Islam as a Global Cult

MUCH CONTROVERSY has been generated recently by the discovery of an ‘anti-Muslim’ course run at a US military academy. Now denounced at the highest echelons of the army, this course included recommendations that the Geneva Conventions be ignored as irrelevant, the President overruled by the military and Mecca and Medina bombed in order to ‘degrade Islam to cult status’. While it is the apparently ‘Islamophobic’ character of the course that has received greatest attention, more interesting is the fact that such obviously illegal and indeed treasonable ideas seem to have been accepted by the soldiers exposed to them without demur. While attacking Muslims around the world in the ways envisaged by it is so foolhardy as to be inconceivable, in other words, the course nonetheless illustrates a serious breakdown of military discipline within the US Army. And unlike the incidents of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, for instance, which could be attributed at least in part to the exigencies of battlefield conditions, the breakdown of discipline in an American classroom possesses no such justification.

In this case as in so many others, the focus on ‘Islamophobia’, and therefore on Muslims as victims, does little more than obscure the dangers that such views pose for institutions like the US Army, which liberals are all too ready to accuse of tolerating hate speech. But in doing so they are diverted by a red herring, since the true scandal has to do with the fact that it is increasingly difficult to create a military culture and maintain discipline within it in some traditional way, by removing soldiers from outside influences and encouraging a distinctive esprit de corps. In the past, of course, it was precisely the creation of a self-contained military culture that was seen as promoting dysfunctional forms of camaraderie cut off from the norms of society at large—with Hollywood dwelling lovingly on such instances of dysfunction in films like Apocalypse Now. And so the Army was pushed to look more like the society that surrounded it, by including women and homosexuals within its ranks and civilian norms about discrimination in its regulations.

But today it is practically impossible to insulate American soldiers in particular from a society that also seems to have lost its norms, having been absorbed into a globalized media environment encouraging the continual fragmentation of audiences and constituencies. Exposed as they now are to a multiplicity of voices and views on the Internet and elsewhere, these men and women are easily able to escape military culture by participating in virtual debates and espousing global causes that go well beyond the cloistered world of army discipline. And in doing so they smuggle private concerns into the heart of their institution, as did the personnel accused of abuse at Abu Ghraib, developing what in effect are cults that are capable of fragmenting military culture from within. The fact that these soldiers are still not representative of American society, but drawn into a volunteer army largely from certain classes, regions and ethnicities, makes the emergence of such cults within the army even more of a possibility.

Unlike the cults we have become used to, however, with their closed and hierarchical worlds, these new and globalized forms are remarkably egalitarian in their conception. Everyone can participate in them as equals because they have no institutional presence apart from a virtual one. So it is now the institutional hierarchy of the army that represents an old-fashioned norm, under threat from an egalitarian if unequal new society suffused with global influences. Symbols of military hierarchy like ranks and uniforms can even be torn from their institutional context and turned into the fetishes of an egalitarian cult, as demonstrated by the appearance, behaviour and fantasies of the Norwegian anti-Islam activist Anders Breivik. Those who led the controversial military course in the United States, then, and who recommended Islam’s ‘downgrading’ to cult status, were themselves displaying cultic behaviour. Yet they were not altogether wrong in thinking about Islam as a cult, because factors similar to the ones that have introduced cult behaviour into the US Army are doing so in the incomparably larger world of Islam as well.

The idea that a religion of well over a billion adherents can be described in the prose of victimization is an extraordinary one. Such an idea belongs to al-Qaeda more than any other movement in the Muslim world, though it is one that has now been accepted by many who otherwise would have nothing to do with terrorism. And these include liberals and leftists from other religious backgrounds who are worried about ‘Islamophobia’. Indeed other forms of globalized Muslim protest, including the recurring demonstrations over insults supposedly made against Muhammad, starting with the Rushdie controversy in 1989, manifestly do not entertain a vision of Islam as a victimised faith. On the contrary these mass mobilizations presume the ability of Muslims to deal with their opponents as equals, and perhaps because of this entirely reject the vocabulary of holy war and martyrdom that is characteristic of al-Qaeda’s cultic individualism. Is this perhaps due to the fact that mobilizations in defence of the Prophet occur on a global scale while still being grounded institutionally in the nation state as the protests of its citizens?

The link between ‘Islamophobes’ who want to defend what they see as a West under threat, and Muslim militants who seek to do the same for a victimised Islam, has to do with the fact that the identities of both lack any institutional grounding. For the former, Western civilization as a global whole is ill served by national states and even the international order, while from the latter’s equally global perspective, Islam can only be seen as a minority religion capable of being victimised. The paradox of this situation is that the larger the numbers to be defended, the more likely are they to be seen as vulnerable in the global arena. This way of thinking, of course, possesses a genealogy going back to European theories of race and civilization in the nineteenth century. For then, too, such global categories were seen as being vulnerable because they lacked institutional form, naming instead a reality that exceeded all existing political institutions.

The sudden demise of al-Qaeda and its global form of terrorism means the idea of Islam as a victimised religion has been inherited by liberals and leftists, with Muslims of a more ‘extremist’ temperament moving in other directions. The Islamists, whose state-centred vision of Islamic revolution had temporarily been displaced by al-Qaeda’s global model of Muslim radicalism, still exist and in places even exercise more influence than they once did. But their twentieth century ideologies, drawing upon communist as well as fascist forms, are no longer dynamic and can only move in a liberal-democratic direction, as has happened most clearly in Turkey. More important are the Salafis, whose adherence to the practices of the earliest Muslim generation owes as much to Euro-American scholarship on Islam as it does to this early generation. Salafism rejects the ideological and statist vision of the Islamists, whose attempt at defining Islam as a unitary and even totalitarian system they discard for a completely fragmented religious ideal. The heroic element of Islamist politics, therefore, disappears to be replaced by a de-politicized and conservative faith that turns away from any serious engagement with the wider world to focus on issues of bodily practice and comportment, much as minority groups like the Amish or Mennonites in the Americas. And in this way the Salafis have transformed Islam into the defeated cult that al-Qaeda had feared and some in the US army desired.

I am indebted to Shruti Kapila for the conversations that have allowed me to clarify my thoughts on this subject.    

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About the author: Faisal Devji is Reader in Indian History at St. Antony's College, Oxford University, and the author of two books, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (Hurst, 2005), and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (Hurst, 2009).

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