On Religion and Politics

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Amina Chaudary

©Islamica Magazine, Issue 19, April-May, 2007

Professor Noam Chomsky is arguably one of the most influential political analysts of our day and age. While some may read anything ever written solely because they know they will agree with everything he has to say, others may dismiss him entirely. This interview with Amina Chaudary is part of an ongoing effort at trying to understand the world today in the face of religious-based violence, political failures and increasing divide along the secular and religious across the globe.

Noam Chomsky, scholar, activist and intellectual, has had a profound influence as a political analyst for decades. Supporters and critics alike must agree that his ideas are foundational to any progressive discussion on contemporary politics, both in the United States and abroad. He is perhaps best at assessing underlying motivators in global power struggles, violence and political change. Given the growing popularity of discussion around the intersection of religion and politics, it is important to also assess if religion may be one of these primary motivators.

In an interview with Samuel Huntington (Islamica Magazine issue 17, September 2006) I explored a similar discussion based on his famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis on the power of religion to organize and influence societies and movements, including violent uprisings. To better understand how, if at all, is religion the central motivating factor in political tensions today, I set out to discuss with Professor Chomsky these complex themes. What I discovered is that Chomsky, unlike Huntington, does not believe that religion plays a fundamental role in politics. For Chomsky, that power is muted. His concern is more with the abuse of power by the powerful than the beliefs of nations or peoples. Ultimately, he is more concerned with social justice and speaking “truth to power.” The best lesson learned is that understanding the intersection of religion and politics is far more complex than it appears to be. Religious loyalties may continue to run deep, but its influence on political goals may still be somewhat ambiguous.

Amina Chaudary: First, Professor Chomsky, thank you so much for your time. I’d like to begin with a very broad question. Current affairs tend to indicate that a tension between and within religions, some say especially in the case of Islam, lies at the center of many conflicts in the world today. 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?

Noam 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. This is actually strange because way back in American history to the time of the colonists, there have been eras of religious revivalism. Most recently we see this in the 1950s, which was a big period of religious revivalism. That’s how we get phrases like “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God.” Religious revivalism picked up again in recent years. Until recent years, it was not a major force in political affairs. That has happened in the last 25 years and it is now an enormous force – fundamentalist religion, not all religion by any means. So, for example, the U.S. has often been bitterly opposed to Christianity. That painting (points to a picture) is an illustration of the hatred of U.S. leaders for the Catholic Church. It was given to me 15 years ago by a Jesuit priest. It is a painting of the Angel of Death on one side with Archbishop Romero, who was assassinated, and right below are six leading intellectuals who were murdered by an elite U.S.-run battalion. That framed the decade of the 1980s: Romero was assassinated by U.S.-backed forces in 1980, Jesuit priests in 1989 and, in between, the U.S. carried out a major war against the Catholic Church. Many of the victims of (President) Reagan’s efforts in Central America were nuns, lay workers, and for clear and explicit reasons, which you can see officially stated, like the famous School of America, which trains Latin American officers. One of its advertising points is that the U.S. Army helped defeat liberation theology, which was a dominant force, and it was an enemy for the same reason that secular nationalism in the Arab world was an enemy – it was working for the poor. This is the same reason why Hamas and Hezbollah are enemies: they are working for the poor. It doesn’t matter if they are Catholic or Muslim or anything else; that is intolerable. The Church of Latin America had undertaken “the preferential option for the poor.” They committed the crime of going back to the Gospels. 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.

AC: It is interesting to see the position of religion in the U.S. How would you understand this “Western” view of Islam and could you also elaborate on this idea of secular nationalism?

NC: The attitude toward Islam is quite complex. The U.S. has always supported the most extreme fundamentalist Islamic movements and still does. The oldest and most valued ally of the U.S. in the Arab world is Saudi Arabia, which is also the most extremist fundamentalist state. By comparison, Iran looks like a free democratic society – but Saudi Arabia was doing its job. The enemy for most of this period has been secular nationalism. U.S.-Israeli relations, for example, really firmed up in 1967 when Israel performed a real service for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Namely, it smashed the main center of secular nationalism, (Gamal Abdul) Nasser’s Egypt, which was considered a threat and more or less at war with Saudi Arabia at the time. It was threatening to use the huge resources of the region for the benefit of the population of the countries of the region, and not to fill the pockets of some rich tyrant while vast profits flowed to Western corporations.

AC: What we see in various Muslim countries is a type of Islamic autocracy, in which leaders use Islam to justify and concentrate their own power. Some scholars of the Middle East point to the difficulty that comes with granting political power to religious groups or clergy. Do you think secularism is a vital component of politics? Today, it appears that secularism is synonymous with anti-religion.

NC: I think that secularism is a vital component of democratic politics, for reasons that seem evident. A secular democracy that upholds human rights is neither pro- nor anti-religion. Rather, it is neutral with regard to personal belief systems. There are deficiencies in U.S. democracy, but its secularism is not one of them, and it is clearly not “synonymous with anti-religion.”

AC: So empirically you can see a rise of religious expression in certain regions. Do you think the world is becoming more religious?

NC: I don’t. In places where secular movements have been devastated either from within by corruption or from without by violence, it happens in many ways. The U.S. hasn’t been devastated by foreign attack or suffered severe internal problems, but as I mentioned, there was a sharp decline in the economic and social fortunes of the majority, and religious extremism has grown, at least become more visible in the political arena. Something similar has happened in the Islamic world. Take the rise of Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. One major reason for their popular support is that they provide social services. If you want to feed the poor child or a poor person living in the Cairo slums…

AC: Right, but how much do you think that is rooted in their personal profession of religion – an increase in religiosity?

NC: It varies. I once went to Egypt about 15 years ago and I met with a group of Islamic intellectuals. They were talking about the social service networks and groups and so on and so forth. I didn’t know who most of them were. I came back and talked to my friend, who knew Egypt well, about the meeting and he kind of laughed and he said one of them was a Copt, one of them a Communist and they sort of recognized that their way to power and influence is to associate themselves with the one organization in Egypt that is paying attention to the needs of the poor (the Muslim Brotherhood). So I expect there is some variation, some of it sincere, some of it not, and as always, one should be pretty cautious.

AC: Do you think that religious-based groups are reacting to this idea of the “West” or rather a perceived threat to their own identity and, say for example, their Islamic heritage?

NC: First of all, what is this “West”? Is the West the United States – one of the most fundamentalist countries in the world and a strong supporter of extreme Islamic fundamentalism? I think there are many strains that enter into this but there is a strong tradition of democratic secularism in the world. But mostly it’s been crushed, often by force, often by outside force and sometimes for internal reasons. But for a variety of reasons these tendencies have been, for the most part, marginalized. Their place is taken by Islamists for many reasons, among them providing social services, as in South Lebanon and other places. If you are a poor person with a sick child and you need help, that’s where you’re going to find it. Not in the government sector. And those things spread and make a difference. Part of it is religious belief and part of it is charismatic figures. There are a lot of reasons. Just in recent months, my suspicion is that there will be an increase thanks to the dramatic success of Hezbollah holding off an Israeli invasion – the first time that has ever happened. The Israeli army literally could not make it to the Litani River after a month’s fighting. In fact they tried very hard in the last three days just to get a photo opportunity at the Litani River, which was in big contrast to the 1982 war, when they just got there as fast as the tanks could go. We do know just from polls that support for Hezbollah and (its leader Sheikh Hassan) Nasrallah has increased very sharply. Whether this will lead to identification with religious movements or not is unclear.

AC: It seems to be linked to what is going on in Israel.

NC: In this case, it is obviously linked to Israel. In Lebanon, it is correctly identified as a U.S.-Israeli invasion, which it was. So, yes, in this case it was linked, as in many other cases. Don’t forget that the Palestinians are being destroyed in a systematic U.S.-Israeli program of crushing Gaza and dismembering the West Bank and imprisoning it between regions of Israeli annexation. That is essentially killing the nation. It is neither secular nor religious. Actually a lot of Christians have been driven out.

AC: If fear has served as the politics and foreign policy of the post-9/11 world and particularly as argued in the “Western” world, how do you think the Muslim world fares in this regard? Many of these governments also rule through fear. How do you contrast the way fear is used in American politics compared with the way it is used in authoritarian Muslim regimes?

NC: The comparison is too narrow to be meaningful, quite apart from the great differences among the societies. Stimulation of fear to mobilize populations is not a novelty of the post-9/11 world. Take, for example, Ronald Reagan, quaking in his cowboy boots when he declared a national emergency because of the threat to U.S. security posed by Nicaragua – just two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas – but vowed that while he recognized the enormous threat he was facing, he would be brave, like (Winston) Churchill confronting the Nazi hordes. We can trace it back as far as we like, say, to the Declaration of Independence, with its disgraceful passage about how the cruel British are unleashing “merciless Indian savages” against the peace-loving colonists, referring to “that hapless race of native Americans who we are exterminating with such merciless and perfidious cruelty… among the heinous sins of this nation, for which I believe God will one day bring (it) to judgment,” as John Quincy Adams recognized long after his own major contributions to these atrocities had ended. There are innumerable examples since, and other states are no different.

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

NC: 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.

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

NC: 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. Let’s take a look at Iran. As long it was under the Shah, he was the greatest friend. It didn’t matter that he was a brutal tyrant, whom the U.S. and Britain installed when they overthrew the parliamentary government. When Iran became more independent and it happened to be more Islamic, then it became an enemy. The Shah was an ally. (Former Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger’s answer, when asked recently about Iranian nuclear programs, is very revealing. In the 1970s, the U.S. very strongly supported the development of nuclear energy in Iran. Rumsfeld, (Vice President Dick) Cheney, Kissinger, (former deputy Defense Secretary Paul) Wolfowitz thought it was wonderful and they were giving plenty of aid and support. Kissinger’s argument was that Iran should not use up oil for energy; it should save it. It needs another source of energy – nuclear power. Today, the same people are making the opposite argument, saying Iran has plenty of oil and natural gas, and if it is trying to enrich uranium, it must be for weapons. Kissinger was asked by the Washington Post why he was saying the opposite now from what he had said then. And he answered frankly and honestly, saying they were allies then, so they needed nuclear energy, and now they are enemies, so they don’t need nuclear energy. The answer runs through with considerable consistency. There are people who definitely want a clash of civilizations – like Osama bin Laden and George Bush – who are basically allies. In fact, that is commonly said by one of the leading figures of the CIA, who had for years been in charge of pursuing Bin Laden, Michael Scheuer. He wrote recently that Bin Laden and Bush are allies and if you look, you can understand why. They are essentially cooperating indirectly and they are in fact setting up a possible clash of civilizations, which otherwise didn’t exist. In U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan, it doesn’t now exist; it’s a figment of the imagination. But you can create it. It is possible to create a sectarian divide in Iraq, which is tearing the country to shreds. That was not true a few years ago. In fact a few years ago, Iraqis were saying there will never be Sunni-Shiite conflicts here; we are too integrated and intermarried and it doesn’t matter, we will stay together. Look at the country now, just after a few years of U.S. occupation. It is torn in bitter sectarian violence.

The rest of this interview is available in the print version of Islamica Magazine.

NOAM CHOMSKY is Professor Emeritus of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and is an internationally acclaimed scholar of politics, U.S. foreign policy, media and social movements.

AMINA CHAUDARY is a graduate student at Columbia University earning a Master’s degree in human rights, and a focus on government and the Middle East as well as a Master’s in liberal studies from Harvard University.

Copyright 2007 Islamica Magazine.