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A Theory of Fundamentalism: An Inquiry into the Origin and Development of the Movement

Authored by Dr. Stephen C. Pelletiere. | September 1995

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Throughout the Middle East the fundamentalist tide is rising, and shows no sign of cresting soon. Given the extraordinary growth of fundamentalist attitudes, it is curious that in the West so much confusion exists about the movement. Western analysts seem unsure of how to deal with fundamentalism, much less capable of developing effective strategies to combat it. Their difficulty begins with a lack of awareness of the movement's origins. To understand fundamentalism, one must return to the 1970s and the period of the Cold War. The movement sprang from the clash of rightist and leftist forces; this circumstance--of being a product of the Cold War--shaped its development.

This study argues that U.S. policymakers need a deeper theoretical appreciation of Islamic fundamentalism that will explain the many complexities of the movement, in particular, why the fundamentalists have such drawing power within Islamic societies. The study probes the beginnings of groups like the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS); the Gamiyat; Hamas; Hizbollah; the Jewish fundamentalist organization, Gush Emunim; and the elusive Muslim Brotherhood.

The author finds a pattern in the way that all of these groups came into being and later developed--the Jewish as well as the Muslim ones. He also notes some ways in which the groups differ among themselves. Taking everything into account-- similarities as well as differences--the paper presents a theory about fundamentalism that explains not only the current activity of the fundamentalists, but also alerts policymakers as to what might reasonably be expected in the future.


Concern about fundamentalism is widespread and this has led policymakers to turn to experts, looking for answers to what the movement is about.1 The experts have been only too happy to oblige. The experts' advice, however, must be seen as suspect. This is because their theories--almost uniformly--assume knowledge about the movement that is not certain.

Anyone who has looked into the problem of fundamentalism knows that it is terribly complex. Many mysteries are associated with it, and these are absolutely crucial to understand. Until light can be thrown on the gray areas, fundamentalism will remain an intractable phenomenon.2

This study looks at fundamentalism as it exists today throughout the Middle East, and tries to show what information about it is sound, and what is lacking or is suspect. The study focuses on the problematic aspects, arguing that they must be resolved, or policymakers are going to be compromised.

Fundamentalists are adept at exploiting misleading information about their movement. When adversaries of the fundamentalists make wrong assumptions, on which they then attempt to build policy, the fundamentalists invariably seem to capitalize on this. Indeed, it appears to be a favorite tactic for advancing their cause.

The way to proceed, the author claims, is to return to the origins of the various groups to determine what caused them to come into being. Once an understanding of this is achieved, it then becomes possible to reorient one's approach, to construct a theory which, because it is based on sound assumptions, has some predictive capability.

This is what the author has attempted to do; he has contrived a theory, the basic assumption of which is that fundamentalism--widely perceived as a radical movement--did not start out that way. It actually began as a movement of reform. The reformist current dissipated quickly, but this did not occuruntil the reformers found themselves balked by the regimes that they were trying to influence. Unable to carry their reforms into action by peaceful means, the original leaders withdrew from the movement. Then new elements took over--mainly from among the youth--and initiated what must be viewed today as an area-wide populist revolt.

The study speculates about this "youth takeover," and what the significance of this might be. It also notes a peculiarity of fundamentalism which--to the author's knowledge--makes it unique among movements of this type: that the original reformist element, while retreating into the background, has nonetheless continued to be involved, even to the extent of participating in some of the violent activities. This fact may be of consequence; it could provide a means of gaining influence over the movement, or at least of deflecting some of its angry energy.


1. To a large degree the problem is not of the theorists' making. The fundamentalism movement has gone through too many changes in too short a time. As a consequence it has been difficult to assess accurately what is going on. In the early 1980s some excellent studies on fundamentalists appeared in English. All were keyed to the assassination of Sadat, tended to be heavily involved with Islamic scholarship, probed complex doctrinal points of religion, and went into considerable detail about relatively obscure groups. See Ali Hillal Dessouki, Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World, New York, NY: Praeger Publishers, 1982; John L. Esposito, Islam and Politics, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1984; R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1985, and Dilip Hiro, Holy Wars, New York, NY: Routledge, 1989. Then--with the difficulty in Algeria--a whole new set of books and articles appeared, concentrating on the terroristic aspect of fundamentalism. Martin Kramer's writings fall into this category, as do Barry Rubin's. See Martin Kramer, "Islam vs. Democracy," Commentary, January 1993; "Islam and Democracy," New Republic, March 1, 1993; and, Barry Rubin, Islamic Fundamentalism in Egyptian Politics, New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1990. After the World Trade Center bombing, the focus shifted yet again, as authors endeavored to make the case that Islam had declared a holy war on the United States. See Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations?," Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, pp. 22-49. At the same time, however, Esposito published another book which specifically spoke out against any such notion. See John Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.

2. Throughout the study, the author uses the term fundamentalism, aware that some controversy exists about this. Many commentators have called for a new way of describing the movement. Some have suggested referring to the militants, not as fundamentalists, but as extremists. Others have argued that political Islam is a better expression than fundamentalism. The author finds that, while all these alternatives have some merit, they each, in their own way, present problems. He has, therefore, stuck to the term fundamentalism, which is now so widely used as to have gained a place for itself.