Christian Wahhabists

by Barbara Eherenreich

The Progressive magazine, January 2002


There has been a lot of loose talk, since September 11, about a "clash of civilizations" between musty, backward-looking, repressive old Islam and the innovative and freedom-loving West. "It is a clash between positivism and a reactionary, negative world view," columnist H.D.S. Greenway writes in The Boston Globe.

Or, as we learn in The Washington Post While the West used the last two centuries to advance the cause of human freedom, "The Islamic world, by contrast, was content to remain in its torpor, locked in rigid orthodoxy, fearful of freedom."

So it is a surprise to find, on turning to the original text-Samuel P. Huntington's 1996 The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster)-a paragraph-long analogy between the Islamic fundamentalist movement and the Protestant Reformation: "Both are reactions to the stagnation and corruption of existing institutions; advocate a return to a purer and more demanding form of their religion; preach work, order, and discipline.

Whoa, there! Weren't the Protestants supposed to be the up-and-coming, progressive, force vis-a-vis the musty old Catholics? And if we were supposed to root for the Protestants in our high school history texts, shouldn't we be applauding the Islamic "extremists" now?

Huntington doesn't entertain the analogy between Islamic fundamentalism and reforming Protestantism for very long. But let's extend the analogy, if only because it implicitly challenges the notion that we are dealing with two radically different, mutually opposed, "civilizations."

Like the Protestants of the sixteenth century, the Islamic fundamentalists are a relatively new and innovative force on the scene. Wahhabism-the dour and repressive creed espoused by Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden, and other Islamic fundamentalists throughout the world-dates from only the mid-eighteenth century. Deobandism, the strain of Islam that informed the Taliban (and which has, in recent decades, become almost indistinguishable from Wahhabism), arose in India just a little over a century ago. So when we talk about Islamic fundamentalism, we are not talking about some ancient and venerable "essence of Islam"; we are talking about something new and even "modern." As Huntington observes, the appeal of fundamentalism is to "mobile and modern-oriented younger people."

Islamic fundamentalism is a response-not to the West or to the "modern"-but to earlier strands of Islam, just as Protestantism was a response to Catholicism. Wahhabism arose in opposition to both the (thoroughly Muslim) Ottoman Empire and to the indigenous Sufism of eighteenth-century Arabia.

Sufism is part of Islam, too- much admired in the West for its relative tolerance, its mysticism and poetry, its danced, ecstatic rituals. But it is also, especially in its rural forms, a religion that bears more than a casual resemblance to late medieval Catholicism: Sufism encourages the veneration of saint-like figures at special shrines and their celebration at festivities-sometimes rather raucous ones, like the carnivals and saints' days of medieval Catholicism- throughout the year.

Just as the Protestants smashed icons, prohibited carnivals, and defaced cathedrals, the Wabhabists insisted on a "reformed" style of Islam, purged of all the saints, festivities, and music. Theirs is what has been described as a "stripped-down" version of Islam, centered on short prayers recited in undecorated mosques to the one god and only to him.

The Taliban imposed Wahhabism in Afghanistan as soon as they came to power in 1996 and took on, as their first task, the stamping out of Sufism.

The closest Reformation counterpart to today's Islamic fundamentalists were the Calvinists, whose movement arose a few decades after Lutheranism. Pundits often exclaim over the Islamic fundamentalists' refusal to recognize a church-state division-as if that were a uniquely odious feature of "Islamic civilization"-but John Calvin was a militant theocrat himself, and his followers carved out Calvinist mini-states wherever they could.

In sixteenth-century Swiss cantons and seventeenth-century Massachusetts, Calvinists and Calvinist-leaning Protestants banned dancing, gambling, drinking, colorful clothing, and sports of all kinds. They outlawed idleness and vigorously suppressed sexual activity in all but its married, reproductively oriented, form.

Should he have been transported back into a Calvinist-run Zurich or Salem, a member of the Taliban or a Wabhabist might have found only one thing that was objectionable: the presence of unveiled women. But he would have been reassured on this point by the Calvinists' insistence on women's subjugation. As a man is to Jesus, asserted the new Christian doctrine, so is his wife to him.

Calvinism-or "Puritanisrn" as it is known in America-was of course immensely successful. Max Weber credited it with laying the psychological groundwork for capitalism: work hard, defer gratification, etc. Within the West, the Calvinist legacy carries on most robustly in America, with its demented war on drugs, its tortured ambivalence about pornography and sex, its refusal to accord homosexuals equal protection under the law. It even persists in organized form as the Christian right, which continues to nurture the dream of a theocratic state. Recall the statement by one of our leading warriors against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism-John Ashcroft-that "we have no king but Jesus."

In a world that contains Christian Wahhabists like Ashcroft and Islamic Calvinists like bin Laden, what sense does it make to talk about culturally monolithic "civilizations" like "Islam" and "the West"? Any civilization worthy of the title is, at almost any moment of its history, fraught with antagonistic world views and balanced on the finely poised dialectics of class, race, gender, and ideology. We talk of "Roman civilization," for example, forgetting that the Roman elite spent the last decades before Jesus's birth bloodily suppressing its own ecstatic, unruly, Dionysian religious sects.

There is no "clash of civilizations" because there are no clear-cut, and certainly no temperamentally homogeneous, civilizations to do the clashing. What there is, and has been again and again throughout history, is a clash of alternative cultures. One, represented by the Islamic and Christian fundamentalists-as well as by fascists and Soviet-style communists-is crabbed and punitive in outlook, committed to collectivist discipline, and dogmatically opposed to spontaneity and pleasure. Another, represented both in folk traditions and by elite "enlightenment" thought, is more open, liberatory, and trusting of human impulses.

Civilizations can tilt in either direction. And individuals-whether they are Christian, Muslim, or neither-have a choice to make between freedom, on the one hand, and religious totalitarianism on the other.

September 11th, 2001

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