The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity

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Ali ranges over the history and politics both distant and recent of Islamic secularism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab socialism, the politics of nationalism and democracy in South-Asia, and American imperialism.

Tariq Ali

Reviewed by John Brady

Sunday, August 25 2002, 12:56 PM

Regarded as an idea, democracy is not an alternative to other principles of associated life. It is the idea of community life itself. – John Dewey

The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible. – Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. – Shylock

Part of writing well is knowing when to stop. Almost any topic has the potential to grow into a book length essay, but there is also such thing as beating a dead horse, which is, let's face it, pretty distasteful. I was supposed to stop this review in May. That, at least, was the first deadline. But I got an extension, in part because I had discovered other contributions to the debate about fundamentalism, democracy and our post-9/11 world that merited attention. From the standpoint of democratic politics this is both a perilous and exciting time. Perilous because many of the policies adopted since September 11 seem a direct threat to a viable democracy is this country and elsewhere. Yet it is exciting also because the events of the last months have forced issues onto the political agenda which usually reside at the margins. I did not want to miss the opportunity to comment on this wider and evolving debate. My focus is still Tariq Ali's latest book, but I have woven in the positions of other participants.


With The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity, political thinker, novelist, and filmmaker Tariq Ali has written a book grand in scope. Setting out to write about “Islam, its founding myths, its origins, its history, its culture, its riches, its divisions”(4), Ali ranges over the history and politics both distant and recent of Islamic secularism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Arab socialism, the politics of nationalism and democracy in South-Asia, and American imperialism. His account of these various strands out of which the politics and culture of the Muslim and Arab worlds are woven is rich in detail and insight and makes for compelling reading throughout.

Ali has also written a book guided by a set of commendable moral commitments and dispositions. Thoroughly dedicated to the ideals of social justice and democracy and deeply disgusted by their perversion at the hands of fanatical mullahs and rapacious modern day imperialists alike, Ali continually focuses the reader's attention tells the tragic story of democracy unfulfilled in the Muslim world. Yet even though his moral compass points straight toward the principles of democracy and rationality, Ali thankfully avoids moralizing. The Clash of Fundamentalisms is no jeremiad about the evils of fundamentalism and American political hegemony. Instead at every turn, Ali is careful to chart the decisions on the part of political leaders and social movements that led, on the one hand, to the failures and distortions of modernization throughout the Arab world and, on the other, to the present crisis. In doing so, Ali provides a useful counterpoint to the highly moralistic interpretation of global politics emanating from official American channels. Again and again, Ali illustrates that neither side has a monopoly on virtue or vice, and that behind the otherworldly, eschatological metaphor of the fight between good and evil stand real human choices and specific policy decisions. In thus emphasizing the inherently political nature of the current situation, Ali helps us to see that the crisis is not simply another iteration in the foreordained and eternal battle between the morally virtuous and the morally corrupt. Things could have been different. We did not have to be in the mess we find ourselves in. And Ali has written an eloquent book. Witty, mordant, and engaged, Ali's prose is simultaneously appropriate to the seriousness of his topic and thoroughly enjoyable to read. But Ali has also written a book that is mistitled. And it is so in two senses.

First, the title misrepresents the book's content. In The Clash of Fundamentalisms, Ali devotes relatively little attention to analyzing the conflict between radical Islam and American hyper-patriotism, the two fundamentalisms of the title. When he does discuss the two, Ali seeks to demolish Samuel Huntington's 'clash of civilizations' thesis, an approach to world politics that posits a fundamental clash between eight civilizations organized around different religiously inspired value systems. As Ali rightly points out this is reductive nonsense. Civilizations, whether Western, Islamic or any other, are not monolithic entities. Instead, they are and have been riven by competing political ideologies and conflicting value systems. “Over the last hundred years, the world of Islam has felt the heat of wars and revolutions just like every other society. The seventy-year war between United States imperialism and the Soviet Union affected every single 'civilisation'. Communist parties sprouted, grew and gained mass support not only in Lutheran Germany but in Confucian China and Muslim Indonesia.”(274) What is more, the fundamental political relationship between 'civilizations' is better characterized by terms like 'inter-related' and 'imbricated' than by the zero-sum notion connoted by 'clash' or 'conflict'. As Ali points out, the United States (and the Soviet Union when it existed) has consistently intervened in the Arab and Muslim worlds, shaping their development almost as much as the Arabs and Muslims themselves.

Yet beyond this persuasive rebuttal of Huntington, Ali does not lay out in any systematic way how Islamic fundamentalism and US patriotism/imperialism clash. The nature of this clash, for example, is not clear, nor are its various modalities. Instead, most of the book is devoted to an ambitious, at times breathtaking, tour through political and intellectual history of the Arab world and South Asia. Perhaps this inconsistency between title and content will bother only both nitpickers and literalists (many of whom are found in the ranks of book reviewers and critics) who naively expect a significant degree of overlap between a book's title and its content. Nonetheless, I think it worth noting, if only so literalists and their more tolerant non-literalist brethren alike will know what they're getting.

The apparent ill fit between title and content aside, there is a second more significant aspect in which the book's title is unfortunate, namely with regard to the basic analytical and normative assumption Ali makes in his work. Even if he does not directly examine the conflict between radical Islam and American patriotism/imperialism, Ali does assume that there is a clash and, moreover, that the two protagonists in this latest chapter of world history are equivalent to one another, empirically and morally. In Ali's muscular prose, the nexus of American imperialism and hyper patriotism is not a breed apart from radical Islam, but is, in fact, “the mother of all fundamentalisms.”(281). Here Ali's otherwise admirable moral intuitions lead him astray.

One can understand the temptation of such a move. When George Bush framed the war on terrorism in terms of good versus evil, he helped stamp the post-9/11 world as one characterized by rampant moralizing and officially sanctioned national self-righteousness. In a rhetorical arena defined by such practices what better way to mount a critique of American policy than with the charge of hypocrisy and moral self-delusion. What better way, in other words, to take the wind out of Saint George's sanctimonious sails, than to turn the mirror back onto American society to reveal not only its own moral blind spots, but its complicity in creating the evil it now seek to combat. Yet in engaging in this type of discourse and gaining short-term advantage, Ali risks obscuring real and important empirical and moral differences between radical Islam and the American imperialism, differences that must be kept in mind if democrats and progressives are to create an effective theoretical and practical approaches to these two facts of modern political life.

Imperialism is an expansionary program of economic and military domination buttressed by ideologies (most often patriotism, nationalism, and, in the present period, neo-liberalism) that assert the superiority of the imperialists over their victims and thus justify sundry and frequent brutalities, forms of oppression, and modes of exploitation. As Ali notes in the book's opening chapters, where he offers a materialist reading of Islam's early development, Islam did buttress the economic and military expansion of the Arab world in the pre-modern period. Yet in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Islam could hardly be said to abet an Arab version of imperialism. Indeed, after reading Ali's account, one is struck not by the uniform, but rather the multifaceted ideological functions of Islam and indeed by the difficulty of speaking as if there was one single Islam. Over the course of the last one hundred years, Islam has functioned as an oppositional ideology, the legitimating creed for authoritarianism (Saudi-Arabia, Iran), and most recently as the theological justification for murder. And more prosaically, but just as significantly, the various tenets of Islam have functioned as the belief system to which millions of people the world over have subscribed, with more or less fervor and more or less fidelity, in their daily lives.

But come now. Doesn't this obscure the real point under needless niggling and vapid hairsplitting? Isn't the real point of an analytical framework based on a clash of fundamentalisms that both sides – whatever different political and ideological functions their faiths might serve – are both so blindly beholden to their beliefs as to exclude critical self-appraisal of their particular projects?

Perhaps. But even if we grant this more generous, less rigorous method of reading the clash of fundamentalisms notion, it still seems necessary to note a fundamental difference in the possibility of correcting the myopia of American hyper patriotism/imperialism and that of Islamic fundamentalism.

For better or worse, the set of policies that constitute American imperialism have been formulated and articulated within the context of a liberal, representative democracy. As such, the policies ultimately derive their legitimacy from the consent of the American people. This means that the American people can, in principle, withdraw their consent for such policies and demand that their representatives put a halt to America's imperial adventures. In other words, we can imagine and even work for the democratic reform of American foreign policy; the institutions of our liberal democratic society give us the space – both conceptually and practically – to do this.

The same possibility for democratically reforming fundamentalism, or non-fundamentalist religious beliefs for that matter, simply does not exist, either in practice or even in theory. It does not exist because religion is not and cannot be democratic. If it were, it would not be religion.

Modern democracy has a human, profane core. It is predicated on the notion that the people, the citizenry, are the ultimate source of political authority in society and they are the ones who must determine how to regulate their affairs. As the demos, citizes are under no obligation to call upon a divine source of authority to assist them in the task of governance. They may do so, if they choose, but they needn't. In fact, they would not be any less democratic if they choose to eschew spiritual sanction for their political acts. Democracy, as it has been articulated in the course of modernity, insists that god is not necessary for collective political happiness. “Use him if you must, but don't feel bad if you don't,” is the message to take away. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia understands this very well, which is why democracy sits in his craw. As he noted in a recent speech, the emergence of modern democracy upsets the previous understanding that the only legitimate type of power was power that derived “its moral authority from God.” In Scalia's view, severing the tie between democratic authority and godly sanction is not a positive development.

Why such antagonism towards democratic governance from the side of the religious? It stems in large part from religion's basic otherworldliness. Because they insist on a divine, non-natural, non-human source of ultimate meaning, the religious can never fully accept democracy's claim to provide a complete and perfectly legitimate basis for political community and political authority. The true believer cannot be a democrat all the way down without involving himself in a fundamental tension between democracy's claim that god isn't necessary for collective life and the religious claim that god is ultimately the measure of all things. By the logic of their own beliefs, the religious find themselves pushed to be wary of democracy and in the extreme case of fundamentalists to see democracy as a threat.

So it would seem that there is something to the clash metaphor after all. Well, yes and no. The fact that there is a basic antogonism between profane demoracy and religious belief should not obscure our vision for the possibility of pragmatically finessing the divide without resorting to open conflict. This is a point lost on literary theorist and philosopher Stanley Fish, who has recently been a vigorous participant in the growing debate about how to best understand the confrontation between fundamentalism and secular democracy. In an essay in the July issue of Harper's, Fish offers a trenchant and biting assessment of some of the more prominent critiques of Islamic fundamentalism found in mainstream American political opinion.

For Fish, the current debates about religion and fundamentalism demonstrate that when it comes to evaluating religious truth there is no public arena which offers common ground for the discussion of religious truth. Modern democracies lack a space the members of different faiths could occupy and which, as Fish puts it, comes

"complete with definitions, standards, norms, criteria, etc. to which one can have recourse in order to separate out the true from the false, the revolutionary from the criminal. And what that means is that there is no common ground, at least no common ground on which a partisan flag has not already been planted, that would allow someone or some body to render an independent judgment on the legitimacy of the declarations that issue from Bin Laden and his followers about the religious bases of their actions."

It is a virtue of Fish's position that he takes fundamentalism seriously. He avoids the temptation to demonize fundamentalists as irrational or as some primoridal, inscrutable threat to the modern West. Instead, he takes fundamentalism on its own terms, that is, as a doctrine which is convinced of its own objectivity and which has what it considers to be a rational account of the proper relationship between religion and political life. As a result, he is in a better position to reveal the political stakes involved in the present conflict. This is not, as some would have it, the confrontation of civilization and barbarism. Rather, it is the conflict between two views of religion's role in public life, each with its own logic. One, the American version, argues that religion is a private matter. The other, the fundamentalist version, argues that is it perfectly legitimate to subordinate politics to a particular religious worldview. Because there is no common ground to adjudicate between these two positions, we find ourselves, and this is the point Fish feels gives his essay its critical force, in the middle of a religious war.

Yet in making this move from a lack of common ground to the situation of unavoidable conflict, Fish obscures two important points. The first, most basic, is that such a move isn't necessary to begin with. While we make lack the common ground to decide which version of religious truth is correct, it remains possible to find common ground about how to structure a conversation between groups with different worldviews. In other words, it is possible to mitigate the antagonism without dissolving it. Secondly, Fish neglects those forces in modern life which push groups to seek such a common ground of political compomise.

These points have been driven home by the German critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, who, like Fish, has also taken a public position on religion and democracy. Habermas recognizes what is at stake are different understandings of religion's role in public life: he, too, avoids demonizing fundamentalists, even as he is unstinting in his criticism of them. But unlike Fish, Habermas sets the question of religion and public life within the larger context of modernity, a move which allows him to draw our attention to resources within modernity itself which potentially support citizens' attempt to finesse the conflict between religions and between religion and democracy. While Fish in other words is led to the pessimistic repetition of the clash of civilizations/fundamentalisms notion, Habermas directs our attention to the possibility of addressing the issue in a more or less rational fashion. Here the very pluralism of worldviews is an asset. It acts as a constraint on dogmatism, pushing groups to realize that if they wish to any influence they will have to reach out to other groups, even those who do not share the same fundamental principles.

Fish misses this point because he seems to assume that religions are outside the pull of history. What is more, he seems to think that the wall separating religious worldviews from the larger political realm is an impermeable one. Matters of faith are, as he says, internal questions to be decided by the faithful. Again, yes and no. Certainly they are internal in the sense that members of the community have the final say in the interpretation of their faith's dogma. But they are not internal in the sense that most religions, except for perhaps cults and cult-like religious groupings, are open to the political and cultural currents of the times. Religions, and this is one of the key lessons to take away from a book like Ali's, are not monolithic. They contain various tendencies, which link them to the larger political and cultural discourses of society and ground the possibility of change, innovation, and reform. All religions contain figures like Tariq Ali, who, strandling the barrier between inside and outside, possess the authority to introduce reformist ideas.

When we collapse the distinction between a secular ideology/policy like imperialism and a religious ideology/program like Islamic fundamentalism we miss dimensions of the current situation such as these. But beyond the manner in which it hobbles our political analyis, it is also morally suspect to frame the current world political situation as a clash of fundamentalisms insofar as it suggests a moral equivalence between the two systems. In Ali's eyes, both Islamic fundamentalism and America's imperialist democracy are equally corrupt. As a theme, the corruption of Islam runs throughout the book, and is illustrated by Ali through references and stories of the murderous actions of fundamentalist leaders, the suppression of the secular, cosmopolitan elements of the Islamic tradition (the fascinating subject of the book's wonderful opening chapters), and the blinkered, intolerant worldview of fundamentalist Islam's adherents. The case for American corruption is made more indirectly, hinted at by Ali through imperial metaphors and turns of phrase. Thus the US President becomes the “Caesar in the White House” and Bill Clinton does not hold office, but 'reigns' in the White House. (257/212) But, at times, Ali suggests the corruption of the US in more direct, forceful terms, as in this passage:

"A striking feature of the present is that no mainstream political party anywhere in the world event pretends that it wishes to change anything significant. If it is true that history and democracy were born as twins in Ancient Greece, will their deaths, too coincide? The virtual outlawing of history by the dominant culture has reduced the process of democracy to a farce. The result is a mishmash of cynicism, despair, and escapism. This is precisely an environment designed to nurture irrationalisms of every sort." (281)

Really? While certainly colorful and full of political gravitas, such a narrative of decline is notoriously difficult to verify. Indeed, there are numerous counter examples we could site that seem to cast doubt that Americans have fallen into cynicism and despair. Certainly the anti-globalization protests would serve as one example of a viable participatory impulse in US politics. It is arguable, in other words, whether American democracy is corrupt (and thus equivalent to Islamic fundamentalist societies) and even whether corruption is the right lens through which to view such a complex entity like American society. Here I think Todd Gitlin displays a more useful political sensibility when he argued in the January issue of Mother Jones that instead of seeing America as irredeemably corrupt, we would be better to see “America's self-contradictions, its on-again, off-again interest in extending rights, its clumsy egalitarianism coupled with ignorant arrogance.” Such an analysis is more useful because it reminds us that there are aspects of the US system and its political tradition worth organizing around and fighting for. If all is corrupt to begin with, why bother?

But beyond this question of how we should diagnose the state of American politics, it is a mistake to see the systems as equivalent to begin with. Even a democracy shot through with patriotic ferver and imperialist fundamentalism offers greater political freedoms and more varied opportunities for human flourishing than a non-democratic regime dominated by religious fundamentalism. Ali subscribes to the values of the enlightenment and social justice. For better or worse, these values are most fully institutionalized in the liberal democracies of the West. Does this mean that these systems cannot be improved upon, that we have, in other words, reached the end of history and should give up any hope in the realizing political alternatives? Of course not. It is simply to say that, at the present moment, the opportunity to realize these values is greatest in liberal democratic systems. In some sense, this makes the corruption that does exist in the US that much more contemptible. Such corruption denies us an important good – more and better democracy. Religious fundamentalism, by contrast, is undesirable because of the threat it represents to democracy, not because it perverts something that is good to begin with. If we equate the two systems we miss this profound difference in the moral and political stakes involved.


9/11 has challenged the political and moral imagination of the left, and leftists have struggled to come up with what they see as appropriate concepts and normative judgments in order to understand and assess both the terrorist attacks and the anti-terror response. Unlike much of the right, the left has been unwilling to in smug, self-satisfied moral simplicities of good and evil, civilization and barbarism. Instead leftists have tried to illuminate the moral complexity surrounding 9/11 and its aftermath. Thus even as they condemned the attacks, they have tried to place them in a broader context. Ali at his best does exactly this. At his weakest, his attempt to complexify things shades into moral equivalency, a road that I hope to have shown has its own perils and should not be taken.

But neither should leftists follow the road that leads back to America. This is the path suggested by Gitlin, who argues strenuously, and for the most part correctly, against moral equivalency on the left. Among some on the left Gitlin detects a reflexive anti-Americanism which leads them to moral simplicities of their own. In arguing this line, Gitlin makes a case for patriotism, defending the display of flags and love of country to be witnessed in post-attack America.

After disaster comes a desire to reassemble the shards of a broken community, withstand the loss, strike back at the enemy. The attack stirs, in other words patriotism – love of one's people, pride in their endurance, and a desire to keep them from being hurt anymore....But it should not be hard to understand that the American flag sprouted in the days after September 11, for many of us, as a badge of belonging, not a call to shed innocent blood.

But complexity cuts both ways. Patriotism, however understandable and perhaps even justifiable, has its own blindspots. Indeed, love of country is often a mode of political forgetting. While it encouragesfellow feeling for other citizens, it lets us forget our connections to the broader human community. In the case of 9/11, the patriotic reading of the events as an American tragedy, allows us to forget that the loss of life extended beyond America's borders, touching countries across the globe. Patriotism lets us forget, for example, the moral obligations we have to the families of the undocumented workers from Mexico who died in New York on September 11. Patriotism also allows us to forget that the values attacked by the hi-jackers were not only American values. We possess no monopoly on cherishing the values of democracy and freedom from fear.

Ali's book illustrates the global scope of the present conflict. This is the road that progressive forces must take. The road that leads, as Benjamin Barber noted recently in the New York Times, to a “developing a new global contract” to address the conflict.

Published by Verso; $22.00. 

John Brady is a member of the Bad Subjects Production Team 

Copyright © 2002 by John Brady. All rights reserved.

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