New Internationalist

The NI Essay

Issue 361

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It has always been the fate of religion to be pressed into the service of material interests. So today’s resurgent assertion of religious identities continues a familiar process.

When the United States publicly begs the blessing of the Almighty, as the greatest power ever seen on earth sets out to demolish a Third World country actually in the process of disarming on the day it is invaded, one may wonder to what bizarre God of justice these pieties are offered up.

When mullahs and clerics cite the revelations of religion to set up courts that will stone to death adulterers and unleash the bureaucratic zealots of a Ministry for the Elimination of Vice and Defence of Virtue, to what punitive Being do they make their appeal?

When militants of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad paint their strange visions of Hindutva, attacking cinema halls, advertisements for underwear and the celebration of St Valentine’s Day, what supernatural entities do they imagine will help them turn back the clock to an irrecoverable – because mythical – past?

When Israeli settlers move into the olive-groves and vineyards of evicted Palestinians, what is the nature of the barbaric Godhead which blesses their appropriation of the land of others by whatever means they choose?

When Tony Blair avows himself ready to meet his Maker and to answer for the deaths of Iraqis, to what kind of celestial chat-show host does he imagine himself making his future confession?

It is strange that in this most materialistic of times, the language of religious supremacy should be heard with such stridency. In an age when the life of the spirit is besieged by the excesses of a florid globalism, claimants to sole proprietorship of truth have never been more numerous. If the Supreme Being had decided, in this troubled era, to manifest Himself (or Herself, or Itself, or Themselves) on earth, it is difficult to believe that divine messages would have been vouchsafed to, for instance, George Bush, Osama bin Laden, Narendra Modi, Israeli settlers, or any other of today’s representatives of righteousness.

None of the creeds invoked by the authors of today’s (highly material) religious projects preaches mutilation and murder. Usually, they are considered to represent something quite different. Is the carnage associated with them a result of lurid scriptural interpretations of religion which have effaced the life of the spirit? Or is it because religion has become the last hiding-place of rascally politicians whose secular disguises have been unmasked by the people? Or because we can no longer construct social and economic systems that value human well-being more highly than human beliefs? The answer perhaps lies in some element of all these; but acts of savagery conducted in the name of religion pass more readily in the world because terror has become the religion of the age.

It is strange that in this most materialistic of times, the language of religious supremacy should be heard with such stridency

All religions have taught respect for life and the faith of others. All have preached tolerance and compassion. But they have also inspired fear: fear of retribution for misdeeds, fear of the judgement or the wrath of God; fear of consequences in the next life (whatever form that may take) of our failure to do our duty in this one. Terror is an aggravated form of fear: intense fear, fright or dread. Terror represents harsh political agendas cloaked in the misty language of religion in order better to work their mischief in the world. When the United States described its invasion of Iraq as ‘shock and awe’, it too was calling upon an important element of religion. Awe at the mystery and complexity of the universe is part of the heritage of human faiths. This was usurped by the US, which has itself become an arbiter of human destinies, godlike in its fateful decisions of life and death over others. Even during the Gulf War of 1991, Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the US forces, gave some intimation of the ambitious scope of US power. He urged his troops to become ‘like the thunder and lightning’ in their attack on the Iraqis. From the naturalizing of power to its supernaturalizing is a short step.

What is labelled ‘terrorism’ by the defenders of global privilege is actually a series of rather small schisms, breakaway sects from the institutionalized terror of the world’s greatest superpower. The US has practised epic injustice in pursuit of supremacy, and has created states of terror (in both senses of the term) through the diffuse and impersonal instrument of the global economic forces which it controls. Out of these it has constructed a profane cosmos of militarism, might and money; and from within this closed universe, it distributes its own blessings and curses upon the peoples of earth. The ‘wrath’ of the United States is now universally feared for the punishment without limits this can mean. On the other hand, which country does not seek its blessing, the promise of ‘regeneration’ to a cleansed Afghanistan and ‘freedom’ to Iraq – on condition that there will be no contest from rival religions, such as a democratically elected Shi’a-dominated state?

In other words, the United States has itself become a world religion.

Of course, great religions also teach love. The US is no exception. Donald Rumsfeld, during his ‘lap of honour’ in the Gulf at the end of April, said the military had used ‘an unprecedented combination of power, precision, speed, flexibility and, I would add, compassion.’ A compassionate war not only represents an historic first in the history of war, it also demonstrates the truly divine purposes of the US – the doctrinally subtle mixture of a humanitarianism inseparable from cluster-bombs, and a liberation inextricably bound up with still-uncounted civilian deaths in Iraq. The qualities Rumsfeld sees in the use of the unassailable power of the US – speed, power, precision – suggest majesty and omnipotence. It brings its light to the whole world. It judges the quick and the dead, imposes the compulsory salvation of its mysterious afterlife of truth, democracy and freedom. And it does so, borne up by its providential, terrible, terrifying, terror-inducing weaponry of destruction.

It is one thing to conceal material advantage by an ostensible pursuit of religion, and quite another to project that material power itself as the source of the sacred. The United States has deployed its apparently limitless capacity, both to produce and to destroy, as a mantle of universal power. It cows the whole world into acknowledgement of an undeniable truth – that it alone has the weaponry to enforce its will. The social and moral landscapes of the world must be reordered in accordance with this ‘new reality’, this revelation, this vision of the cosmos. Here is the true religion of globalization. Whatever myths of creation other religions have believed, the United States is in the business of recreating them, in its own image. It wields, in a homely metaphor which even the poorest on earth understand, both the carrot and the stick: the exaltations of plenty in the here-and-now, have-it-all iconography of abundance are there for the believers, the compliant and the submissive. For the recalcitrants, the hell-on-earth of daisy-cutters, thermobaric bombs and the everlasting half-life of the waste from nuclear detonations.

It is not merely a literary image to state that the US has become an incarnation of religious revelation. It is also powerfully grounded in material reality. The American currency is itself a source of myth. The cliché of the ‘almighty dollar’ suggests that this commands the faith of the whole world. Indeed, the continued economic pre-eminence of the US depends crucially upon the flow of money into America in order to fund its enormous trade deficit – almost $2.5 trillion. Billions of dollars a day are required to sustain the US economy; and the world’s readiness to supply this constant flow of money suggests an act of faith. One which is renewed each day.

People believe in the US. It has become the object of a global cult, and the money which it absorbs from the world is a form of practical worship, a daily puja, the ritual observance of its omnipotence. Is it any wonder that for half a century we have been overwhelmed by stories of economic miracles, the magic of the markets, the mysteries of ‘wealth creation’. This last has been elevated to a kind of mysticism into which it does not do to pry too closely for fear of harming the sacred processes whereby, not only will the rich grow much richer but even the poor may hope, over time, to become marginally less poor.

The US represents the reworking of the earthly paradise – the land of milk and honey, the pays de cocagne, the new Jerusalem, the Garden of Eden – the image that has haunted all cultures and all religions is made manifest at last. And travellers to the fabled land duly return to the rest of the world with their stories of the magnificence, the opulence, the land of opportunity, the site of infinite possibilities and realization of dreams.

This is the guise – at least since the inferno of Vietnam – in which America has preferred to appear in the world. Only since 11 September 2001 has it reverted to the use of its mechanisms of punishment and coercion. The pyrotechnics of its weaponry in the skies of Iraq; the threat of endless war; the re-establishment of its ‘invulnerability’: all of these assert not only a reversion to more classic imperial style but also the true basis of its supernatural might. If faith in America should falter – if the global reserve currency became the euro, or if Muslim countries moved into the Islamic gold dinar; or if, like Venezuela, countries started to barter oil for other commodities rather than dollars – the demonstration of the US capacity to compulsion would become even stronger.

Brute power and material domination have seldom cared to name themselves, but have always reached for more exalted forms of self-expression in the idiom of religion which, imprecise and amorphous, shrouds oppression with mystery and haloes violence with the language of transcendence.

The campaigning journalist Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to New Internationalist.

But when these prepotent interests themselves claim to be the foundation of goodness and truth, we are in the presence of a new world religion; one whose true spiritual attendant is no longer the promise of deliverance from poverty and need but rather the ubiquitous, abstract and vengeful shadow of terror.

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