A Cacophony of Fundamentalism

Noam Chomsky & Gilbert Achcar interviewed by Stephen Shalom

Mail & Guardian Online, November 3, 2006

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.