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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Religious Revivalism and Lower-Middle Class Man

Jason Burke Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam

Thomas Frank What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America

I was originally going to write up a review of the Thomas Frank book in the aftermath of the election; I got about a thousand words in and decided that it was, basically, too soon and my emotions were still too raw. It seemed that what I needed most was a little bit of time to organize my thoughts. As a blogger you are inevitably part of an ongoing collective analysis project, but I felt like my initial article was too much a re-hashing of other people's work. In the month or so since the election I have read literally dozens of articles and analyses, trawled through endless triumphalist or despairing commentaries, glazed my eyes over at the dozens of maps produced to illustrate this or that factor, and I couldn't really find an angle I wanted to work from.

During this time I was also reading Jason Burke's book about Al-Qaeda and, as I plowed through endless bloviation about 'red and blue America' I saw my way in to what I wanted to say. Perhaps the most important group in the rise of political Islamic activism (commonly known as 'Islamism') has been the provincial lower-middle class in the Muslim world, people whose rising aspirations, burnished by the spread of education and by increasing contact with the modern technology and images of prosperity imported from the West, have been frustrated by the economic and political stagnation of their nations. To many of these people, remaking the state in an Islamic way has come to be seen as their best chance to improve their station, a chance they see little chance of arriving from the corrupt, often American-allied, rulers and the oligarchical economic stranglehold of the elite classes. I should point out here that I am talking about the broader religious conservative movements and not the narrower militant Salafist groups (before anyone starts sending me ranting emails!)

Fundamentally, political Islam holds out the promise of alleviating the frustrations these people feel at seeing their aspirations come to little and at seeing the politically and technologically backward state of the Muslim world in comparison to the West and the Far East. The massive expansion of education in the last century and the barrage of images from the West have created a sense of deep humiliation. With the failures of Nasser-style Arab nationalism/socialism and the strangulation of liberal reformism, the relative independence offered to the mosques throughout the various autocratic states of the Arab and wider Muslim world gives a strong impetus to Islamism. It offers an alternative approach to modernity from Western-style secularism by promising to maintain traditional culture while re-asserting lost Muslim dignity and re-establishing the lands of Islam as crucial to global politics and culture.

"In the short term, aspirations have been raised in an unprecedented way both by the extension of education to so many and by the exposure of virtually everyone in the Islamic world to images of the West, with its apparent democracy, sexual opportunity and wealth...(consider) the experience of the 17-year-old Pakistani lower-middle-class youth torn between the mullah and MTV. If he accepts his desire to be part of the Westernized world he will have to address the fact that he will only ever enjoy an ersatz, inferior version of the 'Western' life of his equivalent in London or Los Angeles. His clothes will never be as up to date, his skin will never be the right colour, his chances of pre-marital sex will always be infinitesimally lower. An alternative of course is to reject the West and all it stands for in favour of the affirming, empowering certainties of radical Islam, which teaches him that he is no longer subordinate but merely denied what is rightfully his." (Burke, p. 283)

In America the big grassroots political story of recent decades has been the rise of the Evangelical Christian movement within the Republican Party. One of the things that I have always found strange in liberal discussions of evangelical Christianity is how little effort is made to understand these people, and how easily a lot of analysis slides into snotty stereotyping about these people being backwoods rubes with a predilection for sex within the family, obesity, ugly clothes, bad dental hygiene and so on. It's nonsense. Modern Christian fundamentalism is an aspirational movement. If you watch evangelical programs like the 700 Club you will see plenty of ads for stuff like 'how the Bible can help you to prosperity' and 'how to be part of God's plan for America'. Then there is the exponential growth of the so-called megachurches, a phenomenon of the suburbs as opposed to the mysterious rural lumpen-proletariat that the so many of the 'alternative' urban liberals I know in New York seem to think they are.

In the gaining strength of the Christian Right we can see several dynamics at work that are compellingly similar to the rise of Islamic political activism. One is that the activist core of the Christian Right tends to come from the provincial lower middle-classes, exactly as with the Islamists. Activist Christianity shares with Islamism a desire to re-brand modernity in religious themes. It is driven by a powerful sense of grievance, of being ignored and marginalized. They both share the feeling that their faith is under attack from nebulous outside forces (on the part of the Islamists it is the assorted forces of Zionism, the West, and their local apostate allies; for Christian activists it is 'the liberal elite' that plots against Christian belief). Both respond to economic malaise through a deeper zeal on social and political issues, on the feeling that their financial troubles are a test from God and that they have a role to play in pushing the nation back onto the right track. Both are united by the feeling that religious observance and traditional morality are being undermined by the forces of secular modernity.

"What afflicts us is a "crisis of the soul," wails Wichita congressman Todd Tiahrt. What motivates us, says a leader of the state's anti-abortion group, is disgust with the "immoral decadence in society." "We in America and we here in Kansas are in a moral crisis," thunders the state's conservative Galahad, David Miller, to his army of followers. What we need is to become "virtuous," as per the founding fathers' clear instructions; for if we fail, "our entire culture may be lost." And from the height of Capitol Hill the great Brownback denounces gangsta rap , inveighs against stem-cell research, and proposes that the U.S. Senate hold hearings to investigate America's "cultural decline."" (Frank, p. 69)

As with Islamic fundamentalism, there are two layers to Christian fundamentalism: one is the 'spiritual salvation' group at the bottom of society, and the other is the activists a bit further up the social scale. If you go to many poor parts of America, both in rural areas and in inner-cities one thing that is striking is the number of small Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. My cousin Ben lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which is a poor black neighborhood (whites like my cousin probably make up no more than around 2 or 3% of the local population), and if you go through there you will see small storefront churches everywhere. You can see the same thing in the slums of cities in the Muslim world.

The activist part of both movements are, in contrast, drawn mostly from the aspirational but disaffected lower middle classes. This factor is crucial. These are the people that are educated enough to formulate grand political theories, and motivated enough to do something but not affluent enough to be satisfied with the condition of things, and to feel frustrated by their personal lack of success. All throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century these types of men (and it's usually men) have, time after time, been the leaders and foot soldiers of radical movements, driven by the belief that a total transformation of society will bring them the influence that they (and their cause) deserve. Benito Mussolini was the son of a blacksmith and a teacher. Lenin was the son of a civil servant. The students who sparked the events of May 1968 in France were from the classic boiler plate: lower middle-class youths, most of whom were the first in their families to attend university, deciding that radical transformationism were more attractive than reaching for, and possibly failing to receive, bourgeois conformism.

Both groups benefit heavily from economic insecurity and the particular conditions of our time. As conditions deteriorate in relative terms from what they were (and from what is desired) religious conservative movements attract recruits. As both Christian activism and Islamism explicitly reject Marxism and Marxist analyses of economic issues their activism relates to the intersection between theological, political, social, and cultural issues.

The lack of rigor in approaches to economic issues is shared by both groups. Unlike dealing with social and cultural issues for which the relevant religious traditions have an enormous amount of material to fall back on it is very difficult, if not impossible, to create an economic system that can deal with the highly advanced state of modern economics that can be related in any more than a cursory fashion to key theological concepts. So, as a result, little is done. When Christian Right activism thinks about economic issues, which it doesn't do often, it is generally content to follow the free-market orthodoxy as propounded by the corporate wing of the Republican Party which, as Frank explains, has been rebranded as a populist method of attacking the nebulous elite. The Islamists, where they have achieved some level of power, have wrangled with the problem of creating an Islamic financial approach that makes sense and have generally left the problem unresolved (or in a state of crony capitalism, as has happened in Iran) and returned focus to cultural issues that are easier to deal with.

"For decades Americans have experienced a popular uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistably against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes."" (Frank, p. 109)

"Throughout the Islamic world, radical Islamic activists have found that the actual practice of formulating and implementing an Islamic state or a return to Islamic law in politics, business and economics is in fact very difficult and have found it easier to focus on women and the family instead." (Burke, p. 133)

Burke's book is mostly about Islamist terror groups, their interconnections, and the history of the movement, but it does lay out a pattern, time after time, of people who entered the movement through political activist groups like the Jamaat Islami in Pakistan or the Front Islamique du Salut before moving on to the gunmen. Obviously this is the point where comparisons to Christian activism in the United States no longer work. The Christian movement in America has not produced anything as grotesquely violent and nihilistic as the radical edge of Islamism. Abortion clinic bombings, although deplorable, were a tiny phenomenon compared to the beastial theologically-inspired violence unleashed by radical Muslims in recent years in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Chechnya, Pakistan, Indonesia, Palestine and elsewhere. In the end this is the crucial difference between the two phenomena.

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