The Clash of Two Fundamentalisms

Wednesday, 02 April 2003 19:57 by: Anonymous
By Henri Tincq
Le Monde

Monday 31 March 2003

"Crusade" against "jihad"? Faced with the war in Iraq's risks of getting bogged down, the feared scenario of a religious confrontation seems already in place. From one side, calls to prayer and fasting, constant references to the Bible: George Bush's speeches also mobilize Christian ritual and dogma for the legitimization of the war.

The more the war causes death and suffering, the more this sort of mystic-politic risks taking over. In a parallel way, Saddam Hussein is happy to drape himself in the garments of a modern Saladin and to demand God as a witness to the aggression of the "the impious" on his territory. In spite of reservations with regard to Saddam, his calls for the solidarity of the umma and to "holy war" resonate in most Muslim countries, from Algeria to Pakistan, by way of Cairo and Teheran. There were warnings since the attacks of September 11. One cannot do other than shiver before such a vulgar instrumentalization of the name of God and of religious themes in the Eastern cradle of the three great monotheisms.

The vision of the American Cabinet praying in the White House before deciding to go to war may make some smile on this side of the Atlantic. The least pious Muslim might be equally shocked by the exploitation of the name of Allah and a call to "martyrdom" in the mouth of the Iraqi leader, head of the ultra-secular Baathist party, who has demonstrated the low value he ascribes to human life. For the reader of the Koran or the Gospel, nothing is more indefensible than this manner of invoking God in every instance, giving God's endorsement for human decisions, sometimes among those the most criminal, to confuse faith, weapons, and right. The faithful, like the agnostic, knows that God offers no protection against the temptation of Totalitarianism. History, on the contrary, reminds us that He has often lent a hand. Gott mit uns: in the name of God, people have tortured, murdered, subjugated their consciences, destroyed countries, attempted to exterminate the Jewish people.

His father an Episcopalian, George Bush Junior belongs to the United Methodist Church of the United States, as do Dick Cheney, his Vice-President, and Andrew Card, the White House Chief-of-Staff. Condoleezza Rice is herself the daughter of a minister. Even though Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, does not make a show of religious conviction, one is tempted to write that the fate of America is in the hands of a little group of Protestant bigots. In effect, George W. Bush demonstrates all the zeal of the convert. Prayer is his daily habit. He belongs to a movement of born-again Christians, for whom baptism is equivalent to a second birth, and who are ascendant to the point of counting up to 70 million American adherents, especially in the South (the "Bible Belt").


Baptized "Evangelical" or "Pentecostal", this Christian neo-fundamentalism draws its sources from all forms of American Protestant revival. It has been exported to South America, Europe, the megapolises of Asia and Africa. Experts such as Harvey Cox, a Massachusetts sociologist, consider it "the religion of the twenty-first century". This religious populism grows in response to world instability, economic somersaults, and the anonymity of cities. It does away with clerical mediation - hence the success of "televangelists" -, with the moderating interpretations that historic Protestant and Catholic churches have developed. It interprets Biblical texts literally, justifies homophobia and the death penalty, prohibits abortion. The evangelical "convert" is convinced to enter a small circle of the "chosen". He entertains a Manichean world view, divided between the forces of "good" and "evil" and the forces of "depravity", "decadence", and "obscurantism"-within which, for example, Islam is often ranged. Since September 11, the preachers Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others have made a specialty of using obscene terms to attack the "criminal" Mohammed!


Of course, to believe that this fundamentalism tipped the United States into a war with Iraq would be grotesque. Its political influence among the ranks of the neoconservatives does not exhaust all the reasons for American intervention. But the map of the Christian world is in the process of fracturing. From the Pope to the great Protestant churches, the Orthodox, the Anglicans, opposition to the war is virtually unanimous. In the United States themselves, with the exception of the Southern Baptist Convention (16 million faithful), all the churches have taken a position against the war, including the United Methodist Church, which disapproved George Bush, its adherent and the President.

But how should the America of the depths, shaken by the cataclysm of September 11, attached to symbols as powerful as the "In God we trust" on the greenback, attached to all the affirmations about the role of the United States as a "moral and universal" nation, not identify itself with "this God who legitimizes and supports the American nation, along a Providentialist register that reaches beyond any confessional cleavages", as Sebastian Fath, a French researcher specialized in Protestantism in the United States, asks?

American history is unique: the messianic vocation this pioneer people have assigned themselves, freedom established as an absolute dogma, America as the new Promised Land, Americans as the new chosen people. George Bush Junior is not, of course, the first American president to conform to this messianic role. Remember Ronald Reagan, champion of the struggle against the "Evil Empire" (Soviet). Or Jimmy Carter, Southern Baptist who was more indulgent of Saudi Wahabism, often considered a sort of Muslim Protestantism, than of Iranian Shiism. A number of observers saw the first Gulf War as a sort of "Holy Alliance" between the Bible and the gun (according to Slimane Zeghidour's expression), between American Evangelists and the Saudis, hosts of the Holy Sites, Puritans of Islam, hostile to all clerical mediation between man and God. Even today, apart from the weight of history and strategic interests, is it surprising that so many connections unite America, this other "people of God" and Israel, which missionary groups of messianic Christians hostile to the Palestinians support, renewing the Biblical opposition of the Hebrews against the Philistines and the Canaanites?

Should this confrontation between Protestant and Islamic fundamentalism be viewed as a new avatar of the historic rivalry between Christianity and Islam? This war is molded by history, in effect. Or rather by "mytho-history", as Mohamed Arkoun writes in his latest work, "From Manhattan to Baghdad" (Bayard Editions), freshly baffled to see how stories of crusades and invasions can still inflame, in the twenty-first century, imaginary "holy wars", still nourish sacred systems of mutual exclusion.

Yesterday, at the onset of Nasserism, the first Palestinian revolts, the Algerian war of independence, Arab resistance was limited to the great periods of nationalist fever. However today, in spite of the existence of an isolated secular camp, largely hidden, religion has become the principal mobilizing ideology in those Arab societies heaped high in frustrations. The erosion of secular models (Zionist, Socialist, Marxist), the religious legitimization of power seizures (the Islamic revolution in Iran as well as the occupation of the territories in Israel, etc.)have tended toward a reaffirmation of all orthodoxies.


So even the secular Saddam Hussein has always sought to provide religious legitimacy and cover for his conflicts. In the war of the eighties against Iran, he had already manipulated Muslim opinion. During the Gulf War, he took up the complaints against the Saudis, accused of serving as an American protectorate, unworthy for this reason to administer Islam's Holy Sites for his own account.

Since then, there has been September 11, ultimate outcome of a process derivative of this defeated and fragmented Islam. The "long" process of Islamic combat in Egypt or in Algeria, which, as in Iran yesterday, aimed to conquer political power through a mobilization of opinion, has been defeated. But the "short" process of the most extreme violence, setting up an historic confrontation between a humiliated and aggressed Islam on one side and the Jews and the "Crusaders" on the other, has also failed. No more than the assassins of Anwar Sadat in 1981 succeeded in raising up the masses to fell the Egyptian government, did the authors of the September 11 attacks mobilize the Muslim masses to support them. Radical violence, writes Gilles Kepel in "Jihad" (Gallimard), has transformed itself into "a fatal trap for the Islamicist movement".

One would have thought it possible to be very economical of the "Islam Against the West" variety of commentary for a war in Iraq about which Europe and the West are not at all unanimous. The Islamicist movement itself has never been more divided between, on the one side, advocates of rapprochement with nationalist and democratic forces, and, on the other, the artificers of "jihad". But between American Evangelical Christian fundamentalism, which is gaining in the Christian sphere, and Islamic fundamentalism, two visions clash that are both founded on cartoon discourse, savage exegesis, and perversions of sacred writings. And if the religious dimension of this war is certainly now neither the most immediate nor decisive, it could still serve tomorrow as a burning ember of unforeseeable consequences.

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Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 13:38