www.masud.co.uk > Shaikh Abdal-Hakim Murad

America as a Jihad State:

Middle Eastern perceptions of modern American theopolitics

© Abdal-Hakim Murad, 2013

‘I love America, such a wonderful country – such a shame to see it taken over by religious fundamentalists.’
                                                   (Iranian diplomat, cited in 2011)[1]

The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 atrocities provides a helpful opportunity to consider recent evolutions in Muslim perceptions of Western religious intention. The rhetoric and dichotomies of the immediate aftermath have receded, and the more recent years have seemed to initiate some possible resolutions of the polarity which look beyond the faltering and controversial ‘security agenda’. The publication in 2007 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 scholars of Islam, wrote of a dramatic turn-about unparalleled in the recent history of the relationship.[2] More recently, the fall of the Bush administration seemed to permit a more measured and less histrionic assessment of America’s travails with political Islam and political Christianity over the years since 2001. 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 this essay I propose to examine one of the less frequently-noted of post-9/11 developments by attempting a survey of changing Middle Eastern perceptions of America following the increased visibility of so-called ‘theocon’ tendencies in Washington under George Bush Jr. I will then move on to some more general reflections on the issue of scripturally-based political xenophobia as a strand in the mutual regard – or disregard – of what remains of Christian and Muslim civilisation, and its implications for the wider atmosphere in which the Muslim-Christian engagement is conducted.

The approach is necessarily imprecise. Determining a generic Muslim view of this (or of most things) is hardly possible: regional, sectarian and educational variables see to that. Muslim elites which conform to the emerging global monoculture have often been resistant to the idea that religion might be a factor in the politics of a country which is such a leading icon of modernity, while Islamists, by contrast, may exaggerate US official religiosity in order to appeal to audiences who think in religious terms, or, on occasion, to bolster a polemic against the secular discourse of the regimes. A further difficulty is that Muslim elites attracted to the monoculture may not have access to the books and media reports written in local languages which should form the basis of our survey. Increasingly such elites read only in English and French, and a survey of regional newspapers and vernacular TV channels is unlikely to provide sure clues to their perceptions of the world. As a final complication, their subject populations are typically consumers of mass media over which they exert only a very limited influence, and which are shaped by the censorship which is still normal in most Muslim states. Hence the Middle Eastern media coverage of American fundamentalism has been extremely erratic, and our conclusions can be no more than tentative.

But for all the measurement problems, the transformation of Muslim perceptions of America has been considerable. In 2009, at the edge of the Tanezrouft desert near Timbuktu, the present writer listened to a traditional Sufi shaykh expounding the view that America’s ‘violence towards Muslims’ (i‘tida’ ‘ala’l-muslimin) is the consequence of a sahwa masihiyya, a Christian revival. He seemed 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 entirely unpersuasive:[3] Bush and his team were crusaders (salibiyyin), servants of Israel (a‘wan Isra’il), and madcap 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 a neoliberal American trust, 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 an apparent assumption that its political processes were rooted either in medieval Islamic thought (essentially Mawardi’s model), or in modern radical Islamism, with its Salafite doctrine of tawhid al-hakimiyya (the monopolising of sovereignty by 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 added that for Muslims, political thought lies largely in the ijtihadi category of rulings, and is hence one of those branches of the Shari‘a which are more readily susceptible to change.

At this point the discussion grew more stimulating. 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 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 faith-specific issues. The report in al-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.’[4]

In the early years of the decade, a major concern of Muslim commentators seemed to be Christian Zionism. The Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram and the Lebanese-rooted al-H{ayat ran a number of op-ed pieces interpreting the apparent indulgence shown towards Israel by the Bush presidency in terms of the influence of pro-Israel evangelicals. On occasion, the Iraq invasion was glossed in the context of end-time persuasions attributed to some members of the White House staff and the Pentagon. For instance, a 2003 article by Ja‘far Hadi Hasan in al-Hayat urged readers to broaden their understanding of US objectives in the region to include the chiliastic. For Hasan, Bush’s core electorate are expecting the parousia in their lifetime, and as he writes: ‘they believe that occupying Iraq confirms the predictions of the Bible; it is one incident in a series of events before the return of the awaited Christ.’ Hasan offers an outline of the history of Christian dispensationalism, summarising its schema of ‘seven ages of the world’, and explains how many Bush voters believe themselves to stand at the threshold of the seventh age: Christ’s millennial reign. Hasan 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 the President’s personal religious mentor.

Hasan then summarises the core passages of the Book of Revelation which are central to the world-view of many 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 and 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 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 himself will preside over the sacrificial rituals in order to symbolise the restoration of God’s order on earth.

Hasan 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 on 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.[5] Peacemaking is an illusion, even a demonic subversion, since conflict can only come to an end with Christ’s millennial reign. [6]

Hasan’s article may be fairly typical of the growing Muslim concern over the influence of America’s religious right. Baffled by what appears to regional commentators to be the foolhardiness of the Iraq invasion, and by the administration’s perceived maximalist support for Israel, such Arab journalists have sought a master explanation in the Bible-time beliefs of key Bush decisionmakers.[7] ‘Instead of a clash of civilizations,’ one journalist concludes, ‘we are witnessing a clash of religions’.[8]

As Hasan indicates, 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 taken place.

One key channel has been provided by Christian Arab journalists, whose greater cultural familiarity with the Bible and with Christian eschatology has allowed them to unravel the so-called ‘double-coding’ in presidential speeches, in which apparently innocuous phrases turn out to trigger specific Biblical resonances important to the religious electorate. Particularly impressive was al-Hayat’s coverage from Washington during the 2008 elections. Its correspondent, Joyce Karam, showed a close awareness of the evangelical hesitations over John McCain. 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, had been seduced by the Obama camp, which had adroitly revived the memory of the Carter years. Karam then accounts for the last-minute appointment of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running-mate. Altogether, she presents a persuasive account to her Arab readers of the issues surrounding Barack Obama’s rise to power: religious politics, as well as the economy or a general post-conflict tristesse, are a significant hermeneutic key.[9]

If there is an interpretation, or an explaining-away, of the embarrassing – to Christian Arab nationalists – notion of a religious driver to American policy in the Near East, then it seems to have been articulated most typically by the Israeli Arab writer and former Knesset member, ‘Azmi Bishara. In a characteristically outspoken article in al-Ahram, this left-wing secular Christian explains 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.’ Apparently revisiting perhaps the oldest trope of Christian anti-Judaism, the law-versus-spirit dichotomy, Bishara concludes that this is a Judaizing Christianity, which turns the Gospels into a simple extension of what is, by implication, the unpleasant, lawbound violence of the Hebrew Bible.[10]

Bishara’s view is one that may also be 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, by implication, a sort of Judaizing. However the true meaning of Revelation is the eschatological disclosure 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. Fifty-nine percent of Americans, according to a recent poll, affirm its literal truth.[11]

Another view was offered by the Lebanese-American writer Ghassan Rubeiz, who as the former secretary for the Middle East of the World Council of Churches is also active in the Arab media. Rubeiz, evidently more aware of modern sensitivities, chooses not to adopt the old theme of a ‘Judaizing Christianity’, but offers a more sociological account. He asks why the religious right now appears to be the prevalent form of religion in America, with conservative megachurches experiencing boom times while older, soi-disant ‘mainline’ denominations face economic and numerical decline. His interpretation is sociological and somewhat moralising: America’s ever-increasing social mobility and rootlessness, set against the background of an unstable job market and the rise in divorce and remarriage, allow fundamentalist preachers to offer a simple explanation of an otherwise confusing world. On the basis of this interpretation the map divides into Christendom and the lands of darkness, while history is interpreted as a series of Biblically-foretold signs which culminate in the imminent and longed-for end of ambiguity and doubt at the Rapture and the Second Coming.[12]

Another Christian writer has been the Egyptian Samir Murqus. A sociologist of religion who founded a Coptic Centre for Social Studies and has been active in Muslim-Christian dialogue, Murqus published, in 2001, a popular but careful book on the role of Protestant fundamentalism in American foreign policy.[13] In the wake of the 9/11 attacks he went on to publish American Imperialism: The Triad of Wealth, Faith and Power,[14] in which he seeks to challenge the widespread Arab perception that current American policies reflect the pragmatic post-Soviet world of sole-superpower status, rather than a much older configuration of faith, money and power. On his view, the processes whereby ‘missionary, soldier and trader’ worked together in conquering the New World reasserted themselves in the twentieth century, until they finally became the prevalent paradigm during the Bush administration, their relationship ‘taking a contemporary shape relevant to globalisation’ but still recognisably rooted in the original pattern of American religious conquest.[15] The book is based on a wide range of Western academic studies, enriched by the author’s own daily scrutiny of President Bush’s faith-oriented pronouncements. On the basis of these and other books on American political religion[16] Murqus has also contributed a number of articles to the Arab press.

Turning now to Islamic and Islamist mass media – a small part of the whole in the Middle East – we encounter a slowly increasing sophistication and level of awareness. While takfiri Salafi formations such as those which self-identify as al-Qa‘ida 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, moderate Islamism appears able to adopt a slightly more informed view. One example would be the coverage by the Turkish religious newspaper Zaman (associated with the movement of Fethullah Gülen) of President Bush’s apparently 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 apparently still popular as inspirational reading for advocates of ‘faith-based war’.[17]

A further case of this was Islamist coverage of the role of Blackwater, the security firm engaged by the Pentagon in conflict zones such as Iraq. Exempted by Paul Bremer’s Immunity Order No.17 from prosecution by Iraqi authorities, Blackwater operatives were accused of a range of abuses against Iraqi civilians, including the Nisour Square incident late in 2007.

At least two major sources of Islamist knowledge about the alleged religious agenda of Blackwater can be identified. Firstly, there is a European Parliament report written by Giovanni Claudio Fava, which details 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 claim that two Blackwater subsidiaries were involved in US special rendition flights. Fava confirmed the connection with the Knights of Malta, and indicated that Malta was 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 technique.

The second source is a popular book on Blackwater by the American journalist Jeremy Scahill. Meticulously referenced, this book convinced many in the West that the leadership of Blackwater was driven by a hardline Christian agenda championed by, as Scahill puts it, ‘extreme religious zealots’.[18] Scahill records that its head, former Department of Defence Inspector General Joseph Schmitz, is himself a Knight of Malta. He is portrayed as an energetic 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 already intense speculation about private armies and their role in the Pentagon’s new wars in the Islamic world. A month later, even before the Arabic translation was published,[19] a review appeared on a website connected to the Muslim Brotherhood leader Shaykh Yusuf al-Qardawi.[20] The review homed in on the religious ideology of the Blackwater leadership, and particularly on Erik Prince, the founder-chairman, a figure already known to the Arab press. Prince, the review believes, 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 foreign policy. As Prince 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.’

Media reports on Blackwater’s apparent right-wing Catholic affiliations had several consequences, most notably an instruction purporting to be from al-Qa‘ida summoning Muslims to attack the Cairo embassy of the Knights of Malta. (In the event, nobody bothered.)

From a different ideological base, Jordanian MP Jamal Muhammad ‘A<bida<t 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 eleventh 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 which 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.[21]

In 2009, a book on the Knights of Malta appeared from the prolific pen of Mansur ‘Abd al-H{akim. Entitled The State of the Knights of Malta and the Iraq Invasion, its more lurid subtitle ran The Military Wing of the Antichrist, Masonic Knights Templars, Soldiers of Darkness.[22] ‘Abd al-Hakim, an Egyptian lawyer and journalist, is one of the region’s most popular religious writers on current affairs. Many of his hundred-odd books reveal a strong predilection for conspiracy theories. Sources for his long account of the Knights of Malta include, as well as Scahill’s book, an eclectic mixture of Ibn Kathir, Robert Fisk, Dan Brown, and David Icke, indicating the success of a new genre of apocalypticism which mingles Islamic with popular Western lore (another of his best-selling works offers an Islamic reading of the predictions of Nostradamus). In their fondness for doom-laden prophecies, particularly in the post-9/11 age, some modern Middle Eastern readers have tastes intriguingly similar to their American counterparts.

Through investigative journalism popularised by mass-circulation screeds, 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 had already caused controversy with his comments on Islam, seems to have entered a wide circulation. It was reinforced by the American journalist Seymour Hirsh, who in a speech in Doha on 17 January 2011 alleged that Knights of Malta and other Christian militants exercised increasing influence in the US military. ‘We’re going to change mosques into cathedrals […] that’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Special Operations Command.’[23]

The practice of rendition also triggered Arab media concern with the interrogation style and cultural policies applied to Muslim suspects in American custody. While it has not been possible for the media, including Arab media, to know precisely what procedures have been used at the various ‘black sites’ around the globe, there has been extensive public-domain documentation of American practices at the Guantánamo Bay facility. The various methods of detainee control were deployed by interrogators schooled in what they took to be the cultural vulnerabilities of Arabs and Muslims. The use of methods such as the playing of loud rock music, insults to female family members, nudity, comparing prisoners to rats and dogs, and requiring detainees to wear female clothing, has been familiar in the Muslim world since, in June 2005, Time magazine published classified logs recording the interrogation of the Saudi prisoner Muhammad al-Qahtani.[24]

Culturally-specific interrogation techniques designed to cause maximum distress to Muslim detainees were, of course, likely to cause maximum outrage to Muslim public opinion.[25] Best-known were the instances of ‘Qur’an abuse’ by camp guards; but the use of Christian imagery to humiliate prisoners is also documented, such as the use of crosses to which prisoners pointed or reached to indicate that they were ready to talk. An example is the poem by Mohammed El-Gharani, a fourteen year-old Chadian taken to Guantánamo (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.[26]

Also popular among Muslim readers is the memoir of the former Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo, James Yee, who was arrested in 2003 on charges which were subsequently dropped.[27] He describes the curiously religious atmosphere on the base, with camp commander Major-General Geoffrey Miller appearing at the forefront of morning prayers with his guards and interrogators before they dispersed to their tasks.[28] To his recollection, religiously-specific forms of abuse, such as desecration, appeared to be woven into the system;[29] ‘Gitmo’s secret weapon,’ he writes, ‘was the use of religion against the prisoners.’[30] The evangelical Miller, shortly afterwards, departed for Iraq with a brief to ‘Gitmoize’ the prison facility at Abu Ghraib. He was sent there by General William Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defence for intelligence, himself a committed evangelical known for regularly preaching 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;’ however ‘they will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus.’[31] Through reports by Yee and others, perceived evangelical control of the major detention facilities in the War on Terror again appears to have had a significant impact on Muslim public opinion.

A further 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 al-Shuruq, whose managing director ‘A<dil al-Mu‘allim has taken a close interest in the rise of American theopolitics. This is a careful and responsible translation of an important text, perhaps, along with Chris Hedges’ book American Fascists and Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy, the most serious study of American religious radicalism yet to appear.[32]

Through all of these channels, then, the perception of the leading Western nation as profoundly driven by Christian evangelicalism and dispensationalism has taken root 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 usefully be explained with reference to the Bible.

Reflecting on this transformation, it may be appropriate to begin with some remarks on the irony of this mutual regard. Superficially, the dispensationalist and dominionist ethos regularly noted during the Bush years appears as a mirror image of takfiri Salafism; the parallel has been drawn by, amongst others, the Turkish theology graduate Sule Albayrak in her 2007 work on Christian extremism,[33] and by the Egyptian Majdi Kamil in a book equating Christian and Islamic radicalism which appeared in the same year. [34] In the vision of some Pentagon generals prosecuting the hunt for Bin Laden, the world seemed 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. For Albayrak, this is premised on a kind of ‘moral Manicheanism’.[35] Evangelical leaders are the equivalent of rogue mullahs, issuing fatwas which sanctify wars which devastate whole nations. The enemy is Satan himself, opposed by self-appointed Hegelian heroes: Boykin, Ashcroft, Miller. Scripture supplies values and law; secularity is Godless hubris and the reign of darkness, which allows and is assisted by the growth of false religions. Each side figures itself primarily as the virtuous opposite of the Other: Boykin was raised by God to challenge Bin Laden, rather as Charles Martel existed because of al-Ghafiqi. Rights are easily suspended: Islamists kill noncombatants by opportunistically invoking maslaha (public interest) and the principle of takfir; while Washington is seen as rendering and killing 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 seem to call for a utopia established through drastic constraint. Both, finally, are erastian in their constitutional thinking: the established religious leaders (the derided ‘moderates’) are to be bypassed as false mediators, in favour of a divine sovereignty exercised by a righteous prince alone. Such warriors are clear that they take their orders directly from God.[36] (President Bush himself said: ‘I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn’t do my job.’[37] )

Such a mirroring is easily claimed; but historians of religion will be suspicious of so neat a schema. In a simple way members of each culture seem to believe that they can lessen their own burden of guilt by pointing to reciprocities on the other side; and at times Albayrak and Kamil seem to do this, as do other Muslims keen to echo William Arkin’s denunciation of the Pentagon’s ‘Christian jihad’.[38] More taxingly, the discourse of a clear mirroring implies that the internal differentia of Christianity and Islam have only insignificant entailments today, which, again, is hardly likely.

What is ‘odd-handed’ (Kenneth Cragg’s phrase) about this ‘clash of fundamentalisms’? There are asymmetries which demand to be listed prominently. One of these, noted by Muhammad ‘Arif, is that they have distinct sociologies and histories. For ‘Arif, the Islamic world has spent the past century moving from a religious towards a secular frame of reference, but while Ataturk was secularising Turkey, fundamentalists were laying the foundations for a theocratic order in America.[39]

‘Arif also points out the connection between wealth and evangelicalism, something normally absent in the Islamic case.[40]   In fact, one needs no Marxian baggage to observe that Islamic civilisation, with minor Gulf exceptions, is presently 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 many theocons this is not a paradox but a sign of God’s grace.

Takfiri Islamism, however, exists in part in order to refute this discourse. Despite its abhorrence of Sufi asceticism, and its hyperconservative social ethos, it often takes itself to be a site of resistance to wealth and privilege. It is not Babylon – that was the self-serving laicity of Saddam and the Ba‘thist nomenklatura – but Ishmael. Like the dispensationalist, the Islamist seems unnerved by the strange inactivity of God – the deus absconditus who because of the sins of the faithful has allowed the rise of liberal secularity, the growth of vice and the atrophy of faith. Yet the usual Islamist response has been precisely the ancient trope of God’s preference for the underdog, the mustad‘af. For Boykin, God is with America, and this is shown by America’s economic and martial prowess; for the Islamist, God is with Ishmael, as is shown, again, by America’s economic and martial prowess. Attorney-General John Ashcroft had himself anointed with holy oil,[41] denounced church-state separation as ‘a wall of religious oppression’, [42] and strove to implement God’s law. Islamists behave in a roughly analogous way. Yet theirs is taken to be 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 wealth and 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’s prophecy of the uprising of the poor. Much of its appeal derives from this sense of moral drama.

Hence instead of a simple symmetry we might prefer to diagnose a resuscitation of the ancient theme of ‘Rome and Jerusalem’, beloved of Tacitus, and present in its most iconic form in Josephus. On this view, Hamas are the sicarii, the assassins of occupied Judea, who gave their lives in suicidal missions against their Herodian and Roman overlords. So Hamas’s struggle has included assassinations of 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 H{usni Mubarak, and many others besides, as the loyal tribune of a world empire in which exotic local deities may be tolerated only in the private space. The public square is ruled only by the emperor and his deputies.

Such a historical analogy might help us to parse the optimism of the apocalyptic Islamist. Even utter defeat at Masada is reckoned a victory for the Zealot martyr, who, therefore, is invincible. Guantánamo turned into the zealot’s triumph: during six excruciating years, several camp guards converted to Islam, but not a single inmate reached for the Cross.[43] Under the unblinking eye of the evangelical in Ray-Bans and crew-cut, the detainee may lose his sanity, or 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 mostly remained out of view in the ‘black sites’ – but as a therapeutic exhibition akin to the victory parades of Caesar, who had Vercingetorix placed in a cage and displayed to the citizens of Rome. The American soul was wounded on 9/11, and the parade of 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 the lake of torment; and the Cuban cages seemed to serve as a proleptic anticipation of the vengeance of Christ promised in the Book of Revelation. Yet still the icon failed. In the world of Islam it was experienced not as a healing but as a kind of auto-da-fé, in which internees whose crimes seemed always doubtful, but whose Muslimness was certain, were tormented by Christian inquisitors. For many in the world of Islam it also seemed to represent, in the most public way, the private habits of the local Herods, whose cages were also well-stocked with the same kind of zealots.

Rome may torment the body, and Herod is even keener to do so. But as the cage suggests, her main instrument of pain is psychological. In the mid-19th century, American penal reformers invented a ‘Philadelphia System’, following the ‘scientific’ British innovations at Pentonville. For the most enlightened reasons, physical abuse was reduced or 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.’[44]

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.[45]

No less Benthamite was 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 experience in custody, has been only the most notorious case of this.[46] 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, was 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 immeasurably greater than those documented at Guantánamo. This has been the pattern of much Islamist revolt since the time when the enragés of the Iranian revolution, moralising about the Shah’s secret police, quickly brought in Ayat Allah 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”.’ [47] 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.[48]

For Zizek, then, religion is always oppressed by the monoculture. An example would be the latter’s insistence that freedom of expression, although in practice favouring those with access to media and money, is always a precondition for 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 physically tortured than hear her Prophet insulted or see the Qur’an ‘abused’ is, from the perspective of the monoculture, simply living in the wrong world. The post-9/11 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 privileged forms of modern Biblicism. Zizek, of course, prefers to think in terms of Marx. For him, turbo-capitalism, on trial since 2008, is straightforwardly at fault for the infant mortality rate in Mali. It is also the dynamo of terrorism. He writes of ‘the hypocrisy of those who, while combating subjective violence, commit systemic violence that generates the very phenomena they abhor;’[49] a view likely to resonate with much Muslim criticism.

What was notable, for Islamist observers, in the experiment with radical Christianity during the Bush years, was not so much the presence of an adjustment in Christendom’s systemic violence towards the East, which they regard as a historic 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 (for Islamists, this is the rhetoric of asala). Yet historians are likely to demur: the processes of identity-retrieval in fact tend to yield a growing distance from historic mainstreams.[50] 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 etatism. In Christendom, some forty percent of Americans now believe that the Antichrist is already on the earth;[51] and nine percent would like to see the Bible become the ‘only’ source of legislation.[52] Europeans may shrug, but even in the UK, the number of worshippers at one Pentecostal church in Walthamstow one Easter Sunday was more than double the congregations at St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey combined,[53] and the presiding pastor, an advocate of the prosperity gospel, is very clear that Israel is Isaac, while the Arabs are ‘Ishmael’, the outcast.[54] In both worlds there has been a steady growth in ideological, dichotomising religion, whose provocative conspicuousness tends to feed the growth of its rivals, producing a vicious circle.

No doubt this tendency will be seen in simple terms as a decadence. 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 ideologies of progress, then the fundamentalist fight for difference, including a difference that can only exist by discriminating against increasingly ideologized Others, can to some extent claim to be a site of real resistance and a genuine ‘awakening’ (sahwa). Milan Kundera said that ‘the struggle of men against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’[55] The end of history at the hands of liberal consumerism finds it hard not to comprise an amnesia, an end of memory and therefore of the authentic self: Foucault’s ‘end of man’. However an age of drowsy comforts craves a stimulant. Fifty years ago, during another era of polarities, Arthur Schlesinger wrote that self-satisfied Western man was in crisis; casting around for a catharsis he decided that the Cold War ought to be used as an opportunity to wake him up. [56] Tocqueville thought that France’s invasion of Algeria would resuscitate it from post-Napoleonic torpor. 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.[57] Even further back, militant Puritans believed that ‘the world’s peace is the keenest war against God,’[58] because it led to complacency and the stagnation of the spirit. As at Guantánamo, morality is not the core issue, what matters is the symbolism of belonging, animated by a sense of destiny.

These examples, drawn from Corey Robin’s recent study of political fear, are linked by the idea that it is lack of direction which drives people into the arms of apparently absurd conflictual certainties, so that their selfhood is reborn in the refiner’s fire of a perpetual state of alarm. Today, the Saudification of Islam, or the Southernization of American Christianity, are both strengthened by their claim to resolve our modern anomie. Earlier ages suffered such temptations, but it is possible that we are endangered by them far more, since we are that much further from tradition, identity, and consensual truths. 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, now exacerbated by media ‘dumbing-down’) once more to achieve anything resembling adulthood? If scientists are now writing books like Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will,[59] 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 in Ash‘arite terms, can we look for any values in a secular world which denies our own 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.

For Zizek, the two mutually parasitic fundamentalisms will only be neutralised when the world appreciates the value of a public neutrality, thus resurrecting the central energies of the Enlightenment and supplying an alternative and more tolerant awakening. His prescription and prediction, then, are startlingly conservative, converging with the polemics of Roger Scruton: one recalls the way in which al-Qa‘ida 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 happen beneath the banner of political Christianity, Zizek still yearns for a secular revival.

Where mainline belief continues 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 sufficiently informed: Muslims shopping for books in Cairo may learn the names of Pat Robertson and John Hagee, but are likely to ignore the existence of the archbishop of Chicago. Reciprocally, it appears that few in Christendom can yet name a single mainstream Muslim thinker. This was brought home in an absolute way in 2008, when two magazines, Foreign Affairs and Prospect, sponsored a global survey to identify the world’s hundred most influential public intellectuals. The overall winner was Fethullah Gülen, a fact that surprised few in the Muslim world, but which baffled Westerners familiar only with the names of radicals.[60]

This aporia has had practical consequences for the mutual regard of Christianity and Islam. America seems increasingly to figure itself as what-is-not-Muslim, or even, for some, as ‘the world’s leading Bible-reading crusader state’;[60] while the Islamists, no better informed, consider themselves to be under a generic military and cultural attack from Christians (and from their allies ‘the Jews’).[62] Everywhere this polarity is strengthened by the sense 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.’[63]

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 discourses on sin and redemption, divine immanentism, providence, and the special destiny of the people, [64] the population has grown tired, and the flags have begun to disappear from the churches. The mutedness of religious slogans during the recent ‘Arab Spring’ suggests that the Islamists, too, are losing the initiative.

Perhaps one sign of this is the prospering of the Common Word, a document which in many ways may be seen as a product of the later post-9/11 environment (several of its authors and signatories had clearly been concerned by the ‘biblicising’ of American discourse towards the Islamic world). Where the fundamentalists take scripture to be the site of the most irreducible Christian-Muslim differences, and the symbol and engine of the Other’s revanchism, the Common Word’s use of Qur’an and Bible seeks to indicate the possibility of a new and more conciliatory discursive relationship. In 2008 the Common Word process reached Yale Divinity School, which had already coordinated an endorsement of the document by three hundred evangelical leaders; the ensuing conference saw evangelicals and Muslims adopting language about a common ‘Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic heritage’.[65] The decade closed with several substantial publications by Muslim and Christian theologians seeking ways in which the two scriptures, even on very classical readings, could facilitate positive theological, political and social engagement between monotheists.[66] While less conspicuous than the growth of the ‘theocon’ agenda or its Muslim epigones, this too has increasingly formed part of the evolution of the Muslim-Christian regard in the last decade.

A generation or two ago, writers on international affairs would have ridiculed the idea that ancient eschatologies could become factors in 21st-century politics. This is, however, our situation. Holy books, and the mood of their interpreters, are bound up with the world’s current polarities. It is likely that exegetes, of whatever stamp, will do much to shape the future of countries like Egypt and Turkey as they move towards full democracy, and decide whether to maintain their recent secular patterns, or to learn from the American model of a complex symbiosis of faith and power. Conversely, some Americans may find the experience of Islamism a helpful reminder of the dangers attendant upon reading God’s word as the manifesto of a utopian political ideology.


  1. Prospect (January 2011), 35-6.
  2. David Burrell, ‘Christians and Muslims Breathe a New Spirit’, in Lejla Demiri (ed.), A Common Word: Text and Reflections (Cambridge: Muslim Academic Trust, 2011), 51-64.
  3. Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (London: Penguin, 2008), p.463: ‘the Iraq war is largely about oil.’
  4. al-Sharq al-Awsat, 20.11.05; cf. al-Bayan, 13.11.05.
  5. For the theocons and the environment see Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy: the peril and politics of radical religion, oil, and borrowed money in the 21st century (London and New York: Penguin, 2006), 237-9.
  6. al-Hayat, 24.10.03. That peacemakers, particular those who seek to reconcile Arabs and Israelis, are unwitting agents of Antichrist, is implicit in much evangelical rhetoric; as in the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, and the film The Omega Code (1999). For an Arab commentary on the role of the Left Behind novels in the Christian Zionist movement see Jihad al-Khazin in al-Hayat, 05.01.05.
  7. See also the review by David Tresilian, a lecturer at the American University in Cairo, of Kenneth Brown’s L’Irak de la crise au chaos (Paris: Ibis, 2004) in the English version of al-Ahram (Al-Ahram Weekly, 30 March – 5 April 2006); citing William Polk, Brown outlines ‘the hidden agenda determining American relations with Iraq: the new strategic conception of American world domination; the messianic faith in Christian fundamentalism; and the connection between Christian fundamentalism and Zionism.’
  8. See an article making this claim by Wafa’ al-Rashid, al-Hayat, 28.4.09.
  9. al-Hayat, 28.10.08.
  10. al-Ahram (English edition), 24-30.11.02.
  11. The Independent, 17.12.06.
  12. Daily News (Egypt), 6.4.07.
  13. Samir Murqus, al-Usuliyya al-Brutistantiyya wa’l-siyasa al-kharijiyya al-amrikiyya (Cairo: Maktabat al-Shuruq al-Dawliyya, 2001).
  14. Samir Murqus, al-Imbaraturiyya al-Amrikiyya: thulathiyyat al-tharwa, al-din, al-quwwa, min al-harb al-ahliyya ila ma ba‘da 11 Sabtambar (Cairo: Maktabat al-Shuruq al-Dawliyya, 2003).
  15. Murqus, al-Imbaraturiyya, 96.
  16. Notably al-Himaya wa’l-‘iqab: al-Gharb wa’l-mas’alat al-diniyya fi’l-sharq al-awsat (Cairo: Mirit, 2000), in which he details the role of the Christian Right in promoting the (Clinton-era) International Religious Freedom Act (1998), which he sees as a key statutory legitimiser of ‘faith-based’ interventionist politics in the Arab world.
  17. Zaman, 4.3.03. See also the coverage in another Turkish daily, Sabah (7.3.2004).
  18. Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: the rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2007), 443.
  19. Entitled Blakwatar: akhtar munaz}zama sirriyya fi’l-‘alam (Beirut, 2008).
  20. Cited by Pamela Hansen, Malta Today, 13.01.08; see, for a more lurid treatment, aftermathnews.wordpress.com/2007/10/01/blackwater-knights-of-malta-in-iraq (accessed 29.12.10).
  21. Mansur ‘Abd al-Hakim, Dawlat fursan Malta wa-ghazw al-‘Iraq: al-janah al-‘askari li’l-masih al-dajjal, junud al-haykal al-masuni al-muqaddas, juyush al-zalam (Damascus and Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 2009).
  22. Time, 12.06.05.
  23. For a good example see ‘Abd al-Wahhab Badarkhan, writing in al-Hayat, 28.4.09.
  24. Mohammed El Gharani, ‘First Poem of my Life’, in Marc Falkoff, Poems from Guantanamo: the detainees speak (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007), 39.
  25. See for instance Yee’s 2007 interview on Syrian television, in which he discusses the practice of ‘Qur’an abuse’: www.memritv.org/clip/en/1610.htm (accessed 2.2.11).
  26. James Yee, For God and Country: faith and patriotism under fire (New York: Public Affairs, 2005), 84, 124-5.
  27. Yee, 111.
  28. humanrights.ucdavis.edu/events/the-davis-enterprise-may-7-2006 (accessed 2.2.11).
  29. The Guardian, 20.05.04; for more on Boykin as Christian warrior see Jan G. Linn, What’s Wrong with the Christian Right (Boca Raton: BrownWalker Press, 2004), 61-3.
  30. Kimberly Blaker (ed.), tr. Hiba Ra’uf and Tamir ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Us}ul al-tatarruf (Cairo: Maktabat al-Shuruq al-Dawliyya, 2006).
  31. Sule Akbulut Albayrak, Hıristiyan Fundamentalizmi (Istanbul: Etkilesim, 2007), 49-62.
  32. Majdi Kamil, al-Misihiyyat al-Sihyuniyya, al-tatarruf al-Islami, wa’s-sinariyu al-karithi (Damascus and Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 2007).
  33. Albayrak, 35. The same description of US policy as ‘Manichean’ may be found elsewhere; e.g. Murqus, Imbaraturiyya, 113.
  34. Scahill, 377.
  35. Cited in Phillips, 208; cf. Kamil, 174-5.
  36. Scahill, 377.
  37. Muhammad ‘Arif, tr. Raniya Khallaf, S{u‘ud al-brutistantiyya al-ifanjilikiyya fi Amrika wa-ta’thiruhu ‘ala al-‘alam al-Islami (Cairo: Maktabat al-Shuruq al-Dawliyya, 2006/1427, 217.>
  38. ‘Arif, 218.
  39. Phillips, 118.
  40. Phillips, 233.
  41. Moazzem Begg, Enemy Combatant  (London: Pocket Books, 2007), 220; Newsweek, 21.03.09.
  42. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: a history of the transportation of convicts to Australia, 1787-1868 (London: Vintage, 2003), 520.
  43. Charles Dickens, cited in Hughes, 520.
  44. www.lewrockwell.com/roberts/roberts219.html; for the legal issues see Darren A. Wheeler, Presidential Power in Action: Implementing Supreme Court Detainee Decisions (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 53-84.
  45. Slavoj Zizek, Violence (London: Profile Books, 2009), 1.
  46. Zizek, 123-4.
  47. Zizek, 174.
  48. Humeira Iqtidar, Secularizing Islamists? Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama‘at-ud-Da’wa in Urban Pakistan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); John Gray, Al-Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern (London: Faber and Faber, 2003).
  49. Phillips, 260.
  50. The Guardian, 11.04.09.
  51. Nigeria World, 02.06.02.
  52. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (London: Faber, 1982), 3.
  53. Corey Robin, Fear: the history of a political idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 13.
  54. Robin, 103.
  55. Cited in Robin, 37.
  56. Daniel M. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Boston: MIT Press, 2002).
  57. Zaman, 26.6.2008.
  58. Phillips, 103.
  59. For a representative example of the genre of a monomaniac Western assault on Islam stretching down the centuries see al-Husayni al-Husayni Ma‘di, Hurub al-Gharb al-Muqaddasa ‘ala’l-Islam: watha’iq al-mu’amara wa’l-idana (Damascus and Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 2007).
  60. Linn, 2, cf. p.50.
  61. Cf. John Morrill, ‘The Puritan Revolution’, pp. 67-88 of John Coffey and Paul C.H. Lim (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Puritanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), see pp.84-5.
  62. Paragraph One of the joint final declaration of the Yale Common Word Conference.
  63. Waleed El-Ansary and David K. Linnan (eds.), Muslim and Christian Understanding: Theory and Application of ‘A Common Word’ (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Miroslav Volf and G. Talal (eds.), A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

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