THE POLITICS OF RELIGIOUS CORRECTNESS:
ISLAM AND THE WEST

by John C. Raines

 
Follow Alice through the looking glass, and the clash of civilizations reveals itself in a new -- and surprising -- guise.

"Islam," Edward Said reminds us, is an invention of Western colonialism which invented itself as "the West" in the same process.[1] When we in the West speak today of Islam and the West we are, therefore, already deeply inside our own cultural constructions, and all the ambitions of that imperial enterprise.[2] Just as in the formation of primitive Christianity the Jew became the other in reference to which we Christians constructed our identity (the "New Israel," the "old Adam" and so on), so in our own times Islam may become (still again) the preferred other (replacing the international Communist Conspiracy) in reference to which we Westerners identify our place in the trajectory of time and establish and name our hopes and fears.[3] To enter the language of Islam and the West is then, with Alice, to enter the Wonderland of the Looking Glass. It is an instructive perspective; but only if we Westerners know we are looking not at another but at ourselves.

Unfortunately, such a self-reflexive perspective eludes both proponents and opponents of the clash of civilizations thesis. Precisely because of this uncritical discourse, however, the argument lodged within it becomes instructive. What I intend, therefore, is, first of all, to outline that debate -- those who say "nonsense" to the whole idea of civilizations clashing -- and those who, with Sam Huntington of Harvard, find in that idea an illuminating hermeneutic. Then, I will take this debate and place it in the World of the Looking Glass, where we in the West can see what we usually do not see -- namely, the Western hegemony reflected back at us as we defend our own Western identity and destiny by debating about an other we have constructed as Islam.

A Clash on Truth's Surface

The "clash of civilizations" thesis was first presented in an article in the summer 1993 edition of Foreign Affairs. Sam Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard, argued that the end of the Cold War and the triumph of capitalism as an ideology over socialism cleared the space of history for a new form of conflict -- not a conflict between nation states over economic or geo-political advantages, but a conflict between "civilizations" contending for a new kind of supremacy -- a supremacy of legitimacy, a supremacy of cultural correctness. Following from that conclusion, Professor Huntington saw as major actors in this new historical contest not only presidents or prime ministers but also persons and groups speaking and acting in the name of religious identity and loyalty.

As evidence Huntington pointed' to the Middle East (also a Western construction-"middle" and "East" of where?) and the struggle there between Jews and Muslims, or to Bosnia and the struggle between Christians (of two different kinds) and Muslims, or to the Indian subcontinent and the struggle between Hindus and Muslims. or there is the cultural chauvinism of the new right in central Europe with its rage against "foreign workers" (most of whom happen to be Muslims working in historically Christian lands). In these examples it is Islam that appears, time and again, as one side of the equation of struggle. We could add to this list the rise in the United States of the Christian right with its search for a religiously correct politics and the political influence of religious conservatives who represent themselves as speaking authoritatively for Christianity, which in their eyes is the final and one true religion.

On the surface, such evidence of the return of what we might call "religious wars" seems impressive. Are we, as Professor Huntington proposes, entering a new, historical era in which the fundamental struggle will be not over the control of markets or of oil or of militarily strategic spaces but a struggle between deep-seated differences of culture -- differences in religious ethos and worldview, in values and fundamental orientations to reality?

Huntington was immediately attacked.[4] Against his clash of civilizations thesis was soon arrayed the everyday "realism" of the whole of modern political science, the taken-for-granted realism that shapes the worldview of academic, media and foreign policy establishments in the West as well as the elites of the Third World (again a Western construction in relationship to which we appear to ourselves as "first").[5]

According to these realists, civilizations are an abstraction, generalizations that don't in fact exist and certainly don't act. For example, from this perspective there is no such entity as the West. There are only multiple nations in the West, each steered by differing national and regional histories and differing national loyalties and ambitions. This realism argues that there is no such entity as "Islam" but only the multiple Islams, which have marched across history under national or regional or even tribal and family banners of ambition. Such realism points out that neither pope nor ulama, neither prophet nor guru possesses armies or directs the levers of international economic power. For most of the world's academics and media, as for most of the world's governments and corporations, the primary actors of history today are the very same actors as yesterday -- presidents, prime ministers, and economic elites, who operate through the power of military force or through economic institutions like corporations and the various world and regional trading institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade organization.

These realists accuse those who speak of a clash of civilizations of playing into the old ideological subterfuge that disguises real interests and ambitions behind grandiose claims for higher purposes and legitimacy. They say it is national and regional elites who act in the name of "Islam" or in the name of "Hindu integrity and sovereignty" --national elites, or ambitious contenders for local power, who use religious claims to inflate, and thus to camouflage, their own parochial economic and political ambitions.

Over against such inflated claims to legitimate action, the old realism counsels the modesty of "national interest" or (the somewhat less modest language of) "the New World order." It is, they conclude, self-interest, ambition and the thirst for power that have always steered the course of history -- whether the actors be priests or presidents, religious prophets or international corporations.

From this perspective, the Huntington thesis appears abstract, misnaming generalizations like "civilizations" as historical forces. Moreover, such realists say, this abstraction is dangerous. Parochial elites pursuing their own self-interest can always moderate the rhetoric of conflict, make compromises, find new friends amongst old enemies, or judiciously surrender to a superior force. By contrast, Holy Wars have always been the bloodiest wars, the least susceptible to rational compromise and control, the hardest wars to end and the hardest wars after which to make peace. Religion, precisely because its hopes are so extraordinary (salvation!), is least able, in the realists' view, to guide sensibly the ordinary course of human affairs; it is most productive and most merciful when securely confined to the domain of personal piety, with political discourse kept self-consciously secular.

There is truth in such a view. But it is far less final than it supposes itself to be: it is a necessary truth but not a sufficient truth. That fact becomes evident when we turn to the other side of the debate. What are the arguments, the evidence that can be marshaled in defense of Huntington's thesis about "the coming clash of civilizations?"

Despite the danger of abstraction and over-generalization words like "Islam" and "the West" do name, even as they misname, different spaces and different sources of dynamism in the present international situation. What this misnaming names is the reality that after four hundred years of Western colonial domination, history does seem to be at a turning point.[6] It is clear that in the space we Westerners call "Islam" there are emerging new elites with a sense that destiny is coming at last into their own hands, a sense that the future will no longer be dictated by Paris or London or New York. After four hundred years, colonialism is loosening its grip. And there is a clash about what will take its place, and how that future should look and act, and who should do its defining and steering.

Moreover, looked at from the perspective of those upon whom we Westerners have been acting, with our armies and corporations but especially with our culture of commodified values and sensate satisfactions, "the West" does name a reality, a more or less unified source of dynamism operating through the differing nation states of Western Europe and North America.[7] It is not that nation states are not important actors. Rather, from the point of view of the so-called Third World, the nations of the West are seen as acting in a single, powerful, and uniformly grandiose way. As a historical past and present, as a persisting source of dynamism, as a culture of commodities and sensate satisfactions, as images of success and beauty projected upon magazine covers and television screens worldwide, there does seem to be a "West" that presents itself powerfully to all Muslims, often quite seductively.[8] And that confrontation presents itself most deeply as a struggle about values and lifestyles, about what is to be admired and emulated. It is about the texture, the sensibilities and civilities of everyday life, or what we would call "civilization."

My judgment about this clash of civilizations debate--if I stay on its surface--is that there is more truth to it than can be dismissed by the well-taken reservations of its critics. But this surface of truth is more revealing when we take the debate and place it in a space neither Huntington nor his critics have considered. To appropriate that clash of civilizations debate more fruitfully, we must follow Alice "Through The Looking Glass" where we may discover that we Westerners are defining and defending ourselves in the mirror image that we have constructed and call "Islam." This other is ourselves busy at work manufacturing and legitimating our own identity.

Seeing Is Political

In order to see ourselves in our seeing of Islam, it is instructive to note the attention given by Western scholars and media to the dress of Muslim women, especially young professional-managerial class women.[9] As we know, clothing is cultural uniform. Dress (like hair style and make up or veil and lack of make up) is socially constructed. As such, it reflects and reinforces how power works in particular societies in terms of gender and social class. And uniforms, because they are sites of domination, are often also sites of contestation and resistance. Young Muslim women (not peasant women but college-educated women) become objects of suspicion to Western interpreters when they present themselves to us, not in skirt and blouse, but covered from hair to ankle in, say, the traditional Malay tudung. What we Westerners see is a person many of us interpret as fearing modernity, as retreating into traditionalism, perhaps even into "fundamentalism," a person submitting to Muslim patriarchy.

But seeing is political. We do not see light waves; we see meanings. And we assign these meanings to what we see in order to recognize (make meaningful) what we see. The meanings that we see are socially constructed, and as "power/knowledge" (Foucault's phrase) clothing of Muslim women we need to remember Alice's mirror, and thus reflect back upon ourselves and our own uniforms--the political meaning, for example, of our own miniskirt or of our micro bathing suit. How do our Western female uniforms reflect and reinforce how power works here in our own Western societies?

Whether here or over there, dress is uniform and uniform is about power. And established power knows the look of authorized admiration. It knows the "right uniform." Looking at the world from inside the Western hegemony (as our media and academia almost always do), successful Third World women are supposed to dress like Western women (of similar social class). If they refuse to wear that style of clothing, they take away from us (and this is their real sin) a mirror which mirrors back to us our own (Western cultural) domination. What we are seeing in this mix-seeing and what we are naming in this mix-naming is ourselves as we construct and defend our own Western identity and destiny. We are trapped, without knowing it, in the world of Alice and the Looking Glass.

Looking into that mirror we should ask who is the "fundamentalist?" Who flees the future--when we understand the future to be that which is the "not yet"? Who imagines truths that are timeless, a past that should model every culture's future no matter what past that particular culture bears? Which culture speaks'(so pretentiously) about "the end of history"? Whose suspicion lacks self-suspicion? Who precisely are we Westerns naming when we name the Islamic other "fundamentalist"?

When Western intellectuals, political actors, and media commentators talk about "a New World order," they (or is it we?) mean an order reflecting a political economy dominated by Western-style capitalism and our ethos of commodified values. It is not the Islamic other but we "the West" who act upon the basis of an ideology that sees our world, the "First World," as truly first, and thus not only worthy of but in fact demanding worldwide emulation. Working from such a perspective, we Westerners see as fanatical and fearful others who refuse to want to be like us, refuse to want to dress like us, or think and value like us, to dream and fear as we, "the West," dream and fear. our Western ideology does not recognize its own universal pretensions, while it continues to condemn as pretentious claims made by others, often in the name of religion, for the right to occupy their own cultural space. Calling the Islamic other "fundamentalist" and religiously pretentious, we expel from ourselves any suspicion of our own arbitrariness and unreflectiveness. We live, without knowing it, in a Looking Glass World, our world, mix-seen and mix-named (in order to be seen and named), as the other we construct as Islam.

If we would see ourselves in our seeing, we must look back at our own looking. By stepping to the other side of the mirror we Westerns can reappropriate the "clash of civilizations" thesis from a space where inhabitants, though their cultures of origin differ, share a common experience--the modern experience of domination. It is important to note that the domination is dual--not just the dominance of Western capital and culture, but also the dominance of local elites in the Third World, elites who have gained extraordinary personal power and wealth by brokering indigenous resources (both raw material and human labor) on the global capitalist market. Today, the game of the Looking Glass is beginning to be played out from both sides of what we call Islam and the West.

Managing Blame to Benefit Elites

This fact needs careful attention: elites everywhere act under the same rules of the game imposed by global capitalism. At the same time elites everywhere must also secure the reputation of loyalty to locality, of identification with "their own kind." Making decisions in response to the logic of global capitalism, decisions from which they personally benefit, indigenous elites (whether in the West or in the Third World) must, nevertheless, present themselves persuasively as representatives of their own people.

But when promises of "development" produce in the Third World mostly a new class of indigenous millionaires, and balance against promises of "a post-industrial information economy" in the West that produces a workforce the majority of whom are forced into downward mobility by de-industrialization, when the distance between the rich and the poor becomes ever wider around the world--then privilege and power everywhere look for strategies of deflecting blame and recruiting anger to the task of maintaining established social relations. Elites everywhere begin to play the Alice in Wonderland game.

When international investment capital, driven by its restless search for profits, seeks out the comparative advantage of low wage-rate work forces, a minimum of environmental protection laws, and governments compliant to the interests of international capital holders, where constant turmoil results as national elites jockey each against the other to secure the favor of global capital, and inside these nations, whether in the West or the so-called Third World, there begins to appear resistance to what privilege and power are doing to the masses--then domestic power brokers in order to manage that anger will target blame against internal minorities (African Americans in this country, Muslims in India), or against so-called foreign intrigues (Zionists in Saudi Arabia or Christians in the Sudan).

When artists and intellectuals emerge who fight against the commodification and commercialization of their culture's values and oppose the growing globalized uniformity and trivialization of taste, and when these same intellectuals and artists turn to their own cultural roots as the basic resource for their alternative constructions, local elites will seek to recruit those frustrated sensibilities to the task of maintaining the established relationships of power. How? Power will use the support of culturally correct art to mask and legitimate the arbitrariness of its own privilege. Abstract art legitimates privilege in Paris, even as Qur'anic calligraphy replaces abstract art on the apartment walls of the new millionaires in Kuala Lumpur. Culturally correct art gives elites the patina of loyalty to local populations, while as capitalists they answer to the same logic of global comparative advantage.[10]

To sum up, if James Scott is right (and I think he is) that wherever there is domination, one also finds resistance,[11] then the elites of global capitalism are faced today with the task of so managing local discontent that it is deflected from the actual relationships of power onto scapegoat groups (racial groups, gender groups, ethnic groups, religious groups).

And this brings us to the most pernicious rendering of the question: "Islam and the West: is a clash of civilizations coming?"

As promises of better times begin to falter for the majority, local elites, whether in Islam or the West, must persuasively claim local loyalty even as they continue to pursue their own class interests in global competition. What better way to disguise this self-interest than the vigorous--perhaps even genuine--display of religious identification with one's own kind? Are we seeing a new international politics emerge, in Islam but also in the West--a politics of religious correctness that disguises the ambitions, the corruptions and the policy failures of local elites behind the veil of piety? Are we witnessing the emergence of an Alice in Wonderland politics, where, worldwide, players in the game of domination manage the mirror of "the threatening other" as an instrument of domestic pacification?

What I am suggesting is that the human failures of global capitalism--its abandoning of local communities, its transformation of all values into exchange values, its concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a new international elite--these failures may be disguised by a perverse rendering of the clash of civilizations thesis. Constructing religiously correct objects of threat (Christians in Egypt, Muslims in Bosnia, "Western secularists" in Malaysia) becomes a strategy of maintaining privilege and power. It tames exploited domestic majorities by redirecting their anger away from local elites. The religious other becomes (still again) the most important construction in the strategy of elite domination.

The emerging politics of religious correctness is a strategy of lopsided wealth and unjust rule and deserves vigorous criticism and insistent unmasking. A starting point is to recognize the shared moral insights of both Islam and the West.[12] Embedded in the formation and re-formation of moral conscience in both historical trajectories is the voice of the Hebrew prophets who cry out against exploitation of the people not by foreigners but by their own people. Countering the politics of dreadful difference, each side has a hermeneutic of self-criticism, of subversive knowledge, a history of "unauthorized histories" internal to itself. As groups work for justice and against the legitimating strategies of scapegoating in both Islam and the West, we can learn from each other's different struggles of resistance.

In this way the other can become a subject, not an object or a projected image. The history of the other can become, not a terrain to overwrite with our own history, but a historical presence within which we in the West can compare and contrast, and thus retrieve in a new way, our own history--for example, our history as colonial powers. Emmanuel Levinas puts all this well when he says: "To approach the other in conversation is to receive from the other beyond the capacity of the I... [which means] to be taught." or more succinctly, "It is not I who resist the system, as Kierkegaard thought; it is the other."[13]

The real clash everywhere in late twentieth-century global capitalism is over power and privilege and the growing inequalities elites everywhere extract from the common good. That reality is an offense to the prophetic heritage we Christians share with Muslims and Jews. In the global struggle for justice that is emerging, we need each other as the other by whom we can "be taught"--a perspective that gives us perspective upon our own standpoint, a way to step beyond the Looking Glass.

Notes

[1.] Besides Edward Said, orientalism (1979) and Culture and Imperialism (1992), see also Norman Daniel, Islam, Europe and Empire and Barker, Hulme, et al., eds. Europe and Its Others.

[2.] By the "we" in this sentence I mean we who are our culture's definers--political actors and their managers, newspaper writers, television news editors, professors of political science, of anthropology, history, philosophy and religion.

I mean by this "we," then, all of us whose job it is to define our nation and define its relationship to the rest of the world, and thus construct and reconstruct our identity.

[3.] On identity and otherness, see Levinas's Totality and Infinity and Derrida's Grammatology. For the appropriation of this idea into the social sciences see, for example, Johannes Fabian, Time and the other: How Anthropology Makes its object and Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious. on the issue of colonialism and the construction of consciousness in the West, see Timothy Mitchell, Colonizing Egypt. And for an example of resistance and mutual adaptation see Jean and John Comaroff, of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa.

The "still again" in this sentence refers to the Christian response to the invasion of Europe by the ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century--an action seen by Christian writers as an invasion of the Corpus Christianum by people called barbarians. Islam as "violent barbarian" became the other in reference to whom Europe constructed its identity as both united and "Christian." This identity made the religious wars of the end of that century almost inevitable, because Christendom could not be Christendom as two--one Catholic and the other Protestant--but only as one.

[4.] See the Summer 1993 edition of Foreign Affairs as well as the Sept./Oct. and Nov./Dec. editions.

[5.] The idea of a "first" and "second" world reflected Cold War geography in which Western capitalist space refers to itself as "first" and communist space as second." "Third world" originally designated the space of nonaligned nations and was a self-designation by them of independence. But under the influence of discourses on modernization and development, "third" took on an invidious connotation reflecting a mono-directional reading of historical process, and who leads and who follows in that process.

[6.] Naming by way of mix-naming in order to legitimate dominant/subordinate relationships is explored by Pierre Bourdieu in his The Logic of Practice and Language and Symbolic Power.

[7.] The idea of the commodification of values has extended as a reflection upon Marx's idea of "fetishism." It has been developed by the Frankfurt School thinkers like Adorno, Benjamin and Habermas. Marx argued that capitalism transforms all values-including the values defining interpersonal relationships--into exchange values, into commodities and their market value.

In this respect, Benjamin provided some of the earliest and still most suggestive theorizing about the modern shopping mall as he reflected on the meaning of the newly constructed Paris arcades--the first form of multiple stores under one roof. Today, the culture of the shopping mall has become ubiquitous across the globe. one example can be found in Malaysia, which is 55 percent Malay-Muslim and 35 percent Chinese-Buddhist and only 3 percent Christian. In that country the Christmas season (beginning in the middle of November) has become a major holiday ritualized in the malls, which are decorated with (usually plastic but occasionally live) evergreen trees with multi-colored lights, plastic santas and reindeer, and the piped-in Christmas carols sung in English. In these mall rituals, family values can be seen transacted in the transactions of commodities where the purchase of a (Christ-mass?) present confirms love amongst Muslims, and families become happy as they stroll through aisles laden with items which, when purchased, convey the conspicuous display of interpersonal affection.

It was the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen who, at the end of the nineteenth century, first theorized the idea of "conspicuous consumption." In his The Theory of the Leisure Class Veblen argued that in a cultural of rapid social change (such as America at the turn of the century or Southeast Asia today) old identities become unhinged from traditional social relationships and personal repute comes to attach itself to commodities, which are purchased not for their usefulness but for the value of their display. Since everyone (at a given level of income) is vying with everyone else (at the same level of income) to purchase conspicuously and thus prove self-worth, each level of consumer accomplishment is immediately drawn into doubt (as to self-worth) by the next level not yet achieved. ostentation (which for some may be new cars but for others new blue jeans or sneakers) becomes obligatory In order to display our worth we buy beyond our means, and remain unsure of ourselves at each new level of consumer extravagance.

This ethos of the shopping mall, which began in the West, is rapidly becoming worldwide. In this respect, the Western hegemony is powerful indeed. But also powerful is the sense of cultural invasion and loss by those seeking to live by other (for example, Islamic) standards of personal worth.

[8.] on the media construction of the image of female beauty in modern Malaysia, see my "Postmodernism, Postcolonialism and the image of female beauty in modern Malaysian print media," in Westoxification, edited by Chandra Muzaffar.

[9.] See, for example, the preoccupation with female dress in the essay by Manning Nash in Fundamentalism Observed vol. 1, ed. by Marty and Appleby (1991).

[10.] Bourdieu's book Distinction: a Social Critique of the Construction of Taste is a brilliant examination of how art is used as "cultural capital" to legitimate social position in class and power relations within society.

[11.] See Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990).

[12.] In Mohammed Arkoun's article, "Is Islam Threatened by Christianity" (Cross Currents, Winter 1995-96), this same point is powerfully stated. Arkoun says: "'Islam' and 'West' have ceased to refer to their objective contents, whether religious, cultural, intellectual, or historical; from now on they function as powerful conglomerates of images, or prejudices, or projections, which call for two grids of mutual perception, two systems of legitimating all enterprises, exclusion and combat on both sides... even though they have common foundations, not to mention an axiology of common values" (471).

[13.] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity (1969), 52, 53.

~~~~~~~~

By John C. Raines

 

JOHN C. RAINES, professor of religion at Temple University, is a frequent contributor to Cross Currents: "Toward a Relational Theory of Justice," Fall 1988; "Tools and Common Grace," Fall 1990; "A Classroom is Well Named," Summer 1992; and "Earth Vigil: Darwin, Death and Hope," Summer 1994. This paper was first presented at the annual meeting (January 1996) of the Society of Christian Ethics.


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Source: Cross Currents, Spring96, Vol. 46 Issue 1, p39, 11p.