Truthiness in that Egypt poll

Let's be clear about the whole "fundamentalist" thing.

We have already established that an increasing number of mainstream journalists really don't care what the word "fundamentalist" means and do not care that the Associated Press Stylebook has a fact-based approach to this word, which says (yet again):

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.

We have also established that many GetReligion readers agree with these journalists and have taken a kind of "truthiness" option to defining complex and emotional terms such as "fundamentalist." Hey, words evolve and, in the end, they mean what we say that they mean. We may not know what the new definition of "fundamentalist" is but using it sure as heckfire feels good when we throw it around and that's what really matters.

The problem, of course, is that news people keep using the term "fundamentalist" as if if has a meaning that can be pinned down. And that leads to journalistic problems.

Consider this Washington Post report about a new Pew poll focusing on the mood in Egypt. The top of the story says:

CAIRO -- Egyptians are deeply skeptical about the United States and its role in their country, but they are also divided in their attitudes about Islamic fundamentalists, according a poll released ... by the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

Most Egyptians distrust the United States and want to renegotiate their peace treaty with Israel, the poll found. But only 31 percent say they sympathize with fundamentalists, while 30 percent say they sympathize with those who disagree with fundamentalists. An additional 26 percent said they had mixed views.

Please note that the story makes absolutely no attempt to define this loaded term. In other words, the poll is asking Egyptians their opinion of "fundamentalists" when Islam, literally, does not include such a concept in its vocabulary.

So does "fundamentalist" mean those pressing for an Islamic state? Apparently not:

Although 75 percent were positive about the Muslim Brotherhood, which was officially banned under Mubarak and is now the strongest political organization in the country, almost as many -- 70 percent -- felt positively about the youth-based April 6 movement that was mostly secular and was one of the key organizers of the protests.

So, does "fundamentalist" mean those who take a strict, literalistic approach to the Koran? What about those who want to base public life on the Koran? Let's see, in the United States, what would we call people with a strict view of the truth of the Bible?

A majority of the country wants Egypt’s laws to strictly follow the Koran -- 62 percent -- and even among those who disagree with Islamic fundamentalists, the number only drops to 47 percent.

Go ahead, try to make sense of that sentence without a definition of the word "fundamentalist."

This is a crucial point, since definitions of words such as "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" are often based on just how strictly believers enforce the authority of their scriptures. The Pew talking points for this poll note:

The survey also finds that most Egyptians (62%) believe laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. About a quarter (27%) say laws should follow the values and principles of Islam but should not strictly follow the teachings of the Quran; just 5% say laws should not be influenced by the teachings of the Quran.

So about 32 percent take a so-called "moderate" approach, if you use that horrible, vague label the way most journalists insist on using it. That leaves the 62 percent as the ....

Well, we know they are not "fundamentalists." I don't know how we know that, but we do.

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