The Great Revival: Understanding Religious "Fundamentalism"

Within hours of the attack on the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, the final letters of hijacker Muhammad Atta, discovered in the trunk of a rental car parked at Dulles International Airport outside Washington D.C., were being dissected by journalists and TV pundits. As the new book Strong Religion tellingly observes, commentators almost uniformly characterized the mindset revealed in these notes as "chilling," "eerie," and "haunting." Once again, it seemed, Americans had been caught in a state of incomprehension: what kind of religious beliefs could propel people to murder thousands of innocent civilians?

Americans had experienced that same incomprehension, drawn out over a longer period of time, in 1979, when militant Iranian students took 52 American citizens hostage within the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Who were these people? What strange religious and political sentiments motivated them to do such things?

An almost identical sense of bewilderment must have struck many highly educated Americans during the early 1980s, when activists on behalf of the Moral Majority and other Protestant Christian groups suddenly became rather visible on the American political scene. This confusion, however, may have been followed by a collective, simultaneous "Aha" moment: of course, "fundamentalism" explained it all. After all, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who founded the Moral Majority in 1979, actually proclaimed himself a fundamentalist, and those who supported the new upsurge of Christian conservatism seemed to share many of his religious views. Surely they must be fundamentalists too.

The five-volume, decade-long Fundamentalism Project was a major scholarly effort to see if there was such a sociological phenomenon as fundamentalism that might explain similarities, or at least "family resemblances," among so-called fundamentalist groups within several major world religions. A total of 75 different movements were examined by historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists on several continents. The groups included had emerged from all of the world's major religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam (both Sunni and Shi'ite), Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and neo-Confucianism. Strong Religion amounts to a concluding summation of the project's work.

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