Thursday, July 12, 2007

Casting out "evil"

Covenant Zone, having recently been the target of apotropaic gestures (e.g. we're apparently a "sh*t hole") from a certain lefty site that will go unnamed, I want to link today to Lee Harris' new essay at Tech Central Station that shows us what an apotropaic gesture is. Discussing the recent incident in Pakistan where Islamic fundamentalists took over the Red Mosque, and vowed to fight the government to the death, Harris asks why the Western media comes up with all kinds of euphemisms for describing the fanatics in the Red Mosque.
In Islam, fanatical zeal has been looked upon as both the ethical and theological virtue par excellence. Furthermore, it has been the agent by which the religion of Muhammad came to dominate the hearts and minds of so much of the world. Fanatical zeal is not a pathology of Islam; it is the glue that has held it together. It was the agent that created the original community of the faithful, all of whom had first to reject the tribal identities they were born and raised with, in order to accept their radically new identity as followers of the Prophet—a profound psychological transformation that could only be brought up by fanatical commitment to their new way of life.

The same commitment also explains the amazing success with which Islam was spread in the first hundred years of its existence. Indeed, without grasping the vital role that fanaticism has historically played in Islam, neither its successful birth nor its far more spectacular spread would make sense. The religion of the Prophet was not a religion for the lukewarm, the skeptical, the wishy-washy, the moderate, or the reasonable. If it had been, we would never have heard of it, because it would have been almost immediately absorbed back into the tribal milieu that had long dominated every aspect of life in the Arab peninsula.

The same spirit of fanaticism is at the heart of the battle over the Red Mosque. Yet, despite its absolute centrality to the drama, we in the West are largely reluctant even to speak of it as a factor. Reuters and the AP can bring themselves to refer to Ghazi and his "supporters" as "militants," but they go to considerable pains to avoid calling them by the name that alone truly fits them.

For many, there is a simple explanation of this omission. Reuters and AP are trying to be politically correct. But how convincing is this explanation? Why is it that a word like "fanatic" is treated as being politically incorrect in the first place? If fanatics are proud of their fanaticism, if it is their boast and their glory, then why not call them by the proper term?

In my new book, The Suicide of Reason, I offer an explanation of why so many are reluctant to use the word fanatic to denote those, like Ghazi and his "supporters," are behaving precisely in the same way that all fanatics have behaved through history. "The problem with much of the Western response to Islamic fanaticism," I write, "is that our refusal to use the word fanaticism appears to be based on our reluctance to recognize the fact of fanaticism. We avoid the word in order to avoid having to think about the thing, thereby leaving the impression that our resistance to acknowledging fanaticism arises less from our sensitivity to Muslim feelings than from our wish to evade the momentous challenged posed by fanaticism itself."

When we use words like supporter in place of follower, and militant in place of fanatic, we are engaging in verbal apotropaism—a rare, but helpful word that is defined as "the performance of magic ritual or incantatory formulas to avert evil." When people who really believe in the Devil call him by an affectionate term like Old Nick, they are using an apotropaic device. Instead of running the risk of calling the Devil by his right name, and having him suddenly appear with horns and tail, they refer to him by a less threatening title, one that sounds positively endearing. In short, human beings have always used apotropaic rituals and formulas to ward off that which we fear the most; and we in the West are still doing it today.

In The Suicide of Reason I write that in the contemporary West fanatics like Abdul Rashid like Ghazi and his followers have become "incomprehensibly alien to us. They do not conform to our expectation of normal human behavior; indeed, they shatter all such expectations. They fill us with panic and anxiety....To relieve this panic and anxiety we must either ignore them or else force them to fit into a category of human action with which we do feel comfortable—all in an effort to make their uncanniness less threatening to our comfortable vision of the world." Both Reuters and the AP exhibit the second reaction to the fanatic: by using words like supporter and militant both are attempting to make the incomprehensibly alien something that we think we are familiar with. After all, aren't we supporters of one candidate or other. Aren't there many things that we act militantly about? We have causes, too, for which we are prepared to fight: rights for blacks, or women, or gays. So where is the big difference between us? What is there so special about the behavior of Ghazi and his supporters that we should find it inexplicable, much less threatening?

Because we insist on denying what is most obvious and most essential about fanatics, namely, their fanaticism, we blind ourselves to the radical threat they pose to any established and settled order. For example, Pakistan under General Musharraf falls far short of our Western notions of a free and open society, but few in the West would be happy to see his regime replaced with a new Taliban—and one armed with nuclear weapons. Few in the West would be willing to see Pakistan plunged into civil war and/or anarchy. Yet the same cannot be said of the Pakistanis themselves. Abdul Ghazi, his followers, and those who sympathize with his cause throughout Pakistan would no doubt like to impose a Taliban-like government for their nation, as their record makes clear.
the ultimate outcome of the train of events set off this last week at the Red Mosque is still unknown, though we in the West are perfectly aware that if the spark turns into a conflagration there will be virtually nothing we can do to stop. Again, we can only stand by, and watch. Yet, if we are prepared to take a serious and unflinching look at the challenge posed to us by Islamic fanaticism, then at least we will be able to watch with vigilance and intelligence, and not fall prey to the illusion that we have solutions to a threat that we in the West have as yet barely began to understand.
If there is one thing a Covenant Zone exists to do, it is to see reality clearly, to avoid our need to engage in rituals of casting out evil, without bothering to understand what evil, in all its tortured humanity, is. Only then can a people hope to get the upper hand on the forces of evil through a self-sacrificing love for humanity and our (e.g. national) covenants. Of course, many on the left today will not even recognize the anthropological legitimacy of the term "evil". So they will not be too busy covenanting.

I wanted to link today to a blog post I read yesterday in which was discussed the phenomenon of "Muslim Background Believers"; it was at this url which has presently gone under password protection: . An "MBB" is someone of Muslim background who has converted to Christianity. Apparently, while unheard of a couple of decades ago, there are now unknown thousands of them in Saudi Arabia, living in a secret culture, in fear for their lives, but nonetheless living a covenant with the help of a few missionary outsiders. Covenants, where we guarantee ourselves, e.g., to support those freedom lovers under the thumb of tyranny, are a way of bringing a new reality into being. And since I have criticized Christians in the past for turning a blind eye to what happens to their co-religionists in Muslim countries, I wanted to link to a Christian who isn't, who has gone for many years now right into one of the most oppressive societies to keep faith with those who desire freedom through Christ.

Given that this blog has apparently stirred up resentments and apotropaic gestures at another, more popular blog here in Vancouver, I cannot guarantee that our meeting tonight, as every Thursday, 7-9pm in the atrium of the Vancouver Public Library, in front of Blenz Coffee, will go off without incident. Covenant Zone is committed to free and rational conversation in the name of constructing a new, more open, reality than the one in which many of our co-citizens presently live. We will defend this commitment as best we can so that all who are interested in free and open conversation, without threats, scapegoats, or ritualistic castings out of misrepresented evil, will feel at home in the Covenant Zone.


Anonymous said...

"Covenant Zone is committed to free and rational conversation in the name of constructing a new, more open, reality than the one in which many of our co-citizens presently live."

And that is truly commendable. I linked to your site precisely because I saw this quality. Trust me, if I was resentful, I wouldn't have linked to it. I find it necessary to show that such sites as The Covenant Zone exist in Vancouver. That's all.

truepeers said...

Thanks Sean.

I was doing a little thinking about the word apotropaic and I think Lee Harris is bending its definition a bit to serve his present purpose. Literally, the word means `turning away the god'. In other words, what the person who makes an apotrapaic gesture fears is the power of the sacred, which has both an attractive and repelling, exciting and dangerous quality; as such it is confusing, mysterious, and often builds up in us a passion that we need to dispel, to turn away the power that we fear by giving it a good or bad name that makes us more comfortable.

In other words, it is not simply, as Harris has it, a question of positively re-branding evil that we don't want to see, e.g. calling Satan "old nick".

Thus Sean, if someone in your blog's commments calls us a "shithole", I can assume it is an apotropaic geture if what I think they find repelling about this site is its pretension to represent some kind of sacred centre, as denoted by our name, Covenant Zone.

Giving yourself such a name, you open yourself to a certain passion. We should admit that is part of of our game. We want people to have a rational passion (though it can never be completely rational and still be passionate) for our nation and its political freedoms.

Dag said...

Now that that's well settled, I look forward to an enjoyable evening.