Jihad vs. McWorld: The trouble with radical Islam
To begin with, a proviso: I probably don’t know what I’m talking about here. I’m certainly not a political scientist. I may not even qualify as a reasonably informed citizen. But anyway…
A little over a week ago, back on September 10th, the online arm of The Guardian published a long essay by Martin Amis titled “The Age of Horrorism,” about the rise of radical Islam and what Amis views as the West’s pathetically inadequate response to it. As the abstract at the start of the article puts it, “On the eve of the fifth anniversary of 9/11, one of Britain’s most celebrated and original writers analyses — and abhors — the rise of extreme Islamism. In a penetrating and wide-ranging essay he offers a trenchant critique of the grotesque creed and questions the West’s faltering response to this eruption of evil.” The essay is a fascinating read, and one which I heartily recommend. But only if you’re prepared to be bothered.
What’s really troubling and fascinating me at the moment is Amis’s explanation and analysis of the way the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb attended American universities in the 1940s and 1950s and then returned to his home country, where he laid the foundation for radical Islam’s guiding anti-Western ideology. I don’t mean I’m troubled by the way Amis presents Qutb’s story. I mean I’m troubled by the story itself. Qutb’s status as the intellectual father of Islamic extremism is hardly a secret in the West. Many of us Westerners have already learned of it through various means, such as an in-depth NPR story that appeared three years ago. I myself have brushed past Qutb’s story a time or two in my journeys through media culture. But I learned more about it from Amis’s essay that I had previously known, and it really got me to thinking.
In particular, I’m troubled by the fact that Qutb’s famous cultural criticisms of America and the West illustrate one of the great difficulties facing anybody who tries to confront radical Islam, namely, that many of these criticisms are built around a valid core insight. Inspired by Qutb’s voluminous writings, radical Islamists harp on America’s relative soullessness, its insanely idiotic pop culture, its overall cultural shallowness, its general degradation and decline under the influence of capitalism, celebrity worship, egoism, and the like. In so doing, they are singling out some of the very same things that many of our best homegrown culture critics — e.g., Daniel Boorstin, Neil Postman, Allan Bloom, Theodore Roszak, James Howard Kunstler, Morris Berman, Benjamin Barber, Lewis Mumford, C.S. Lewis — have gone on about for decades. Certainly, the Islamists take their criticisms to sometimes comical (or tragic) extremes. Their views are shot through with a virulent misogyny and what seems a positively pathological fear or hatred of sex and the human body. Equally as important, they frequently misread, misrepresent, or flat out misunderstand American history, as Amis trenchantly points out. But even so, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that in their moral horror at what the West has become under the economic, political, and military leadership of America, the Islamists are nursing a fundamentally sound grievance.
The dangers that stem from this are severe. In such a situation, it’s all too easy for many people to condemn or dismiss valid criticisms of America and the West because such criticisms sound suspiciously like something a radical Islamist would say. Allowed to run to its full extreme, this suppression of self-reflection would almost certainly lead us into culture death in the form of a dystopian society like the ones described in Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. On the other hand, it’s also possible to focus too much on the little bit that the Islamists have gotten right, and to let this arouse sympathy for them, and thus to lose sight of the fact that many of them really are hellbent on destroying and/or forcefully converting the West, and that they really do represent a danger so grave as to border on the apocalyptic. The likely outcome of this second approach is equally easy to forecast.
Amidst this confusion and difficulty, I continue to think that Benjamin Barber’s characterization of the clash of civilizations as Jihad vs. McWorld, i.e., tribalism vs. globalism, is the single most helpful expression and analysis of where we now stand, since it presents a forceful criticism of both sides of the conflict, and explains how both tendencies are hostile toward authentic democratic civilization. The opening paragraphs of his famous 1992 essay for The Atlantic summarize the matter perfectly, and seem positively prophetic in light of events that have unfolded over the past decade:
“Just beyond the horizon of current events lie two possible political futures — both bleak, neither democratic. The first is a retribalization of large swaths of humankind by war and bloodshed: a threatened Lebanonization of national states in which culture is pitted against culture, people against people, tribe against tribe — a Jihad in the name of a hundred narrowly conceived faiths against every kind of interdependence, every kind of artificial social cooperation and civic mutuality. The second is being borne in on us by the onrush of economic and ecological forces that demand integration and uniformity and that mesmerize the world with fast music, fast computers, and fast food — with MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald’s, pressing nations into one commercially homogenous global network: one McWorld tied together by technology, ecology, communications, and commerce. The planet is falling precipitantly apart AND coming reluctantly together at the very same moment.
….”The tendencies of what I am here calling the forces of Jihad and the forces of McWorld operate with equal strength in opposite directions, the one driven by parochial hatreds, the other by universalizing markets, the one re-creating ancient subnational and ethnic borders from within, the other making national borders porous from without. They have one thing in common: neither offers much hope to citizens looking for practical ways to govern themselves democratically. If the global future is to pit Jihad’s centrifugal whirlwind against McWorld’s centripetal black hole, the outcome is unlikely to be democratic.”