Chomsky and Ashcar On Fundamentalism

A Cacophony of Fundamentalism
Noam Chomsky & Gilbert Achcar interviewed by Stephen Shalom

Mail & Guardian Online, November 3, 2006

Gilbert Achcar: When Arab nationalism, Nasserism and similar trends began to crumble in the 1970s, most governments used Islamic fundamentalism as a tool to counter remnants of the left or of secular nationalism.

A striking illustration of the phenomenon is Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat. He fostered Islamic fundamentalism to counter remnants of Nasserism after he took over in 1970 and ended up being assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists in 1981.

Today in the Middle East the same genie is out of the bottle and out of control. The repression of progressive or secular ideologies, aggravated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, has left the ground open to the only ideological channel available for anti-Western protest — Islamic fundamentalism.

Noam Chomsky: Without drawing the analogy too closely, I think there is something similar in the US fundamentalist situation.

It should be added, however, that the dynamic may be universal. [Whether] Christian or Jewish or Islamic or Hindu, the fundamentalist religious impulse can be turned to serve political agendas.

In the United States, what we call fundamentalism has very deep roots, from the early colonists. There’s always been an extreme, ultra­religious element, more or less fundamentalist, with several revivals.

In the past 25 years, fundamentalism has been turned for the first time into a major political force. It’s a conscious effort, I think, to try to undermine progressive social policies. Not radical policies but rather the mild social democratic policies of the preceding period are under serious attack.

The fundamentalists were mobilised into a political force for the first time to provide a base for this reaction, and — to the extent that the political system functions, which is not much — to shift the focus of many voters from the issues that really affect their interests (such as health, education, economic issues, wages) to religious crusades to block the teaching of evolution, gay rights and abortion rights.

These are all issues about which CEOs, for example, just don’t care very much. They care a lot about the other issues. And if you can shift the focus of debate and attention and presidential politics to questions quite marginal for the wealthy — questions of, say, gay rights — that’s wonderful for people who want to destroy the labour unions, or to construct a social/political system for the benefit of the ultra-rich, while everyone else barely survives.

This fundamentalist mobilisation has occurred during a unique period of American economic history where, for about 25 years, real wages have either stagnated or declined for the majority. Real median family incomes are rising far more slowly than productivity and economic growth, and for some sectors, declining. There were things like the Great Depression, but never 25 years of stagnation through a period with no serious economic disruptions.

Read the entire interview here.

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