The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

My Summer with Religious Rights

September 2, 2010

I’ve been on the road most of the summer (8 of the past 10 weeks) so the blogging has been quite light. I spent twelve days in Israel and then a bit more than three weeks doing research in Europe followed by my first real vacation in more than a decade — a three week car trip with my kids out to visit family and friends in the upper Midwest.

One of the more intriguing elements that linked all three trips was the presence of conservative, religious politics everywhere I went. I talked to Jewish settlers on the West Bank, I spent time with several young (and newly self-identified) conservative Muslims from Sarajevo and Paris, and I spent three weeks with conservative, Christian evangelicals in North Dakota, central Minnesota, and western Michigan.

Despite the differences in religion and world experiences, I am struck by the similarity of these groups to each other. Here are a few observations:

1. Perhaps the most obvious observation is that religious identity is the most salient identity held by individuals in each of these communities and, while I’ve interacted with each of these communities for years, the beliefs are more highly political and exclusivist than I’ve experienced in the past. Each community feels besieged and perceives there are coordinated attacks by “others” to de-legitimize their beliefs and their culture.

They each see existential threats everywhere they look, but the central threat is really coming from liberalism. Secularlism, human rights, globalization and open markets, free trade, labor and capital mobility, migration (legal or not), etc… are all seen as posing fundamental threats to their (perceived) way of life.

2. It is not the zeal or energy that is striking or new, rather it is the casualness and ease with which so many members of these communities express their intolerance, xenophobia, and even outright racism. There isn’t even a pretense of politeness or basic civility, let alone any curiosity of the other. I had a lengthy conversation with several young Bosnian Muslims who repeatedly invoked Allah to convey collective guilt not just on the Serbs but on all the “filthy” and “genocidal” Serbs, Christians, and Jews. I heard references to Palestinians as collectively “lazy” and “bred to be terrorists.” In North Dakota, I heard repeated racial epithets (the n-word) directed at President Obama and several references to his “godless Islamic cult.” In some instances, complete strangers approached my conversations with various groups to add additional diatribes against the “other.” I was really astounded by the ease with which such raw, emotional, and racist language was expressed.

3. Each community is adamantly anti-authority and says it “just wants to be left alone” from the influence of the state. Settlers in the West Bank settlement of Offra showed us settlement homes that were demolished by the Israeli government as part of the peace process several years back. The settlers have left the ruins untouched as a monument of their struggle against the Israeli government and the peace process. The Sarajevo Muslims railed against the the Bosnian central government for its efforts to integrate communities, to develop tax codes and regulatory infrastructures in Bosnia. And, the evangelical Tea Partiers in the upper Midwest blasted America’s “socialist” federal government.

And yet, despite all of their protests, all three groups are wholly dependent on the state for their basic existence — the settlers could not live in the West Bank without the Israeli government providing electricity, water, transportation and communication infrastrasture — let alone security. The Bosnian Muslims would not have a unified community or protection without a viable central government. And, the rural tea partiers — the farmers and ranchers — could not exist without a federal government that keeps them afloat with extensive agricultural subsidies and direct assistance to maintain rural electricity, communication, and transportation — the Dakotas rank in the top five of per capita federal dollars to states. The cognitive dissonance is palpable….

4. Many hold militant and apocalyptic views. Many of the folks I talked to believe the world is in serious trouble — politically and economically. The settlers in Offra told my group that there will be civil war if the Israeli government tries to demolish more houses or dismantle settlements. The Bosnian Muslims — most who were too young to fight in the Bosnian War in the 1990s — warned that they were ready to finish the job that their fathers and brothers were unable to finish against the infidels. And, in the upper Midwest, the gun culture includes far more emphasis on automatic and semi-automatic weapons designed to protect “God and Country” from “Obama’s socialism” than the emphasis on hunting with shotguns and hunting rifles I grew up with.

It is not surprising that such views seem to be rising — especially in a time of global recession. But, it would be a mistake to conclude that these views are simply a function of economics. We’ve seen fairly consistent trends in the rise of religious fundamentalism across the globe for the better part of the past twenty years. Liberalism has become more deeply embedded in global institutions and practices in the past several decades, but it also has triggered widespread reactions. Still, with global liberal economic models performing poorly, we’re likely to see more anxiety and the rise of more populist demagogues seeking to exploit that anxiety.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.