Fractured Fundamentalisms

Extremism exists in every major faith, and sometimes turns violent

British writer Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, is the author of a celebrated account of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, "A History of God," and "The Battle for God," on fundamentalism in the major religions. She teaches at Leo Baeck College, a seminary for reform Judaism in London.

  • How do Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism differ?
  • What kind of Muslim is Osama bin Laden?
  • Does fundamentalism inevitably cause violence?
  • What does the Qu'ran say about violence?
  • Why don't top Muslims reprimand terrorists?
  • Why are there so few Islamic democracies?

    How is Islamic fundamentalism different from the fundamentalism of Christianity and Judaism?
    The militant form of piety we call fundamentalism erupted in every major religion during the 20th century, and constitutes a widespread revolt against modernity and secular society. The first of these movements emerged in the United States at the turn of the 20th century; Jewish fundamentalism came to the fore after the Nazi Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel; and Islamic fundamentalism erupted in the late 1960s, after a degree of modernization had been accomplished and after secularist ideologies, such as nationalism and socialism, seemed to have failed. In all three faiths, there had been proto-fundamentalist movements before these dates, but this is the general pattern.


    Jews and Muslims often object to the use of the term "fundamentalism," and in truth it is not a very satisfactory term. It was coined by American Protestants to describe their reform movement led by William Bell Riley, A.C. Dixon, J. Gresham Machem and others. Anxious about Darwinism and harboring apocalyptic beliefs, their followers wanted to go back to the "fundamentals" of the tradition. But, like it or not, the term is here to stay and the widespread series of movements do bear a strong family resemblance.

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