Friday, May 14, 2010

Is religion a public or a private matter? America as a Jihad State

Abdul Hakim Murad [T.J. Winters]

'Elites which conform to the emerging global monoculture are resistant to the idea that religion might be a factor in the politics of the world’s most modern state'

'Increasingly the elites in the Islamic world read only in English and French, and a survey of local newspapers and vernacular TV channels is unlikely to provide sure clues to their perceptions of the world.'

The present time of slackening is a helpful moment to examine Muslim perceptions of Western religious intention. A kind of seven-year itch following 9/11 seems to have thrown up some possible resolutions of the polarity which look beyond the clearly fruitless ‘security agenda’.

The publication, two years ago, of the Common Word  marked perhaps the clearest and most remarkable sign of this, a genuine shift in the Muslim-Christian equation: David Burrell, one of the most seasoned Catholic specialists of Islam, has spoken of a dramatic turn-about unparalleled in recent history. Even more recently, the fall of the Bush administration has allowed a more measured and less histrionic assessment of America’s engagement with political Islam and political Christianity over the past eight years. The Obama victory was followed within days by the death of Samuel Huntington, most notorious of advocates of the thesis of the mutual allergy of Islam and Christendom. It is a good time to take stock.

In today’s seminar I propose to begin with a survey of changing Middle Eastern perceptions of America following upon the rise of the so-called ‘theocon’ agenda in Bush’s America. I will then move on to some more general considerations of the issue of religious extremism as a strand in the mutual regard – or disregard – of what remains of Christian and Muslim civilisation.

Elites which conform to the emerging global monoculture are resistant to the idea that religion might be a factor in the politics of the world’s most modern state; Islamic activists, by contrast, may brandish evidence of US religiosity as part of their polemic against the secular discourse of the rulers. Furthermore, elites loyal to the monoculture may not have access to the material written in local languages, both monographs and media reports, which should be the basis of our survey. Increasingly the elites in the Islamic world read only in English and French, and a survey of local newspapers and vernacular TV channels is unlikely to provide sure clues to their perceptions of the world. Religionists, by contrast, are typically consumers of a mass media over which they have only very limited influence, subject to the systematic censorship which is still normal in most Muslim states. Hence the media coverage of American fundamentalism has been extremely erratic.

An article by Jaafar Hadi Hassan in al-Hayat in 2003 urged readers to broaden their understanding of US objectives in the region to include the chiliastic. For Hassan, what this means is that Bush’s core electorate are expecting the parousia in their lifetime, as he writes: ‘they believe that occupying Iraq confirms the predictions of the Holy Bible; it is one incident in a series of events before the return of the awaited Christ’. Hassan offers an outline of the history of Christian dispensationalism, summarising the seven ages of the world, and explains how Bush’s voters believe themselves to stand at the threshold of the seventh age: Christ’s millennial reign. Hassan then goes on to identify dispensationalist decision-makers in the Bush team, including Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, a disciple of Billy Graham, and discusses Graham’s son Franklin, in his role as President Bush’s personal religious mentor.

Hassan then summarises the core passages of the Book of Revelation which are central to the world-view of the so-called theocons. Much of Revelation, he writes, is ambiguous, but the role of Iraq in the end-time scenario is clear: Iraq, or ‘Babylon’, will fill the nations with impurity; and an angel of God’s wrath will bring it to destruction, and it will be divided into three parts – exactly what America has achieved.

When that takes place, Jerusalem, the city of true belief, the polar opposite of Babylon, will hear the four angels liberated by the fall of the false city. They will proclaim the imminence of a great battle, and then the reappearance of Jesus. Thus, for Hassan, the next stage in the theocon plan will be the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple, where Christ will preside over the sacrificial rituals to symbolise the restoration of God’s order on earth.

Hassan then concludes with some reflections on right-wing American policies, attempting to fit them all into his interpretation. Pat Robertson, he reports, preaches to the Christian world the inexorable disappearance of virtue, the spread of abortion and sodomy, and the forgetting of God. The environmental crisis is a positive sign that the present world is coming to an end; and this explains, for Hassan, American indifference towards the Kyoto Protocols. Peacemaking is an illusion, even a demonic subversion, since conflict can only come to an end with the millennial reign of Christ.

Hassan’s article is fairly typical of the growing Muslim concern over the influence of America’s radical right. Baffled by the apparent foolhardiness of the Iraq adventure, and the administration’s maximalist support for Israel, Arab commentators have sought a master explanation in the Bible-time beliefs of key Bush decisionmakers.

One key channel has undoubtedly been Christian Arab journalists, whose cultural familiarity with the Bible and with Christian eschatology has allowed them to unravel the famous ‘double-coding’ in presidential speeches, where apparently innocuous phrases turn out to trigger specific Biblical references important to the religious electorate. Particularly impressive was Al-Hayat’s coverage from Washington during the 2008 elections. Its correspondent, Joyce Karam, was alert to the evangelical hesitations over McCain, successor to Bush, as a credible new ra’is injili, or Gospel President. 

Conservative evangelicals will almost invariably vote Republican, she observes, despite McCain’s uneven record on abortion, but some moderate evangelicals, less convinced that religion requires a state of endless Middle Eastern war, have been seduced by the Obama camp, which has adroitly revived the memory of the Carter years. 

Karam has done much to emphasise the centrality of theopolitics in America. Like most Middle Eastern Christians, she is herself at a considerable ideological distance from evangelical Christianity; indeed, the targeting by evangelical missionaries who accompanied the first American military units into Baghdad of Eastern Christian communities as the first object of their attention generated a good deal of resentment; and some Orthodox and Catholic leaders in Middle Eastern countries have, in response, called for a ban on some hardline evangelical churches in their countries.

If there is an interpretation, or an explaining-away, of the embarrassing – to Christian Arab nationalists – fact of American religious violence, then it seems to have been articulated most typically by the Israeli Arab writer and former Knesset member, Azmi Bishara. In a characteristic article in al-Ahram, this left-wing secular Christian interprets the theocon phenomenon by outlining its historic roots in America’s Puritan heritage. 

Bishara’s view is one that I have also heard from Orthodox church leaders in the Middle East. The theocons are a reversion to an older, ‘Jewish’ type of political religion, and have failed to notice that St Paul proclaims the radical inferiority of Judaism and its law. As for the theocon preoccupation with the seer of Patmos, this is also, he believes, a sort of Judaizing. Although he does not explain this, it is possible that he is aware of the literature on the Book of Revelation, which sees it as part of Jewish apocalypticism. Long ago, Bossuet called radical Protestants who stressed this text ‘judaizers’. The true meaning of Revelation is the eschatological revelation of transformed life which is the Church. This was Augustine’s conviction; but not every Protestant has been so happy to explain away the evident violence and retributive quality of the text. 59 percent of Americans, according to a recent poll, affirm its literal truth.

A further case of this has been the coverage of the role of Blackwater, the security firm deployed by the Pentagon in trouble spots such as Iraq. Exempted by Paul Bremer’s Immunity Order No.7 from prosecution by Iraqi authorities, Blackwater operatives were accused of a range of atrocities against Muslim civilians, including the Nisour Square incident late in 2007.

Islamist understandings of Blackwater’s role do not appear to originate in media coverage internal to the Islamic world. Instead, they illustrate a growing familiarity with Western media, including specialised sources.

The sources of Islamist knowledge about the alleged religious agenda of Blackwater appear to be twofold. Firstly, there is a European Parliament report written by Giovanni Claudio Fava, which detailed the connections between Blackwater and the Knights of Malta, a sovereign fraternity of Catholic military elites answerable directly to the Pope. The occasion for the European Parliament’s inquiry was the revelation that two Blackwater subsidiaries were involved in US special rendition flights. Fava confirmed the connection with the Knights of Malta, and indicated that Malta is one of Blackwater’s primary operational bases. Its vice-president, Cofer Black, had been the CIA officer responsible for special renditions of detainees to pro-Western regimes which employed torture as an interrogation method.

The second source is the bestselling book on Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill. Blackwater’s rendition flights have frequently been routed through Malta, to the concern of the island’s press. And the practice of rendition (terminated now, we are told, by the Obama administration), has also triggered Arab media concern with the interrogation style and cultural policies applied to Muslim suspects in American custody.

The final conduit through which information on US theopolitics has reached the Middle East has been the translation of Kimberly Blaker’s collection of essays by academics, first published as The Fundamentals of Extremism in 2003. In 2006, an Arabic translation, Usul al-Tatarruf, appeared with the Cairo-based publishing house Dar al-Shuruq, eclectic promoters of everything from the novels of Naguib Mahfuz to the fundamentalist manifestos of Sayyid Qutb. This is a careful and responsible translation of an important text, perhaps, along with Chris Hedges’ book American Fascists, the best study of the subject yet to appear.

What is illuminating about this interesting clash of fundamentalisms? There are asymmetries which demand to be listed prominently. Most evidently, one needs no Marxian baggage to observe that Islamic civilisation, with minor Gulf exceptions, is a Lazarus at the gate of Dives. Christianity, which emerged – pace the prosperity-gospellers – as a discourse of the poor, has become the favoured sacred space of the wealthiest and most competitive economic culture that has ever evolved. For the theocons this is not a paradox but a grace from God.

Islamism, however, exists in order to refute this discourse. Despite its abhorrence of Sufi asceticism, and its generally conservative social ethos, it often takes itself to be a site of resistance to wealth and privilege. It is not figured as Babylon – that was the self-serving secularity of Saddam and the Ba’th elite – but as Ishmael. Like the dispensationalists, the Islamists are unnerved by the absence of God – the deus absconditus who because of the sins of the faithful allowed the rise of liberal secularity and the decline of faith. 

Yet the Islamist response is precisely the old trope of God’s preference for the underdog. For Boykin, God is with America, and this is shown by America’s economic and martial prowess; for the Islamists, God is with Ishmael, as is shown, again, by America’s economic and martial prowess. 

The global panopticon of surveillance is not reciprocated by Al-Qaida; neither are the ever more stringent visa laws which, like the ha-ha around an English stately home, exclude trespassing animals while remaining hardly visible from the house itself. Attorney-General John Ashcroft has himself anointed with holy oil, denounces church-state separation as ‘a wall of religious oppression’, and seeks to implement God’s law. Islamists do just the same. Yet theirs is a site of resistance, on behalf of Ishmael’s ‘black house in Mecca’, against the evangelical White House, in the city of Masonic symbolism, seen as the nerve-centre of Pharaonic evil. This is not the pacifism and political indifferentism of the Gospels, nor a Baptist joy in God’s empowerment of His covenant people; it is more akin to Amos’ prophecy of the uprising of the poor.

No doubt this tendency can be seen in simple terms as a decadence. Or, as Cardinal Newman put it, ‘the nation drags down its Church to its own level.’ But it is a protest against decadence as well. If the modern world is experienced as a kind of Mardi Gras, all differences levelled in the pursuit of pleasure and the right to pleasure, and if mainline denominations have substantively acceded to monocultural values and the ideology of progress, then the fight for difference, including a difference that can only exist by discriminating, can to some extent claim to be a site of real resistance. Milan Kundera writes that ‘the struggle of men against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’The end of history finds it hard not to be an end of memory, and therefore of the self: Foucault’s end of man. 

Where mainline belief still manages to be full of passionate conviction, it will probably prefer enlightenment in the form of better education. In an era of connectivity, few seem to know anything: Muslims may be able to name Pat Robertson and John Hagee, but are likely to ignore the existence of the archbishop of Chicago. Similarly, few in Christendom can yet name a single Muslim leader. This was brought home in an absolute way last year, when two magazines, Foreign Affairs and Prospect, sponsored a global survey to find the world’s hundred most influential public intellectuals. The overall winner was Fethullah Gülen, a fact that surprised few in the Muslim world, but baffled Westerners familiar only with the names of radicals.

I also mentioned, as a sign of this, the Common Word, whose extraordinary trajectory is still unfolding, and which in many ways is calming tensions which the ongoing securitization of the world may only sharpen. Last July, the Common Word process reached Yale Divinity School, which had already coordinated a response by over three hundred evangelical thinkers. 

The final communiqué of the conference saw the evangelicals present endorsing language about a common ‘Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic heritage’, rooted in the two commandments of love of God and love of neighbour. The initiative was denounced by some more radical Christians and Muslims, but it was clear that an important conversation had fruitfully begun. The mood of the participants seemed to be one of determination not only to confound misperceptions, but to demonstrate to the world’s media, and perhaps even to Slavoj Zizek, that scriptural fidelity, seen by many Muslims as the dynamo of America’s current wars, can yield conviviality as well as conflict. Religion, they concluded, is worth belonging to, but only when it supplies more than just belonging.

Read full paper: 

America as a Jihad State:
Middle Eastern perceptions of modern American theopolitics

Faith and Public Policy Seminar
Kings College, London, 21.04.09

© Abdal-Hakim Murad [April 2009] 

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