can’t see the forest

Chomsky on Religious Fundamentalism in Politics

From Mail & Guardian Online by way of Noam Chomsky’s website:

A Cacophany of Fundamentalism
Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar interviewed by Stephen Shalom

Gilbert Achcar: When Arab nationalism, Nasserism and similar trends began to crumble in the 1970s, most governments used Islamic fundamentalism as a tool to counter remnants of the left or of secular nationalism.

A striking illustration of the phenomenon is Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. He fostered Islamic fundamentalism to counter remnants of Nasserism after he took over in 1970 and ended up being assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981.

Today in the Middle East the same genie is out of the bottle and out of control. The repression of progressive or secular ideologies, aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, has left the ground open to the only ideo- logical channel available for anti-Western protest — Islamic fundamentalism.

Noam Chomsky: Without drawing the analogy too closely, I think there is something similar in the US fundamentalist situation.

It should be added, however, that the dynamic may be universal. [Whether] Christian or Jewish or Islamic or Hindu, the fundamentalist religious impulse can be turned to serve political agendas.

In the United States, what we call fundamentalism has very deep roots, from the early colonists. There’s always been an extreme, ultra­religious element, more or less fundamentalist, with several revivals.

In the past 25 years, fundamentalism has been turned for the first time into a major political force. It’s a conscious effort, I think, to try to undermine progressive social policies. Not radical policies but rather the mild social democratic policies of the preceding period are under serious attack.

The fundamentalists were mobilised into a political force for the first time to provide a base for this reaction, and — to the extent that the political system functions, which is not much — to shift the focus of many voters from the issues that really affect their interests (such as health, edu-=cation, economic issues, wages) to religious crusades to block the teaching of evolution, gay rights and abortion rights.

These are all issues about which CEOs, for example, just don’t care very much. They care a lot about the other issues. And if you can shift the focus of debate and attention and presidential politics to questions quite marginal for the wealthy — questions of, say, gay rights — that’s wonderful for people who want to destroy the labour unions, or to construct a social/political system for the benefit of the ultra-rich, while everyone else barely survives.

This fundamentalist mobilisation has occurred during a unique period of American economic history where, for about 25 years, real wages have either stagnated or declined for the majority. Real median family incomes are rising far more slowly than productivity and economic growth, and for some sectors, declining. There were things like the Great Depression, but never 25 years of stagnation through a period with no serious economic disruptions.

Working hours have been going way up, social benefits way down, and indebtedness is growing enormously. These are real social and economic crises. One way for the powerful to manage these crises is by mobilising the fundamentalist sectors and turning them into an active political force.

Thus the discourse and the focus shift to issues of great concern to the fundamentalists, but of only marginal concern to the people who own and run the society.

In fact, you could take a look at the attitudes of CEOs: they’re what are called liberal. They’re not very different from college professors. And if the population can become obsessed with “evolution theory” and gay rights, that’s fine, so long as the business world is running the social and economic policies with little interference.

After the last election, the business press described the “euphoria” in corporate boardrooms, and it wasn’t because they were against gay marriage. Some were, some weren’t; many of them or their children are gay anyway — no, what they knew is that it was a free run for business.

And if you can manage that, that’s an achievement; it’s one of the ways the population can be kept under control — plus inducing fear, which is a standard device.

My impression is that a real shift came with the administration of Jimmy Carter. Pre-Carter, nobody really much cared whether the president was religious.

But Carter, who was probably sincere, somehow taught party managers that if you put on a pious face, you appeal to a big voting bloc. Since Carter, every presidential candidate has pretended to religious experience.

In any case, it became possible to mobilise religious sentiment, which had always been there, and to turn it into a major political force, into the focus of political discourse, displacing social and economic issues.

Take right now. For most of the population, the major issues are things like exploding healthcare costs. But neither political party wants to deal with that; they’re too much in the pocket of the insurance companies and the financial institutions and so on. So instead they have battles about evolution theory and intelligent design, and they’ll argue about that. Meanwhile, the rich go on their way, running the country.

Stephen Shalom: Perhaps we should clarify terms here. There are some very traditional, religious Muslims who say that “fundamentalism” is an attitude toward religion and that it doesn’t imply that you want to impose it on somebody else. So, according to this view, one shouldn’t use “fundamentalism” as a politically derogatory term.

Chomsky: I think religious Muslims would make that distinction, just as when some Jewish fundamentalists were stopped just before they blew up a mosque, religious Jews dissociated themselves from them. That makes sense.

We’re talking here about the rise and use of fundamentalism as a general phenomenon, across cultures. The correlation between social and economic programmes that cause hardships for most of the population, and the ascendancy of fundamentalism as a core of political debate, is too close to be disregarded.


8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Debi said, on 11/5/06 at 10:05 pm

    Hi, Curt…

    Is there really anything wrong with a bunch of people who refer to themselves as “Fundamental Christians”, that being, they take the Bible at face value, voting according to those values?

    I don’t hear many trading the Healthcare argument for evolution theory and intelligent design this election cycle… instead, I’ve heard a lot about Iraq, embryonic stem cell research, the economy, and how everything that ails this country is Bush’s fault.

    While there may be some truth to the article in how it relates to Muslims, I’m sensing a disconnect to our own economic and political system.

    ~ Debi

    P.S. Congrats on the new site and style, I’m liking it :-)

  2. Curtis said, on 11/5/06 at 10:40 pm

    Great to hear from you again, Debi! And thank you for your compliments.

    To answer your question as directly as possible: No, I can’t see that there is anything wrong with voting on the basis of one’s values. If those values come from the Holy Bible, then so be it. One could do much worse than to apply the teachings of Christ to issues like torture of political prisoners, equal distribution of wealth, and so on. But on the other hand, if we aren’t to disregard the Old Testament, then what is to prevent a hypothetical extreme fundamentalist from writing the stoning of unruly children into a ballot? I don’t mean to be sardonic for the sake of it; I suppose my point is that both the constitution and application of religious values are always going to be open to interpretation and to the sensibilities of a majority, which would hopefully preclude my stoning example.

    The issue that is being explored in this article—and, as even Chomsky points out and as you’re correct to highlight, the analogy between Islamic extremism and religious fundamentalism in America is rough at best, although relevant—is that while the voter sees his or her religious values as a sound basis for judgment for taking action in the political sphere, which it definitely can be, the politician more often than not sees the religious values of constituents as an icing to be poured over whatever cake he or she wishes to serve them. So you won’t see healthcare traded for ID—but among a very large segment of the religious voting populace (particularly down here in my part of the country, I feel justified in saying), a candidate’s stand on issues of highly pronounced moral or religious significance becomes more important to that populace than wider issues which are less pointed even though they may be more significant in scope and in effect. So you could have an elderly Southern Baptist laid up in the hospital facing hundreds of thousands in medical bills, but the moment a political candidate mentions his belief in the sacrosanct Triune God, this patient is apt to look over the same candidate’s longstanding alliance with the health insurance industry—an association that, realistically, is not apt to move the candidate towards a proactive stance on healthcare reform.

    Of course that example is a manufactured hypothesis, but that’s the point that’s being gotten at. I’m going to take my decidedly secular humanist views to the ballot box, and everyone else is going to do as they please. What is of concern is not the trading of issues, but the layering together of them in questionable ways. And if you don’t see any of that going on, then I have a bucket of news stories for you to consider!

    In the end, this argument cannot and should not be taken as an affront to sensibilities of faith so much as a protection of them. Someone as well-informed as yourself can draw these kinds of distinctions. Many others cannot, or at least refuse to for complex social or psychological reasons I shouldn’t feel qualified to go into from my own limited perspective. I’m not out to attack anyone’s religious views and values, at least not unless there is something gravely at stake which is in my opinion being obscured by those views and values. Even then it’s only hot air coming from me, right? What I am attacking is the unscrupulous use of the banner of religious conviction by politicians who choose coldly to take up that standard only because it will attract a majority of voters; and what I can only judge to be either ineptitude or unwillingness of many of those voters to realize that this charade is going on.

    I hope that clarifies things even slightly.

  3. Debi said, on 11/6/06 at 8:01 am

    Ahh… your clarification makes things much more interesting. Or maybe the post would have been more interesting to me the first time if I would have “grasped” it then… :-)

    I’m going to skip right over the whole Christians-follow-the-New-Testament thing (which would preclude stoning), and get to your politician-baker analogy. This is an important point for all voting groups to keep in mind, as politicians have nearly perfected their chameleon-like qualities. As a “values-voter” myself, it is important to become educated to make sure I am not being played by someone attempting to appeal to my Christian priciples deceitfully.

    You are correct – this cycle has brought out many candidates who have suddenly found it chic to be seen in churches and throw around the word “god”. That doesn’t cut it with me… :-/

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post… as always (not hot air :-/ )


  4. Quran Bible said, on 11/6/06 at 11:11 am

    First thanks Curtis for your comments on my blog.
    Noam interview is excellent. He is explained the fundamentalism of all three religious Judaism, Christianity and Islam truthfully.
    The other truth about these fundamentalists is that they completely ignore the Social System given in Bible and Qur’an. They are only interested in implementing harsh punishment.
    Noam is right that these fundamentalists are using religion for political agendas.

  5. Curtis said, on 11/6/06 at 11:30 am

    That, Q-B, is a salient point. One of my resolutions for the new year will be to read the Qur’an from cover to cover and to make notes, as I have done with the Old and New Testaments of the Bible in years past. Until then I shouldn’t speak to that of which I presently understand so little.

    But in terms of Christian doctrine and ethics, it has always been striking to me the discrepancy between what Christian individuals view as Christian ethics and what Christian (or so-called) political leaders view as the same, for their own purposes. The divide between the testaments could not be more sharply demarcated in this regard, and that is to a high degree what you’re speaking to in your own comment.

    From the perspective of a secularist who places more sociological value than spiritual on the holy texts (and I don’t expect and in fact am pleased that you wouldn’t agree with me there, I think) the phenomenon is of utmost importance.

    Thanks for your comments, all.

    Thank you.

  6. Quran Bible said, on 11/6/06 at 3:00 pm


    I am not religious at all, the fact is that I have no religious education all the religious knowledge is based on my own reading and understanding of Bible and Qur’an and this all started in 2000. The social system which is given in these scriptures are more close to socialism instead of capitalism. The social equality is the only way to raise the living standards of the majority of the world population. This might become reality one day because the socialits revolution already started in Latin/Sourth America. Hugo Chavez is a evout Christian who really is trying to implement system which benefit poor people. Morales too is not Godless evil.

  7. Curtis said, on 11/6/06 at 3:19 pm

    Well said, and forgive my (hasty, baseless, and sleepy) presumptions. I feel silly!
    And I heartily agree.

  8. Gracie said, on 11/7/06 at 4:34 pm


    Thanks for the link, I missed this for some reason. As usual, Chomsky has summed up exactly how much power has been given to the religious fundamentalists under this administration. It’s unprecedented & affects more social programs than most people know. Have I mentioned the documentary, “God in Government” before? It’s excellent although probably nothing new for you.

    I found it interesting that Chomksy mentions Jimmy Carter as being the first in recent history to bring religion into the presidency.

    BTW, Benadryl isn’t quite strong enough, LOL! If only…………….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: