There is much to commend in this general and accessible overview of comparative "fundamentalisms" that emerged from within Islam, Christianity, and Judaism in the twentieth century. Not least, the author smartly defines fundamentalism as "a cognitive and affective orientation to the modern world focusing on protest and change. … against the ideology of modernism." Modernism, in turn, entails an emphasis on "change over continuity, quantity over quality, and production and profit over sympathy for traditional values such as long-term interpersonal relationships … and the pertinence of the religious life over many domains."
Defining fundamentalism as an "orientation" rather than as a uniform set of doctrines or ideological principles enables Antoun to compare the similar worldviews, ethos, and themes of fundamentalist movements rather than their quite disparate cultural contents and specific historical circumstances. Thus, he examines the quest for purity, authenticity, and certainty in an increasingly self-constructed, plural, and incoherent religious milieu; the distinctive patterned use (opponents would say "misuse") of scriptures (through "scripturalism," the veneration of the text itself as partaking of the sacred as well as being the fount of all true knowledge) and traditions (through "traditioning," or relocating the mythic past in the present). Antoun also examines the fundamentalist strategies of selective modernization and controlled acculturation, whereby the instrumentalities of the modern world are turned against its secularizing, atheistic spirit and placed at the service of an equally "totalizing," or comprehensive activism on behalf of alleged traditional values and lifestyles. (Ironically, as the author illustrates, fundamentalists tend to disdain traditional rural and peasant life as hopelessly superstitious and "irreligious"—as insufficiently disciplined, rational, bureaucratic—as insufficiently modern, that is!)
Understanding Fundamentalism is a useful if flawed response to the popular need to understand better the religiously charged world we inhabited before September 11 and that we continue to inhabit. The author's theoretical and conceptual approach to the topic is sound, the analysis crisp and concise, the illustrations insightfully chosen.
But the book shows signs of haste. Apart from his own excellent fieldwork in Jordan and Iran, the author relied on relatively few secondary sources (and hardly any primary sources) from what is now a vast literature on fundamentalism. This may account for some flat interpretations (e.g., the insufficiently nuanced claim that fundamentalists care more about culture than politics) and the occasional factual errors (e.g., the somewhat skewed account of Christian dispensationalism). Lack of editorial oversight may explain the typos and the failure to update some parts of the narrative (e.g., the description of the rise of the Welfare Party in Turkey in the mid-1990s is cast in the present tense). A useful summary, conclusion, and glossary help redeem the volume as a guide for undergraduates and other students seeking an introduction to the major themes and dynamics of this world-historical set of movements.
University of Notre Dame