Monday, August 21, 2006

Against the rage machine

I sometimes agree with Gary Younge and sometimes don’t. Today, it’s a mixed bag:

“…fundamentalists insist that we privilege just one identity above all others all the time. Since this is not how most of us live our lives, we tend to ignore them. …
“So, for the most part, they stalk the borders of our communities – the pamphleteers and proselytisers, who harangue and harass. But at moments when an identity feels itself besieged, they will move to centre stage. Fear will polarise people and send them scuttling into crudely constructed camps. When faced with a threat, either real or imagined, the fundamentalists who sounded simplistic will be praised for their clarity; views that were once dispelled as narrow-minded will be embraced as principled. The marginal gradually becomes mainstream.”

One important addition: it’s not just that a group “feels itself besieged” in the face of “a threat, either real or imagined” and then turns to the fundamentalists. In no small part, the fundamentalists themselves are instrumental in creating and magnifying the sense of an identity-based threat. The reason that they are able to do this is that among the group in question – and of course we are not really talking in the abstract here – there is a continuum of views on how central Islam is to one’s own identity and on the importance of the group so defined. It’s not a matter of ‘fundamentalists’ shouting at ‘the mainstream’ across a chasm, and occasionally getting a few people to cross over; it’s a matter of degrees, and of coaxing a little nearer.

(And, as I’ve argued before, aspects of identity that are based on ideology can tend to consume and subjugate other aspects.)

Younge continues:

“Muslims will be more likely to organise around and identify with their religious identity, both at home and abroad, so long as they feel attacked as a result of their religious identity. There is no sensible conversation you can have about Islamic identity that does not address what is happening to Muslims locally and globally.
“For the past five years they have been fed on a nightly diet of bombings and occupation in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon; imprisonment and torture in Guantánamo Bay, Belmarsh, Basra and Abu Ghraib; and tales of alleged wanton murder and rape in Hamdania, Haditha, Balad and Mahmudiya.”

But we have to acknowledge that these examples – in which Muslims are indeed suffering as a result of Western actions – are being filtered through a distorting lens. The narrative couches all these things in terms of the lie that the West is, intentionally and with malice aforethought, out to get Muslims. Because there are plenty of cases in which “what is happening to Muslims” is that they are suffering at the hands of other Muslims, and in some of these cases Western policy has helped; another of the things “happening to Muslims” is that they are being sold an increasingly fundamentalist worldview in which anything other than ‘us against them’ has no room.

The Islamist fundamentalising identity machine is driven by deceit, hatred and the desire of those who maintain it to wield power within a ‘community’. It is alarmingly effective at building and steering a sense of furious grievance out of situations in which Muslims suffer, or can be presented as suffering, as a consequence of Western policies – regardless of the intentions or the other consequences of those policies, and regardless of any other policies that may benefit Muslims.

Dismantling this machine is desperately important. The dynamic that it creates is politically destabilising, pushing an unjustified – yet utterly predictable – swell of anti-Western Islamic anger into the cost-benefit analysis for all sorts of policies. One might think that it would be nice to skew governments’ motives away from war and occupation. But if the machine becomes powerful enough, it won’t stop at that.


Rachel said...

Ace post.

Thank you.

Will return.

Tom Freeman said...

Cheers Rachel! Much appreciated.