Bringing the Holy War Home

Bringing the Holy War Home

There is a link between our own cultural conflicts and the logic of jihad.


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.

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.

For the most part Americans speak of culture and politics as if they were two separate realms. Conservatives accuse the left of politicizing culture and see their own cultural-political offensive against the social movements of the 1960s as an effort to restore to culture its rightful autonomy. Centrists deplore the culture war as an artifact of "extremists on both sides" and continually pronounce it dead. The economic-justice left regards cultural politics as a distraction from its efforts to win support for a populist economic program. Multiculturalists pursue the political goal of equality and respect for minority and non-Western cultures, but are reluctant to make political judgments about cultural practices: Feminist universalists like Martha Nussbaum have been regularly attacked for "imposing Western values" by criticizing genital mutilation and other forms of female subjection in the Third World.

The artificial separation of politics and culture is nowhere more pronounced than in the discourse of foreign policy and international affairs. For the US government, economic, geopolitical and military considerations determine our allies and our enemies. Democracy (almost always defined narrowly as a freely elected government, rather than as a way of life) and human rights (only recently construed as including even the most elementary of women's rights) are invoked by policy-makers mainly to justify alliances or antagonisms that already exist. While the cold war inspired much genuine passion on behalf of freedom and the open society, there's no denying that its fundamental motive was the specter of an alternative to capitalism spreading across the globe and encouraging egalitarian heresies at home. The one cultural issue that seems genuinely to affect our relationship with foreign states is our mania for restricting the international drug supply (except when we ourselves are arming drug cartels for some strategic purpose). The left, meanwhile, criticizes the aims of American foreign policy; yet despite intensified concern with human rights in recent years, many leftists still share the government's assumptions about what kinds of issues are important: the neoliberal economic agenda and struggles over resources like oil; the maintenance of friendly client states versus national self-determination; and so on. And like the United States, leftists have displayed their own double standard on human rights, tending to gloss over the abuses of populist or anti-imperialist regimes.

Given these tropisms, it's unsurprising that the absence of religious and personal freedom, brutal suppression of dissent and extreme oppression of women in Islamic theocracies have never been a serious subject of foreign policy debates. Long before the Taliban, many feminists were upset by the singleminded cold war agenda that led the United States to support, even foment, Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan; yet this never became a public issue. Nor did well-publicized Taliban atrocities stop us from giving aid to the regime in return for a crackdown on poppy production. Even now our enthusiasm for the Northern Alliance, which is to the Taliban what Trotsky was to Stalin, is restrained only–irony of ironies!–by the ethnic objections of our new ally, that champion of religious freedom, Pakistan. While the Bush Administration makes self-congratulatory noises about Afghan women's liberation, it is in no hurry to stop fundamentalist warlords from reclaiming power.

Back in the 1950s, in pursuit of our cold war aims in Iran, we overthrew an elected secular government and installed the tyrannical and deeply unpopular Shah, then dumped him in the face of Khomeini's 1979 revolution. Except for feminists, the American left, with few exceptions, enthusiastically supported the revolution and brushed off worries about the Ayatollah, though he had made no secret of his theocratic aims: The important thing was to get rid of the Shah–other issues could be dealt with afterward. Ten years later, on the occasion of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the Bush I Administration appeared far more interested in appeasing Islamic governments and demonstrators offended by Rushdie's heretical book than in condemning Khomeini's death sentence, while an unnerving number of liberals and leftists accused Rushdie and his defenders of cultural imperialism and insensitivity to Muslim sensibilities. Throughout, both defenders and detractors of our alliance with "moderate" Saudi Arabia have ignored Saudi women's slavelike situation, regarding it as "their culture" and none of our business, except when it raises questions about how Americans stationed in the Gulf are expected to behave. It's as if, in discussing South Africa, apartheid had never been mentioned.

There are many things to be learned from the shock of September 11; surely one of the more important is that culture is not only a political matter, but a matter of life and death. It follows that a serious, long-range strategy against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism must entail open and emphatic opposition to theocracy and to the subjugation of women, backed up by support for the efforts of secular and religious liberals, modernizers, democrats and feminists to press for reforms in Middle Eastern and South Asian societies. We might start by including RAWA and other secular elements as players in the discussion of Afghanistan's future; and by giving active aid and comfort to the Iranian reformers and their increasingly rebellious constituents. So far, no Afghans associated with the secular leftist government that predated the 1978 Soviet-backed coup have been party to the political negotiations–indeed, they are the great unmentionable. (While the United States has no problem supporting warlords with gory histories of rape and pillage, evidently any whiff of association with Communism is still beyond the pale.) As for Iran, recent antigovernment, anti-clerical, pro-American mass demonstrations in the wake of the World Cup soccer matches have been virtually ignored by the Bush Administration and, remarkably, have gotten almost no attention in the American press. This must change.

Yet to recognize that the enemy is fundamentalism itself–not "evil" anti-American fundamentalists, as opposed to the allegedly friendly kind–is also to make a statement about American cultural politics. Obviously nothing of the sort can be expected from Bush and Ashcroft. But our problem is not just leaders who are in bed with the Christian right. There is also the tendency of the left and the center to appease the right and downplay the culture war rather than make an uncompromising defense of freedom, feminism and the separation of church and state. It remains to be seen whether fear of terrorism will trump the fear of facing our own cultural contradictions.

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