NYT on ISIS: a disgrace to “true fundamentalism”

September 4, 2014 • 7:29 am

Every time I read a new column in the New York Times’s “Opinionator” section, I marvel at how obtuse and dumb it is, and always think that it can’t possibly get worse. But it always does. This week’s piece, by Slavoj Zizek, described as “a Slovenian philosopher, psychoanalyst and social theorist at the Birkbeck School of Law, University of London”  just about hits rock bottom, even by Opinionator standards. You can tell from the title, “ISIS is a disgrace to true fundamentalism,” that this is a real stinkeroo. (Zizek’s long Wikipedia biography is here.)

What does the title mean?  I would have thought that ISIS is the instantiation of true fundamentalism. So first let’s look up what “fundamentalism” is. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary tells us this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 7.17.20 AM

I will assume that Zizek is using the second definition, since he’s clearly not referring to the Protestant strain. And his thesis is that, according to this conception of “fundamentalism,” ISIS is a disgrace. Why? Hold on a tick.

First, two points.

1. Zizek notes, correctly, that ISIS’ actions are motivated by religious belief. I emphasize this because in a minute I’ll allude to another article that flatly denies this, saying that it’s all due to “politics”—politics inspired by Western colonialism. Zizek:

The public statements of the ISIS authorities make it clear that the principal task of the state power is not the regulation of the welfare of its population (health, the fight against hunger) — what really matters is religious life and the concern that all public life obey religious laws. This is why ISIS remains more or less indifferent toward humanitarian catastrophes within its domain — its motto is roughly “take care of religion and welfare will take care of itself.”

And that’s about the only comprehensible and meaningful thing he says in the whole piece.

2. Zizek doesn’t know how to write clearly. He’s clearly infected by an academic strain of obscurantist prose. One would think that the editors of the New York Times might do something about writing like this:

The well-known photo of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, with an exquisite Swiss watch on his arm, is here emblematic: ISIS is well organized in web propaganda as well as financial dealings, although these ultra-modern practices are used to propagate and enforce an ideologico-political vision that is not so much conservative as a desperate move to fix clear hierarchic delimitations.

and this:

Upon a closer look, the apparent heroic readiness of ISIS to risk everything also appears more ambiguous. Long ago Friedrich Nietzsche perceived how Western civilization was moving in the direction of the Last Man, an apathetic creature with no great passion or commitment. Unable to dream, tired of life, he takes no risks, seeking only comfort and security: “A little poison now and then: that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death. They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health. ‘We have discovered happiness,’ say the Last Men, and they blink.”

That’s of no relevance to the piece, but a way to show off. Are there editors at the NYT? This is simply pompous and jargony prose, and if you think it’s good writing, you can pick a number, get in line, and. . . 

Zizek’s prose is in fact so bad, and so pompous, that it’s been mocked by Andrew Sullivan in a “parody of the day.

But on to the real meat. Why is ISIS a disgrace to fundamentalism? Is there a way that fundamentalism is supposed to be—a good kind of fundamentalism? According to Zizek, apparently so. A good kind of fundamentalism keeps to itself and doesn’t proselytize or engage in violence. Here’s what the author, who has apparently confected a new definition of “authentic fundamentalism,” has to say:

But are the terrorist fundamentalists really fundamentalists in the authentic sense of the term? Do they really believe? What they lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the United States — the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the nonbelievers’ way of life. If today’s so-called fundamentalists really believe they have found their way to Truth, why should they feel threatened by nonbelievers. Why should they envy them? When a Buddhist encounters a Western hedonist, he hardly condemns. He just benevolently notes that the hedonist’s search for happiness is self-defeating. In contrast to true fundamentalists, the terrorist pseudo-fundamentalists are deeply bothered, intrigued and fascinated by the sinful life of the nonbelievers. One can feel that, in fighting the sinful other, they are fighting their own temptation. This is why the so-called fundamentalists of ISIS are a disgrace to true fundamentalism.

Well, yes, the Amish are fundamentalists according to the definition above, but I’m not so sure about Buddhists, who have a variety of faiths, some that barely adhere to principles beyond meditation and opening your mind beyond yourself.  But from what I know of the Amish, yes, they do feel threatened by nonbelievers, and, although some allow their kids a year of freedom, after that they do their best to turn away “outside” influences.  No, they don’t envy “outsiders,” but neither do Protestant fundamentalists, and Zizek’s idea that ISIS and other extreme Islamists really “envy” the West seems dubious to me. As for the Buddhists, well, yes, many are peaceful, but look at what happened when they went up against the Hindus in Sri Lanka. Were they not “authentic” fundamentalists then? (And, by the way, if you call Buddhist ‘fundamentalists,” then basically all religionists are fundamentalists.)

Zizek conflates two criteria here: envy of outsiders and feeling threatened by outsiders. Those are not the same. You can feel that you have the right way of life, and still worry, without envying “outsiders,” that their influence could corrupt your belief system. So which one is the touchstone of “authentic” fundamentalism, or are both required? Protestant fundamentalists in the U.S. are deeply fearful of the solidity of their system: as I learned from Seth Andrews in Kamloops, they do everything they can to keep their children away from secular influences.  As for proselytization, well, look at Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses, or any of the Jesus folk you see yelling and handing out leaflets on the street. They don’t have envy, as far as I can see, for they seem very confident of their beliefs. Yet they do condemn outsiders, either explicitly or implicitly, and feel that unless these outsiders are converted, they’ll burn in hell.. Nobody is more damning of secular influence in the U.S. than Protestant fundamentalists.

Zizek states explicitly that ISIS militants don’t really think they’ve found the truth. Everything I see them do refutes that statement.  And, if we condemn “inauthentic” fundamentalism, does that mean we praise “authentic” fundamentalism? Isn’t that like winnowing the good racists from the bad ones?

Zizek does say one thing that may be true, though. It is this:

It is here that Yeats’ diagnosis falls short of the present predicament: The passionate intensity of a mob bears witness to a lack of true conviction. Deep in themselves, terrorist fundamentalists also lack true conviction — their violent outbursts are a proof of it. How fragile the belief of a Muslim must be if he feels threatened by a stupid caricature in a low-circulation Danish newspaper. The fundamentalist Islamic terror is not grounded in the terrorists’ conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of global consumerist civilization.

True Freudianism: their intensity reflects their lack of conviction. I suppose the Muslims with the most conviction are the ones who don’t do anything.

One does have to ask, though, why Muslim “fundamentalists” are so easily riled up by perceived offenses to their faith. Perhaps it does reflect some latent doubt, but only a psychologist can say.  And remember, too, that many other religions do the same thing, even some Catholics. If you haven’t heard Bill Donohue have conniptions because the Empire State Building wouldn’t turn on blue lights to commemorate Mother Teresa, or heard his repeated fulminations against “offenses” to Catholics, you don’t fathom the us-versus-them mentality of many of his coreligionists.  Rather, I suspect the violence of Islam is a historical phenomenon: a remnant of an extreme proselytizing strain that, if it can’t convert by persuasion, converts by murder. (Note, too, that Islam has a historical origin in violence—Muhammed’s plunderings—that Christianity does not. But I’m not historically astute enough decid what’s really in the minds of extremists, and neither, I think, is Zizek.

At any rate, regardless of whether extremist Muslims take offense at Western mockery, or even innocuous actions like naming a teddy bear after the prophet, it’s still an invidious strain of fundamentalism. If they fear outsiders, and envy them, and that motivates their actions, tell me what Shiites have to fear from Sunnis, and why the two strains envy each other. The malfeasance in Islamic extremism partly stems from their propensity to violence—a violence perpetrated most often against fellow Muslims—but comes even more from the repressive ways they govern their society: sharia law, misogyny and repression of women, corporal punishment, homophobia, fear of sex, music, and fun, and so on. I see no signs that such Muslims secretly envy the West. In fact, if you read The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright (a book I constantly recommend), you can see the roots of Islamic terrorism and Al-Qaeda in the visit to the U.S. of Muslim Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb, who was disgusted at American licentiousness after living here in the late 1940s. Returning to Egypt, he began spreading hatred of the West (and of Nassar’s regime, which he considered corrupted by the West), and this was enormously influential in nurturing incipient Islamic terrorism. There is not a trace of envy of the West, or of its religions, in Wright’s narrative.

Zizek says many things, but it’s largely palaver, and I’m appalled that the New York Times would even consider publishing such an embarrassing polemic.


Meanwhile, over at Salon,  C. J. Werleman advances precisely the opposite take on Islamic fundamentalism in a whitewashing piece called “What atheists like Bill Maher have in common with Medieval Crusaders.” What Maher and the Crusaders have in common is Islamophobia. According to Werleman, folks like Sam Harris, Dawkins, and Maher simply don’t realize that Islamic violence is all the fault of Western colonialism:

If atheists like Harris, Dawkins, Maher and company were truly rationally minded, they’d dispense with the knee-jerk infantile emotionalism and anti-Islam rhetoric that serves only the interests of our military industrial complex and our addiction to cheap Middle Eastern oil.

If a “caliphate” has been established, it’s an American caliphate in the Middle East. With a total of 44 U.S. military bases in the Middle East and the Central Asia, some of which are the size of small cities, we have the Muslim world completely surrounded. From Turkey to Saudi Arabia, from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan, our bases serve as a constant reminder to Muslims that we control their economic future and we are here to stay. And with an economic future that looks bleak for Muslims, the embers for Muslim rage are stoked.

. . . We do not see the boiling anger that war and injustice turn into a caldron of hate over time. We are not aware of the very natural lust for revenge against those who carry out or symbolize this oppression. We see only the final pyrotechnics of terror, the shocking moment when the rage erupts into an inchoate fury and the murder of innocents. And, willfully ignorant, we do not understand our own complicity. We self-righteously condemn the killers as subhuman savages who deserve more of the violence that created them. This is a recipe for endless terror.

Even if Werleman were right, and I don’t think he is, what are we then to do? Let ISIS roam free, killing as they go? Certainly there is considerable Muslim resentment about Western actions, particularly in propping up the Shah of Iran, but I don’t think that’s what is on the mind of ISIS now as they kill and burn their way through Iraq and Syria, trying to establish the Caliphate. If it’s our fault, why are most of the victims of Islamic terrorism other Muslims? What does the West have to do with the violence inflicted on women, or the establishment of Sharia law? Again, do read The Looming Tower. Though you can disagree with Wright’s sentiments (note that the book won a Pulitzer Prize), he makes a strong case that Islamic terrorism sprang not from the West’s actions in the Middle East so much as a religious fanaticism that saw Western values as inimical to Islamic faith.

At any rate, I wonder what it would take to convince Werleman that religious belief has anything at all to do with terrorism. He ignores what ISIS says and what it does—all so he can pin the blame on the West. In fact, his faith in his thesis is almost religious in nature, for nothing seems able to sway him from his thesis.



126 thoughts on “NYT on ISIS: a disgrace to “true fundamentalism”

  1. Islam has violence in its very core. Islamic fundamentalism must be violent and must hate those it condemns.

    “Non-violent Islamic Fundamentalism.” is an explicit oxymoron.


    1. “Non-violent Islamic Fundamentalism.” is an explicit oxymoron.

      No, I don’t agree. It’s possible to conceive of a Muslim who believes that Islam and the Quran are inviolable sacred Truths … which must be carefully interpreted as Allah intended. True Muslims are pacifists. The violent passages are not to be taken as literal violence but metaphors for blah blah blah.

      This is logically possible — so there’s no oxymoron. After all, violence and honor killing are at the center of the Christian religion too but my don’t they figure out ways to spin that one? It’s hard to pin down an internal contradiction on the shifting sands of faith.

      I agree though that as a practical matter at this point in time countries or societies which are officially, legally “Islamic” tend strongly towards violence and they can find support (if not origin) in their religious texts.

        1. But even “literalists” agree that there are metaphors, symbols, parables, and poetry in their sacred literally-true scripture. It’s just too obvious. They have to draw lines … while insisting that the distinction is ‘obvious.’

          And those lines can creep. And do.

            1. “Hold fast to the rope of Allah all together, and do not separate.”

              I’m not an Islamic scholar, but I’m going to make a wild guess and say that even the folks in ISIS, al Qaeda, and Hamas do not think this passage refers to an actual, literal rope.

        2. I agree with Sastra, though I would phrase it a little differently. A “literalist” is just another sectarian interpreter, the only difference being that they claim not to be doing sectarian interpretation while they do it. Thus, in principle you may find within “literalism” the same wide range of hawkish and doveish, conservative and liberal, etc. beliefs as you would find among “nonliteralist” sects. In practice, militant sects often claim to be literalist. But of course they would, because militant causes of any sort are liable to see the world in more black and white terms.

      1. I think it is relevant that Christians have (mostly) managed to rationalize things to frame their founding documents as “inspired by” The Deity whereas Islam claims that their Book of Magic is the actual word of El Mondo Gigantico himself.

        At least that’s how I understand things.

        1. I understand from believers that even God can be sly and say things with multiple levels of meaning. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” Look how they argue over what Jesus really meant.

          In my opinion one of the most problematic issue with Islam specifically is its more explicit reliance on and propagation of the concept of the honor culture and its tribal “virtues” (purity, family, and revenge of slights.)

          1. Somewhere I read that this honor culture stems from the nomadic lives lived by Middle Easterners. Moving about with goats and camels and tents made for undefined boundaries between families and clans. This may account for the excessive defensiveness.

              1. Therefore, what? The cities were insulated form agri-culture? The cities were probably small and far-between. The hypothesis may be all wet, but I’m thinking there is room for suggesting that the herders and traders brought their scruples with them into town. Sort of like cowboys brought jingling spurs and six-shooters into Dodge City.

              2. Of course. There very well may be nothing to the idea that nomadic herding had any influence on the general Muslim recalcitrance. You’ve made an few excellent points. Maybe it was something else, or many things. Islam is not unique in this aspect, but it does tend to stand out as heavy on the saber rattling. It begs for an explanation in history and geography.

            1. rickflick werote:

              Somewhere I read that this honor culture stems from the nomadic lives lived by Middle Easterners.

              In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined Steven Pinker talks quite a bit about “honor cultures” and what they seem to have in common. Apparently people who herd animals (especially in mountainous regions) usually develop elaborate systems of tribal status partly based on certainty of retaliation. It’s just so easy to steal a goat and hide out.
              As I recall he used ancient Scotland as one of his major examples.Maybe this is what you were thinking of.

              1. I haven’t read Better Angels (yet), but this sounds like my recollection. Could have been Jared Diamond, “Germs, Guns, and Steel”.

      2. True Muslims are pacifists.

        Where did you get this? Just made it up on the spot?

        Make absolutely no mistake: the vast majority of the world’s Muslims will tell you that “Violence in defence of Islam” is perfectly OK.

        Drawing cartons of Mohammed is an attack on Islam therefore violence in response to that is just fine.

        And even if these “true Muslim pacifists” even existed (they don’t) it would matter not one bit at all. It’s just an empty assertion to try and prove a non-existent point.

        1. Seemed to me that Sastra wasn’t claiming that true Muslims are pacifists, but rather pointing out the No True Muslim fallacy: that there are Muslims who’re every bit as passionate about their religion as those in the Caliphate but who believe it’s a religion of peace. And she then goes on to note that, as a practical matter, those people are in a small minority…

          …but it’s rather like saying you can’t be Catholic and use birth control. Maybe the two are somehow fundamentally irreconcilable, but that doesn’t keep the overwhelming majority of American Catholics from using birth control — so it clearly can’t be a definitional characteristic. Or, Jews and bacon; there’re kibbutzim in Israel that raise pigs.

          Similarly, there’re pacifist Muslims, and that’s no more oxymoronic than the other examples. Even if they’re a rare breed indeed.



        2. Where did you get this? Just made it up on the spot?

          Not at all! I pulled it out of my nether regions!!

          Seriously, that sentence was supposed to go along with the argument from the hypothetical “pacifist Muslim” who is — as Ben points out — not purely hypothetical but in the minority. So far.

          My point was still a good one: there is no logical entailment between being a Muslim and being violent. Given the known lengths the faithful will go through to twist and turn and shake whatever message they need out of texts which seem to say the exact opposite, I think assuming perfectly consistent, coherent, and consolidated Muslims marching in conventional expected form throughout the rest of history is strangely optimistic.

  2. I was hoping you’d highlight the Werleman piece, but then you went and surprised me by juxtaposing it with Zizek’s. Excellent.

  3. This envy assertion is silly. Fundamentalists fear those that are not like them, they don’t envy them. I former JW told me that when she was a kid, she was taught that she was superior to all the non JWs and those teachings protected her from anything others would say against her; she had not interest or need to be friends with any of the non JW kids at her school because she felt she was privileged and better than they.

    1. Fear and envy though can be flip sides of the same coin. JW kids are taught all that dreck about sacred specialness and secular corruption partly so they don’t resent their parents for not letting them have birthday parties.

  4. Fundamentalism in the original sense of the word (meaning Protestant fundamentalism) most definitely believed in proselytizing, although they were “indifferent” to the believer’s way of life UNTIL abortion and homosexuality became political issues in the 1970s. Not so indifferent after that!!

    I tend to agree with Jerry C that Islamic fundamentalists don’t envy the West that much, but I am less sure re Protestant fundamentalists and envy of secular society. Frank Schaeffer, one of the most perceptive critics of the religious right, makes a very persuasive case that American Protestant fundamentalists have a significant inferiority complex masked in various ways.

    1. Addendum:
      I am inclined to agree with Jerry C and Lawrence Wright that post-colonialist theory is inadequate as an explanation of Islamic terrorism.

      However, I am inclined to believe that Bush Jr’s Iraq war did in fact exacerbate the situation making us less safe, by further inflaming anti-American forces of the Middle East.

      1. I don’t disagree with you about Bush (and his predecessors) doing things that inflamed parts of the Middle East. But what I argue is that right now, a large fraction, if not most, of Islamic terrorism comes from religion and hatred of the West that isn’t motivated by colonialism. We are less safe, but we’re safer than Islamic women who have to live under sharia law, and safer than the Shiite Muslims (or Arab Christians) that are about to be overrun by ISIS.

        1. I think a good way to find the nuance is that our recent wars of conquest in the region removed one of the least-religious heads of state in the Islamic world and created a desolation and power vacuum which one would reasonably expect to be filled by the most vicious of religiously-motivated extremists.

          (Side note: Saddam Hussein was an evil motherfucking sonofabitch. But not as bad as the House of Saud, and Hussein’s Iraq was more liberal and Westernized than even today’s Saudi Arabia. Whatever complaints applied against Iraq apply in spades to the Saudis.)

          That is, the triggering event can reasonably be described as Western imperialism, but the current motivating factors are mostly religious.

          Of course, all religion is closely tied up with politics, so it can get difficult to disentangle the two in regions where they’re so closely intertwined. Is it the politics using the religion as a rhetorical tool to advance political goals? Is it religion dictating policy to politicians?

          …does it matter…?


          1. I see them as one and the same. Politics is just applied philosophy (in its small-p meaning, as an individual’s or group’s world view); and most people’s philosophy today is their religion.

            1. Absolutely — all three intellectual pastimes — politics, religion, and philosophy — would be well served by insisting that positions must be consistent with a rational analysis of objective observation. It’s the lack of that which poisons each and which causes them to bleed the one into the other.


              1. Religion by definition. Politics by tradition. Especially at local scales, politics really can be about building healthier societies by triangulating the collective will of the people and working together to achieve those goals. But it also tends to get idealistic sooner rather than later….


              2. It seems so many of today’s politicians are in it for the perks instead of improving the lives of their citizens. More and more it seems politicians tactically respond to polls instead of driving toward a vision through strategy. This most likely speaks to our culture – one that fears failure, avoids mistakes at all costs and strives toward “good” without recognizing that sometimes trying things out and learning from mistakes early on is how you get things done.

                Maybe I’m just in a grumpy mood. I haven’t eaten enough today.

              3. No, you’ve pretty much got it nailed. There are exceptions, and they’re to be encouraged and commended…but they’re exceptions….


              4. “It seems so many of today’s politicians are in it for the perks instead of improving the lives of their citizens.”

                Case in point – Bob McDonnell (R. Gov. VA) was just (minutes ago) found guilty of taking bribes.

              5. “It seems so many of today’s politicians are in it for the perks instead of improving the lives of their citizens. ”

                Largely because their philosophy/religion is that of Mammon.

      2. Yes Bush and Blair’s 2003 invasion has undoubtedly contributed to the Talibanisation of large parts of Iraq (the opposite of course to what they intended). But it certainly isn’t the only factor; the Syrian civil war (a Muslim vs Muslim conflict) has also played a major role as has the ancient and deep sectarian animosity between the various brands of Islam in the region.
        Werleman’s argument (it’s all “our” fault;kill us we deserve it) is absurd and infantilises Muslims as enraged toddlers with no control over their own destinies. The Middle East is overwhelmingly governed by Muslims (not by western or indeed Turkish colonists) and overwhelmingly Muslims and Muslim governments have made their own bad choices.
        We have had numerous American military bases here in Europe for 70 years and I see little sign of “inchoate rage”.

  5. Hitchens had it correct: Religion Poisons Everything.

    Are Zizek and Werleman too obtuse to understand this simple concept?

    1. There are an awful lot of people who don’t understand that simple concept. Even tone-trolling atheists you encounter from time to time.

    2. Almost every liberal Protestant Christian in America does not understand the concept.

      Religion Poisons Everything, if that’s not true then it’s turtles all the day down.

    3. Yes, that simple quote explains everything. Keep repeating it like a mantra, and relgion, along with postmodernism , will be defeated (no need to make a contextualized sociological/historical study… that is for pomos and hippies)

    1. He is ridiculous. I found that one taste of him innoculated me against him for ever. That the NYT should publish him…

  6. “Surely, anyone with any sense can see that the USA was responsible for the schism in Islam in the 7th century. The USA totally supplied the Shias with RPGs in return for oil at the Battle of Karbala. That is why ISIS sees such an overpowering need to kill Shias.” is what C. Werleman seems to be saying.

    1. Quite true. US and UK oil interests in the the Middle East also led directly to the battle of Tours and the Siege of Vienna.

  7. Zizek’s “thoughts” regularly appear in the The Guardian as well and I have always found them to be pretentious, pompous nonsense. Best simply avoided.
    Why he is given so many outlets is a mystery although evidence free opinionising is unfortunately no bar to being a Guardian columnist.
    Perhaps he would benefit from Pinker’s new book?

  8. Even if the violence was the fault of Western Colonialism, that doesn’t excuse the violence! So the thought process is something like: “I hate America so I am going to saw the head off of a Christian Toddler”.

    Please. Lots of groups have had to overcome all kinds of hardships: slavery, genocide, discrimination, totalitarianism etc

    Growing up a white in South Africa, I understood (partially, but not totally) the hatred felt towards us by the black majority. (Google ‘farm murders’ if you don’t think there is pent up animosity…)

    But guess what happened in the90’s? Nelson Mandela and others built the foundation of a truly secular and democratic government that did not discriminated on grounds of race, religion, gender etc. And they maintained an independent judiciary, so if someone did kill someone else, hey would hopefully go to jail.

    Out of the ashes, you can build a relatively normal society. but religious groups have no vested interest in doing so. It’s not part of their mandate.

  9. I am convinced that Zizek is a sort of academic performance artist–a contrarian Kierkegaardian provocateur, which, sadly, is a description I think he’d love. His writing can be fun in a silly sort of way, but is not worthy of serious engagement.

    1. Yes but if it’s performance art you want you’d be far better watching the Cirque De Soleil on YouTube. Must be better than reading the rubbish this guy spouts.

  10. I think its time to lament the decline of quality print journalism. Digital media has many fine qualities, but look at what the NYT has become. Instead of serving of the paper of record, they seem to be shopping to keep their market share.

    1. ” Instead of serving of the paper of record, they seem to be shopping to keep their market share.”

      Indeed, but what else can they do? A paper of record with no readership has a bleak prognosis.

  11. These ISIS men are simply following the tenets and writings of their faith. Until we can talk about that fact, Islamic extremists and their apologists will keep killing in the name of Allah most powerful and imaginary. This has to do with killing the infidels and purifying the religion. And that Zizek guy is frighteningly stupid.

    1. Zizek is far from stupid. He makes millions and dates models, despite his unattractiveness and utter disregard for personal hygiene. This shtick works very well indeed for him. Evolutionary theory predicts that he will keep doing what he’s doing.

  12. When I read the NYT piece yesterday, I thought some of his argument (the whole Nietzsche stuff) may be applicable to recent Western converts who go off to fight and die for ISIS or others in Syria. But I don’t think it’s a good assessment of ISIS.

  13. What they lack is a feature that is easy to discern in all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish in the United States — the absence of resentment and envy, the deep indifference towards the nonbelievers’ way of life.

    Wow, that is fall-off-my-seat wrong. Right up there with the academic theological idea of ‘nobody believes that personal anthromorphic God stuff.’ According to him, all the US religious conservatives who object to gay marriage aren’t fundamentalists. Muslims that take seriously commands to spread their religion to non-muslims aren’t fundamentalists (because they are not indifferent to nonbelievers’ way of life). SA and Iran’s putting atheists in jail for atheist web sites and tweets means their governments are not fundamentalist.

    I gues that leaves me with one question: does this count as so bad it’s “not even wrong?”

    1. If the term “authentic fundamentalists” had only been replaced by “fundamentalists I prefer” then all sorts of mischief could have been avoided.

      Though “deep indifference towards the nonbelievers’ way of life” has many interpretations. If the Amish were really “indifferent” then they would use light bulbs, too. On the contrary, it seems rather significant even to “authentic fundamentalists” that they know what the damned are doing, so that they may not do it themselves.

  14. … but I’m not so sure about Buddhists, who have a variety of faiths, some that barely adhere to principles beyond meditation and opening your mind beyond yourself. … As for the Buddhists, well, yes, many are peaceful, but look at what happened when they went up against the Hindus in Sri Lanka. Were they not “authentic” fundamentalists then? (And, by the way, if you call Buddhist ‘fundamentalists,” then basically all religionists are fundamentalists.)

    You appear to have made a mistake here. In the passages quoted above, Zizek consistently refers to Tibetan Buddhists, not Buddhists in general. Meditation-only Buddhists would fall into Theravada, not Mahayana. And what would Tibetan Buddhism have to do with Sri Lanka?

  15. From Turkey to Saudi Arabia, from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan, our bases serve as a constant reminder to Muslims that we control their economic future and we are here to stay.

    If that caused violence, then the US would be suffering from a rash of Japanese and German terrorist attacks. We’ve had “colonialist bases” in both countries since the end of WWII – decades before we put any base in the mideast. What’s more, his description of the purpose of these bases is probably reasonably true about the base in Okinawa, at least in the early postwar years. Early on, it was there specifically to send a very colonialist ‘don’t even think about opposing our policies, or else’ message.

    I also believe (but am too lazy to look up) that there have been several cases where the US initially planned to close some mideast base or other, and we didn’t because the host country asked us to stay. Which is not exactly consistent with us being colonial overlords.

    1. The Gulf States (other than KSA) welcome foreign military presence. There is more resentment of the US military in Puerto Rico than there is in the Gulf. The local populations are used to having foreigners in their midst owing to the huge number of civilian expats in the region. The Gulf states were quite upset when Obama shifted his attention the Far East. They considered it a form of abandonment.

  16. Pure fundamentalists such as ISIS or YECs have an advantage over the rest of us who select items for our idealogical cafeteria trays –– by being totally consistent, they are excused from what Emerson called “the vexation of thinking.”

  17. “In fact, his faith in his thesis is almost religious in nature, for nothing seems able to sway him from his thesis.”

    I’ve been having this argument with other progressives for years. Unfortunately , there is a large contingent of progressives, most of which seem to have columns at Salon or the Guardian, that insist that western imperialism or excess or colonialism or what have you is the one and only source of all the world’s problems.

    Slavery is, by far and away, the ugliest stain on the United States. Generations were born into bondage and we’re still dealing with the ramifications a century and a half after the signing of the emancipation proclamation. But none of this means that John Browne was justified when he raided the town of Harpers Ferry, VA in 1859 in hopes of fomenting an armed, abolitionist revolt. (If you’re not familiar with John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, here’s the wikipedia page. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown%27s_raid_on_Harpers_Ferry )

    JAC already mentioned the Shah of Iran, but let’s include support of Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines and Generalissimo Franco in Spain of good measure. The US has intervened in the internal affairs of other nations. The US flaunted international law with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the use of torture and extraordinary rendition while prosecuting the war on terror. I don’t deny any of it. But none of it is an excuse for anything ISIL has done.

    1. Why was the raid not justified? From skimming through the Wikipedia article, it doesn’t seem like he committed atrocities. Do you also think the French revolution was not justified?

      1. Whether Harper’s Ferry was ‘justified’ is a very good question, still debated today. But Brown’s behavior in Kansas a few years before did in fact include atrocities against innocent people. Perhaps it is those acts that forever branded Brown as a murdering fundamentalist.

    1. Exactly. If fundamentalists are, by definition, confined to people like the Amish and Tibetan Buddhists, then we just need another word for the proselytizing, violent, xenophobic assholes who call even themselves “fundamentalists” and are the vast majority of the people most of us call “fundamentalists”. Then Zizek’s position becomes merely semantic (and irrelevant) to what we ought to think and do about all the other assholes.

      Furthermore, I suspect that “Zizek’s fundamentalists” are endangered species. If fundamentalists aren’t aggressive and proselytizing, they will soon be extinct because coercion and proselytizing are the only way the idiocy of religion can survive and spread in the face of reason.

    2. My cats are fundamentally against not being fed before 19:00 each night. That’s fundamentalism if there ever was, no need to invoke Sharia.

      1. Did you mean after 19:00? I can’t see a cat, d*g, or any other pet getting upset because you filled his/her bowl early.

        1. That was my thought too. Better not wait to long for noms. However, my dog is so bound to routine, that such a move would be considered suspect.

  18. Isis won’t ever be a “manageable problem”. Any stability won in the middle east is achieved by repressive regimes. Which is why the US has backed those regimes in the past and continues to do so in Egypt, for example, turning a blind eye to the muslim brotherhood executions. It is why Assad enjoys support from Putin, being the least unpalatable of choices of non islamic governing. Saudi Arabia remains the festering cancerous sore of Wahhabi extremism exported with material aid and support of the Saudi government. The US is complicit in that activity because of financial interest in the region.
    Is there an external solution? I don’t believe so. Americans should get out and stay out as long as religionist opportunists hold sway. Isolation and education are the keys to long term diplomatic efforts.
    I notice islamic apologists like Zizek spend a great deal of effort distancing themselves from the core elements of fundamental islam instead of working to curb the extremist factions.
    Meh on Werleman and Salon. My advice to CJ would be to lead from principle, not popularity. We’ll see if he ever figures it out.

  19. As noted in the New Statesman link posted by ethologist, above, Zizek is not a Freudian but a Lacanian (that is, in fact, his professional training) and a Leninist. He has acquired considerable cred among post-mods because of his outrageousness (e.g., suddenly breaking off a discussion of, say, Hegel to rant about wanting oral sex). A friend of mine suggested I read something by him, so I pushed my way through a book that ‘argued’ that Marxism needed to ‘reclaim’ Jesus and the Virgin Mary for the masses (or something). Afterwards, I simply reminded my friend that I didn’t believe in Jesus, so had no use for it. Zizek reminds me that much European philosophy is stuck not knowing what to talk about, but having to talk nonetheless.
    As for Werleman: He is right to the extent that American military adventurism and it’s covert policy of destabilization in order to increase its interests has caused considerable damage in the Mid-East – and elsewhere. But he is wrong to see fundamentalist uprisings as necessarily linked to that. Most Islamic states in Africa and the Mid-east are tribal cultures, and Islamic fundamentalism is an opportunistic means of claiming high ground among competing tribes.
    As for his comment on New Atheists condemning Islamic fundamentalism, that’s just pointless. New Atheists condemn all fundamentalism, and if their comments about the Islamic variation are particularly pointed, it is because Islamist jihadis are currently particularly violent.

    1. “… much European philosophy is stuck not knowing what to talk about, but having to talk nonetheless.”

      That’s delicious.


    I don’t have any background on Zizek or his expertise in the specific area so I won’t comment on that portion of the post.

    Additionally, I’m not an expert in Islamic extremism, but then again, I don’t think C. J. Werleman is either. However, when I don’t have expertise in a particular field and I have questions about it, I go and find out what the experts have to say. I have read a good amount of Werleman’s previous work and in it he generally does the due diligence of checking expert opinion before commenting. Here he failed miserably! I am sorely disappointed and hoping this is just one-off.



    1. One additional note: I believe Walderman errs badly when he states, “These territories were roped under one empire from the 16th century—the Ottomans. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1919 as result of World War 1, the people living in the Middle East expected and were promised independence. Instead, the West (Britain, U.S. and France) carved the region up into artificially created nations, with no regard given to culture, ethnicity and history, but much regard given to the region’s oil fields.”

      The U.S. was not involved in, nor was a signatory to, the Treaty of Sèvres which divided the Ottoman Empire at the end of WW1. Nor did the U.S. take part in the Sykes–Picot Agreement which set the framework for that treaty. (I do have some expertise in U.S. history).

  21. Zizek is a deliberate cultural provocateur, he’s been doing this stuff for years, traveling the globe, drawing large crowds. Officially he is a philosopher. I think he’s competing with Chomsky to be the official champion provocateur of the left.

    1. Officially he is a philosopher.

      Another one who gives philosophy a bad name. I suspect they are in the majority.

      1. Zizek is largely (and most heavily) denigrated by academic philosophers in the English-speaking world. He is more popular among non-philosophers.

  22. By interesting coincidence a friend and I got into a dispute just yesterday on the definition of “fundamentalism.”

    I defined it as “the belief in fundamental truths which are so sacred that, though controversial, they cannot be questioned, critiqued, or rationally analyzed or argued against.”

    She defined it iirc as something like “condemning people who think different than you. Arguing.”

    Given my definition, she agreed she was a “fundamentalist.” Given her definition, I understood her antipathy to science.

    1. Well said, though I think this works too:

      “The belief in fundamental truths which are so sacred that, though unfalsifiable, they cannot be questioned, critiqued, or rationally analyzed or argued against.”

      Fundamentalism, or religion, can only be mercurial at best, and wicked in the norm.

      1. The question I think is whether the ‘sacred’ truths are actually inherently unfalsifiable in principle — or if their unfalsifiability is only an immunizing strategy adopted by their proponents as they evolve excuses and apologetics to save their hypothesis.

        As gnu atheist, I opt for the latter.

  23. Smart brains can always serve as good critics. Professor, you are fast. What’s your opinion on documentary “black fish”? What do you think about the San Diego Sea World killer whale performance? The show is the best animal show I have ever seen. I think it is OK that the Sea World keeps several killer whales captured.

  24. I wonder where I would be with this dense, obtuse article without Professor Ceiling Cat to untangle it.
    Thanks for translating its Zizekienisms.

  25. Every time we get another once of these “Islamic Terrorism or violence is because of American military involvement in the Middle East etc…”. articles, I’m reminded of an excellent article by Ali A. Rizvi in HuffPo (of all places):


    Werleman would do well to read this to see what we’re really criticizing. As Harris and Rizvi note, there is no getting around the fact that Islams violent dogmas are the real problem. Long before any US political or military intervention.

  26. I have not read the Looming Tower so am not sure if it mentions this:

    The hatred for the west and the blame that the west gets for Islam’s mischief has nothing to do with the west and everything to do with Islam.

    These are two distinct yet related points. Muslims hate the west because the things we hold dear are the things that Islam despises. They blame the west for everything because Islam is perfect and nothing could ever be the fault of Islam. Every time a Muslim realises that he’s living in a desert and making carpets and selling dates just like his ancestors did 500 years ago and that civilisation has passed him by it must be the fault of women wearing bikinis on Venice Beach. Every time a Muslim falls and scratches his nose it must be the fault of George Bush and never Mohammed.

    But these Citizens of the Dark Ages™ cannot make the choice of civilisation and are destined to keep walking the path of barbarism as long as the Koran has influence over them. Moving away from barbarism is moving away from their god. The more barbaric and uncivilised they are the closer they are to Allah.

    I hope this explains the mind of a Muslim a little more. And for the idiotic naysayers who will try to tell me “Islam is not a monolith so you cannot speak of the mind of a Muslim,” I will say this: Those who live their life by the Koran have the mind of a Koran and are, as such, monolithic.

    1. Ah, I’m afraid I am far too cynical to expect perfect unity in faith: religions are always made out of people so already we’re starting off with problems. And sure they can always refer to the Quran — but the Quran defers to “Allah” and now all bets are off.

    2. What you say is technically true, but then Christians who support gay marriage will not be Christians — which is again technically true, but come on.

    3. I see it more as totalitarianism or autocracy vs. democracy. At least some of the issues mideast countries like Iran and SA (and NGO fundamentalist movements like the Taliban) have with us are similar to the issues NK has with us and the Soviet Union had with us. Citizen knowledge of a free democracy that is prosperous and successful makes it very very hard for autocrats to convince their citizens that they need a morality police, that they can’t allow their citizens the freedom to do X or civilization will fall. Because the citizen just points west and goes, “you’re obviously wrong because they get along fine without all these regulations.” So in a way, our mere existence as successful free countries poses an existential threat to the sort of strict rule the autarchs would like to impose on their citizens. They can’t justify their rules as necessary if their citizens can see that they aren’t.

      And the mideast regimes respond to the threat in a very similar manner as the Soviet Union did and NK and China (to a much lesser extent) does: they first try and control access to information about the west. Then when/where that fails, they try and convince their citizens that we are evil, untrustworthy, and out to get them. IOW sow distrust in the information about the west the citizens can receive.

  27. Dear Mr. Werleman (I hope you’re reading this):

    ISIS’s primary mantra is “Convert them or kill them.”

    It could NOT be more clear that Religion is the Problem

  28. ” This is why ISIS remains more or less indifferent toward humanitarian catastrophes within its domain — its motto is roughly “take care of religion and welfare will take care of itself.”- Hell, why should they care about “humanitarian catastrophes? They’ve CAUSED most of the current ones!

    I have no doubt that long-term colonialist exploitation and manipulations in the region have contributed to resentment and hatred of the “West” and all things Western, making it easier and attractive to “claim” one’s own “native” religion, yet two things are apparent: (1) Islam has stifled and discouraged modern education and scientific thinking and inquiry in the region for centuries, making it nearly impossible for these “Muslim-majority” countries to catch up to the developed world- their own corrupt, stagnated societies are at fault; (2) It is a well known fact that people seem to almost instinctively turn to religion in times of social or economic stress in the hope that they will find something “solid” on which to base their lives and actions.

    Although ISIS is busy eroding any respect the world may have for it by their lust for brutal murder, these types of fanatics have a demented form of “integrity” that has a perverse appeal to many: you KNOW who they are; what they stand for; you KNOW they’re going to do exactly what they say they’re going to do; you KNOW that they do not compromise, on anything.

    When the Taliban first took power in Afghanistan, they were welcomed in many areas as they put a stop to corruption and banditry (they even stopped the growing of opium until they found out how much money could be made by taxing it). Many people in the ISIS region are so weary of chaos that they will accept ANYTHING that promises order, even a brutal order.

    1. Also, the Taliban promised to get rid of the invading superpower, which they sort of did. People do react well to someone who seems to be on your side of something, if only for a while.

  29. I have to admit, I’ve never come across Zizek before, and I hope I never do again. Imo we’d all be better off without this kind of pretentious rubbish. The NYT seems to be publishing on name rather than content.

    I don’t usually have a problem with Werleman, but this article is basically where the left goes wrong. They’re so busy being politically correct to demonstrate that they’re true liberals, they forget about liberalism. They latch on to the “Religion of Peace” line, and ignore the evidence that it’s anything but. ISIL, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Hamas, El-Nusra, Al-Quaeda, AQIM, the Wahabbis, the Taliban, et al, are seen by them as outliers.

    Paraphrasing someone whose name escapes me, it’s time people recognized that if the most fundamental adherents of a religion are its biggest problem, there’s something fundamentally wrong with the religion. Things like colonialism certainly don’t help, but they’re not an excuse.

  30. Sub. Saw this on NYT online. My sleeves were wet from frothing at the mouth as I responded. Hope to soon get to the comments here.

  31. No, I don’t think fundamentalists envy the west. In my experience growing up, I brushed up against many Catholic fundamentalists. While my parents weren’t quite there in terms of fanaticism, they certainly flirted with it.

    From my memories of truly believing this stuff, the stark contrast in the dichotomy between an infinite Heaven and an infinite Hell dominated thought processes. Rightly, if one truly believes this, any amount of earthly suffering or pleasure is meaningless when juxtaposed with the proposition of multiplying the feeling infinitely.

    Any pain here is worth it if it helps ensure eternal bliss. Likewise, any pleasure is taboo if it contributes to the possibility of eternal torture. In my experience, there is no envy; only petrified irrationality to assure eternal reward (or avoid eternal torture, depending on which way you want to view it).

  32. FWIW, this Zizek character shows up regularly on the Nein twitter feed. It’s some sort of in joke, but I can’t tell if it’s pro or con Zizek. “Nein” tweets are occasionally interesting and witty in an over the top, excessively German angst-ridden sort of way (“I’m so depressed: my doppelganger wants to start resembling other people”), but, to invoke Dieter from “Sprockets,” it grows tedious rather quickly.

  33. Yay – let’s all put the ‘fun’ back into ‘fundamental’ – or ‘fund a mental’… Zizek is a famous/infamous post-modernist who seems to enjoy being off-kilter.

  34. Zizek probably is someone who speaks a lot of bullshit, and has a problem giving basic definitions, like is this case with “fundamentalism”. But he may be into something there. I mean, if fundamentalists have a so big god, why spending so much time defending him? why spending so much energy fighting against the rights of people who are not like them? If theyre so right about their religion, they should let anything go; if their deity is so strong, he could defend himself.

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