevailing in a destabilized world, as in Egypt; or where they cannot hope to do much more than share power in a world of compromise and coalescence, like the United States. They are likely to have a place for foreseeable futures wherever new generations of great-granddaughters have to address the issue of their identity and identifications and where they use religious instrumentalities to do so, as the majority of the world’s people and peoples do.

In every case, even the impulse to do such tentative projecting seems surprising in the light of the fact that so few foresaw the Enlightenment in the West or more moderate traditionalisms in other changing cultures rivaled and challenged by such forces as modern religious fundamentalisms at the end of the century. Modern, by the way, is a protean code word. I use it to describe the kind of religious movements we have studied, and in a bit of ironic shorthand like to say: “We do not study historic conservatisms. We are aware that generation after generation of religionists in many cultures had to relate to the challenges of something like what we call modernity. There are precedents for all the contemporary movements. But we study only those movements that rose after the Western academy thought there would be no more like them.”

The Fundamentalism Project, which provided the company to which I have been referring when speaking of “scores of scholars” or using the word “we,” was chartered in 1987 by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the other academic and honor society that survives from Enlightenment times in the United States. {4} How, one asks, does that project relate to the American Philosophical Society, which was founded for “promoting useful knowledge”? Under what rubric of “useful knowledge” does one smuggle in a set of movements that most of the members would find uncongenial, if not worthy of suspicion and disdain? Are the hypotheses and findings resulting from six years of enterprise and the five volumes of what Benjamin Franklin in 1743 called the “Observations, Experiments, Etc.” (now in respect to “world fundamentalisms,” meaning fundamentalisms around the world and unbounded by nations), elements of such “useful knowledge”?

When assigned this topic in this context, I reviewed the charters of the American Philosophical Society, and wondered whether the founders would have located fundamentalism among Franklin’s categories as “Subjects of the Correspondence.” The eighteenth-century members might well have slotted it on the negative side, as mental aberrations, so “New Methods of Curing or Preventing Diseases” might seem relevant. In the eyes of many diagnosticians of social movements, its members are, or are attached to, something unhealthy and aberrant. We have already dismissed a second category as irrelevant. Franklin wanted “All new-discovered Fossils in different Countries” as subjects, and the fundamentalisms are alive and innovative, not fossilized and waiting to be disinterred.

On the positive side, the founders would have given encouragement to such study because they were to correspond about “All philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of things.” To the Enlightened, then and now, fundamentalisms connote darkenings, shadow-casting phenomena that shroud human futures, be they mental or political and social.

These archaic references to the “proposal” of 1743 were adduced with a purpose: to suggest how alien fundamentalists would have been to philosophers and scientists then as now; how surprising their appearance, and yet how useful knowledge about them would be. It is now in place to suggest some directions and professions where all this is or might become useful knowledge.

First, among international and intertribal war-makers and peacekeepers, departments of state, and military figures. This is so because modern religious fundamentalisms are among the religious and ethnonationalist forces that motivate or legitimate individuals and movements that have potentials or actualizations of military significance, or implications for constitutions and politics. Not all militancies are religious or religiously- inspired and enhanced, nor are all fundamentalisms militarily aggressive. Yet in northern and now sub-Saharan Africa; in the presence of beginnings in Western Europe; throughout the Middle East; in the former Soviet Union; in much of the central Asian and subcontinental Asian lands; in Central and South America; and in North America, where they seem to be least militantly engaged, but where they got their name and where they have political significance, we found movements that demanded study.

As for futures: combine these fundamentalisms with religious ethnonationalisms and one finds some of the most perplexing, confusing, puzzling, and bemusing forces. They are hard to anticipate, locate, or define. They do not fit the conventions of diplomacy, since such movements “take no prisoners,” make no compromises, and may resort to forms of terrorism that transcend boundaries or subvert conventions of warfare.

In respect to polity, some of them will continue to challenge and replace secular, pluralist, “compromising” and only nominally religious regimes and governments, in the name of actively religious, monolithic, absolutist regimes. They stand more chance of success where what Westerners call “the separation of church and state” has never occurred either philosophically or constitutionally, than where they can only hope for a piece of the polity, as in the United States. Where there was never separation or formal drawing of distinction between religious and civil spheres, retaking the regime is easier to accomplish than it is in overwhelmingly secular, pluralist, “republican” nations. In the latter instance, as in the United States, fundamentalists, if they would gain power, must coalesce with non-fundamentalist conservatives (as in the old Moral Majority and the more recent Christian Coalition) and then barter with non-religious conservatives, where some compromising of purity dilutes the claims. In such cases, it is easier to stay pure and have influence on local levels—as at school, clinic, zoning, library and textbook, hospital, and town boards. But today the local has national significance, as when these coalitions, often by self-advertised “stealth”-using means, can shape the policies of a political party, and the platforms that impinge on presidential elections.

Second, the hypotheses and findings are or can be “useful knowledge” to mass communicators. Mass media are integral to modern religious fundamentalisms, because they have been transmitters of the challenges of modernities, reaching into the heart of fundamentalist churches and synagogues and mosques, cells and movements and families. Reactively, fundamentalisms use mass communications more efficiently than do their religious rivals, and they set out to assault secular communications. There are good reasons to see such movements rising coincidentally with radio and the cinema. One does not need the law of the Infinite Cornucopia to find causal relations. Similarly, a second round occurred with the rise of television, which assaults the identities of religious enclaves and their members and is also put to work by them. Are we in a third stage, now that fundamentalisms and fundamentalist-like movements have quickly learned to exploit the Internet and the World-Wide web?

Mass communicators have found good reason to begin to understand the fundamentalisms. Doing so might lead some to be less strident than they are when, in effect, they broadcast: “The fundamentalists are coming! The fundamentalists are coming!” But if some overestimate the new power and shout too loudly, they do wake up those who ignored or underestimated them. In the future, one does not expect less impingement by media on candidates for fundamentalisms, or less exploitation of the media by fundamentalist reactors.

Third, all this is “useful knowledge” to religious leadership and, for that matter, to many of the followers. They, too, were taken by surprise. This was to have been and, in many dimensions, much of the way was the century of ecumenism, cosmopolitan and interreligious dialogue, a time of “openness” and tolerance, empathy and responsiveness. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson might well have applauded trends toward all of the above. Yet today, everywhere that we could train the eyes of our researchers, they found that in open competition either the fundamentalist-like hardline movements or the more exuberant and ecstatic charismatic-style movements outpaced the less defined, less bounded, and more open movements.

As for the future: there are counterforces, to be sure. Both the Internet and the market are in some ways necessarily ecumenical or erosive of hard-line distinctions on religious grounds. We often observe young people not only turning to such movements to gain identities and power, but also moderating them or reacting to and rejecting them, in order to be free of real or perceived repression or spiritual and intellectual claustrophobia in the fundamentalisms of the parental world. (To pursue the figure, figuratively, some mothers did wear the veil and force it on reluctant daughters.)

Fourth, all this is useful knowledge to the academy, as in the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the universities. Such studies throw light on intrinsically interesting integralist movements. They challenge the extreme differentiation in the organizing of knowledge in universities, where accounting for phenomena like fundamentalisms was turned over to specialists in a few departments, where their influences on everything from mass communications through the economy and statecraft have become obvious. Such studies further challenge the reductionisms that had seen modern religious fundamentalisms to be “nothing but” this or that—usually something reduced to simplistic Freudian or Marxist accountings.

Shall I add an aside based on personal experience? Many of us who studied movements like these a generation ago, might be phoned or written to by parents of collegians who wondered whether we could put in a good word for being patient with religion during the younger ass person’s university years or in companies of alumnae and alumni. Couldn’t the offspring be given a little dose of mild religion? These years such scholars report calls from the parental world: my daughter is at your university. She chanced to room with a proselytizing and intense religionist who brought her into the company of, say, the “born again.” Now she’s hard to live with. Will this commitment run its course, or is she there to stay—and what should we do about it all? That is, to many, the fundamentalist is disruptive of harmony on campus, in families, among friends, and the like.

What, through it all, did we and do we study? We were not called to deal with pre-modern movements, or non-religious fundamentalisms—of which there are many—or New Religious Movements (a.k.a. earlier as “cults”) or pentecostalisms and ecstatic movements. Much of what we studied can be inferred from what has preceded this page, but several elements deserve to be lifted up and reinforced.

Having pointed to the particular use of “modern,” the label “religious” is next. This is not the place to define religion, an endeavor that has occasioned the spillage of much ink and the publication of many books. Instead, let it only be noted that, for all the variety that humanistic and social scientific scholars brought to the subject through their own presuppositions and prejudgments, the basic method was phenomenological. This meant using a kind of sophisticated naiveté in approaching the people who describe themselves and their motivations and actions in religious terms. They did not want to be reduced to people who were “nothing but” psychological aberrants who could not live with ambiguity or contradiction or paradox (though fundamentalisms are designed to abolish all three). They did not find themselves congenially described as the world’s poor who turned to movements like these for rewards denied them materially.

When asked to define religion, I usually point and say: “It’s the kind of subject that you deal with in a set like that sixteen-volume [Macmillan] work, The Encyclopedia of Religion.” This means that the people and the movements have to do with world-views, “ultimate concern,” myth and symbol, rite and ceremony, something like metaphysics (or meta-explanations); they consult scriptures for revelations and guidance; there are behavioral correlates to what they do. In short, we define religion much more broadly than do the phone books’ Yellow Pages, which reduce it to the alphabetized “Churches and Synagogues” section, and more narrowly than do the linguistic imperialists who make it include so much that nothing is delimited: “If everything is religious, then nothing is religious.” All this means that while the tape-recorder is in action and the notebook is open as the fundamentalist testifies, what the anthropologists called “agents’ description” was taken seriously.

As for fundamentalism itself, on these nominalist and phenomenological grounds, some definitional elements emerged, and they may be part of “useful knowledge.” Parenthetically, we spent more time than was valuable on discussing whether the use of the term was itself a sign of “Western linguistic imperialism,” since the word was born on Western Christian soil and is not native to other religions any more than this it was familiar in, say, Protestantism. Aware of the problems in translation of all words, and of the tariffs of empathy and sympathy one must pay when importing or exporting terms, we found that many critiques came from people who used other terms born in the West—nationalism, liberalism, conservatism, radicalism, revivalism, renewal, revitalization—to account for and compare the movements we were studying,

Fundamentalisms, fundamentalist-like movements, or movements with “family resemblances” to fundamentalism tended to include features like these:

  1. They rose where a prior conservative, traditional, orthodox religious culture was present;
  2. People in such cultures were threatened by the erosion or assault of what they considered to be “modern”;
  3. They were patient if wary so long as the assault came from the Other, the outsider; but when members of the culture began to “turn modern” or to adapt and turn moderate, the emerging fundamentalists feared that their own identity and belief system would be jeopardized unless they acted;
  4. Therefore, they re-acted; reactivity (more than reaction) came to be a decisive gesture for them and term for us; they argued that all true believers had to transcend apathy and must react, drawing the terms of battle from the corrosion of the moderate modernists and the threats of radical outsiders;
  5. Their instruments and weapons for reactivity were “the fundamentals,” the real or presumed foundational elements of belief and practice, story and law (depending on what the various religions in question regarded as fundamental). They engaged in what we called “selective retrieval”: not bringing back and employing the whole past, but only those features that would help them fight back;
  6. On the basis of these they developed philosophies of history that had to deal with beginnings and ends (as, in the West, in “creationism” and “apocalypticism”) and the meaning of present-day action;
  7. Thus they had to summon an elect people who would work “under God,” toward specified ends, no matter what the day-to-day empirical situation held. They became agents of the divine, their groups are often choosing to be separatist and demarcated within precise boundaries.

As one says a figurative good-bye to the fundamentalists brought on stage for this appearance, several more things are to be said.

The Fundamentalism Project and, one hopes, its successors, tried to deal fairly with its subjects, recognizing that to turn in a report full of bias, denunciation, or—less likely!—congratulations and praise, would make it useless in scholarly, diplomatic, or mass communicative worlds.

Second, the scholars, for all their instinctive wariness and lack of natural sympathy for their subject, did tend to see some elements of what they are and do to play positive roles in cultures, as revitalization movements. They helped bring out of sullenness and obscurity people whose voice is now somehow represented at the table. Their antennae were alert and the perception of threats was not always misplaced. Fundamentalists have demonstrated the power of conviction in the world of “postmodern relativism,” and have held up the mirror to complacent heirs of the Enlightenment. They often do moderate or compromise, and are less likely to do so if stigmatized, or all lumped together in simply negative terms. Still, my wave of good-bye, inspired by good will and measured gratitude to people who provided such a valid and interesting subject of study, can be discerned to be made, at least in the present instance, by someone who will stay alert, and who keeps the fingers of that waving hand crossed.



  1. Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 2.
  2. Ibid., 16.
  3. Rather than burden this article with the scores of conceivably relevant, appropriate, and useful bibliographical references, let me confine everything to this: The Fundamentalism Project’s main enduring product is a series of volumes published by the University of Chicago Press, all edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby and published between 1991 and 1995: Fundamentalisms Observed; Fundamentalisms and Society; Fundamentalisms and the State; Accounting for Fundamentalisms; and Fundamentalisms Comprehended. Whoever would like scholarly access in summary form would do well to read chapters 16—19 of the final volume, a slightly more than one-hundred-page condensation of main themes and findings by Gabriel A. Almond, Emmanuel Sivan, and R. Scott Appleby.
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