Friday, July 15, 2005

A Poverty of Memory

I have frequently and sometimes vigorously disagreed with New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman. In what follows, I will find cause to criticize an argument of his again. But you'll never hear me say that this guy doesn't have cojones.

In his column today, titled "A Poverty of Dignity and a Wealth of Rage", Friedman expresses a pervasive opinion in the West, to the effect that it seems as if all the terrorists and suicide bombers these days are Muslims, and that Islam is the scourge of our age.

Obviously, I hope Friedman is never physically attacked for that opinion, in spite of Ann Coulter's wishes to the contrary. I would only suggest that his focus, even allowing for the global climate we're in at this moment, is rather narrow.

Friedman complains of the fact that virtually all of the most violent murderers of our time seem to be Islamic fundamentalists. He cites the example of Muhammad Bouyeri, the confessed murderer of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who claimed that he acted "purely in the name of my religion." Friedman goes on to consider the possible factors involved in this epidemic of Muslim murderers, and he concludes, quite correctly, I think, that a regressive fixation with medieval notions of heavenly justice and religious revenge is responsible:

Also at work is Sunni Islam's struggle with modernity. Islam has a long tradition of tolerating other religions, but only on the basis of the supremacy of Islam, not equality with Islam.

Funamentalist Christians have the same attitude toward the Jews: the latter comprise a necessary but temporary ally in the war against Satan. Once that war is won, the Jews will be sent off to join Satan in the pit of damnation. So it is with institutional religion and funamentalism of all stripes: it's all about a pre-defined exclusivity that I call "cosmic racism."

Friedman's chief complaint, then, is not really with Islamic fundamentalism, but with fundamentalism, period. The same superiority-complex that drives Sunni Islam also fuels the actions (and pre-emptive reactions) of the Israelis in Palestine; or the Bushies' religiously-motivated murder of tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis. Here in America, we have seen it time and again: the suicidal cult driven by a cultish religious leader obsessed with medieval ideas of rectitude and sanctity: we have seen it in Waco, in Jonestown, and in hundreds of smaller-scale murder/suicides committed in the name of (or by one claiming to be) Jesus, God, Allah, or what-have-you.

Finally, Friedman follows the story of the conversion of one of the London bombers, and concludes, "The secret of this story is in that conversion - and so is the crisis in Islam."

I would agree, but with a very crucial qualification added: Islam does not have the market cornered on either conversion or fundamentalism. The "secret" to both our current distress and, paradoxically, our potential escape from the inner slavery of group-violence, is not in the problem of Islamic conversion (or conversion to Christian fundamentalism, or White Supremacy, or Judaism)—the secret is in identifying and undermining the conversion to fundamentalism of any order or degree. To the extent that each individual looks within and identifies his and her own psychological burden of fundamentalism, and then discards it, we will become more and more liberated from the pall of fundamentalism that currently hangs over our world. This is what the Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, asked us to do in the days following 9/11: he simply asked that before we strike out or respond in action to the violence committed against us, we turn within and kill the "inner bin Laden" of prejudice, intolerance, exclusivity, and the impulse to violence. I thought it was a good idea at the time (and I still do); obviously, the American government did not agree. Today, that opportunity that Thich Nhat Hanh saw has been all but lost: the nations of this earth are trapped in a vortex of panic, death, and violence. In many of these nations lie the secret red buttons which can launch the missiles that will kill this planet.

Islam does not have to be rooted out of the world, but fundamentalist ideologies, grounded in the violence of feudal beliefs, do. Anyone, of any prejudice of belief or dogma, who projects the phrase "Vengeance is mine" into the mouth of God, is a fundamentalist, and is likely to murder—either suicidally or otherwise—in the name of that phrase and that false God. This goes for Christians, Muslims, Jews, and the various secular cults that have sprung up around the world in recent times. As we in the West know all too well, Science, Money, and Government can become the gods of a fundamentalist ideology, too.

I would encourage Mr. Friedman to continue speaking out to all nations and all religions—not just to Islam—that they cleanse themselves of the scourge of fundamentalism. It is more pervasive than he may imagine: just review the history of war over the past 5,000 years or so. In every era, every religion, every cult of sacrifice and state, you will find words and sentiments very much like these:

Let me die dignified in wars: honourable death is better than my current life.

Those particular words, by the way, were written by Osama bin Laden, in the fatwa against the United States.

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