During the first few years of the twenty-first century, the Bush, Jr. administration asserted a number of policies that, taken together, present a disturbing picture. This picture began to come into focus with the publication of those notorious photos of military abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison, but it became even clearer as the Bush, Jr. administration pursued its efforts to unilaterally abrogate the Geneva Conventions for so-called “detainee” prisoners in limbo at various prison sites around the world, to attempt to provide retroactive immunity for officials responsible for policies encouraging torture, and so forth.
The tendency of the Bush, Jr. administration to “work through the dark side,” as Vice President Cheney so charmingly put it, is by now well known. Here, however, we will consider a much less well-known dimension of that administration’s clownishly named “war on terror.” The notion that one could declare war on a concept is, of course, entertaining, but it is also revealing. Underlying and indeed impelling much of the “war on terror” is in fact a war of different kind, a war against the heresy of antimodernism.
Of course, it is difficult for an American who is steeped in (or even familiar with) the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence to make sense of what the Bush, Jr. administration was up to during much of that first decade of the twenty-first century. Setting aside the not inconsiderable question of international war crimes, even a cursory look at the Constitution and its Amendments would suggest that George Bush, Jr. had violated his oath to uphold them, after all his most basic responsibility. Administration casuists like John Yoo clearly were more than willing to reject the rule of American and international law in order to pursue their war against the concept of terror. What would motivate “conservatives” to act in such ways? There is here more than simply a desire to pursue malfeasants.
In The New Inquisitions (2006), I demonstrate that the nightmares of twentieth-century totalitarianism reflect an inquisitional pathology that is indebted to the earlier religious inquisitionalism of the heretic-hunters within Christianity. The various totalitarianisms of the twentieth century were secular, but they shared with their forebears, the medieval religious Inquisitors, a tremendous fear of dissent, and an intense desire to extirpate it by torture and murder. The millions upon millions who were imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century – they were, to a considerable extent, ideological victims of modern inquisitions.
More than one political cartoonist long since observed the inquisitional dimensions of the American “war on terror,” and depicted American officials in medieval dungeons, near equipment like racks. And it is true that some of the torture methods are strikingly medieval – the “waterboarding” endorsed as a “no-brainer” by Richard Cheney comes to mind – while others, involving electricity, say, are more distinctly modern. Still, even the terminology is medieval: the term “extreme rendition” for American prisoners who are sent to a foreign country to be tortured harks back to the medieval custom of the Inquisitors pronouncing judgment on a “heretical” victim who is then “rendered to the secular arm” for punishment. Just like the medieval inquisitors, the American officials thus are technically not guilty of torture or murder – they merely “rendered” their victim to someone else.
But the medieval inquisitors saw themselves as protecting society by enforcing, through violence if necessary, the doctrines of the Church. Likewise, communist and fascist ideologues saw themselves as protecting society by extirpating the “enemies of the state,” by imprisoning or killing those who dissented from their ideological hegemony. Could something like this be said of American inquisitors? What doctrine, what ideology, are Americans enforcing through policies like “extreme rendition”?
To begin to answer these questions, we must consider the underlying antimodernist ideology of fundamentalist Muslims from Sayyid Qutb to Osama bin Laden, and as represented in the regime of the Taliban. Underlying these various figures and movements is a profound contempt for modern Western industrial consumerism, and a desire to assert in its stead a projected “earthly paradise” imposed by force, one that is free of the “polluting taint” of modernity. Recently, for instance, an Iranian official told the BBC that importing a Barbie doll is worse than an American missile. While it takes various forms, Islamic antimodernism in general is born out of reactions against consumerist modernity, and is inconceivable except in relation to it. Furthermore, it is based in the notion that an imagined antimodern “earthly paradise” can be imposed by force on others for their own good.
Seen in this light, the conflict between the West and fundamentalist Islam and in particular the American occupation of Iraq bears some resemblance to the earlier conflicts of the Crusades, but also represents a profound contemporary ideological conflict between modernism and Islamic antimodernism. Each side in this conflict is apparently incapable of understanding the perspective of the other, each is convinced of its absolute rectitude, and thus each is willing to impose its projected “earthly paradise” (in reality a nightmare) by force upon the other and upon a captive populace. Each side resembles the other much more than it is willing to admit, as we can see in the snuff film of Saddam Hussein’s execution whose black-masked executioners strikingly resemble those featured in Islamist execution videos. The Americans are at war with antimodern “heretics,” just as fundamentalist Muslims are at war with modernist “heretics.” Among all the other forces, there are deep heresiophobic pathologies with ancient roots at work here.
We see such a pathology at work in the atrocities committed in Iraq by Muslims against Muslims who belong to a different sect or social class. These Muslims are slaughtering other Muslims, but they frequently also torture them – why? To find out information? Not likely. I suppose there may be a variety of apparent “reasons” for their inhuman behavior, but fundamentally, it is because a deep inquisitional pathology has been awakened or fanned by the U.S. occupation of Iraq. This is the heresiophobic pathology of scapegoating, of blind ideological hatreds and bloodlusts that seek victims – underlying it all is the pathology of objectifying others, the ugly mirror-image of the slaughter of how many as a result of the American invasion? Half a million? Three quarters? Will we ever know?
One has to note that the anti-tyrannical form of government envisioned by Washington and Jefferson works, if it works, in an aspirational culture whose ideals are always betrayed by those who would impose it through force. But the Bush, Jr. administration and sycophantic Republicans and Democrats abandoned American and even more ancient Western aspirational ideals as exemplified by, for instance, Washington’s “Farewell Address,” as well as the much older tradition of habeus corpus protection, and supplanted for those ideals a cheap imperial ideology of imposed, exported modernism, a crusade for corporate and consumerist hegemony under banners emblazoned with empty abstractions like “democracy” and “freedom.” Little wonder, then, that soon thereafter we saw an inquisitional pathology emerge among American occupiers of Iraq; little wonder that an imposed modernism generates an even more virulent antimodernism. Another, nobler path was possible, and still may be. It will begin, if it begins, with the conscious rejection of the inquisitional pathology that marks totalitarianisms of every stripe, modernist and antimodernist alike.
Arthur Versluis is author of “Antimodernism” in the current issue of the journal Telos and of The New Inquisitions (Oxford UP, 2006). He is professor of American Studies at Michigan State University. He can be reached through his website: http://www.arthurversluis.com/
© Arthur Versluis 2007