The unfolding presidential elections are laying bare what the real dangers are in the new American condition. They come not from our political divisiveness, economic uncertainty or military insecurity - but from our religious character as a people, which, in this case, is not positive. Religious intolerance marks one candidate debate after another - a sweeping denigration of Islam. And it is going to backfire.
The code word "Islamofascism" has become a staple of rhetoric. It braces the talk not only of pundits, but of all the major Republican candidates - from the tough guy at one end, Rudy Giuliani, who lambastes Democrats for not using the word or its equivalent, to the "nice" candidate at the other end, Mike Huckabee, who defines Islamofascism as "the greatest threat this country [has] ever faced."The pairing of "Islam" and "fascism" has no parallel in characterizations of extremisms tied to other religions, although the defining movements of fascism were linked to Catholicism - indirectly under Benito Mussolini in Italy, explicitly under Francisco Franco in Spain. Protestant and Catholic terrorists in Northern Ireland, both deserving the label "fascist," never had their religions prefixed to that word. Nor have Hindu extremists in India, nor Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka.
In contrast to the way militant zealotries of other religions have been perceived, there is a broad conviction, especially among many conservative American Christians, that the inner logic of Islam and fascism go together. Political candidates appeal to those Christians by defining the ambition of Islamofascists in language that makes prior threats from, say, Hitler or Stalin seem benign. The point is that there is a deep religious prejudice at work, and when politicians adopt its code, they make it worse.
The Democrats gain little by shaping their rhetoric to appeal to the Republicans' conservative religious base, but a readiness to denigrate Islam shows up on their side, too. In last week's debate, moderator Brian Williams put to Barack Obama a question about Internet rumors that claim he is a Muslim. The tone of the question suggested that Obama was being accused of something heinous. He replied with a simple affirmation that he is a Christian. He did not then ask, "And what would be wrong if I were a Muslim?" Had he done so, it seems clear, he would have cost himself votes in the present climate.
The present climate is my subject. In recent years, the public realm has been invaded by a certain kind of narrow Christian enthusiasm, made up partly of triumphalistic self-aggrandizement (exclusive salvation), and partly of the impulse to denigrate other religions, especially Islam. This phenomenon has been centered in, but not limited to, evangelical fundamentalism. The United States cannot have a constructive foreign policy in religiously enflamed regions like the Middle East, northern Africa or South Asia if the American presence in such conflicts is itself religiously enflaming.
Thus, how could the United States advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process if its government upholds, however implicitly, the Christian Zionist dream of a God-sponsored Jewish state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean? Where is the two-state solution then? How, for that matter, is the traditional American commitment to the Jewishness of Israel advanced if the Christian Zionist vision of ultimate Jewish conversion to Jesus is achieved?
The issue is larger. The intellectual and moral paralysis of all major candidates from both parties on the subject of the war in Iraq is mainly a result of their religion-sponsored imprisonment in the Islamofascism paradigm, whether they use the word or not. By emphasizing that the goal of Muslim terrorists is to wage what John McCain calls a "transcendent" war against "us," candidates miss the most important fact about the conflicts in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world - that militant Muslim zealots are primarily at war with their own people, most of whom they regard as decadent apostates.
As Muslim scholar Reza Aslan observes, Osama bin Laden's attack on the World Trade Center was more aimed at generating a war of purification within the house of Islam than a war of conquest against "the far enemy" in the West. That strategy worked, sparking exactly the belligerent reaction he wanted, because America's uninformed, religious prejudice toward Islam was predictable. What Bin Laden could not have imagined was that he would find like-minded partners-in-conflict coming to power in Washington, advancing his religious war, every bit as sure of God's sponsorship as he.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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