can’t see the forest

The “Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-first Century” Deconstructed

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From Islamica magazine (April 2007) comes this interview of Noam Chomsky by Amina Chaudary. The subject is the interplay between religion and politics in the U.S. and in the Middle East, and the dialog is most illuminating. Not only is Professor Chomsky in exceptional form—the discourse touches on the sociopolitical and cultural dynamics that are at the heart of the shaping of U.S. public opinion on the Middle East. . .the spoon, if you will, with which the murky brew of U.S. foreign policy in that region is constantly stirred.

I’ve extracted some highlights below, but you may want to check out the article in its entirety.

Chaudary: Do you think religion is exerting a greater influence on foreign policy today, both here in the U.S. and abroad? Would you also address what happens when religion merges with politics – and how this is any different than other forms of identity merging with politics, such as ethnicity?

Chomsky: Well, the major problems of the world are those that appear in the most powerful states almost by definition, because whatever affects them affects everyone. And the most powerful state in the world by orders of magnitude is the U.S., and it also happens to be one of the most extreme fundamentalist countries in the world. Extremist fundamentalist religion may well have a greater hold in the U.S. on the public than say in Iran, though I’ve never seen a poll in Iran. But I doubt 50 percent of the population thinks the world was created 6,000 years ago exactly the way it is now. . .

. . .The contents of the Gospels are mostly suppressed (in the U.S.); they are a radical pacifist collection of documents. It was turned into the religion of the rich by the Emperor Constantine, who eviscerated its content. If anyone dares to go back to the Gospels, they become the enemy, which is what liberation theology was doing. So it’s a mixed story. However in the U.S., the more extremist, by comparative standards, religious movements did become mobilized into a political force for the first time in history really and that’s pretty much less than 25 years. It’s striking that this is one of the worst periods of economic history for the majority of the population, for whom real wages and incomes have stagnated while work hours increased and benefits declined, and inequality grew to staggering proportions, a dramatic difference from the previous 25 years of very high and egalitarian economic growth and improvement in other measures of human development. There is a correlation, common in other parts of the world as well. When life is not offering expected benefits, people commonly turn to some means of support from religion. Furthermore, there is a lot of cynicism. It was recognized by party managers of both parties (Republicans and Democrats) that if they can throw some red meat to religious fundamentalist constituencies, like say we are against gay rights, they can pick up votes. In fact, maybe a third of the electorate – if you cater to elements of the religious right in ways that the business world, the real constituency, doesn’t care that much about.

Chaudary: Why is there more tension among the three monotheistic faiths than other major religions?

Chomsky: Christianity happens to be the religion of the major imperial powers. By far the greatest power and means of violence in the world happen to be in the Christian states. With regards to Judaism, most of its history has been that of repression, leading finally to maybe the worst crime in human history – the Holocaust. Since 1967 in particular, there has been a close link between Israel and the United States, but that is for secular reasons. Of course they make a cover of religion, but it has nothing to do with religion. With respect to Islam, it varies all over the map. The most extreme fundamentalist Islamic state is the oldest and most valued ally of the United States – Saudi Arabia. Take Saddam Hussein, who was secular, not Islamist. For a time he was Washington’s great ally. In the 1980s, when he was carrying out his worst atrocities – the Anfal massacre of the Kurds, gassing of Halabja – U.S. aid was being poured into Iraq including military aid. (Former Defense Secretary Donald H.) Rumsfeld famously went there to firm up the relationship. And the U.S. actually joined the Iraqi war against Iran, in fact entering it so completely that when Iran capitulated, it was because the U.S. had entered the war. Well it was one Islamic state against another Islamic state – the U.S. ally happened to be a secular Islamic state. Later it shifted for other reasons. In fact if you look, the power systems are pretty ecumenical. They all attack and destroy and aid and support. The relationship with the Catholic Church that I mentioned is one clear example. The decisions depend on the perceived interests of the privileged and powerful sectors who dominate policy.

Chaudary: Why is “Islam” seen as the problem coming from the U.S. perspective?

Chomsky: The world’s major energy resources happen to be located in Muslim areas, right around the Gulf, so that has always been of extreme interest to the U.S. as it was to Britain. If the oil wasn’t there, they wouldn’t care if they were animists. That is the main problem and it is mixed. That’s why the U.S. supports radical Islamist tyrannies like Saudi Arabia. That’s why the U.S. sought the most radical Islamist killers it could find anywhere in the world and brought them to Afghanistan, ending up with al-Qaeda on their hands. Take Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population. Is Indonesia a friend or enemy? Look at the history. Up until 1965, it was an enemy because it was independent nationalist. (President) Sukarno was a nationalist and was part of the non-aligned movement, wasn’t following orders. In September 1965, Suharto came along, carried out one of the major massacres of the 20th century. The CIA compared it to the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. The West was euphoric because he massacred hundreds of thousands of landless peasants and eliminated the only mass-based political party, a party of the poor as it is described by scholarship, and opened the country up to Western robbery and extortion. So he was the greatest friend ever, practically to the end. The Clinton administration described him as “our kind of guy,” and meanwhile, apart from compiling a horrendous human rights record at home, he invaded East Timor and carried out the atrocities that probably come as close to genocide as anything in the postwar period, always with strong U.S. support. He was loved. If Indonesia moves more towards independence, it’ll be an enemy again. Religious comments are not the fault lines.


4 Responses

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  1. abu ameerah said, on 6/10/07 at 10:59 pm

    Chomsky is the arguably the father of modern linguistics, not to mention an intellectual powerhouse … but … I would have to disagree with him on this point:

    “That’s why the U.S. supports radical Islamist tyrannies like Saudi Arabia.”

    The United States supports whoever it wants — it can do so as the world’s only remaining superpower (or bully depending upon how one looks at it). What I disagree w/ is the extent to which Saudi Arabia is “radical”, “Islamist”, or a “tyranny”…

    I am no major defender of the House of Saud … it’s just that I think secular extremist movements throughout the world (including the middle east) have posed the West (especially the US & UK) with the greatest foreign policy challenges.

  2. Curtis said, on 6/11/07 at 6:14 am

    Thanks for your comment, abu ameerah.

    Whether or not one views any of these adjectives as applicable to Saudi Arabia is, of course, a matter of perspective, and I thank you for triangulating with a difference of opinion.

    I think, however, it would be difficult to argue against Saudi Arabia’s status as a staunch theocracy. Wahabist sharia law is the rule there. Slavery as state policy did not end in Saudi Arabia until 1962. The government still routinely carries out torture and amputations; women have minimal rights as compared to other Islamic states such as Iran; and the Saudi government has been accused of routine failure to observe due process in even capital cases.

    Chomsky’s point, I believe, is that Saudi Arabia has enjoyed unwavering diplomatic support from the United States since at least the end of the Second World War in spite of the pervasive rhetoric used by practically all U.S. Presidents since Roosevelt to harshly criticize other countries of many of the same kinds of human rights abuses it overlooks in the Arabian peninsula. The reason for this is clear: Saudi Arabia was and, to a lesser extent, continues to be absolutely vital to U.S. energy interests.

    I am not exactly sure what you mean by ‘secular extremist movements,’ but I would certainly acknowledge that one of the biggest reasons why the United States has gone to great pains to remain Saudi Arabia’s closest ally has been to keep Chinese-Saudi relations in check. Many Americans—though not myself—would view Chinese government and society as a form of secular extremism, and the economic challenges posed to U.S. planners by China are undeniable.

    Thanks again!

  3. […] goals of the jihadists, some still think that Christians are the source of all evil in the world. Can’t See The Forest references “The “Great Ideological Struggle of the Twenty-first Century” […]

  4. Curtis said, on 6/11/07 at 8:32 pm

    I would merely respond to this pingback by stating the obvious, which is that there is no statement in the article above of Chomsky’s or of mine which in any way implies a belief that “Christians are the source of all evil in the world.” The quote that is referenced by the pingback is merely the accurate, factual observation that most of the world’s major military powers are nations with predominantly Christian populaces.

    But thank you for reading.

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