War on error
Stuart Sim argues we must fight fire with reason
Islamic fundamentalism first showed itself to the world in the Iranian revolution, and we have since seen the ideology take an ever more violent, nihilistic position. Islamist terror, we are told by our political leaders, is the greatest threat of our time; we are engaged in a war against it, and it is a war that demands a longterm commitment on the part of Western society.
Religious fervour is undoubtedly gaining momentum as a political entity. American historian Philip Jenkins has warned that "the 21st century will almost certainly be regarded by future historians as the century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs," and for the moment, it would seem that Islamism is the predominant dogma.
Yet Islamic fundamentalism is only the tip of the iceberg of religious fundamentalism, and religious fundamentalism is only the tip of the iceberg of fundamentalism in the more general cultural sense.
What might be done to counter the very real danger of a new dark age of dogma enveloping us in the near future?
The fundamentalist ethic involves the following features: intolerance of other viewpoints; repression of dissent; dogmatic commitment to a sacred book or set of principles; authoritarianism (often of an extreme form). It is alive and well and thriving just about everywhere: there are religious, market, political, nationalistic, and ecological fundamentalisms. Contrary to the predictions of postmodernists like Jean Francois Lyotard and the neoconservative American right, we have not seen the end of authoritarian 'grand narratives': nor have we seen Francis Fukuyama's predicted end of the opposition to the grand narrative of Western liberal democracy. Few foresaw that what would step into the post Cold War breach would be dogmatism of a very traditional kind; or recognised that such dogmatism would find echoes in so many other areas of global culture.
Nowadays we live in a world of competing dogmatisms, all of which feed off each other even while apparently in opposition: market fundamentalism, with its aggressive laissez faire agenda, leaves many Muslim countries struggling and fuels the rise of Islamic fundamentalism; as we have seen since 9/11, this in turn can fuel nationalism and political fundamentalism in Western countries.
How can fundamentalism be opposed? Consider our present response to the threat of urban terrorism posed by Islamic dogmatists.
The measures currently being taken to try to prevent such an attacks are of questionable value, based on an outmoded worldview which has misunderstood the mindset of the people with whom it is dealing, or the ideological imperatives driving them. How can the threat of violence deter potential suicidebombers? Either way, martyr status is assured in their own community, and martyrdom is what is actively being sought: in the politics of the extreme gesture that is the primary aim, however achieved. Neither will the threat of violence force the terrorists to the negotiating table, since their real objection to the West is that it is not Islamic. The ultimate goal of groups such as alQaeda is one to which the West cannot accede: a world in which Islam is the dominant doctrine, preferably a world of Islamic theocracies ruled under Shari'a law.
It is hard to see how any compromise can be reached with such groups. Osama bin Laden's initial objective seemed limited, and not unreasonable: the removal of an American military presence in Saudi Arabia, the most sacred land of Islam. That was achieved; the 'infidels' left. But alQaeda have continued to find other justifications for terrorist activity. One suspects they will be capable of doing so almost indefinitely: Iraq alone offers a multitude of opportunities as a highprofile victim of imperialist fundamentalism; meanwhile in the 'truce offer' broadcast by alJazeera, the speaker, purported to be bin Laden, said that the occupation of "all Palestine" was the "real problem", and promised to cease attacks on European targets when states vowed to stop attacking Muslims and "interfering in their affairs". But, realistically, that could mean anything, from troops in Iraq to the French hijab ban. It's clear that alQaeda's goalposts are of the infinitely movable variety.
Yet Bush and Blair continue to treat alQaeda and their supporters as if they were simply antidemocrats who can be faced down by superior force of arms and a rhetoric of 'resolve'. They treat the present situation as if it were oldstyle power politics, when patently it is not: it is something far more sinister, far more worrying. It is a conflict in the realm of ideas more precisely in the realm of metaphysical ideas. And that is where the real problem lies: the Western political class has little grasp of metaphysics, other than 'freedom' as the most amorphous of concepts. So they fight a philosophical system with political weapons. All that does is to drive the respective parties into even more deeply entrenched positions. Pentagon staff were recently treated to a seminar entitled 'How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas', but it remains to be seen how this has affected US policy, which is still very much rooted in oldstyle, gungho offensives and evertightening, draconian 'Homeland Security' defence. Improving our security systems alone will never lead to victory in a conflict of ideas. Instead we need to get a greater grip on the aforementioned 'freedom' and define what it actually means, both for ourselves and for those who, at the moment, see the future only in terms of extremes. As the deteriorating political situation in Morocco, long one of the most tolerant states in the Islamic sphere, suggests, the hearts and minds of Muslim youth are only too receptive to the extremist fundamentalist message. The poverty of so many Islamic countries (exacerbated by the application of market fundamentalist policies) is a major factor in this receptiveness, and alQaeda exploits it skilfully, in the same way Ba'athists and Marxists did in previous generations. Current western rhetoric does nothing to lessen the appeal of the politics of the extreme gesture in such circumstances.
Dogma must be confronted by scepticism, and that means using the full range of media and public institutions at our disposal. Whether we call them Enlightenment values, or liberal humanist values, seems incidental: although we must not see them purely as 'western values'. Those values ought to be stated and restated in as many contexts as possible, with their antiauthoritarian aspects brought directly to the fore.
Educational practices, and specifically those of universities, play a critical role for universities in such a process. The core focus of universities is on ideas: at their best, universities develop and foster scepticism about those ideas. It is by no means a perfect system, but dissent and debate are recognised as an integral part of the university ethos. Following on from this model, the response to both religious and political fundamentalism and they so often go handinhand has to be dissent, dissent, dissent, expressed in debate, debate, debate. At the moment we face a situation where the only way to express dissent in many Islamic states is to become more and more fundamentalist: an alternative has to be provided. And how much contact is there between the humanities (taking that term in the broadest possible sense) in the West and the Islamic world? Shouldn't we be talking more, debating more, putting the case for pluralism and doubt more?
At least some of the money currently being spent on weapons to protect the West against terrorism might be better deployed, too, being spread around amongst dissident artists, writers, and filmmakers in Islamic countries. Dissent within Islam badly needs fostering: it does exist, but in generally hostile, heavilypoliced environments that make it extremely difficult to voice countercultural opinions. The threat of becoming the next Rushdie is a powerful encouragement to selfcensorship.
Neither is this a matter of expecting Islamic creative artists to start propagating western values, but of making it possible for them to question the excesses of their own system from the inside, to see a way past selfcensorship. Unless that starts happening on a regular basis, such that public opinion eventually begins to change and the political systems within Islamic countries to respond to that, then we will continue to be stuck, wittingly or unwittingly, in a holy war.