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:
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.
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.