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Thursday, December 30, 2004


destroying culture talk

in some ways, i think "culture talk" -- the habit of ascribing the views of people to their culture instead of their particularity -- is replacing the racism of the early 20th century in the renewed dialectic of fascism throughout the west. it's common now to talk of the problem with islam in the same manner is was once common to talk about the problem with blacks or the problem with jews. culture talk is the simultaneous grouping, reducing and propagandizing an entire class of people with simple synthetic statements regarding qualities one wishes to believe true of them based on some particular event or smaller faction -- in our emerging case, muslims are violent.

of course, this is as ridiculous as converse culture statements that could be made about ourselves -- americans are free, or americans are stupid.

mahmood mamdani, writing for foreign affairs, reviews new books by gilles kepel and olivier roy as breakthroughs against such uselessly reductive thought.

Their differences notwithstanding, public intellectuals such as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis agree that religion drives both Islamic culture and politics and that the motivation for Islamist violence is religious fundamentalism. Ascribing the violence of one's adversaries to their culture is self-serving: it goes a long way toward absolving oneself of any responsibility.
kepel instead traces the historical development of islamist political philosophy, noting its influences in wahhabism, the muslim brotherhood and the anticommunist west or reagan. he paints a complex picture as a means of understanding al-qaeda -- something particularly valuable in our heavily reductive, propagandized times.

mamdani particularly notes the parallelism of al-qaeda and american neoconservatism -- an idea i've not encountered before -- which kepel discusses but, mamdani says, does not sufficiently understand.

The neoconservatives, Kepel rightly notes, were convinced that the Oslo accords were a trap; some even thought that the entire "[Middle East] peace process posed a potentially fatal risk to the Jewish state." Their alternative to negotiation was to redraw the map of the entire region through occupation, assuming, in a simple-minded analogy with Eastern Europe, that if they blew up the government apparatus of rogue states, the newly liberated peoples would embrace their occupation with gratitude. But Kepel misses the implications of his own observation, largely because he presumes a linear development from U.S. conservatives to neoconservatives that prevents him from understanding what distinguishes the two groups. Is it not precisely the potent mix of cold-blooded interest and hot-blooded ideology that distinguishes neoconservatives who link George W. Bush to Reagan from the conservatives who drove foreign policy under George H.W. Bush?

As a result, Kepel misses key parallels between neoconservatives and jihadists. In addition to the mix of interest and ideology, the two groups share global ambitions and a deep faith in the efficacy of politically motivated violence, and both count among their ranks cadres whose biographies are often tainted by early stints in the Trotskyist or the Maoist left. Both jihadists and neoconservatives are products of the Cold War, when ideologically driven violence was embraced by all sides, secular and religious. Kepel's failure to see this commonality ultimately limits his understanding of jihadist politics, heir not only to the traditions of the quietist Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood, but perhaps even more so to recent secular traditions, such as Third World anti-imperialism and the Reaganite determination to win "by any means necessary."
roy, for his part, says mamdani, characterizes the new islamist fundamentalism as a consequence of sociopolitical changes that hinge upon the migration of western individualism to the islamic world:

For Roy, neofundamentalist Islam is "born-again Islam" and strictly a product of the diaspora. Islamic religious debate is no longer monopolized by the learned ulema (teachers); as they have turned to the Internet, the neofundamentalists have also become tulaab (students). As a result, "religion has been secularized, not in the sense that it is under the scrutiny of modern sciences, but to the extent that it is debated outside any specific institutions or corporations." (much like the protestant reformation -- gm) With the traditional ethnic community left behind, "the disappearance of traditional values ... [has laid] the groundwork for re-Islamisation," which has largely become an individual project. "Islamic revivalism goes hand in hand" with a modern trend: the "culture of the self."

The growing individualization of religious practices has prompted believers to create a new community that transcends strict geography. The consequences of these changes have been contradictory. Those who have succeeded in reconciling the self with religion have tended to embrace a "liberal" or "ethical" version of Islam; those who have not have been prone to embrace "neofundamentalist Salafism." Meanwhile, the quest "to build a universal religious identity, de-linked from any specific culture," has come at a price, because such an Islam is "by definition an Islam oblivious to its own history." As a result, "the quest for a pure Islam [has] entail[ed] also an impoverishment of its content," Roy writes, and the ironic consequence of this quest is "secularization, but in the name of fundamentalism."
but, importantly, roy delinks islamist violence from religion -- it is political violence against american imperialism, regardless of its religious affliation, he says, and in that way i suppose no different from the kind witnessed in northern ireland.

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