Muslim fundamentalism – Some considerations about research


Last week professor Ruud Koopmans and dr. Evelyn Ersanili published a working paper on their six country survey investigating the effect of three different types of contextual factors on immigrant integration: regions of origin (including religion), localities in which they have settled within the country of immigration and related to the national context. In so doing they compare the different of levels of structural and socio-cultural integration of Turkish European migrants in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden and Moroccan-European immigrants in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Austria with a comparison group of natives in all these countries. You can find a short exposé written by Ruud Koopmans HERE and the full working paper HERE.

I will present a short summary (but please read their synopsis and report yourself as their conclusions are much more nuanced that I can report here!) and then present some considerations.

The findings
Koopmans and his collaborators interviewed nearly 9,000 people in six West European countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden), including 3,373 ‘natives’ and 5,548 ‘immigrants,’ respectively of Moroccan (2,204) and Turkish (3,344) origin.

In short the researcher find much higher numbers for fundamentalism among Muslims than among Christian natives and in both cases fundamentalism is strongly correlated with out-group hostility. Furthermore, they find that young Muslims are as fundamentalist as older Muslims.

My considerations

I will divide my considerations in three categories: the assumptions of the research, methodology, conclusions.

The assumptions
The research appears to have some assumptions that guide the methodology and findings.

  1. The research seems to regard Muslims as migrants and natives as Christians. However, many Muslims in these European countries are not migrants as they are born and raised here. Also many natives who are not Muslim are not Christian either. They do find a very high number of Christians among their native respondents (70%) which is much higher than any research in those countries gives.
  2. Muslims in Western Europe is restricted to Moroccan and Turkish Europeans. I do not understand why that is the case and why for example Somali Europeans, Algerian Europeans, Iraqi Europeans and Iranian Europeans are left out as well as native Europeans who are Muslim. Perhaps the numbers are not high enough to make the research reliable (as is the case in the Netherlands with native Muslims who are often excluded from the surveys for that reason) but nevertheless Europe’s Muslim community is much broader based than only European Turks and Moroccans.
  3. Is asking a Muslim the question ‘are you a Muslim’ really the same question in these countries as asking a Christian ‘are you a Christian?’. I mean that, contrary to Christians, Muslims are in the center of debate in these countries for years now. Many Muslims (regardless of how they are practising their faith, if at all) feel scrutinized because of the amount of attention in the media but also in work places, leisure and schools. Everytime a research is published, regardless of the outcomes, many Muslims ask the question, ‘now what’ or ‘what do they want from us this time’?. Reactions I seldom hear from Christians when there is a research published concerning them. This could have consequences for how people see themselves as citizens, religious people, targets of research and so on.
  4. Related to the former, the researchers ask people if they feel ‘Muslims aim to destroy Western culture’ or if ‘Western countries are out to destroy Islam’. Given the War on Terror, the invasion of Iraq (and the related political games and lies), the US drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen one might ask if these two questions really measure the same kind of outgroup hostility.


  1. I have a question with regard to the fundamentalism scale they use. They state:

    Following the widely accepted definition of fundamentalism of Bob Altermeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, the fundamentalism belief system is defined by three key elements:

    a) that believers should return to the eternal and unchangeable rules laid down in the past;

    b) that these rules allow only one interpretation and are binding for all believers;

    c) that religious rules have priority over secular laws.

    a) Christians [Muslims] should return to the roots of Christianity [Islam].”
    b)“There is only one interpretation of the Bible [the Koran] and every Christian [Muslim] must stick to that.”
    c)“The rules of the Bible [the Koran] are more import ant to me than the laws of [survey country].”

    I cannot find a three item scale by Altemeyer and Hunsberger however. What I do find is a 20 item scale and a revised scale with 12 items. Would it be safe to assume that a 12 point scale by definition leads to lower numbers of fundamentalists among Muslims and Christians? Below is a picture of Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s 12 item scale:

  2. Koopmans probably does not refer to Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s 2004 article but to a 1992 article where they define fundamentalism as:

    “The belief that there is one set of religious teachings that clearly contains the fundamental, basic, intrinsic, essential, inerrant truth about humanity and deity; that this essential truth is fundamentally opposed by the forces of evil which must be vigorously fought; that this truth must be followed today according to the fundamental, unchangeable practices of the past; and that those who believe and follow these fundamental teachings have a special relationship with the deity.” (Altermeyer and Hunsberger 1992: 118).

    With regard to the three key elements of Koopmans (note that Altemeyer and Hunsberger note four elements in their definition), I’m not very surprised about the high numbers. Many of the Muslims I work with, regardless of how religious they are and in what way, would concur with these statements as they would see them as ideals: the Qur’an is God’s word and therefore eternal and universal, there is only one Islam and God’s will comes before man made laws and the first three generations of Islam are the exemplary Muslims. In my own PhD research Zoeken naar een ‘zuivere’ islam (Searching for a ‘pure’ Islam) the quest of young people to find the authentic, universal Islam is central. Without having a clear idea how all of these statements would work out in daily life, their ‘true’ Islam is the one that is different from the one of their parents (which they perceive as a culturalized diluted Islam). Does this make all of them fundamentalists? No, as I have shown in that research some were at that time but others weren’t when you look at how they lived their lives and how they related to others.

  3. An important element I’m missing in Koopmans’ scale is the idea of a struggle. In my work on Salafism (which could be analyzed as a mode of fundamentalism) is an important if not the most important characteristic of their religiosity. A struggle against daily temptations, injustice, one’s own distractions and emotions and so on. A struggle that is almost always seen as part of an eternal battle between good and evil. I think one can find this among under fundamentalists of other religions as well and it was in my PhD research the main difference between those could be regarded as fundamentalist and others.It is also part of Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s definition but not part of Koopmans’. I wonder why that is?
  4. Let’s return to the 12 item scale. Although it is considered one of the most reliable scales and is indeed often used and tested there is some criticism as well. Moaddel for example states that, since the scale is mainly based upon research among Christians, its generalization to the Islamic world is limited (although I must note that Altemeyer’s and Hunsberger’s scale is much broader and less specific than most other scales I know of). Based upon Altemeyer’s work he uses a more general approach that I think is more fitting in this regard: ”

    the belief in one’s religion as a comprehensive system of ultimate truth and unfailing principles that must be followed for eternal salvation, in a strict division of humanity between the righteous who will be rewarded by God and the evil doers, in the necessity of belonging to one fundamentally true religion in order to lead the best and most meaningful life, in the superiority of one’s religious teachings over the findings of science and over the religion of others, and in the final redemption of only the followers of one’s religion

    This approach opens up the possibility of different fundamentalisms related to different religions. See the next point.

  5. In Koopmans’ work the scripture plays in important role in assessing if a person is a fundamentalist or not. The problem here is that many, but surely not all, Muslims believe that the Qur’an is God’s word and therefore the truth and infallible. This makes questions about that aspect not specific enough to differentiate between fundamentalist beliefs and other beliefs. Furthermore if they do believe in this principle they may still vary in how strongly they adhere to the belief in the inerrancy of the Qur’an, the completeness of Islam and its superiority over all other religions. Furthermore if believing that the scripture is absolute and true makes one a fundamentalist, then how are we going to research fundamentalism among, let’s say, Buddhists and Hindus? I’m not saying that it does not matter, but I’m saying that the particularities of one’s religion and one’s religious practices matter in determining the items of the scale. Koopmans’ use of the term applies mainly to scriptural faiths with their preoccupation with doctrine and creed often shapes the debates and interpretations. In Islam this often pertains to interpretation of the Qur’an and hadith, in the Protestant Christianity on how to read the scripture whereas in Catholic Christianity the role of the Church is much more important. These differences I think do matter if one wants to measure fundamentalism.
  6. Of course these considerations do not challenge the strong correlation that is found with outgroup hostility. It only questions if it is fundamentalism among Muslims that so strongly correlates with outgroup hostility.
  7. With regard to both fundamentalism and outgroup hostility there I wonder if the issue of acquiescence bias plays a role here since all questions lean to approving fundamentalism and out-group hositility. For that, and its related qualification, I refer to Eric Tillman‘s comments.
  8. The findings with regard to Islamophabia are lower than in many other studies. This could be related to the stronger wording that is used for Islamophobia (stronger than in the case of anti-semitism). See Cas Mudde‘s comments for that (you can find them in Dutch at Stuk Rood Vlees).
  9. All of the statements in the survey had three categories: „I agree“, „I disagree“, and „I neither agree nor disagree.“ But doesn’t this paint a rather black and white image of the attitudes of people? If one regards God’s will as more important that human laws, what does that actually mean? That one completely rejects human laws or that one thinks God’s will is better but that one also fully agrees with human laws?

Fundamentalism and hostility

Koopmans’ conclusion are much more nuanced than many of the statements in the media albeit that there are large differences in media reporting as well (see Cas Mudde’s article for examples). He emphasizes that religious fundamentalism is not the same as support for, or the cause of or engagement in violence and that in the end Muslims constitute only a small minority of Western Europe: “the large majority of homophobes and anti-semites are still natives.” Nevertheless, I do have some questions about the conclusion as well:

  1. He warns that: “religious fundamentalism is very likely to provide a nourishing environment for radicalization.” Yes maybe, maybe not. The problem is that he does not substantiate this claim from his own research nor with that of others.
  2. Koopmans rejects the idea that fundamentalism is “a reaction to exclusion by the host society’ since they found the lowest levels in Germany “where Muslims enjoy fewer religious rights than in any of the other five countries’. Conceptualizing exclusion by focusing on religious rights is important as it does give some indication of institutionalized exclusion. It is only one however but he does not seem to use any other indicator. Exclusion can, and should, be measured also by looking at the debates in media and politics and as important the perception of these debates among Muslims. These debates do not only pertain to Muslims as Muslims but, in the Netherlands anyway, also to Moroccan-Dutch people for example during the so-called Moroccans-debate earlier this year in media and parliament. Furthermore it may be the case that religious rights of Muslims in the five countries are safe-guarded but they can, and are, limited by national and local authorities. But perhaps more importantly, and I’m speculating here, is the fact that there is a debate about these rights. For example, yes Muslims are allowed to construct their own mosques but when a new one is built it often leads to heated debates. Something we do not see so much in the case of Christians (with in the Netherlands the notable exception of orthodox Christians and their right not to vaccinate their children against polio). The content of these debates may not be so important as the fact that everytime there are debates which may lead people to the conclusion that their basic religious rights are threatened.
  3. Furthermore what researchers and others who state that fundamentalism has nothing to do with exclusion often forget, is that fundamentalist preachers often portray the world as if it is engaged in an eternal struggle of good against evil in which the bearers of the ‘true’ religion are the victims. Every realistic or less realistic token of exclusion is blown up to huge proportions as being part of and the result of the forces of evil who are against them. Real or imagined exclusion (whatever the difference is) is therefore always part of fundamentalism.
  4. See Jan Jaap de Ruiter‘s comparison with the findings of other surveys. (Also in Dutch).

So what does that all boils down to? I’m not sure. That fundamentalism correlates strongly with outgroup hostility is not surprising and let’s face it most European countries have a policy that aims to counter fundamentalism so if fundamentalists think others are out to get them, they do have a point. Moreover since European secularism makes a distinction between ‘good’ religion and ‘bad’ religion (and fundamentalism of course being the latter) they are at least often the topic of political debates and policies. The high levels of outgroup hostility (related to fundamentalism or something else) among Muslims are troublesome of course. As they appear to be in line with other research among European Muslims and other Europeans it shows that these six countries still have a long way to go to combat racism, anti-semitism, homophobia and islamophobia and that it is a complicated fight. But is it really fundamentalism what the researchers have found, or something else?

Of course part of my comments come about because I’m an anthropologist. Koopmans appears to regard fundamentalism as a matter of theology, an attachment to absolute beliefs resulting in particular attitudes, my thinking starts where he ends: not only about general patterns of what people are believing, but also how they believe, what and how they are practising their faith and how it is related to different sources, social relations and socio-political contexts that reveal something about the nature of people’s religiosity.

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