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To the Forum of Indian Leftists:
“scapegoating Islamic fundamentalism”
By Priyamvada Gopal
(With note on Sheasby)

The term “scapegoating Islamic fundamentalism” is still, rightly, a focus of debate. I’m still thinking through this myself. Please read what follows as “thinking-aloud” in safe and critical space with comrades.

We can go ahead and put “Muslim or Islam” if people want to. However, I think there is a reason for keeping “scapegoating Islamic Fundamentalism” in our statement. (BTW, even the popular media is now careful to make that distinction between “good Islam” and “extremism” when it remembers to. In betweeen all the scapegoating and chest-thumping, there are now a surprisingly large number of pious proclamations that “We must protect our good citizens of Arab descent because the soul of America is multicultural and this is a struggle for the souldof America and how can we prove we are superior after all if we give up that soul?.” Don’t get me wrong: better to have those smarmy announcements than no awareness at all)

The term “Islamic fundamentalism” seems often to refer less to an actually existing object than an explanatory construct that allows a de facto, opportunistic attack, when necessary, on certain cultural formations and peoples without losing the liberal façade of tolerance for all religions. It also prevents any examination of multiple causality. The net result is that Islam itself has been intimately imbricated with fundamentalism in such a way that “moderates” (“good Muslims”) are seen as the self-consciously restrained exception rather than the inevitable rule. It results in an oddly contradictory and confused formulation i.e “The fundamentals of Islam are bad, but there are good Muslims who don’t see certain things as fundamental to Islam. They are good because they don’t follow the bad fundamentals and have good fundamentals of their own. Or don’t have fundamentals at all.”

Now somebody is about to jump up and say “well, we are good progressives and we don’t support fundamentalism in any form, are you apologizing for fundamentalists.” No, I’m not (how amazing that one actually has to say that on this listserve. I feel as virulent as the best of us against the Taliban though for entirely personal reasons, the RSS and BJP anger me with far greater immediacy simply because they speak to certain forms of nastiness I grew up with. While I’m producing non-sequitors, let's also face it: “good religionists,” non-extremists, people I grew up with and still interact with can do some pretty messed-up things in the name of cultural identity, community, convention or faith). Actually—and this is also a bit of an aside, so forgive me-- I think it is incorrect to say that we, or some of us anyway, don’t support fundamentalism in any form. I’m a fundamentalist humanist, feminist and Marxist—which doesn’t mean that I don’r revise my opinions in the light of history, new knowledge and exigency, but it does mean that I have strong normative views. So to use the term “fundamentalism” as the Bush administration or the mainstream media, or even liberal academia does--to distinguish it from “better Islam” or “good Christianity” doesn't always make sense. I think our statement, however ham-handedly, is trying to address the construct of “Islamic fundamentalism” as it is deployed in dominant discourse. If the point of the revision to “Muslims” or “Islam” is to demand that Bush not attack Muslims, but imply that they should go ahead and get the fundoos, then the simple response to that would be “Yes, that is exactly what America plans to do, and helping make the world a better place for the good Muslims and, especially, their women, especially, in the process."

A word on “scapegoating”: that is to point to the way in which “Islamic fundamentalism,” however reprehensible, has come to stand in for all other causality and determination. We should continue to keep “Islamic fundamentalism” in quotation marks if we use it.

The point about causality and determination is where, we, the left on FOIL and elsewhere are getting stuck at this point. Currently, we’ve come up with our own reverse formulation which makes a great deal of intuitive sense to me but which also needs interrogation in the interests of more clear-sighted action. The current formulation is: “Western Imperialism created Islamic fundamentalism which resulted in global conflict which results in terrorist action.” The result is a slightly disturbing punitive model--“you brought this upon yourselves.” That may be correct in its own right, but I’m not sure that reiterating that alone is going to result in the repentance and empathy we think it might result in, even in self-critical quarters. Now that we have brought up everything from globalization to Kashmir, maybe we need to think in less formulaic ways (and I’m speaking to myself here as much as to anyone else). This means, for instance, that we don’t think of Osama, the Taliban or even the BJP for that matter as simply reflective of “base” political situations even as they are, obviously, produced in the intersections of late capitalism, class conflicts, land struggles, petrodollars, older political systems, patriarchy, religious sectarianism and so on.

Somebody raised an excellent point in a recent email, similar to one that I raised less eloquently earlier: “Who speaks for Islam? Who speaks for that matter, for the Taliban”? I fear that in our own participation in some of these maintream distintions between “good” and “bad” Islam, we beg the question of motivation and rather unexaminedly assume that if someone says they bombed the WTC because they are Islamic fundamentalists, then that action somehow represents “Islamic fundamentalism, in some determinate way. And "Islamic fundamentalism" then becomes an easily knowable object, no longer a shadow enemy without boundaries. Does “Islamic fundamentalism” pre-exist the act which is supposed to reflect its aspirations, or does the act itself come to construct “Islamic fundamentalism.”?

Before the vigilant pounce on me for quibbling with words, let me say that we too need to use the term “fundamentalism” for our own critique, although I think we generally use it differently: to point to the construction of false fundamentals by those who “speak for” Hindus or Muslims. I do not think that is how the term is being used in US public discourse right now. (Actually, I do think "fundamentalism" is, in any case, a term that needs to be replaced by more accurate and pointed one, but that is a different debate).

I apologize for taking your time and patience: thanks for reading this far and helping me work through my own dilemmas.


Note on Sheasby:
to RPA list (9/16/01: 9:37pm)


I appreciate the spirit of Walt Sheasby’s note circulated by George Snedeker and what it says about how certain movements work against the progressive ambitions of Palestinian nationalist movements and so on. At the same time, I would like to register a certain analytical unease with the somewhat casual and unexamined way in which the term “Islamic fundamentalism” is being used both in the media and in left/left-liberal circles. I have appended a note that I sent to the Forum of Indian Leftists which is also having a discussion on the use of this term and whether to use just "Islam" or "Muslim" instead; we are in the process of fighting the Indian government’s move to appropriate global sentiment against “Islamic fundamentalism” to further its own Hindu nationalist agenda. Below are some phrases I pulled out from Sheasby’s circulated note which itself is useful but which may benefit from a re-consideration of how these terms are being used. It is telling that some of them were used as State Department counter-terrorism representative and it seems to me that we might want to develop a more distinct analytical vocabulary. Finally, I thank for bearing with so many emails from me: I will try to keep them to a minimum, I promise

1. “the creation of conflict within the Muslim world” Is there such a definable thing as “the Muslim world”? What are its geographical boundaries? Do US Muslims count?

2. “a pan-Islamic Jihad”, which may not inflict a military defeat on the U.S., but which could lead to the destabilization…”

Does a network of terrorist or militant organizations warrant a sweeping term like “pan-Islamic”? [Is NATO a pan Judaeo-Christian movement? Seriously.]

3.“a fundamentalist Islamic confederation” See note below. The term “fundamentalism” begs a lot of questions.

4. "architects of the pan-Islam strategy are not supporters of Palestinian nationalist aspirations. Their aims are much more ambitious than the Palestine Liberation Organization...”

Yes. However, the term “much more ambitious” suggest that they simply go further in what is, nevertheless, a shared agenda. This is questionable from the outset.

5. ” The new terrorism seems to be tied to an internationalist Islamic move- ment”

See above.

I hope these questions will be read and thought about in the spirit of critical solidarity in which they are offered.



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