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Fundamentalisms
printer friendly Beirut, 6 November 2004
The Chicago based scholar and prolific writer Garry Wills gave alarming remarks upon Bush’s victory: “The secular states of modern Europe do not understand the fundamentalism of the American electorate. It is not what they had experienced from America in the past. In fact, we Americans now resemble those nations less than we do our putative enemies.” (International Herald Tribune, November 5, 2004) Speaking of Islamic fundamentalists, Wills added: “It is often observed that enemies come to resemble each other. We torture the torturers, we call our God better than theirs—as one American general put it, in words that the president has not repudiated.” The author of St. Augustine Conversion thus conflates two distinct forms of fundamentalisms into one. Let us assume for a moment that “fundamentalism” is here the right word for both the Muslim extremists and for born-again Christian evangelicals, and let us see whether “Bush’s fundamentalist constituency,” in Wills’ terminology, was what gave him that popular-vote edge on November 2. In the famous exit-polls, which some have misused in the afternoon of election day to prematurely declare a Kerry landslide victory, 23% of voters identified themselves as White evangelical or born-again Christian, out of which 78% voted for Bush and 21% for Kerry. Yet, beside the fact that such numbers do not represent any significant surge to previous elections, the conflation of the so-called “fundamentalism” of the evangelical Christians with that of the Taliban and Muslim Brothers is besides the point. To even think that various forms of religious extremism, which belong to different historical periods and societies, could be easily juxtaposed to one another, only shows how much in our postmodern culture religious and ideological components of cultures could be easily traded off in separation of their political and economic underpinnings. Nor does Wills seem concerned with the fact that the so-called American fundamentalists, presumably of the Red States, are a fraction of close to 300-million Americans which as a nation carry one-third of the world-economy, while the worldwide economic weight of the billion or so Muslims in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia does not exceed the 5%. If the Protestant ethic has been for the last couple of centuries in congruence with the spirit of capitalism, it’s because the routes of salvation are primarily oriented towards a this-worldliness which are not shared by other religions. Much has been said about alleged differences between the Blue and Red States, but the fact is when it comes to ethics of labor, leisure and salvation, the borderlines are not that clear: religious systems are certainly not epiphenomenal, and what distinguishes Europeans from Americans is not that the former have gone secular as Wills would like to think, but that Americans, whether religious or not, think more of their daily labor as their sole route to salvation. One should note in this respect the success of evangelicals in China (over 100-million evangelicals) and on the African continent: in the most rapidly growing capitalist economy in the world, both Confucianism and Marxism have been emptied of their old connotations, and evangelicals come at rescue with their doctrines of discipline, hard labor, and salvation; while in Africa, the dismantlement of tribal values, in addition to the failed nation-states, have pushed large numbers of Africans towards evangelical churches.
Nowhere is this dichotomy between competing worldviews more visible than in the present Iraqi war. No one would contest the legitimate right of Iraqis to resist foreign occupation. What is staggering, however, is the nature and modus operandi of the so-called “resistance” or “insurgency”: Why should the insurgents empty Iraq of its people and national resources? As every individual and institution within the Iraqi territory has become a legitimate target, the nation as-a-whole is being emptied of its resources, which would make it even harder for Iraq to persevere whether the coalition forces stay or leave. To understand the kind of fascist religious zeal behind the resistant-cum-insurgent mentality, which is organized by Iraqis but with substantial Arab and Islamic backing, one must focus on their other-worldliness. Thus, for instance, an assistant to Abu-Musaab al-Zarqawi was reported quoting his boss in Falluja saying that “we’re fighting in Iraq with our eyes targeting other places, such as the holy places in Jerusalem (al-bayt al-muqaddas)…Our eyes are on other places and not simply Iraq.” (al-Hayat, September 10, 2004) When your eyes and body are in one place, and your mind is in Jerusalem, the outcome is a lousy and destructive resistance. Unlike the American evangelicals whose links to their territory is strong and labor oriented, the types of Zarqawi (a Jordanian it should be noted) and his cohorts are bringing to Iraq an abstract kind of resistance whose links to Iraq and its people are not even an issue. Forget about territory, labor, ethics and the economy, since all what matters is an unreachable goal outside the Iraqi territory: the last day of judgement is an image of a “liberated” Jerusalem, back into Muslim hands. Contrary to Wills’ claim that “enemies come to resemble each other,” Americans are having a hard time understanding that kind of destructive resistance, precisely because its religious and moral values are so different from what most Americans believe in. Consider for instance what the head of the Muslim ulama, Shaykh Yusuf Qirdawi, declared in Egypt at the end of August (statements that were later denied): “The kidnapping of Americans and their killing is a duty (wajib), so that they would immediately leave Iraq, and we do not differentiate between civil and military Americans since the former are at the service of the latter.” (al-Hayat, September 2, 2004) But as Americans have become rare and expensive targets, everyone in Iraq—including people from neighboring countries (Turks, Syrians, and Iranians)—have de facto metamorphosed into potential targets. That this has become the daily reality of Iraqis is no big surprise: the culture of terror and death perpetrated by the régime of Saddam Hussein had grafted the appearance of an arbitrary order which worked so well that its chaos was far more intense than anything that had preceded it. What the Iraqi-Arab-Muslim “resistance” is doing so well is its perseverance in the culture of death and terror of the ancien régime.
An idiotic brand of postmodernism conflates religious, political, and socio-economic symbols together to the point that they might become indistinguishable. In his well-advertised 17-minute tape that circulated on al-Jazira the Friday prior to the November 2 election, the media-savvy bin Laden drew parallels between the American and Arab political systems: “We did not encounter any problem dealing with Bush and his administration, considering the similarities (tashabuh) between the latter and the Arab régimes, half of which are ruled by the military, and the other half by the sons of the kings and presidents. Our experiences with them are long enough, as both types have lots of arrogant and omniscient people, who illegally usurp the money of others.” That bin Laden is unable to come up with even basic differences between such widely divergent political systems—including differences among Arab and Islamic régimes—ought to be perceived in parallel to the Iraqi resistance’s indiscriminate behavior: all people are similar, because all are corrupt—all of them help in one way or another the occupier—and because nothing matters—certainly not the economy, ethics, and the well being and happiness of individuals in this world.
Benedict Anderson is known for his thesis on European nationalisms as the outcome of a combination of vernacular languages and print capitalism. By contrast Arab nationalisms, which are much more recent, are the outcome of the colonial post-Ottoman state, which drew borderlines among territories that were part of empire formations, on the one, and the terror of the only-and-one-Leader of the postcolonial state on the other. PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who is now in a state of coma under French medical supervision, is, like the Arab leaders of his generation (Asad, Hussein, Qadhafi, and Nasir), leaving “his” people in a chaotic state. It is a truism that the likes of Arafat, Asad and Hussein have “symbolized” the “nationalistic” aspirations of their people and territorial states, but what is less emphasized is that such leaders, thanks to the state of terror and violence that they’ve managed to maintain for the sake of their “nationalistic” values, have all left their societies floating apart into fragments. Arafat’s coma is an epiphany of the Palestinian leadership scrambling to routinize the charisma of the chief who has now lost all consciousness.
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