A distinction

Feisal G. Mohamed
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

God may not be dead, but He doesn’t get invited to many cocktail parties. In our elaborate and unwritten code of social conduct, we allow Him to make only the rarest of appearances, and even then on closely circumscribed terms, to descant upon the weather or offer healing words on the latest public tragedy but never, under any circumstances, to air anything resembling a serious opinion. Use the phrase “God willing” once in conversation and it may not be held against you. Twice raises suspicion. Thrice prompts immediate and irrevocable exile to the isle of zanies and idiots. (Atheists of the evangelical variety know this and are baffled as to why they are never warmly received much of any place at all.)

We can think of the adornment of believers as governed by the same sections of the code. It is a dodge to say that choosing headwear is a person’s own business. Clearly there are kinds of religious display widely deemed to be unobjectionable and other kinds that are not. A man strolling Manhattan streets in a kippah embroidered with a Yankees logo seems fully immersed in the society around him. Less so if he has payot and a long beard. A fashionable young woman in central London speaking in the local accent and wearing an elaborately wrapped hijab can seem like the quintessence of modernity. Add a niqab to the mix, and in our imagination she resides firmly in the Dark Ages.

Sometimes discomfort with these things is born of simple ignorance—as when a Sikh man’s turban gets him removed from an airplane. But other impulses can drive the discomfort, too. Our Manhattanite in a kippah and Londoner in hijab seem to be performing a complex negotiation of past tradition and present living, of individual and communal self-presentation defying the effacing power of the metropolis. They are consciously contributing to, and therefore enriching, a diverse social environment. In short, we see in them the sometimes contradictory and always fraught kind of modern identity formation in which we are all engaged. Once outward signs of religiosity are thickened, that perception is blocked. We see instead an insularity firmly rejecting the principle of diversity and a sense of community limited to coreligionists, a rigid interpretation of God’s relationship to humanity marking sharp cleavages between maximalist observance and reprobate licentiousness.

Such views are partly shaped by secularism, but they are also shaped by a Christian aversion to Pharisaical external worship that has long characterized Western culture. One need only read the plays of Ben Jonson to see the kind of scorn in which puritanism was held in Stuart England, for all that it was a deeply religious society—Jonson could expect his staunchly Protestant audience to laugh with scorn at the double-dealing of his puritanical “zealous Pastor” from Amsterdam, Tribulation Wholsome. Some of our objections to religion are themselves born of religious sensibilities.

This is just one way in which relying on our perceptions is a dubious practice. Its fatal flaw is not one of core values—opposition to those who reject diversity—but of dependence on appearances. Outward signs of religious observance do not necessarily indicate narrowly partisan confessional views. We don’t really know what they do indicate. Confessional matters play their part in what Philip Roth calls the “astonishing farce of misperception” that characterizes human life: “getting people wrong” is what we do, “getting them wrong and wrong and then, on careful consideration, getting them wrong again.” It is impossible to imagine an enlightened future that includes large numbers of women wearing the niqab. Should we entertain the possibility that this is a failure of our imagination? That our visions of an enlightened future should be indifferent to superficial markers of supposed modernity? This seems like advice for children on books and covers, but it proves to be remarkably challenging for us all. The difficulty is a difficulty of a densely populated, multicultural liberal society that demands a certain level of acculturation from those deemed to be full participants in civic life, a demand that relies heavily on visible signs of conformity.

Fundamentalism, we tell ourselves, is a pre-modern intrusion upon modern life. Any historian of religion will tell us otherwise: fundamentalism is in fact a product of modernity, a retreat to religious certainty in the face of a rapidly changing world. The Florence that catapulted Europe into commercial and cultural modernity also became fertile ground for Savonarola’s revivalism. The particular fundamentalism that rouses most worry now, that of Islam, is born of a twentieth-century marriage of convenience between corrupt imams and more corrupt Saudi royals. Its own claims of medieval purity are mere advertising, masking a thoroughly modern rejection of modernity.

To use Eve Sedgwick’s terms, religion can offer a reparative view of modern life where fundamentalism will always offer a paranoid one. From its sense of marginalization and humiliation fundamentalism declares war on non-adherents, roaring it is you who will be left behind. If modern society claims to own the future, fundamentalism responds with a claim to own the past, which, in the temporal frame of prophecy, is ineluctably bound to the future revealed in God’s time. In this way it mirrors the manic relationship with progress that we most often associate with modern society’s culture of acceleration.

The difference between religion and fundamentalism is thus less defined by attitudes towards holy texts and headwear than it is by attitudes toward times, and places, and people. Fundamentalism takes religion’s cosmic battle between good and evil and reads it into everyday life, seeing in this world a hot war between the benighted many and the enlightened few.

This is the distinction that matters, the more so because it cuts through easy assumptions and demands that we redefine fundamentalism in less superficial ways. Our Manhattanite who wears a kippah as a fashion accessory may be largely secular in his thinking but wholeheartedly endorse the project of AIPAC. Our young Londoner in hijab may never have set foot outside of her home city but may nonetheless endorse the cause of radical jihadis declaring war on the West. In these ways they are greater fundamentalists than more outwardly observant coreligionists who feel with great intensity a duty to bring lovingkindness and peace into the world. What we think of as a difference of degree is actually a difference of kind. Religion builds community; fundamentalism builds walls. Religion sees difference as a divine gift; fundamentalism views it as a threat. The two impulses can exist in the same person: nonbelievers have their conflicting impulses, too. In this way, we can rightly associate fundamentalism not with an excess of religion, nor with pre-modern magical thinking, but with other paranoid and anti-humanist responses to modernity: ultra-nationalism, racial supremacy, gender violence.

Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor of English at Yale. Also trained in law, he is the author, most recently, of Sovereignty.
Originally published:
May 21, 2018


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