March 11, 2008

Returning to something Leon Hadar said in the comments of one of my posts on ethnonationalism, I wanted to expand on his observation that Muller conflated categories of ethnic groups with other communal identities, especially religious/sectarian communalism.  I agree entirely with Dr. Hadar’s point, and alluded to this problem of confusion in my opening remarks, but I didn’t develop this part of the post more fully.  This came back to me as I read Roger Cohen’s remark, “Jihadism, with its mirage of a restored infidel-free Caliphate, is perhaps the most violent tribal reaction to modernity.”  This is the same kind of confusion between tribe and religion, which makes nonsense out of what might be at least a half-accurate assessment of a fundamentalist phenomenon.  As many here would readily understand, fundamentalism is a modern movement and is not so much a reaction against modernity as it is an expression of it, though it is certainly directed against certain secularizing impulses in modern society.  But fundamentalist movements usually tend to bridge divides between ethnicities and tribes (which are also not necessarily the same) in the name of a more powerful identity that may claim to be universal in scope or at least will claim to be absolutely true, and so can represent a different kind of universalism in competition with that liberal universalism whose adherents are so bewildered by any attachment or blood or devotion that they mistake these two distinct loyalties for expressions of the same thing. 

Jihadism is transnational, as Islam is, as Scott Richert’s discussion of jihadis in the Balkans in the context of articulating a new containment strategy makes very clear.  To the extent that it represents the modern “reformation” of Islam to an idealized salafi purity, it is both the most modern form of Islam and also the one that expresses some of the most fundamental elements of Islam.  As tensions in Pashtun territories between Pushtunwali and a rigorous Deobandi Islam show, customary tribal habits and the demands of religious fundamentalism can and will clash.  Nothing could be more misleading (and potentially dangerous) than to misinterpret religiously defined movements in terms of “tribalism” or ethnonationalism or to conflate them all as one undifferentiated mass.  It is an even more dangerous mistake to assume, as Cohen does and Muller may, that modernization will ultimately do anything other than intensify attachments to tribe, nation and religion.    


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!