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Bringing the Holy War Home | The Nation

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Bringing the Holy War Home

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It often happens that the lunatic right, in its feckless way, gets closer to the heart of the matter than the political mainstream, and so it was with Jerry Falwell's notorious response to September 11. In suggesting that the World Trade Center massacre was God's judgment on an America that tolerates abortion, homosexuality and feminism, Falwell--along with Pat Robertson, who concurred--exposed himself to the public's averted eye. For most Americans, from George W. Bush on down, resist the idea that the attack was an act of cultural war, and fewer still are willing to admit its intimate connection with the culture war at home.

About the Author

Ellen Willis
Ellen Willis directed the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and was a Freda Kirchwey...

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Opponents of the "clash of civilizations" thesis are half right. There is such a clash, but it is not between East and West. The struggle of democratic secularism, religious tolerance, individual freedom and feminism against authoritarian patriarchal religion, culture and morality is going on all over the world--including the Islamic world, where dissidents are regularly jailed, killed, exiled or merely intimidated and silenced. In Iran the mullahs still have police power, but reformist President Khatami has overwhelming popular support and young people are in open revolt against the Islamic regime. In Pakistan the urban middle classes worry that their society may be Talibanized. Even in the belly of the fundamentalist beast, the clandestine Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) has opposed both the Taliban regime and the scarcely less thuggish Northern Alliance.

At the same time, religious and cultural reactionaries have mobilized to attack secular modernity in liberal democracies from Israel to the post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe to the United States. Indeed, the culture war has been a centerpiece of American politics for thirty years or more, shaping our debates and our policies on everything from abortion, censorship and crime to race, education and social welfare. Nor, at this moment, does the government know whether foreign or domestic terrorists are responsible for the anthrax offensive. Yet we shrink from seeing the relationship between our own cultural conflicts and the logic of jihad. We are especially eager to absolve religion of any responsibility for the violence committed in its name: For that ubiquitous current cliché, "This has nothing to do with Islam," read "Antiabortion terrorism has nothing to do with Christianity."

But why then do the great world religions all have brutal fundamentalist fringes that traduce their professed moral principles for the sake of power? The contradiction mirrors the conditions of the patriarchal culture with which these religions are intertwined--a culture that mandates the repression of desire and the control of women in the name of law and order, but which is nonetheless permeated with violence, from rape to war. Is this simply proof of innate evil, original sin, or is it rather that repression gives rise to hidden rage, which constantly seeks an outlet in sanctioned violence--the punishment of wayward children, women, enemies of the state? And of course there can be no violence more sanctioned than holy war.

This dynamic might explain why an undercurrent of sadism is always available to be tapped by demagogues seeking to exploit mass economic misery, the dislocation of war or other social crises. As with fascism, the rise of Islamic totalitarianism has partly to do with its populist appeal to the class resentments of an economically oppressed population and to anger at political subordination and humiliation. But, again like fascism, it is at bottom a violent defensive reaction against the liberal values of the Enlightenment. By its very intensity, moreover, that reaction suggests a defense against not only an external threat but an inner temptation. If exposure to forbidden freedoms aroused in Osama bin Laden and his confrères unconscious rage at their own repression, what better way to ward off the devil than to redirect that rage against it? And if the World Trade Center represented global capitalism--the engine of American might and economic inequality, but also of modernity itself, of all that is solid melting into air--wasn't there yet another, more primal brand of symbolism embodied in those twin phalluses? With one spectacular act, the hijackers could annihilate both the symbol of temptation and its real source--themselves.

Only a small minority of extremists will ever go that far. But throughout the Islamic world many more will admire, sympathize, tolerate and obstruct opposition. For along with the economic suffering and political complaints that terrorists exploit, most of the population shares a cultural formation grounded in the patriarchal conservatism that pervades everyday life in Islamic countries--including those with secular governments like Iraq and Turkey--especially outside the cities and the educated classes. Post-Enlightenment, post-Reformation, postfeminist, post-sexual revolution, liberal democratic America offers a far smaller pool of people in which abortion-clinic bombers and their ilk can hope to swim. Yet the legacy of patriarchalism still weighs on us: Our institutions resist change and our psyches remain more conservative than the actual conditions of our lives. As a result we are deeply anxious and ambivalent about cultural issues, and one way we deal with this is to deny their importance, even sometimes their existence.

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