One of the most significant developments in the modern world — history may find it to be a decisive one — has been the deliberate cultivation of religious extremism by ruling elites trying to sustain and expand their power.
The rise of virulent extremism in almost every major religion — Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism — has many other causes, of course. Chief among these is the turbulent encounter between modernity and tradition, a confrontation that has played out — and is playing out — in so many different ways both within and across various cultures.
Modernity encompasses not only the technologies and techniques of capitalism that in its many guises (including state capitalism) has plowed up so much ancient ground and overturned so many ancient certainties, but also the historic development of ideas and ideals based, ultimately, on the notion of the inherent (even inalienable) autonomy and worth of the individual. These ideas too have found expression in myriad — and often conflicting — forms. And of course, there has never been and can never be any kind of clear dividing line between all of these swirling currents, the multifaceted dimensions of modernity and tradition; like a jar of colored sands, they mix and meld in innumerable, unstable combinations as they are sifted and shaken through the course of time.
So it would be wrong to say that the rise of sectarian zeal can be ascribed solely to its manipulation by elites. But it would be equally wrong — and dangerously blind — to deny the fact of these manipulations, or to minimize in any way the pernicious, atrocious effect they have had — and are having — on human existence. They have placed a deep — and entirely unnecessary — shadow over humanity for generations: a shadow that only gets darker, and more poisonous, as time goes on.
For the last 50 years, in country after country, ruling elites — those factions which hold a disproportionate and thus illegitimate sway over society — have fostered the growth of religious extremism for two main reasons: to distract the populace from the way their lives are unjustly diminished by the elitist agenda — and to throttle and demonize any popular movement that might threaten the elite’s hegemony.
This happened throughout the Middle East, for example, as tyrants of every stripe (often clients of the West) turned to hitherto marginal fundamentalist religious groups to dilute and drive back secular challenges to their rule. These challenges were often, although not always, led by movements that could be characterized as "leftist" to one degree or another. (Although it is also true that any challenge whatsoever to elite rule is almost always categorized as some kind of dangerous, revolutionary "leftism," even if it has little or no socialist content at all — and even if it is entirely non-violent, or gradualist, or merely mildly reformist.) Usually with Western help, the tyrants cultivated religious extremists both as shock troops and cultural warriors to attack and divide any opposition. As the London Review of Books noted recently (in a piece highlighted this weekend by As’ad AbuKhalil):
The Islamisation of Egyptian society deepened after the 1967 war; it became explicit government policy under Sadat, the self-styled ‘believer president’ who supported radical Islamists in his battles with the left, and who made the sharia ‘the principal source’ of law in 1980 – a year before his assassination by an Islamist. Under Mubarak, praying has become as popular as shopping or football and now serves a roughly similar function as a distraction from the innumerable frustrations of Egyptian life. Indeed, Islam as observed by Egyptians is increasingly an Islam that caters to consumerist needs. The popular televangelist Amr Khaled mixes Quranic citations with boosterish advice of a more general kind. This variety of Islam is no threat to the regime, but it has made life far less easy-going. ‘My neighbour used to water his plants in his pyjamas on the balcony, where he’d be joined by his wife in her nightie,’ a friend tells me. ‘They’d drink beer in the open, and then he’d go downstairs for the sunset prayers in the local mosque. Today he’d be killed for this, but at the time he would have seen no contradiction.’
Over the past half century, this same dynamic has played out in various ways, and to various degrees, in countries all over the world. It has happened in Iran, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia (Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo), and many others. It is happening at an astonishingly accelerated rate today in Israel, which has become by far the most religiously and ethnically intolerant of any nation considered part of "the West." And it is most palpably happening on many levels in the United States, as Chris Hedges and many others have documented.
In most cases, this dynamic involves a strong fusion of religious extremism with a strident, exclusionary nationalism. Indeed, religious nationalism is one of the hallmarks of our age. At various times, and in various quarters, one element — the religious or the nationalist — might predominate over the other. We can see this in, say, the Tea Party movement, where exclusionary nationalism — the self-defined "Real Americans" vs. the strange, traitorous Others — is now in ascendance, occluding somewhat the sex-obsessed, church-based "Focus on the Family"-style religious nationalism that was somewhat more prevalent earlier in the decade. The whole career of Sarah Palin exemplifies this oscillation, as she has tracked back and forth between the most virulent, primitive, casting-out-devils Christian fundamentalism and the bellicose, militarist nationalism she shares with the Beltway neo-cons, a number of whom are, of course, Jews and/or atheists whom Palin, like George W. Bush, believes will burn in eternal hellfire.
Although these kinds of contradictions demonstrate the utter incoherence and moral vacuity of religious nationalism, they rarely lessen the power of these movements, which — once unleashed, encouraged (and heavily funded) — feed on the nuclear fuel of raw, unexamined emotions, fears and needs: a fuel that is constantly replenished by the relentless propagation of artfully filtered (and often fabricated) outrages and threats.
Here’s an example from personal experience. I came of age in the mid-70s, in the Bible Belt, in a family rooted in that old-time Southern Baptist religion. This was the era when the TV preachers — Jim Bakker, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and others — first began flooding the late-night airwaves. These televangelists, just beginning the fusion of religion and nationalism noted above, were widely, almost universally, regarded by the good, God-fearing, church-going grownups of my acquaintance as extremely marginal, even comical figures, of little note and little worth.
Yet in just a few years’ time, many of these figures, and others like them, would be trooping to the White House to be courted and honored; they were commanding vast media networks, college campuses and commercial empires. One of them, Robertson, even ran for president. They had become an integral and important part of the nation’s power structure, pushing "hot button" issues, almost always related to sex — homosexuality, abortion — and "traditional values" (e.g., submission to authority: biblical authority, corporate authority, military authority, male authority, etc.). They constructed a false history of a paradisiacal past that had been "stolen" from "real" Americans by liberals, feminists, unions, queers, darkies, commies, college professors, Mexicans, etc. etc. And all the while, the elite interests who helped bankroll and magnify these marginal movements into national juggernauts were in fact beggaring the believers themselves, destroying their communities — indeed, their "traditional values," their family and social networks, and their quality of life — by gutting their towns and cities, driving family farmers from their land, sending tens of millions of jobs to near-slave labor overseas, befouling the environment, degrading public amenities and vital infrastructure, relentlessly restricting legal recourse against corporate predation and depredation, and corrupting the democratic process to send a steady stream of spineless hacks and whores to Washington to perpetuate the bipartisan corporate-militarist agenda.
The result has been poisonous rancor, social division, economic ruin, vast anxiety, endless war and the relentless, systematic degradation of the quality of life for working people, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable — indeed, for everyone outside the small circle of the elite, and their sycophants and servants in the media-political class.
And at every step of the way, this ever-growing dynamic of religious nationalism — which has found its highest, most complete expression in the war-profiteering militarist empire of the Terror War and its attendant atrocities, foreign and domestic — has been aided and abetted and strengthened and expanded by the so-called "liberals" and "progressives" of the Democratic Party (and their own innumerable outriders, servitors and sycophants) who have been and remain among the fiercest proponents of … the war-profiteering militarist empire. ("Progressives," of course want to "reform" the empire — that is, make its deadly operations more efficient and codify its most heinous atrocities into law — but none of them, not one, call for it to be dismantled.)
Just as in Mubarak’s Egypt or the Shah’s Iran, any secular opposition to the thuggish (indeed criminal) American elites has been effectively neutralized. The resultant anger and confusion of a people who are indeed being robbed and screwed over is thus diverted from its true perpetrators, and instead is channeled into one of few avenues of "protest" against the "system" allowed to operate freely and fully on a mass scale: religious nationalism in its various forms. Of course, this kind of "protest" only strengthens the genuine systems of rapacious power, and thus, ultimately, serves both sides of the partisan divide. (Or rather the factional divide between two groups of squabbling courtiers jockeying for the top perks of the imperial state they both avidly serve.) And, as we have seen in Iran and will likely see in Egypt, these movements, once unleashed and empowered, cannot be completely controlled by their elite patrons (as some Republican incumbents and insiders have already learned to their sorrow).
On every side, in country after country, and at varying levels, life is being made "far less easy-going" by the unholy alliance of rapacious corporate-militarist elites and the Zealotocracy of religious nationalists they have helped propel to heights of power and influence. And as long as the imperial system keeps churning its way around the globe, this murderous, retrograde, life-strangling dynamic will continue to accelerate.