I have been mulling over a Los Angeles Times story about Iran for several days. I get stuck on something like this every now and then. I used to work on a copy desk. Once again, I am upset about that troublesome word "fundamentalist" being used in a way that leaves it totally undefined. Here, for example, is the headline for the online version of reporter John Daniszewski's report from Tehran: "Iran's Runner-Up Puts Fundamentalists in Race."
Then we have the first two paragraphs.
TEHRAN -- From his childhood as the impoverished son of a blacksmith, to his youth as a student activist against the shah of Iran, to his manhood as a soldier fighting in Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a fierce attachment to Islam and to the teachings of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Now the 48-year-old appointed mayor of Tehran appears to have the backing of much of the military, fundamentalists and loyalists of the country's supreme leader in a runoff election Friday with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. If Ahmadinejad wins, it would be seen as a victory for the most fundamentalist wing of Iranian politics and a devastating setback for reformers.
Forget the outcome of the election for a minute or other recent developments. Just focus on the words. It would appear that "reformers" is the doctrinal word that is the mirror image of "fundamentalists." Yet "fundamentalist" is defined, by context, as someone with a "fierce attachment to Islam."
What am I missing? So, essentially, anyone who is unusually devoted to Islam is a "fundamentalist" and some who is not all that devoted is a "reformer"? So the word "fundamentalist" is bad, since it is against reform. Reform is good, since it involves a lack of strong belief in the historic doctrines of a particular faith?
"Fundamentalist" Catholic vs. "reform" Catholic? "Fundamentalist" Protestant vs. "reform" Protestant? "Fundamentalist" Anglicans vs. "reform" Episcopalians? This has all kinds of implications, doesn't it?
So the goal of American policy -- or at least the reporters covering it -- is to prevent the rise of "fundamentalists" in the Islamic world and to encourage the "reformers" who are not as devout? What do Islamic religious leaders think of that? Maybe we don't want to know the answer to that question.
Meanwhile, let us again meditate on these fading words in The Associated Press Stylebook:
fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.
UPDATE: Election results are in. He won.