Religion & American politics:

Against Judaist-Christianism

posted by Arjun Appadurai

I do not have much to add to the debate surrounding the Islamic Cultural Center that will surely be built near Ground Zero. But I do have a strangely delayed reaction to the word “Islamism,” whose short and pernicious history deserves more attention than it has been given. The suffix “ism” in this case is clearly not intended as a compliment. If you consult any word list on Google, it becomes clear that Islamism is a label for any variety of Islamic thought or action that can be judged to be inappropriately politicized, with the exemplary case being political violence.

So I began to think about the suffix “ism” more generally. On the one hand, it is clear that what those who deploy the word Islamist in their polemics intend to convey is a link to the dark twentieth-century “isms,” namely, fascism and communism. In fact, the more rabid voices in these debates have helpfully spelled out this sub-text in the rancid term “Islamo-fascism.” On the other hand, at least four of the great world religions are conventionally called Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Judaism. The major exceptions are Islam and Christianity, which do not end with the same sound. So this seems to be a mere matter of linguistic bad luck.

But let us look a little more closely. The real utility of the term “Islamism” is that it allows for the use of the adjectival form “Islamist,” which can be applied to any person, position, value, or policy that one wishes to smear as vaguely fascist or fundamentalist. Thus, I propose a general expansion of this usage with words such as Christianist, Hinduist, Buddha-ist (since Buddhist will not do the job), and the like. In the case of Confucius, one would have to invent something ugly like Confucius-ist, to contrast with the normal Confucian-ist. The point is to insist on a democracy of adjectives so that all religions, even when they are not Islam, can be described as having fascist or racist potentials. Here I converge with the Andrew Sullivan’s use of the term “Christianist,” though my larger position may or may not converge with his.

So now let us return to the United States and to Ground Zero. The mad pastor from Florida is clearly a Christianist. And although many distinguished Jewish individuals and organizations, especially in New York City, have come out in favor of the Cultural Center, others have been markedly Judaist in their reactions.

This program of debate raises one question. What is new about an open debate about the pernicious effects of Christianist and Judaist forces in American society? Do we not have the term “fundamentalism” to handle extremist trends among Christians and Jews? In other words, does my proposal not amount to one more plea for a comparative discussion of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalisms?

I think not, because the use of the term “Christianist” and “Judaist” have a sharper edge than the idea of Christian or Jewish fundamentalists could ever have. That is why the word “Islamist” today has such toxic force. It is more than a short form that collapses the need for the two words “Islamic” and “fundamentalist.” It suggests that, in fact, Islam is, if you wish, “fundamentally” fundamentalist, or has become so. By having a public debate organized around the words “Christianist” and “Judaist”, we might be able to ask whether some such pernicious thing is happening to Christianity and Judaism as well. Let the self-examination begin. . .

I would like to make a plea for a frontal confrontation, starting in the United States, with the new varieties of Christianist and Judaist among us. Some questions that such a public debate could address are:

  • Do Christianists and Judaists really represent Christianity and Judaism?
  • Should Christianist and Judaist elements be expunged from the Old and New Testaments (as has been proposed in reference to similar elements in the Qur’an)?
  • Are Christianist proposals, such as the recent Florida proposal to burn the Qur’an, straightforward examples of “incitement to violence” that deserve prompt legal action against their users rather than protection under the free speech provisions of the Constitution?
  • Can the remarkable degree of support in the United States for Israel’s aggressive policies in regard to Palestine be seen as examples of the defeat of genuinely liberal Judaic values in American legislative and policy circles by Judaist agendas?
  • Can there ever be a safe and secure Middle East when Islamic sentiments are constantly portrayed as Islamist by what are clearly Christianist and Judaist forces in the United States and Israel?

Those of us who treasure the Judaeo-Christian tradition should welcome such an effort to save it from the jaws of Judaist-Christianism.

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3 Responses to “Against Judaist-Christianism”

  1. avatar Martha Murphy says:

    You raise some very interesting issues about language and religious belief.

    According to Wikipedia (which confirms what I remember from my college history of religion course), the term “fundamentalism” was based on the list of 5 traditional Christian “fundamental beliefs” defined by the Niagara Bible Conference of 1878. Wikipedia says the term became pejorative only relatively recently, when the sect led by the Ayatollah Komeini was described as a “fundamentalist version of Islam” during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980.

    Thus some Christians defined themselves as “fundamentalists,” while the term was applied to the Islamic sect by people outside that group.

    It is a much narrower faction of people calling themselves Christians who attempt to impose their beliefs on others through political agendas or violent behavior. This faction has led to hard feelings against many Christian fundamentalists, as well as other Christians, who do not support such agendas.

    Although I have no expertise about Islam, the term “jihadist” seems correct in referring to some Muslims. Perhaps there is a comparable term for extremist “Christians” that I am not aware of. I believe Christ actually told his followers that we are to love our enemies and avoid angry confrontations, hatred and retribution, so I question the actually Christianity of many of those who use the name to support their political views. I think the term Christ used was “hypocrite.”

    I suggest dropping the use of the terms “fundamentalist” and “fundamentalism” as a pejoratives, in favor of “extremist/extremism” or “fanatic/fanaticism.”

    By steering away from the use of “fundamentalist,” writers might defuse the belief that Christians are being stereotyped and discriminated against against by the media.

  2. avatar Rachel Signer says:

    Thanks for this, Professor Appadurai. I think there is a problem when we talk generally about any religion, as if there were one Judaism or one Christianity or one Islam (etc). For example, an American reform Jew, is not an American Orthodox Jew, is not an Israeli Chasidic Jew. There are too many ties between faith, culture, and politics, to meaningfully discuss any broad and diverse religious system without attention to its internal diversity.

    In northern Senegal, where I was recently working on a research project, the imams I interviewed expressed their interpretation of Islam as a religion of peace, designed to instill balance amongst humans as well as between people and the natural environment. Similarly, in Dakar, youth movements in the Muslim Mouride brotherhood provide a space for non-kinship based relations to form without drugs, alcohol, or money, but rather with solidarity and hope in times of crisis.

    The term “fundamentalist” is even skewed, because the fundamentals of any religion can be interpreted in light of peaceful motives. It is, in each case, a question of sociopolitical histories, often tied to violent colonial histories, that have shaped the more destructive brands of these faiths.

  3. avatar Rex Styzens says:

    As one in his eighth decade of life, I grew up learning the correct reference for African Americans was Negro. Along came Black Power, and “black” became acceptable. I remember how abrupt, it seemed to me, the change to African American was. Now it is the norm.

    I look forward to trying out “Christianist” and “Judaist.” I can already see possibilities. Maybe we can then move on to “religionist” and “scientism” as descriptive of intolerant and exaggerated expressions of those disciplines. When they begin to make an appearance in scrabble games, their future is assured.

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