Pod people: Talkin' about the f-word

First of all, my apologies that this Crossroads podcast is arriving several days late. You see, some key members of your GetReligionista team have spend quite a bit of time on airplanes in the past week or so heading hither and yon (seeing snow on the ground as I went through the Denver airport really brought back some high-altitude memories for me). So this is, truth be told, last week's podcast -- when the events in Egypt were much more fresh.

Still, I hope that you enjoy some additional discussion on the whole "what does fundamentalist actually mean" theme. This really is an important topic, especially when it comes to the interesting and important information in that recent Pew Research Center poll on religious and political attitudes in Arab Spring Egypt. Click here for the GetReligion post that opened that discussion.

Anyway, my interest in the poll led me to seek some clarification from the people behind this survey. As you will see, they chose to use an Arabic term in the survey that they -- when jumping to English -- translated as "fundamentalist." It is a term that some Muslims have begun using when referring to "radicals" on the ultraconservative side of Islam.

But what groups fit under this umbrella? What are the doctrines associated with this term? Does anyone know? Not that I can discern.

So here is the end of my Scripps Howard News Service column -- Define fundamentalist, please -- that followed up on on the overarching issue, which is the cloud of acidic fog that now surrounds the word "fundamentalist." This long slice focuses on the actual Pew data:

"Egyptians hold diverse views about religion," stated the report.

"About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question."

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: "Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. ... Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions."

So while only 31 percent sympathize with "fundamentalist" Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt's laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances meshes easily with alternative "fundamentalism" definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood's surging role in Egyptian life - a group long classified as "fundamentalist" in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty's "Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon" in 1988.

While there is no Arabic word for "fundamentalist," Pew researchers believe many Egyptians have begun applying a similar term to some groups of "very conservative Muslims," according to James Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

However, he added, the complexities and even conflicts inside these new survey results make it hard to say specifically who is or who isn't a "fundamentalist" in the context of Egypt today.

"For our Egypt survey, the term 'fundamentalist' was translated into Arabic as 'usuuli,' which means close to the root, rule or fundamental," he explained. "It is our understanding that this Arabic term is commonly used to describe conservative Muslims. ... So that's the word that we used."

Oh, one other fun point about that column and this podcast.

In the column, I decided to use a classic quote from the great Reformed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga in which he offers a blunt view of what "fundamentalist" now means in the context of elite academia. For the wire service, this meant warning editors that my column contained the mild curse "sumbitch." Why? Here's Plantinga, in a longer version of the quote that I used:

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

On the podcast, enjoy my ex-Southern Baptist preacher's kid reluctance to mangle the pronunciation of "sumbitch." It's not an academic word that I am used to using. Cheers.

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