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.”

About Matt Cardin


Posted on September 19, 2006, in Religion & Philosophy, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I would like to comment on the lack of enthusiam for my “final solution” to the Islamic problem we find ourselves in… Since Islam is the only Major religion in the world to endorse active religiously bigoted violence as a means to spread its doctrines, it is set apart from normal religion… The violence done by the Crusaders was totally against what Christ taught… He taught that only God can judge and to turn the other cheek when slapped, not invade, divide and conquer and kill 50,000 jews in the process… But when Muslims invaded Spain and occupied it for 6 centuries, fought Charles the Hammer at the battle of Tours in 732AD and generally caused mayhem across the globe since their inception as a relgion, they are simply doing as they were instructed to do…. Conquer destroy and kill and rape. For god sakes look at the Sicilians and all of Southern Europe, they all used to look completely different. Whole blonde haired blue eyed thing going on. But now anyone south of Germany and France looks Moorish or Turkish. Spanish and Greek peoples were once not dark featured. So once again how am I supposed to believe that they are a peaceful people who dont condone or participate in violence, it is only the extermists? Look at the steady state of warfare they have lived in for 1300 years. It is inherent in Islamic doctrines that EVERY person on earth must become a muslim or their God, Allah is liar and Mohammad a false prophet. If you are conquered and do not resist to your home bing taken over, you can remain whatver religion you were before by paying a head tax. Literally a tax to save your head. But that does not ensure your safety, just your legal status. And if you ever convert from Islam, expect to be killed as our Afghan freind who ran to Italy found out earlier. So if theses people are inherently indoctrinated with violence and it is even seen acceptable by the Islamic law to LIE and say anything to conquer the kafir, infidel. So how can we trust or not expect more attacks. Obviously we can BAN ISLAM. Any religion that is inherently violent and harmful should not be allowed to be practiced. Should we allow Satanic cults that condone and endorse pedophilic snuff porn? No, but here in America everyone is too much of a pussy to stand on any type of moral ground and say this religion is wrong FOR EVERYBODY, all the time. And we as a people will not allow it. We need to get over our sad state of affairs and realize we are vunerable inside and out to global jihad and will be until we eliminate it. The only way to do that is to eliminate Islam.

  2. Re: Banning Islam

    As ridiculous as it is, I’m actually going to respond to Brandon’s comments respectfully and carefully. To make my biases clear: I’m an atheist with a Muslim background. I detest Islam, but am going to defend it here, in the interest of truth.

    Your suggestion that Islam is inherently violent betrays any understanding of Islam, religion, or Islamic history.

    Islam, as a political force, has undergone several transformations over the last century alone, to say nothing of its history as an Imperial force and, later, subservience to their (violent) colonial (western) masters.

    In the past century alone, Political Islam has seen itself in classical liberalist clothes in the early part of the 19th century, Marxist/Socialist in the middle of the century, and has, as its most recent incarnation, seen a resurgence of fundamentalist attitudes dominating its politics.

    That is not to say that those liberal, socialist, or even monarchist elements don’t exist anymore. To the contrary, they’re everywhere. This only means that today’s “trend” is towards radicalism. The situation is obviously a lot more complicated than that (take Iran, for example, which has systematically weeded out all its leftist AND rightist/monarchist elements after the 1979 revolution, leaving only the radicals on the political scene).

    This isn’t surprising to anyone that has any knowledge of either politics OR religion. Even in the United States, the two dominant Republican and Democratic parties are subject to changes as history progresses. Today’s Republicans may have more in common with Democrats of years gone by than present day Dems do, and vice versa. In fact, politics renders political (and religious) actors as amorphous entities.

    Nextly, as every piece of documentation has shown, Muslims kill far fewer Americans than Americans kill Muslims. While America constantly trumpets the threat posed by various rivals in the Islamic world, from Libya to Iran, in practice the American military not only annihilates more lives in the Muslim world, but also destroys basic infrastructure, as well as committing random acts of terror. All of these incidents are reported widely in the mainstream media, but in the United States they are often “framed” in a manner that implies U.S. impotence in preventing tragedy, or outright righteousness.

    Thirdly, while there are a great number of religious fanatics throughout the world, very often they find their support under exceptional circumstances unfavorable to the prosperity of the local populace. It’s isn’t a science, but take Palestine as an example, or even Pakistan. Both countries, believe it or not, have strong tendencies towards secularism, even liberalism. Just today I read a Pew research study suggesting that Pakistanis, despite being surrounded by poverty, misery, dictatorship, and illiteracy, are overwhelmingly opposed to terrorism, dictatorship, and crave democracy:


    Palestinians, until very recently have always been a firmly secular people. It is to the credit of the Israeli occupation that the increasing toll it has taken on Palestinian civil society has given rise to the most fanatical elements in those societies to reign over (parts of) them. Don’t be fooled though, Palestinians may have elected Hamas into parliament, but they ALSO elected a secularist president (Mahmoud Abbas), suggesting, if anything, a sophisticated populace interested in maintaining a balance of power in their government.

    If you still want to eliminate Islam, then, be my guest; you’d be doing so as a semi-literate ape-creature with a trail of Dumbass leaking out of the back of your cranium.

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