Faith and Public Policy Seminar
Kings College, London, 21.04.09
© Abdal-Hakim Murad [April 2009]
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.
My survey is needfully imprecise. Determining a generic Muslim view is seldom possible: regional, sectarian and educational variants see to that. 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. Egyptian newspapers such as al-Ahram have devoted a good deal of space to it; while the Saudi-controlled al-Sharq al-Awsat has hardly mentioned it at all.
But for all the measurement problems, the transformation of Muslim perceptions of America is undoubted. Only two weeks ago, in the Sahara desert near Timbuktu, I listened to a wholly traditional Sufi leader expound the view that America’s violence towards the Muslim world is the consequence of a sahwa misihiyya, a Christian revival. He was well-aware of the role of the Christian Coalition in the run-up to the Iraq war, despite living in a region where I saw no newspapers, and where internet access is almost impossible. Yet he was familiar with the names of Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, and other icons of the Christian Right. For him, Alan Greenspan’s explanation of the Iraq invasion in terms of America’s need for oil was unpersuasive: Bush and his team were crusaders, servants of Israel, and harbingers of the violent Second Coming of Christ.
Here is another anecdotal sign, this time from the opposite end of the cultural spectrum. In November of 2005, a very different group of Muslims gathered in Casablanca for the second symposium of an Arab-American Dialogue. The sponsor was the right-wing Values Institute, and the subject was the familiar one of the relationship between religion and state in the Arab and American contexts. The American team presented a critique of Arab society based on the assumption that its political processes were rooted either in medieval Islamic thought (essentially Mawardi’s model), or in modern radical Islamism, with its doctrine of tawhid al-hakimiyya (unity of sovereignty in God). The Arab team, mainly composed of secular intellectuals, attempted to explain that most modern Arab regimes, as nationalist autocracies, do not see themselves as standing in continuity with either tradition. They then explained that political thought lies largely in the ijtihadi category of rulings, and is hence one of those institutions of Shari’a law which are readily susceptible to change.
At this point the discussion grew more interesting. Some of the Arab thinkers present raised the issue of American theopolitics, citing Tocqueville’s well-known observations about the coexistence of American official laicism with popular religiosity, and pointing out that many modern Muslim jurisdictions preside over a broadly similar separation. But as in the world of Islam, where popular religious convictions on, say, alternative sexualities, or abortion, can still influence the decision-making of the officially secular elites, American politicians cannot and do not ignore the hundred million or so voters who grade politicians for their correctness on religion-specific issues. The report inal-Sharq al-Awsat continued: ‘our American colleagues (some of whom play an influential role in the American decision making process) failed to respond objectively and precisely to the fears of their Arab partners concerning the role of Christian fundamentalism in American political decision-making.’
In the early years of the decade, a major concern of Muslim commentators seemed to be Christian Zionism. Al-Ahram, and the Lebanese-rooted newspaper Al-Hayat, ran a number of op-ed pieces interpreting the indulgence shown towards Israel by the Bush presidency in terms of the influence of pro-Israel evangelicals. Typically the Iraq invasion was interpreted in terms of the end-time persuasions of some members of the White House staff and the Pentagon. For instance, 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.
As Hassan notes, this interpretation of American actions is new. And it will be helpful to trace the conduits by which, in a highly-censored media environment not particularly open to innovation, such a sea-change in understanding has been effected.
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’scoverage 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 then smartly accounts for the last-minute and apparently desperate appointment of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running-mate. Altogether, she presents a persuasive account to her Arab readers of Obama’s rise to power: religious politics, as well as the economy or a general post-conflict tristesse, are a vital hermeneutic key.
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. For Bishara, the New Testament does not provide guidance, other than ‘a universal message of love and understanding.’ The Puritans, however, ‘stressed the moral code expressed in the Old Testament.’ The violence of so much American religion can be traced back to Puritan holy wars against Native Americans, and thence to Cromwell’s Biblically-preoccupied New Model Army. Apparently revisiting perhaps the oldest trope in Christian anti-Semitism, the law-versus-spirit dichotomy, Bishara concludes that this is a Judaizing Christianity, which turns the Gospels into a simple extension of what he sees as the unpleasant, lawbound violence of the Hebrew Bible. Although Protestantism, for Bishara, is naturally anti-Semitic, he believes that the Jewish lobby, and the power of Hollywood, have ‘managed to twist the US obsession with the Bible into something akin to political Zionism and support for Israel’.
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.
Another view is offered by Ghassan Rubeiz, the former secretary for the Middle East of the World Council of Churches, who is also widely-read in the Arab media. Rubeiz, evidently aware of modern sensitivities about anti-Semitism, chooses not to adopt the old trope of ‘Judaizing Christianity’, but offers a sociological account. He asks why the religious right is now the prevalent form of religion in America, with mega-churches experiencing boom times while older, self-styled ‘mainline’ churches are in steady decline. His interpretation is conventionally sociological, and somewhat moralising: America’s ever-increasing social mobility and rootlessness, with an unstable job market and the rise in divorce and remarriage, allows fundamentalist preachers to offer a simple explanation of an otherwise confusing world: geography resolves into Christendom and the lands of darkness; while history is interpreted as a series of Biblically-foretold signs, culminating in the imminent end of ambiguity and doubt at the Rapture and the Second Coming.
Turning now to more overtly religious mass media – a small part of the whole in the Middle East – we encounter an increasing sophistication and level of awareness. While takfiri Salafi formations such as those which self-identify as al-Qaida are content to use generic terms such as ‘crusading’ to account for American interventions in the Muslim world, and offer simple accounts of the power of the Jewish lobby over Christians paralyzed with guilt over the Holocaust, mainline Islamism can adopt a slightly more analytic view. One example would be the coverage by the Turkish religious newspaper Zaman of President Bush’s enthusiastic reading of the memoirs of Oswald Chambers, a Baptist missionary who accompanied the British invasion of Ottoman Palestine in 1917, and whose crusading manual is still popular inspirational reading for advocates of ‘faith-based war’.
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. Meticulously referenced, this book convinced many in the West that the leadership of Blackwater was driven by a hard-line Christian agenda deployed by, as Scahill puts it, ‘extreme religious zealots’. Scahill records that its boss, former Pentagon Inspector General Joseph Schmitz, is himself a knight of Malta. He is also shown as a vociferous preacher on behalf of a crusading ideology for our time, his recurrent theme being ‘the rule of law under God.’ America’s role in the world is to bring God’s law to all humanity, in what Scahill terms a vision of ‘Christian supremacy’.
Scahill’s book appeared in March 2007, and became a world bestseller, following intense speculation about the shadowy global crusaders and their role in the Pentagon’s new wars against Islamists. A month later, a review appeared on a website connected to the Muslim Brotherhood leader Shaykh Yusuf al-Qardawi. The review homes in on the religious ideology of the Blackwater leadership, particularly Erik Prince, the founder-chairman, a figure already known to the Arab press. Prince, the review states, is a ‘secretive, neo-crusader mega-millionaire … a major bankroller of President George Bush.’ On Scahill’s account, with his connections to right-wing Catholic groups Prince believes that Blackwater is an important vehicle for ensuring the central role of Christianity in US public policy. As he says: ‘Everybody carries guns, just like the Prophet Jeremiah rebuilding the temple in Israel – a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other.’
The explosion of interest in Blackwater’s right-wing Catholic affiliations had several consequences, most notably an instruction purporting to be from al-Qaida summoning Muslims to attack the Knights of Malta embassy in Cairo. (In the event, nobody bothered.)
On the other end of the spectrum, Jordanian MP Jamal Muhammad Abidat wrote in the Abu Dhabi newspaper Al-Bayan that the revelations about the religious motivations of the Blackwater management shed new and disturbing light on American intentions:
The painful saga of modern Arab-Muslim history evokes the battles fought in the Crusades of the 11th century, when the Knights of Malta began their operations as a Christian militia whose mission it was to defend the land conquered by the Crusaders. These memories return violently to mind with the discovery of links between the so-called security firms in Iraq such as Blackwater have historic links with the Knights of Malta. You cannot exaggerate it. The Order of Malta is a hidden government, or the most mysterious government in the world.
The notion of the world’s largest mercenary army, accused of arbitrary and excessive violence in Iraq, being led by soldiers who take a direct oath of obedience to a Pope who has already become unpopular for his comments on Islam, has now entered a very wide circulation.
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.
While it is not possible for the media to know precisely what procedures have been used at the various black sites around the globe, there is extensive public domain documentation about American practices at the Guantanamo Bay facility. The various methods of humiliation are known to be deployed by interrogators schooled in what they take to be the cultural vulnerabilities of Arabs and Muslims – the use of loud rock music, insults to female family members, nudity, comparing prisoners to rats and dogs, forcing detainess to wear female clothes: all this has been familiar in the Muslim world since, in June 2005, Time magazine published classified logs from the interrogation of the Saudi prisoner Muhammad al-Qahtani.
Culturally-specific interrogation techniques designed to cause maximum distress to Muslim detainees are, of course, likely to cause maximum outrage to Muslim public opinion. The provocation has been particularly acute in the case of the religiously-specific interrogation methods reported at Guantanamo. Best-known have been the repeated instances of ‘Qur’an abuse’ by guards; but the use of Christian imagery to humiliate prisoners is also well-documented, such as the use of crosses to which prisoners point or reach to indicate that they are ready to talk. Take, for instance, the poem by Mohammed El-Gharani, a fourteen year-old Chadian taken to Guantanamo (since released):
We saw such insults from them,
Not even the book of God was protected.
Along with their malice, they were foolish.
Tribulations, then hitting and imbecility.
For they are a people without reasonable minds,
Due to their supply of alcoholic drinks.
The ‘Greasy’ arrived, in our state of need,
On the condition that we raise the card with a cross.
‘If you want dignity and protection,
Then raise the cross for protection.’
All of us threw the card away,
Intent that our spirits be redeemed in sacrifice.
With literature like this reaching the Muslim world, memories of the Inquisition are rekindled: the convicted Morisco spitting on the cross that the inquisitor raises before him, refusing the kiss that will save him from the pyre.
Also popular among Muslims is the memoir of the former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo, James Yee, who was arrested on what turned out to be spurious charges. He describes the curiously religious atmosphere on the base, with camp commander Major-General Geoffrey Miller at the forefront of morning prayers with his guards and interrogators before they dispersed to their tasks. To his recollection, religiously specific forms of abuse, such as desecration, were woven into the system;  ‘Gitmo’s secret weapon,’ he writes, ‘was the use of religion against the prisoners.’ The evangelical Miller, shortly afterwards, departed for Iraq with a brief to ‘Gitmoize’ the prison facility at Abu Ghreib. He was sent there by General William Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, himself a hardline evangelical, who regularly preaches in uniform, claiming to his congregations that ‘Satan wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.’ But ‘they will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus.’ Perceived evangelical control of the major detention facilities in the War on Terror has again had a substantive impact on Muslim public opinion.
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.
Through all of these channels, then, the perception of the leading Western nation as profoundly driven by Christian dispensationalism has become widespread in the Middle East. The consequence has been far-reaching: whereas ten years ago Muslims tended to view America as a secular republic containing many religious Christians, the perception is now gaining ground that America is a specifically Christian entity, whose policies on Israel, and whose otherwise mystifying violence against Muslims, whether in occupied countries or in detention, can most helpfully be explained with reference to the Bible.
Reflecting on this historic transformation, some remarks on the irony of the mutual regard are inescapable. Superficially, the dispensationalism of the Bush years appears as a mirror image of takfiri Salafism; this parallel has been drawn by, amongst others, Tariq Ali in his 2002 book The Clash of Fundamentalisms, and also, in a more theologically nuanced way, by the Turkish writer Sule Albayrak in her 2007 work on radical Christianity. In the vision of General Boykin, leader of the hunt for Bin Laden, the world seems to divide into an abode of peace, freedom and love, presided over by America’s believing army, and an abode of war, a Muslim Babylon, the necessary object of invasion and subsequent economic and cultural control. This is what Albayrak refers to as moral Manicheanism. Evangelical leaders are mullahs, issuing fatwas which sanctify wars which devastate whole nations. The enemy is Satan himself, opposed by Hegelian heroes: Boykin, Zarqawi, Miller. Scripture supplies values and law; secularity is Godless hubris and the reign of darkness. Each side figures itself primarily as the virtuous opposite of the Other: Boykin is raised by God to challenge Bin Laden; just as Charlemagne existed because of al-Ghafiqi. Rights are easily suspended: Islamists kill civilians with reference to maslaha (the public interest); Washington corrals and kills suspects in the spirit of Tocqueville himself, who had supported the total abolition of human rights in order to suppress the 1848 Paris revolution. Both call for a utopia established through maximal constraint. Both hold, with Robespierre, that virtue and terror are the Revolution’s twin children (although Boykin will not attribute terror to himself, but will speak of ‘shock and awe’). Both, finally, are erastian in their constitutional thinking: the established religious leaders are to be bypassed as false mediators, in favour of a divine sovereignty exercised by the king alone. Such warriors are clear that they take their orders directly from God. As Bush himself said: ‘I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.’
We are suspicious of such tidiness. In a facile way members of each culture can exonerate themselves by pointing to reciprocities on the other side; and at times Albayrak seems to do this, as does, for instance, William Arkin, with his denunciation of the Pentagon’s ‘Christian jihad’. More taxingly, the discourse of a clear mirroring implies that the internal differentia of Christianity and Islam have no entailments today.
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.
Hence, instead of a simple symmetry, we might prefer to diagnose a rescuscitation of the ancient theme of Rome and Jerusalem, beloved of Tacitus, and present in its most iconic form in Josephus. Hamas are the sicarii, the assassins of occupied Judea, who die in suicide missions against their Herodian and Roman overlords. Their struggle includes violence against local collaborators and quislings, who have failed to observe that God’s law alone applies, and that the civic space of Rome, now the global empire of the monoculture, has its foundations in anthropolatry: public sports, the shameless cult of the body, the greed of the forum. Rome, in contempt at the rebels, deploys its Herod, whose name may not only be Mahmud Abbas, but is also Asif Zardari and Husni Mubarak, and many others besides, as the loyal subject of a world empire in which lesser deities may be tolerated only in the private space. The public square is ruled by the son of God alone, divi filius, the ancient title of the emperor and his deputies.
Such a vision may help us to penetrate the optimism of the apocalyptic Islamist. Even utter defeat at Masada is reckoned a victory for the Zealot martyr, who, therefore, can never be defeated. Guantanamo has been the zealot’s triumph: during six excruciating years, several camp guards convert to Islam, but not a single inmate reaches for the Cross. Under the unblinking eye of the evangelical in Ray-Bans and crew-cut, the detainee may go insane, or may attempt suicide, but he is not defeated. Rome, he knows, will fall in the end; God is with the tormented.
So the cage, the great panopticon in the sun, inverts its creator’s purpose. It was built, it now seems, not to extract confessions – since the more significant suspects remained always out of view in the black sites – but as a therapeutic exhibition akin to the victory parades of Titus and Vespasian. The American soul was wounded on 9/11, and the parade of naked humiliated men in beards at Camp X-ray was an icon which it could contemplate, and in which it could find healing. Jesus himself will stare, with eyes of fire, at the sinners, before consigning them to torment everlasting; and the Cuban cages seemed to serve as a proleptic anticipation of the vengeance of Christ promised in the Bible. Yet still the icon failed. In the world of Islam it was read as a kind of monastic parody, where prisoners whose crimes were always doubtful, but whose Muslimness was certain, were tormented by Christians. For many in the world of Islam it also represented, in the most public way, the private habits of the local Herods, whose cages are also full of same kind of animals.
Rome may torment the body, and Herod is even keener to do so. But her main instrument of pain is psychological. In the mid-19th century, American penal reformers invented the Philadelphia System, following the idealistic British innovations at Pentonville. For the most enlightened reasons, physical abuse was abolished as a relic of the medieval past, to be replaced by modern and hygienic methods of intangible pressure. Prisoners were to be referred to only by numbers. They would be permitted no visitors and no letters, and would wear black hoods whenever taken from their cells. Silence was universally imposed. ‘In the penitentiary, the sense of criminal community was voided: All other prisoners were silent, invisible abstractions to the man in his solitary cell. The republic of crime was vaporized, and all social sense along with it, leaving only a disoriented, passive obedience.’
Charles Dickens, visiting Philadelphia’s new Eastern Penitentiary, was terrified by this enlightened Benthamite machine:
I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts … There is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers can fathom. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface … therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.
No less Benthamite is the new willingness to abandon ancient precedent and to convict on the basis of alleged intention. The Kafaesque trial of Jose Padilla, driven to the brink of insanity by his treatment, is only the most notorious case of this. The panopticon will not allow even the mind to be a private space.
Here we might learn from Slavoj Zizek’s division of violence into three kinds: subjective, symbolic, and systemic. This violence against the subject, recently curtailed in President Obama’s directives, is more than replicated not only by Herod, in the prisons of Egypt or Tunisia, but by the zealots themselves: whatever their liberative cast of mind, the zealots have not hesitated to use forms of physical pain far greater than those documented at Guantanamo. This has been the pattern of Islamist revolt since the time when the enragés of the Iranian revolution, moralising about the Shah’s secret police, quickly brought in Ayatollah Khalkhali as their own Robespierre. But more substantial, Zizek claims, is symbolic violence ‘embodied in language and its forms, what Heidegger would call our “house of being”.’ By this he means the monoculture’s imposition of ‘a certain universe of meaning’:
In our secular, choice-based societies, people who maintain a substantial religious belonging are in a subordinate position. Even if they are allowed to maintain their belief, this belief is ‘tolerated’ as their idiosyncratic personal choice or opinion. The moment they present it publicly as what it is for them, say a matter of substantial belonging, they are accused of ‘fundamentalism’. What this means is that the subject of ‘free choice’ in the Western ‘tolerant’ multicultural sense can emerge only as the result of an extremely violent process of being torn out of a particular lifeworld, of being cut off from one’s roots.
For Zizek, then, religion is always oppressed by the monoculture. An example would be the monoculture’s insistence that freedom of expression, which in practice favours those with access to media and money, always forms part of human dignity. If remnants of non-monocultural worlds complain, as they do, that they prefer to suffer physical over symbolic violence, the monoculture appears to have no reply. The Muslim who says she would rather be tortured than hear her Prophet insulted is, from the perspective of the monoculture, simply living in the wrong world. The present world, of a passionate susurration of anti-Muslim sentiment, is the only world that exists. Those who experience it as violent must learn to experience it differently.
Zizek’s third category, systemic violence, takes us back to Ishmael, and his casting-out into the desert by the regnant forms of modern Biblicism. Zizek, of course, prefers to think in terms of Marx. Turbo-capitalism, now amusingly on trial, is straightforwardly at fault for the infant mortality rate in Mali. It also generates terrorism. He writes of ‘the hypocrisy of those who, while combatingsubjective violence, commit systemic violence that generates the very phenomena they abhor.’
What is notable, for Islamist observers, in the experiment with radical Christianity during the Bush years, is not so much an adjustment in Christendom’s systemic violence towards the East, which they regard as a historical constant. What they seem to find refreshing is that the core religious differentials, once politely or even sincerely buried away, are now in the foreground. Both Islam and Christianity claim to be reverting to themselves. Yet historians might demur: the processes of identity-retrieval in fact yield a growing distance from historic mainstreams. In the former world, kalam, Sufism, and classical legal and political thought are giving way to an insistence on building a scriptural commonwealth which champions the rights of the righteous, and in which the classical Islamic denial of legislative powers to the state is replaced by a totalitarian centrism. In Christendom, some forty percent of Americans believe that the anti-Christ is already on the earth; and nine percent would like to see the Bible become the ‘only’ source of legislation.Europeans may shrug, but even in the UK, the number of worshippers at one Pentecostal church in Walthamstow this Easter Sunday was more than double the congregations at St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey combined, and the presiding pastor, an advocate of the prosperity gospel, is very clear that Israel is Isaac, while the Arabs are Ishmael, the outcast.
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. Fifty years ago, during another age of polarities, Arthur Schlesinger wrote that Western man was in crisis; casting around for a catharsis, he thought that the Cold War must be used as an opportunity to wake him up. Even further back, the Puritans found that ‘the world’s peace is the keenest war against God’, leading to complacency and the death of the spirit. Tocqueville thought that France’s invasion of Algeria would reawaken it from post-Napoleonic lassitude. Hannah Arendt, reflecting on both Nazism and Communism, concluded that the content of ideology tends to be less attractive than the invigorating fact of belonging to it, of being steered in a rudderless world. As at Guantanamo, where guilt is not the issue, what matters is the mere fact of belonging.
These examples, drawn from Corey Robin’s recent study of political fear, are linked by the idea that it is rootlessness which drives people into the arms of apparently absurd conflictual certainties. Today, the Saudification of Islam, or the Southernization of America, are both strengthened by this modern anomie. Earlier ages suffered it, but we are endangered by it far more, since we are that much further from tradition. What is after post-modernity? When it arrives, whatever it is, can it possibly allow the puer aeternus (Jung’s contemptuous diagnosis of our post-sacred condition) once more to achieve adulthood?
For Zizek, the two fundamentalisms will only be neutralised when the world appreciates the value of a public neutrality, thus resurrecting the central energy of the Enlightenment. His prescription and prediction, then, are startlingly conservative, converging with the polemics of Roger Scruton: one recalls the way in which Islam has reconciled the Hitchens brothers. As in the time of Charlemagne, the West will be united by Islam, but whereas for American believers this will be around a banner of political Christianity, Zizek hopes for a secular revival.
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.
The Other remains indistinct, as may be seen in the rhetoric of the radicals on both sides. Neither side knows its enemy. The author of the Patriot Act, a US attorney-general known for speaking in tongues, became precise and articulate when explaining who was threatening America. But what was the public to think when, in the UK, Robin Cook expressed strong doubts about al-Qaida’s very existence? A vast industry of agencies and experts, many with religious axes to grind, has sprung up to profit from the ‘War on Terror’. One is tempted to recall David Healy’s book Mania, which claims that pharmaceutical companies have invented a series of mental illnesses, paying off opinion formers in the universities, in order to profit from the promotion of new drugs. Nothing is more lucrative than fear seasoned with ignorance.
The consequences of this aporia for the mutual regard of Christianity and Islam have been very negative. Christendom is increasingly figuring itself as what is not-Muslim, as ‘the world’s leading Bible-reading crusader state’; while the Islamic world considers itself under military and cultural attack from Christians (but not often from Buddhists, Hindus or others). Everywhere there is the complaint that the moderates have not done enough to denounce the extremists. As Jan Linn says: ‘The virtual silence within the Christian community about the rise of the Christian Right is partly responsible for its gaining mainstream status.’ Zizek turns out to be no better than the culture he critiques: at no point does he suggest that Christianity and Islam are anything other than their extremes. He intuits that the new fundamentalism is part of the chaos and identity-seeking of late modernity. Yet his reignition of the lumieres carries little philosophical promise of anything better. If scientists are now writing books like Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will, if we are told that what we do simply happens to us, then how likely are we to find any true humanism outside the imaginative world of theism? Put Islamically, can we look for any morality in a secular world which denies our acquisition,kasb, of our actions? Zizek should not assume so quickly that the believer’s cynicism about secular ethics cannot be accompanied by an ethical alternative.
I began by suggesting that we are now in what feels like an aftermath, following the closure of the Bush parenthesis. Obama feels like Charles the Second: after a decade of Puritan sermons on sin and redemption, divine immanentism, providence, and the special destiny of the people, the population has grown tired, and the flags have begun to disappear from the churches.
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, theCommon 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.