...even in the late 1950's there was no entry for the word 'fundamentalism' in the large Oxford English dictionary. It has come into common coinage only over the past two or three decades.
Fundamentalism is not the same as either fanaticism or authoritarianism. Fundamentalists call for a return to basic scriptures or texts, supposed to be read in a literal manner, and they propose that the doctrines derived from such a reading be applied to social, economic or political life. Fundamentalism gives new vitality and importance to the guardians of tradition. Only they have access to the 'exact meaning' of the texts. The clergy or other privileged interpreters gain secular as well as religious power. They may look to take over the reins of government directly - as happened in Iran - or work in conjunction with political parties.
Fundamentalism is a controversial word, because many of those called fundamentalists by others wouldn't accept the term as applying to themselves. So can an objective meaning be given to it? I think it can, and I would define it in the following fashion. Fundamentalism is beleaguered tradition. It is tradition defended in the traditional way - by reference to ritual truth - in a globalising world that asks for reasons. Fundamentalism, therefore, has nothing to do with the context of beliefs, religious or otherwise. What matters is how the truth of beliefs is defended or asserted.
Fundamentalism isn't about what people believe but, like tradition more generally, about why they believe it and how they justify it. It isn't confined to religion. The Chinese red guards, with their devotion to Mao's little red book, were surely fundamentalists. Nor is fundamentalism primarily about the resistance of more traditional cultures to Westernisation - a rejection of Western decadence. Fundamentalism can develop on the soil of traditions of all sorts. It has no time for ambiguity, multiple interpretation or multiple identity - it is a refusal of dialogue in a world whose peace and continuity depend on it.
Fundamentalism is a child of globalisation, which it both responds to and utilises. Fundamentalist groups almost everywhere have made extensive use of new communications technologies. Before he came to power in Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini circulated videos and cassettes of his teachings. Hindutwa militants have made extensive use of the Internet and electronic mail to create a 'feeling of Hindu identity'.
Whatever form it takes - religious, ethnic, nationalist, or directly political, I think it right to regard fundamentalism as problematic. It is edged with the possibility of violence, and it is the enemy of cosmopolitan dialogue.
Yet fundamentalism isn't just the antithesis of globalising modernity, but poses questions to it. The most basic one is this: can we live in a world where nothing is sacred? I have to say, in conclusion, that I don't think we can. ...
(from Anthony Giddens, Reith Lecture 3, http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/events/reith_99/week3/lecture3.htm)