The beginning of March 2015 saw again the convergence of forces that employ fundamentalist religious impulses to win support for their causes. Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, in the midst of an Israeli election, came to Washington to become the most frequent foreign head of state to address the joint Houses of Congress.
He came at the invitation, not of the president of the United States, but of the leadership of the Republican Party that dominates both Houses of Congress, the party that, in response to the 911 atrocities, launched a crusade against Afghanistan and Iraq, driven in part by a right-wing evangelical zeal.
Netanyahu did not simply come as the prime minister of Israel but as the leader of the Jewish state. The recognition of Israel as a Jewish religious state has become the precondition for any settlement in the Middle East. He came to warn his hosts that their counterpart, Islamic extremism, if armed with a nuclear capacity was a danger to both the Jewish state and western Christian civilisation.
To emphasise this point, he painted the Islamic Republic of Iran as having a “voracious appetite for aggression” and said that it already controlled Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. To stretch the point further he declared that there is no difference between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL).
His hosts in the United States, of course, had previously obliged his warnings about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, by unleashing the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, and allowing the further occupation of Palestine, both of which created the breeding ground for all manner of extremists who operate in the name of Islam.
As if the arbitrary connection of dots was not fearful enough, he again drew on imagery from World War II and the Holocaust to invoke Jewish suffering and the initial tardy response from the West.
All of this was put at the service of torpedoing any possible positive outcome from the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, immediately obliged by tabling the Iran Agreement Review Act that would compel US President Barack Obama to submit any negotiating outcomes with Iran to Congress for review and approval.
Now Senate Republicans have written to hardliners in Iran telling them that no agreement with Obama would hold water. Hardliners were provoking hardliners to erode any middle ground. The table is being laid, once again, for war.
Where seemingly different, even antagonistic, messianic or fundamentalist religious impulses converge is in their predilection for conflict and militarism as the default policy response. Where the counter-instinctive is attempted, as in the engagement and negotiations with Iran’s middle ground, the goal is to replace it with an environment of perpetual conflict.
In such a conflict, Israel is freed of any obligation to facilitate Palestinian statehood and, in fact, has grasped the opportunity to extend and expand Israel towards what it considers the historical Jewish state.
In such a conflict, the militarists and its attendant industry in the United States retain their hold over foreign policy and continue to demand the lion’s share of an ever-shrinking US budget.
In such a conflict, the existence, and sometimes projection, of Muslim extremist forces waging war and sowing mayhem over the Muslim world put the objectives of the Arab Spring on the back burner, and increases the currency of dictators, military or otherwise.
No monopoly on extremism
The convergence of these fundamentalisms shows us that Muslims do not have a monopoly on either fundamentalism or extremism. While the Muslim version thereof is non-state, informal and on the fringe of the global Muslim community, its counterpart in Judaism is in government, formal and mainstreamed, while in the US, the Tea Party and the rightwing Christian evangelical groups are, through the Republican Party, are in control of Congress and equally mainstreamed.
All three have the capacity for devastating violence. All three read texts literally, whether their scriptures or constitutions. All three feed on fear and ignorance and exploit an instinctive suspicion of those who are different. All three cultivate theologies and theologians espousing intolerance, cruelty and divine harshness.
Those who see the clear and present danger posed by these fundamentalisms have the obligation to be uncompromising in our opposition to them. We cannot pander to them nor be panicked by them into precipitous action. Our best response is to continue believing in the veracity of soft power and the counter-instinctive. But we must also undercut the subtle allure they have over people resulting from long memories of victimhood in the past or vivid imaginings of impending doom in the future.
But we must also be responsive to the growing discomfort many have about living in a world where faith, tradition and culture are not being reformed but denigrated and eroded, leaving people without anchors in life, and where a crucial part of their identities is lost in the great uniformity of a networked world. In such alienation do the siren songs of false certainty find an attentive audience.
Ebrahim Rasool is the former South African Ambassador in Washington, DC, and founder of the World for All Foundation.
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