By the time Sayyid Qotb, the intellectual grandfather of radical Islam and, according to some, the forbearer of Al-Qaeda, sailed into New York harbor in 1948 as an envoy of Egypt’s Public Instruction Ministry, he had already formed an opinion about the corruption and godlessness of the West. Qotb witnessed what he regarded as licentiousness among his European and American shipmates, and further observations in America seemed to confirm those initial impressions. He returned to Egypt convinced that irreligion lay at the root of Western decadence.
In passing judgment, however, Qotb behaved like one of the fumbling visitors in the Rumi fable: Touching the limb of an elephant in a dark chamber, he wrongly presumed to know the shape of the whole beast.
In fact, under a coating of secularism and pluralism, America has always been a religious nation. The propaganda of Islamists notwithstanding, the problem with how the United States conducts its foreign policy today is not too little, but too much religion. The behavior of the US is better understood by its zealous religiosity rather than by its constitutional secularism.
The American colonies were first settled by religious devotees, or “pilgrims,” who found 17th-century Britain too godless for their taste. They set out to establish a “New Jerusalem” in the new continent. Ever since, the will to fashion the US in the image of a Christian “shining city on the hill” and to carry out the will of God in the world have been present in the political DNA of the country. The remnants of an old utopian Christianity survive among such groups as the Amish, the Hutterites and the Mennonites, and entirely new Christian sects, such as the Mormons, the Southern Baptists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were founded in the US. These sects believe in the pivotal role of America in God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
It is not only the eccentric fringe but also the mainstream of American society that continues to profess religious faith. Sociological surveys portray the US as the second most religious country in the world. Christian fundamentalism was conceived there in the three decades before Sayyid Qotb set foot on its shores.
Scandalized by the laxity of the Christian liberal theology of their time, a group of Baptists chose five basic tenets as the “fundamentals” of Christianity and identified those who did not share them as “non-Christian.” Millenarian and utopian in nature, “fundamentalism” quickly grew. Having suffered temporary defeat in the famous 1925 “Monkey Trial” (when John Scopes, a Tennessee biology teacher, was charged with illegally teaching what was considered the un-Christian Darwinian theory of evolution), fundamentalists regrouped in “nondenominational” evangelical organizations, making a visible comeback in the last quarter of the 20th century.
It is estimated that there are 17 million die-hard fundamentalist Christians in the United States and another 70 million closely affiliated with Christian neo-orthodoxy. The core believers are highly motivated and organized. Ever since the days of former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, evangelical political Christianity’s influence on government has been discernable. However, it was with the election of George W. Bush that adherents of Protestant neo-orthodoxy openly claimed to have installed one of their own in the Oval Office.
Today, fundamentalist Christianity appears in the guise of highly organized and lavishly funded political pro-Israel formations, which are described as “Christian Zionist.” They attract senior officials, such as Attorney General John Ashcroft, to their conventions, and their electoral clout is such that the US government heeds their political agenda in the Middle East and kowtows to their wishes in implementing such policies as the “global gag rule” that denies funding to many family planning agencies of the United Nations.
Nor has the US invasion of Iraq been absolutely free from fundamentalist influences. When asked by an interviewer if he had consulted with his father about the invasion of Iraq, Bush responded: “I consulted with a higher father.”
An important aspect of fundamentalist resurgence in America is its belief in divine deliverance at the hands of an avenging messiah. A set of beliefs, known as “Bible prophecies,” based on a relatively recent interpretation of the New Testament’s Book of Revelations, predicts a chain of events leading to a bloody end of the world and the second coming of Jesus Christ. To gauge the reach of this creed one need only note that the works of two of its advocates, Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, enjoy a staggering circulation of more than 20 million copies in the US.
Why should the rest of us care about religious views of a few million Christians in America? Because Bible prophecy may very well become self-fulfilling prophecy. Religious predictions of the end of the world are not exclusive to Christianity; nor are they always self-fulfilling – or else we wouldn’t be here to question them. Only under certain conditions are such beliefs likely to affect the actual course of history.
The danger is that those conditions obtain in the case of American millenarians. Millions of politically organized and single-minded believers have come to expect that the world will end in a devastating global war within their lifetime. They do not merely attempt to read political developments around the world as signs of the fulfillment of their end-of-time scenario. They also try to stir these events in the direction of their chiliastic scenario of an impending Armageddon using their considerable political influence in US. Hence there is cause to fear that eager and resourceful “end-of-timers” may, indeed, “will” worldwide strife into existence.
It goes without saying that these biblical interpretations of world events are utterly unverifiable or, in the words of philosopher Karl Popper, “unfalsifiable.” Whenever a prophecy fails to match the unfolding reality, it is either shelved or amended. Twice in the last 25 years, these prophecies have failed, with no apparent ill effect on their believers. Famous televangelists hailed the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon in the early 1980s as the final realization of biblical predictions. Understandably, they chose not to cover the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000.
Similarly, the role of the former USSR and its satellites, initially determined by the champions of Bible prophecy to be the main opponents of Israel in the battle of Armageddon, were quietly recast after the collapse of the communist bloc. In the updated version, Muslims appear as the devil’s minions confronting the army of God in that crucial battle. The part of the antichrist has been rewritten as a Muslim.
End-of-timers, millenarians and fundamentalists envision a bleak and bloody future for humanity. Deeming a global catastrophe inevitable for their rapture and salvation, they work to bring it about. Nowadays they have the ears and hearts of a powerful elite in the world’s formidable superpower. The sooner we perceive their menace, the better we can expose and isolate them among a majority of American Christians, who peacefully adhere to their faith. What Bush wisely said of Islam is also true of the faith he professes: Christianity is a religion of peace.
Ahmad Sadri is a professor of sociology at Lake Forest College in Illinois. Mahmoud Sadri is an associate professor of sociology at Texas Woman’s University. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR