Beyond Panic:

Religious Nationalism, Political Economy,

and the Blockade against Globalization

 

 

Amory Starr

 

6553 words

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Panic:

Religious Nationalism, Political Economy,

and the Blockade against Globalization

 

 

Abstract (121w)

 

This is a brash and desperate thought-piece. Urgently seeking barricades against the onslaught of corporate globalization and its new political infrastructure, we must leave no possibilities unexplored — even seemingly inhospitable ones. Religious nationalism is such a possibility, which makes cosmopolitan leftists shudder. This paper re-reads secondary texts on the Iranian Revolution, the Israeli anti-Zionist haredim, and the Bharitiya Janata Party of India, looking for political economic resistance (perhaps Polanyian "reembedding") in these fanatical "moral" movements. It also seeks political economic resistance in primary materials on the American Christian/Patriot movement. Next it turns to the threats such movements pose to secular humanism in terms of traditionalism and essentialism. Finally, it imagines how these movements could be a model for blockading economic globalization.

 

 

 

 

Beyond Panic:

Religious Nationalism, Political Economy,
and the Blockade against Globalization

 

 

 

undeniable evidence of a deep malaise in society that can no longer be interpreted in terms of our traditional categories of thought…They are true children of our time: unwanted children, perhaps, bastards of computerization and unemployment…

Gilles Kepel 1991
The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam,
Christianity, and Judaism in the Modern World

 

Religious nationalism is something Right and Left can agree on. For the Right, religious nationalism is disruptive, fanatical, the new menacing other. For the Left, religious nationalism crudely rejects the humanistic gifts of secularism, including democracy, feminism, and cosmopolitan pleasures. Brazenly unallied with democratic humanism, these movements reassert traditional social formations, including patriarchy. They essentialize their own racial and cultural identity and that of neighbors and this is particularly uncomfortable when violence is an acceptable social movement strategy. Worst of all, religious nationalism is irrational. It lives permanently outside the bounds of reasonable, secular, democratic dialogue and is fervently committed to its positions. Both Left and Right, popular and scholarly discourses yearn for some way to contain religious nationalism, to rescue people from its socially backward projects and to ward off its inexplicable, unpredictable eruptions of violence.

But we are facing a crisis. Multinational corporations are legalizing their global hegemony through unprecedented international institutions, such as the World Trade Organization. This hegemony wreaks havoc with every aspect of local social structure and practice, with small businesses, democratic regulations, and wages. Any civil, labor, or human rights legislation that can be defined as a "barrier to free trade" can be challenged and outlawed before the closed-door unelected court of the WTO. Chakravarthi Raghavan calls this latest wave of globalization "re-colonization". [1990] Anti-globalists of every flavor are seeking ways to "re-embed" [Polanyi 1944] this out-of-control economy in political and social structures which could prioritize "human need" over "corporate greed".

This paper explores the rather tenuous possibility that religious nationalism may have a contribution to make to our scrappy blockades against economic globalization. In the face of the quite immediate challenge of the loss of the secular vessel (liberal nation-states) for achieving human and civil rights, we must take stock of our options, with both great sobriety and great creativity. With this task in mind, this paper rushes past the mere defense of religious nationalists as "rational" [Lawrence 1989, Gellner, 1992] — a defense which still does not consider religious nationalism as part of a global dialogue. What if religious nationalists are more than rational in the context of their own local cosmology, what if they are rational in the context of the global forces that are reshaping our worlds alike? What if they have something to offer those of us who falter as we attempt to mobilize the new opportunities of postmodernity against its new and not-so-new oppressions?

It is, of course, important to distinguish who is afraid of what in religious nationalism. The Right and the Left do not agree about the Far Right. The Left and Right were afraid of quite different aspects of Pat Buchanan’s most recent presidential campaign. The Left feared his racism/fascism. The Right had no problem with that but was terrified by his threat to disrupt Agenda Item #1, signing free trade agreements (NAFTA and the 1994 GATT). In U.S. foreign policy, Right and Left concerns with terrorism have different motives: For the Right, terrorism disrupts the smooth operation of foreign capital enterprises, requiring repressive measures, while for the Left, terrorism suggests the need for serious multi-faceted state involvement (human rights law, peacekeepers, multicultural education…) to assure safety and justice within diverse nations. Why did the Left only weakly oppose the draconian omnibus anti-terrorism law? Because it supports federal suppression of local sovereignty groups out of fear of their assumed fascism. Popularized Left critiques can of course be employed by the Right to delegitimize religious nationalism’s quite serious political economic projects without actually addressing the Left’s humanitarian concerns and this devastatingly paralyzed the Left in the recent case of the bombing of the former Yugoslavia.

The first section of this paper draws on three religious nationalist movements, the Iranian revolution, the Israeli haredim, and the U.S. Christian/Patriots, to explore the possibility that they indeed constitute political economic resistance. The second section explores what is at stake for secular democratic left politics in taking religious nationalism seriously. Drawing on anthropological data and a fourth movement, the Bharitiya Janata Party of India, it examines the threats of essentialism, traditionalism, and nationalism. The final section works to imagine religious nationalism as a model for blockading globalization.

Note that religious nationalist movements are extremely diverse. This brief exploration cannot represent that nature of actually existing religious nationalist movements. Instead, it draws on several cases to theorize several potentialities of religious nationalism in the current political context.

Suggestions of Political Economic Resistance

What is religious nationalism? According to Mark Juergensmeyer [1993], second and third world religious nationalist movements reject secular nationalism with its continuing ties to European economic and ideological hegemony. What does it mean to reject the modern secular state? It means to reject the "moral order" — or, more accurately from a religious nationalist perspective, to reject the lack of moral order of the existing state and to assert (even violently) the urgency of the re-establishment of possibly re-imagined but nevertheless promising old and supposedly eternal values and ways of living. Gilles Kepel proposes that it is the sudden visibility of "human misery", wrought by both "liberal and Marxist secular utopias" that has produced a number of movements that "demand…a link with religion as the foundation of the social system." [1991: 5] As described by Kepel, beginning in the mid 1970s, Islamic movements developed a new approach based on the conclusion that "the modernism produced by reason without God has not succeeded in creating values." [1991: 2, 4] Religious nationalist movements are trying to wrest control of institutions and/or territory so that they may regulate the agents invading their cultural, social, and moral order.

Most scholars of religious nationalism dismiss the possibility that these movements are political economic. They tend to measure political economic dimensions as "increases in relative inequality", "thwarted rising expectations", or "economic crisis" and dismiss these as explanations of religious nationalism through comparative analysis. Yet these scholars have a hard time explaining why religious nationalism is emerging so distinctly at this historical moment. Many see the demise of the Cold War as important and a few acknowledge "globalization". But their texts contain fascinating suggestions that indeed the movements have strong political economic motivations.

Arguing that Iranian fundamentalism was not political economic, Martin Riesebrodt shows that the multi-class movement was not based on "economic interests". Instead it was about "common values and ideal ways of life" threatened by "nationalization and internationalization of the market". [1990: 184, 189] These common values were expressed as "sociomoral" concerns: "Even if fears of economic marginalization contributed to mobilization, fundamentalists formulated them as sociomoral issues. Not material interest but moral implications of changes in the economic structure and economic ethics were in the foreground of fundamentalist mobilization." [196] Riesebrodt concludes that because these movements are neither explicitly anti-capitalist, nor movements of the lowest classes exclusively, nor articulated solely around material issues, they are therefore not political-economic movements. Since activists are talking about the morality that should be containing the economy, they are somehow not really talking about political economy. But is not this notion of "containment" exactly what Polanyi laid out in his clearly political economic argument for embedding the economy in cultural and social formations?

John Foran’s massive 1993 study of Iranian social movements provides excellent material through which to make a more complete analysis of the political-economic nature of Iranian religious nationalism. It was colonial relations with the West, with their attendant economic and cultural effects, that ignited the use of Islam as a solution in Iran. Islam was one of a number of means employed to deal with colonialism in 19th and 20th century social movements. Protecting the nation’s interests in basic material economic ways produced an ideological crisis to which Islam became a better and better solution through the 1900s. Khumeini and other intellectuals used Marxism and sociology to critique modern Iran and to modernize Islam so that it could offer an appropriate solution. [369-72]

Roger Friedland and Richard Hecht’s extensive ethnography and cultural analysis in To Rule Jerusalem also provides good material for analyzing religious nationalism. The anti-Zionist Israeli haredim oppose planners, big hotels, swimming pools, archaeologists, autopsies, disinterrment, cinema, missionaries, national sports, and pro-development banks. They defend non-market housing programs and traditional livelihoods in modern institutions (prayer, blessing food). Their activism has been effective in thwarting the invasion; they have scared off "investment" from Jerusalem. [1996: 191]

Toward the end of The Politics of Righteousness [1990], James Aho explains that economic insecurity is the best explanation of the rise of the U.S. Christian/Patriots, but strangely he does not consider the movement to be a political economic social movement. The popular left echoes this approach, compassionately discussing the material and psychic pressure of the declining economy on many Americans, but deriding their movements as delusionary projects of scapegoating, violence, and religious zealotry. This discourse has lumped several quite different movements into one irrational, violent, racist package.

In a rare moment in left coverage of the far right, the anti-racist journal Race Traitor points out that the strongest militia in the country is at home in the state of Michigan, one of the states that offered up the strongest support for Jesse Jackson, suggesting that the roots of the militia movement are economic and political disenfranchisement, issues which Jesse Jackson spoke to more clearly than most other candidates. Is this a significant coincidence? Are Jackson voters now militia members? According to a critical analysis by Joel Schalit, "Reviving nationalist sentiment by targeting international capital as responsible for the decline of American life has lead the white working class to take up arms." Attorney General Joe Mazurek says of the Montana militia movement, "it’s hardly a mystery why an increasing number of Montanans —and Westerners in general— have embraced the radical right. Threatened with the loss of jobs and traditional uses of the land, they fear they are losing control of their lives." Mazurek explains that the Freemen have been successful at organizing farmers who are at risk of losing their land to banks.

The movement includes the Freemen, Constitutionalists who are on a mission to rescue the Constitution (and themselves) from the abuses of the federal government. They do this through activist non-participation, such as resisting social security surveillance, resisting illegal taxation, and licensing and then defending themselves in court (for which they have pro se training schools). Militias advocate disciplined self-defense along the same lines as the Black Panthers against what they understand to be an increasingly violent police state. Although militia members are usually Constitutionalists, many disagree with the Freemen non-cooperation approach and take pride in being completely law-abiding, focusing on the right to bear arms as their strategy for defense against inappropriate federal encroachments and the growing police state. Many are small business owners and voters.

The Freemen and the Militias are far more interested in historical analysis of the 1933 bankruptcy of the U.S. and subsequent private powers of the Federal Reserve, the flying of the admiralty flag on land, the War Powers Act, martial law, the Uniform Commercial Code, federalization of police powers, the anti-terrorism act, and current dirt on our foreign affairs than on domestic racial politics or Christianity. They do not rant about welfare queens or immigrants, but about invasive federal regulations and subsidies. They produce and distribute historical and current exposés of federal government activities and provide links on their web pages to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and other government document sites. Both the Freemen and the militias subscribe to conspiracy theories that not only are not anti-Semitic but differ little from left analyses, emphasizing the Trilateral Commission, the New World Order, and GATT. At a 1994 "Patriot Alert Rally" Martin "Red" Beckman, a tax protester from Montana, told the gathering "They lied to us about Pearl Harbor and Vietnam and Korea and the energy crisis and the Kennedy assassination. We don’t want to have to go to the militia if we can help it. But if we don’t have truth in this country, part of the judgment that’s going to come on this country is going to come from the militia."

Several sectors of the Christian/Patriot movement engage in some interesting economic practices. The white supremacist "committee of the states" calls foreclosures illegal because "a debt based on credit is a fiction of law". White supremacists and other Christian/Patriots engage in survivalism, which incorporates agricultural and ecological understandings similar to sustainable development. Separate from the Freemen is another approach to tax resistance, also Constitutionalist, which insists that federal income tax is voluntary (there are several books written on this subject). Some groups have an economics that prohibit usury. [Aho 1990: 51] Finally, some Christian/Patriots are involved in county sovereignty movements, insisting that the county is the reasonable political unit in an interesting (but certainly not yet articulated) relationship with the emerging bioregionalism movement in the US. A Christian/Patriot publication promises that future issues will be devoted to study of the Swiss cantonment system of democracy.

Like religious nationalism elsewhere, the Christian/Patriot movement is far from homogenous in its relationship to religion and many parts of it could not rightly be called religious at all. It is not seeking a simple institutionalization of religion into or over the state. The movement has a number of legitimate political and political economic concerns organized around the right to local sovereignty. Like religious nationalism elsewhere, the Christian/Patriot movement has racist elements, and, like movements elsewhere, panicked accusations of racism are being used to delegitimize its core concerns and proposals — democracy, populism, and the rights of locality.

Scholars’ dismissal of a fundamental political economic element in religious nationalist movements on the basis of inadequate "relative deprivation" or no recent increases in inequality are taking a far too narrow view of even the material aspects of political-economy. Certainly in the U.S., it’s not about relative deprivation or about inequality compared with other countries. The political-economic dimension is about national myths, the American Dream, intergenerational mobility expectations, white privilege, expectations associated with particular leaders, etc. So examinations of political-economic dimensions of religious nationalist movements need to be less economistic and more fully political-economic by incorporating colonialism, corporate imperialism, cultural and livelihood encroachments of capitalism, and symbolic promises. Moreover, the presence of religious and cultural concerns in the movement does not refute basic political economic concerns because it is quite likely that a damaging political economic regime will also affect cultural and religious realms.

Samuel Heilman explains that religious nationalist rigidity of life, practices, and faith is not only about rigidity, nor even only about loyalty to the cosmology it represents. When that rigidity is chosen and fought for against opposition, it takes on a further meaning: It is a liberation struggle: "…But we fought back by not disappearing, by not giving up our ways. We did not all cower." [1992] Even when "getting rid of foreign imperialism" may not be an explicit goal, it is a necessity for a religious nationalist movement and its necessity increases in proportion to the degree to which the movement seeks to regain moral order over social life. A fight for moral order is necessarily a fight for political sovereignty over culture and morality. A fight for political sovereignty is necessarily a fight against invasion of the political-economy. When religious nationalists or sovereignty movements say "we want our culture back" or "we want our moral order back" they are saying that someone else has got control of it. And world-systems theorists know (even if religious nationalists only see part of the picture, such as: "it’s the Trilateral Commission", "it’s Western corporations", "it’s planners and hotels") that what is invading national and local political economies everywhere is multinational corporate capital. Colonialisms, traditional and neo, wreak moral chaos by disrupting traditional social patterns and the meaning-making power of culture.

What is a political economic struggle after all? It is a struggle that seeks to rearrange material/economic life on a structural (political) level. To say that the struggle of the haredim is not a political-economic struggle because it is, instead, a struggle to "maintain cosmic order" [Friedland & Hecht 1996: 140] or to re-/assert meaning is to misunderstand why people wage political-economic struggles; which, per Marx himself, are rearrangements made necessary because human beings cannot be fully human — not rearrangements for their own sake.

Friedland & Hecht make clear that the haredim have successfully blocked "access to the city" [1996: 123], thwarting the plans of urban planners/representatives of corporate capital. Religious nationalism constructs and defends an alternative cosmology, one which delegitimizes corporate activities and asserts sovereignty rights, much as do indigenous people (who, although similarly inconveniencing planners, are not reviled by the Left for their traditionalism — perhaps only because they do not threaten to institutionalize their cosmology and values into the state).

Charlie Kurzman [1996] notes that as post-colonial people have felt that regular civil politics are not working, they have returned to pre-modern institutions (or sought to meld the power of those institutions with the process of representative democracy) in order to assert moral order. Religious nationalist movements may be using religious institutions to "extend the democratic imaginary" [Laclau & Mouffe 1985] — to reassert populism against political-economic oligarchy (both national and international) that disrupts traditional economic moralities, cultural integrity, and anti-colonial visions of sovereignty. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement and liberation theology as practiced in Central and South America have shown that religious practice can be agentic: People will use culture or religion or whatever they have to confront colonialism in all its new guises. [Juergensmeyer 1993: 143-5, Sivanandan 1990] The Iranian revolution demonstrated that political-economic struggles gain from culture-based criticisms of the full range of dangers posed by re-colonization.

What’s at Stake for the Left?

Considering religious nationalism as a strategy means considering traditional forms of social life, religious moral codes as a foundation for politics, and a system of social change that does not follow Western democratic institutional procedures. All of these are flashpoints for Left concern, which sort of packages these considerations as a set of assumptions: traditionalism is essentialist and local sovereignty plus traditionalism will mean fascism, the only protection from which is strong federal powers to enforce civil rights.

Is traditionalism essentialist? As Nandy [1997] finds in his recent work on religious nationalist violence in India, our fears of traditionalist assertions of racial purity are not well-founded: Traditional Indian identity is fluid, fragmented, multiple. Hindus worship Muslim spiritual leaders; Muslims visit Hindu shrines and celebrate the holidays; the newly-hegemonic Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP) famed for fanning anti-Muslim riots has never had a cabinet without a Muslim minister —not to mention Jews and Christians— and even condones Hindu-Muslim intermarriages, several of which have happened recently among children of party leaders; 5% of India’s muslims are BJP members… According to Nandy, this Party’s "traditionalism" is expressed in authentic religious multiplicity; its "modernity" is expressed when some of the dispossessed and urban of its members reach for secular power by rejecting multiplicity.

Vandana Shiva [1991] provides documentation that the pre-BJP Indian state initiated "communal" strife as a distraction from political economic demands: In the early 1980s, Punjabi peasants mounted resistance to the impoverisation produced by Green Revolution and Centre agricultural policies. This resistance took two complementary forms: tens of thousands of farmers engaged in massive protests and Sikh religious leaders organized people to confront cultural degeneration brought on by the new "culture of cash and profitability". At the movement’s height, the President of the farmers’ Akali party announced on 23 May 1984 a boycott of the Food Corporation of India in which farmers would withhold their grain. On 3 June, Mrs. Gandhi brought the national army to the Punjab and immediately attacked the Golden Temple, massacring the Sikh cultural leader Bhindranwale and followers. No surprise that Sikh farmers then began to mobilize against Hindu hegemony. The Centre government thus transformed "discontent that…was the result of centrally controlled agricultural production and the resulting economic and political crisis [into] communal conflicts…treat[ing discontent] as only having a religious base unrelated to the politics of technological change and its socio-economic impact." [1991: 184]

Even as movements like the BJP on one [secular] level practice mono-identity, their popularity and very success in secular politics lies in their ability to speak to non-secular traditional culture, which is a culture of religious/cultural heterogeneity. And this tradition of heterogeneity is not only a spiritual tradition, it is also materially grounded. Nandy interviewed the litigants in the forty year legal battle over the Ayodhya Mosque site. They travel to court in the same car. Why? "Because petrol is expensive." Community is the means of material interdependence and therefore by necessity conveys social technologies of heterogeneity. [1997] Shiva’s way of articulating this is that peasant agriculture dealt with social differences by providing "an integrating context of plurality" while centralized agriculture and policymaking shoves difference into a "fragmenting context of homogenization." [1991: 190] Examining the case of Bosnia, Craig Calhoun exposes a similar history. He explains that the idea of homogenous cultures "rooted in compact territories" was "sharply at odds with the actual history of the region, which had rendered every country and especially every city multicultural". This multiculturalism was maintained in part by rituals which were "at once ethnically divided and mutually engaging". [1997: 60]

Shiva and Nandy are heirs to a powerful analysis of the relationship between modernization and social strife — an analysis rooted in non-Western epistemology and anti-colonial struggle. In analyzing just one artifact of India’s modernization, Gandhi observed that rapid locomotion via railroads disrupted traditional practices of multiculturalism. When required to spend a great deal of time traveling, people learned one another’s languages and got to know each other. Religious leaders created important religious/cultural sites as a reason for everyone to travel around the country and get to know each other. [1908: 36-7] Modern "differences" among cultural/religious groups, then, are products of modern travel. [39]

Part of the concern with religious nationalist essentialism is that such movements have been sensationalized for their violence. Before equating traditionalist religious identity with essentialist violence we need to have a far better understanding of the nature and extent of violence that does occur within the scope of religious nationalist movements. At the same time, we need to contextualize our analyses of religious nationalist violence more appropriately. Jankowski [1991] explains that gangs as organizations use violence strategically but sparingly and have a hard time controlling members’ individual uses of violence (although these are punished when they hurt the economic interests of the gang as an organization). When it is done under the auspices of an organization, we need to examine it as a social movement strategy, used historically by entirely rational anti-colonial movements (what to do when there are no "democratic" options?) The Zapatistas "took up arms because we would not die forgotten." [Comandante Tacho, Big Noise 1997] We need to carefully contextualize the implications of accusations of violence in the pervasive use of that accusation to delegitimate radical social movements (Black Panthers, Cuban communism, the Zapatistas…). Finally, before joining with the Right in condemning any populist movement (remember that the right is only interested in clearing a path for capitalism), we should carefully evaluate whether indeed religious nationalist movements pose as consistently racist, brutal, and irrational threat as do the Philadelphia police, the war on drugs, the Gulf War…? Violence is, after all, the dominant mode of international relations (arriving also in the forms of structural adjustment [Bello 1994], modern agriculture [Shiva 1991], and biopiracy [Shiva 1997]) and it is wielded with the most devastation by agents of the humanitarian, liberal, secular first world.

In terms of the U.S. movements, the Freemen do not emphasize race and see violence as unnecessary and ill-informed. The most scripture-quoting part of the movement is indeed white supremacist (and recruits on that basis), subscribes to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and advocates violence. This part of the movement is repudiated by several other sectors. The militias, which seem to be numerically the largest part of this movement, and also the most widespread geographically, are adamant about their non-racism and invite people of all races to join ("many have"). They also insist that they are open to people regardless of religious and political persuasion, provide evidence that they are not anti-Semitic (even claiming that the Holocaust is one of their motives for advocating for an armed citizenry). The San Diego Militia boasts that Jews make up half the memebership. Some militia materials also defend militias against the charge of anti-environmentalism.

In addition to ethnic and religious essentialism, religious nationalism is often summarized by outsiders as an effort to reinstate traditional patriarchy, or what Riesebrodt [1990] calls ‘patriarchal personalism’. Clearly it is necessary to critique both traditional patriarchy and patriarchal reconstructions of traditionalism. But conflating patriarchalism and traditionalism is itself an essentialist error that delegitimates and dismisses traditionalism as a means of political, social, and economic order — and does so on grounds contested by many indigenous women, among others. Indigenous scholars often insist that gendered roles were not about gendered hierarchy. [Jaimes 1992, Gunn Allen 1986, also see Burke Leacock 1972 (esp. 29-46), 1981] Walter Williams has documented a number of indigenous systems that recognized the need for and managed permeable gender and sexuality boundaries. [1986]

As Foran documents, revolutionary restoration of Islamic law was imagined and perfected as a barrier against foreign economic and political domination. It would be a distortion to imply that anti-imperialism was just a cover for patriarchal cultural enforcement — a distortion that suggests disregard for the anti-colonial tradition. Is the patriarchal traditionalism of the Nation of Islam really a good enough reason to abandon the separatist project? While other identity-based movements are scrambling to achieve temporary strategic unity, the Nation of Islam is forging ahead on its quite impressive political economic projects. Even if patriarchy is to be critiqued in traditional systems, that is no basis on which to reject them as models. In answering a similar charge, Gandhi explained that "Nobody mistakes [such defects] for ancient civilization." [1908: 58] And is modernity really less sexist?

Leila Ahmed explains that Arabic and Islamic feminists break out of the dichotomy of traditional patriarchy and Western feminism. They draw on indigenous feminisms: women as "leaders and fighters", analyses of patriarchy, and critiques of Islam. [1982: 167] Women then stake their freedom on the indigenous historical cultural elements of their own locality rather than on escape from the local via the alienating feminism of the colonizing West (which often relies on courts and state and national legislators — that is, on the institutions of the modern secular, state — always already in bed with colonialism and capitalism).

Nor is the liberal West free of essentializing tendencies: Liberal integrationist racial politics and basic humanitarianism (which are also the realpolitik of the Left) enforce a cultural essentialism that is secular, legalistic, centralized, and governed by state-centered democratic procedures. But third and fourth world movements’ strategic use of essentialism to claim a history, to claim knowledge and skill at social relations, and to provide an epistemological basis for a firm rejection of the West are usually dismissed as inauthentic, illegitimate, or oppressive. Clearly, this is an important area for further research: To what extent do various religious nationalist movements prioritize social essentialism in their projects? Is there internal debate about race and gender constructions within the movements? And if so, then are there democratic processes within the movements through which these issues can be challenged?

What is traditional/ism anyway?: Western/ized elite cosmopolitan culture celebrates detachment from place and community and defines modernization, urbanization, and anonymity as freeing. This argument is particularly persuasive in the case of gays and lesbians — or was until Walter Williams’ [1986] anthropological work documented their inclusion in traditional societies in every region of the world. Despite anthropological evidence and direct testimony from indigenous people which documents indigenous notions of individualism (said to be far more expansive than Western modern versions), inclusivity, and extensive travel and intercultural contact, left cosmopolitanism is wedded to a rejection of traditional comunities as exclusive, homogenizing, and suffocating. I suspect that what is really driving all this is a terror of pre-modern living arrangements. But again, the anthropological evidence suggests that quality of life (material security, quantity of leisure time, health, stress level, happiness) were superior in inidgenous societies. [Norberg-Hodge 1991, Clastres 1987]

How might we theorize traditionalism as vision and strategy? Of course it looks different everywhere, but traditionalism sees answers to modern problems not in futuristic solutions but in social technologies that have already existed and been practiced. Traditional social systems were organized around the intergenerational conveyance of human society, including the means of survival, preservation of history, the meanings of social roles, and a particular cosmology. Survival techniques and cosmology enmesh traditional societies in relationships with ecology — relationships which, before the machines of the modern era, were observation-based and collaborative rather than totalizing. In its contingent relationship with nature and fundamental commitment to human and community well-being, traditionalism is necessarily at odds with capitalism and imperialism. Traditionalism also challenges the logics of modernity by positioning communal well-being as the highest goal of social organization.

Religious nationalists reject futurist solutions to human problems and instead seek to rebuild societies based on already established and practiced social methods. In so doing, they actually must recover the past in a futuristic way, in that they must negotiate modern tools as means of championing and articulating pre-modern social techniques and values. The struggles to do so forge new practices. Heilman explains how people who "live in a situation of modernity, surrounded by competing alternatives in life", understand traditionalism: "To maintain tradition when all about you others do not, to define a world of sacred order when the profane is the order of the day, to assert that change need not occur when all around you everything has undeniably changed, is a fundamental transformation of the meaning of tradition, the sacred, and the past…a new order under the cover of giving life to an old one, and to contend with all others." [1992: 13, 352]

Some scholars reject the authenticity of activists’ claims to traditionalism based on their use of cellular phones and fax machines. Riesebrodt proposes that traditionalism is "reformulated" in response to "new pressures for legitimation" [1990: 177]. Unfortunately, Riesebrodt, like many others, concludes on the basis of traditionalisms’ modernity (and, specifically, use of "technological aids") that their resistance is merely "reactionary modernism". [204] According to Heilman, what distinguishes the haredi’s relationship with modernity is not their use of its tools and/or fruits, but that they do not accept the premises of progress and do not celebrate the future. [1992: 359] The past is generally (but not exclusively) constructed as superior to the present. [234] Of course these movements will be modern, which in no way undermines their demand for another, better, "older" way.

Just as indigenous people use legislation, courts, and international bodies like the United Nations to defend their way of life and the land on which they live it, haredim and Islamic nationalists use some tools of modernity (technology) to defend and advance their claim for control over the materiel (land, political-economy…) necessary to protect cultural integrity and sovereignty. Oppressed people using non-violent means of struggle often come on to the oppressor’s territory, use his language, and institutions in order to plead or argue their case. If, as Partha Chatterjee and others note, nationalism itself was an imposition [1993: 4-5], then the nationalism in religious nationalism is a way of speaking to the West on its own terms, the nation, the sovereign state.

What about democracy? If, as Laclau & Mouffe argue, the "alternative of the Left should consist of…expanding the chains of equivalents between the different struggles against oppression" [1985: 176] then we must pursue dialogue with those democrats who do not seem immediately to be "radical" and we must push ourselves to see the value and potential "power" in our difference. [Lorde 1984] Christian/Patriots express a great deal of interest in one form of democracy (local sovereignty) instead of another form (the national centralization we have come to rely upon in the search for social justice and equity). Typically, a US left analyst collapses all Christian/Patriot ideology into that of Posse Comitatus (a racist group) and then argues that the sovereign claim for county sheriff as highest authority is authoritarian and anti-democratic. But there have been all kinds of systems in which a local chief was kept accountable to some kind of democratic process. Even the Islamic imams deserve obedience only if they protect the rights, happiness, harmony, and prosperity of the people. [Mernissi 1992: 27, 33]

Is local sovereignty under a yet-to-be-named local government system more or less democratic than a sham elected government beholden to corporations? Is the United Nations, whose every decision is manipulated by the weapons and economic power of a small number of nations, more or less democratic than a society in which hundreds of local mullahs vie for followings on the basis of the power of their ability to make meaning of the world? Is the first election in a newly-democratic country ("assisted", of course, by colonial powers) more or less democratic than Cuba’s many forms of neighborhood self-governance and neighborhood and workplace-based policy contributions to the national government? Is a nation which perpetrates racism and sexism in its explicit and implicit policies democratic? Is economic equality such as that ensured by the Islamic system of zakah more or less promising as a basis for democracy than an electoral system in a capitalist economy?

Use of non-Western and non-first world epistemology creates openings for alternate political frameworks (and alternate conceptions of democratic practice). Clearly, fourth world epistemology is one of the aspects of "radical heterogeneity" which will expand the "terrain of democracy". Its implications, however, are challenging. It will be hard for human rights advocates who have seen centralized, secular, formal processes as crucial to question universalism. It seems worthwhile to have faith in the capacities of community, most importantly its capacity to be organically democratic. Doing so will be much easier if we recover pre-modern forms of democracy rather than seeing it as something only made possible by modern organizations, university education, and Western cosmopolitan philosophy.

Religious Nationalism’s possible contribution to blockading globalization

In refusing "development planners and projects", media products, work, and fashion, the haredim have developed a politics in which spiritual concerns and moral order take the highest place, creating barriers to the incursions of economic globalization and asserting local sovereignty. [Friedland & Hecht 1996] Secular anti-globalists base their opposition on moral grounds too.

With the frightening acceleration of the loss of sovereign nation-state regulatory power through the sovereign state, un-accompanied by ascendance of humanitarian international organizations, secular humanists face a crisis of vessels for their agenda, blame "the right", and hope the unions will lead an international revolution for the codification of green socialist feminist secularism. Dependent on institutionalization, formalization, and centralization, Western humanism ignores the rather bad experiences that most people have had at the hands of such systems (whether of the right or left). Meanwhile, many folks turn toward traditional systems of meaning and order, systems with rather more impressive histories of delivering what is needed.

It seems that everywhere around the planet, localities are reasserting their identities and feeling more and more that the distant bureaucracies of the "metropolises" are antithetical to local interests…If the balance of power in the North were to shift away from the elite corridors of Washington D.C., New York, London, Bonn, Paris, Tokyo, and Moscow to local communities, the empires with "interests to defend" in Central America, Indo-China and Southern Africa could not only be reined in, but eventually effectively dismantled.…Separatism…carries the threat of xenophobic nationalism — but it may also carry the hope of returning economic and political structures to human scale. [Weinberg 1991: 168-9]

Religious nationalists’ logic and rationality may be relevant beyond their own particular sociomoral framework because they are trying to maintain a sociomoral framework amidst the forces of economic globalization. Religious nationalism is only one of many movements which asserts a right to locality. Religious nationalists powerfully assert the primary rights of place, culture, and community. They are right to cease negotiations with a political-economy that wears the robes of secular democracy but would be equally happy with ruthless monarchy/monopoly — they are right that this is a moral struggle.

The crisis of globalization is two-fold — the ideological hegemony of neo-liberalism and the legal dismantlement of national sovereignty (the only vessel for democracy with enforcement power). As Laclau & Mouffe [1985] suggest, the crucial struggle is for ideological hegemony. Religious nationalism models how alternative ideology can be defended, at least in one place. Presumably, in both secular and religious social systems, a variety of social technologies produce participatory public discourse which is the basis of hegemonic ideas and ideologies. (Of course there are all kinds of social systems, officially "democratic" and otherwise, in which ideology is hegemonized by elite powers.) But we need more than hegemony, we need a vessel through which to assert communal rights.

If religious nationalist is presented here as a populist political economic struggle, how is it an improvement over socialist national revolution? First, socialism lacks religious nationalism’s anti-colonial consciousness, which at its best questioned modernization, dependency, and industrial solutions to social welfare. Religious nationalism’s embrace of historical visions of social and economic life present the possibility of self-sufficient nations, which could survive at least some of the tactics mobilized against communist countries. Second, religious nationalism mobilizes ideology richly, through culture, just as the Left has now acknowledged is necessary. To varying degrees, it draws on indigenous traditions and institutions in forging a meaning structure which explains the crisis and poses local, communal solutions.

So how does religious nationalism work? One tool is embracing alternative epistemology. Another is insisting on autonomy and self-determination. A third is refusing to negotiate with the enemy and instead disrupting its ability to pursue its projects. There are surely many more aspects to religious nationalism that need to be understood in order to draw on it as a model. How do communalism, techniques of intergenerational transfer, and cosmological principles enable a particular religious practice and religious practice in general to effectively undergird such radical refusal? Are leaders and participants in religious movements genuinely interested in re-establishing tradition and giving up modern goodies in pursuit of total decolonization and "moral order"? Are there signs that modern elements (most importantly "the democratic imaginary") may be quietly stowed into re-established traditions, laying the groundwork for anti-racism and feminism within those traditional frameworks that pose threats to these modern values? Finally, comparative work could be done on the visions of community, economy, and social life actually proposed by various religious nationalist movements and by humanitarian Left movements.

By ceasing our panic and researching more fully the political-economic dimensions of religious nationalist struggle and its effectivity as a political-economic strategy, it may be possible to draw on its strengths for our own struggles against globalization. Secular capitalist nation-states should remain in panic…

Endnotes

 

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