Law and Cultural Purity

Not all fundamentalism is about violence. Sometimes it’s about using the law. Unfortunately, some of our elected representatives are aiming to use the law to define what it means to be “American” by excluding Muslims. They seek to turn back the clock on American inclusion, forgetting that when you can exclude one group, you can exclude any group.

We must accept that we live in a global village. Without that basic premise, we miss many of the political patterns emerging both in the US and around the world. We can react to the “new” in two ways: embrace it or push it away. While the first is not easy, it is the latter that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of distrust and division. Fundamentalism, as a quest for cultural purity, is one broad manifestation of this pushing tendency.

Fundamentalism is the quest for purity. It hearkens to a time before a chosen people were corrupted by contact with non-chosen people. In terms of religious fundamentalism, this manifests as a return to the ideal founder of the faith. Can a Muslim deny that Muhammad was the most pure Muslim? or a Christian that Jesus was the most pure Christian? The problem is that the historical Muhammad or Jesus, around whom a theology develops, is rarely the same individual who is referenced by fundamentalists. In many respects, the fundamentalist argument is a cultural one, not a theological one. To return the world as it once was is the ideal; it was a better, simpler time that allowed the prophets to exist.

Ultimately, fundamentalism is a narcissistic and self-reflexive exercise. The fundamentalist is essentially a reactionary who sees his way of life threatened. His response to create a world where nothing changes, usually maintaining power structures where he is a mid-level manager, if not a low-level executive. Neither those with power, nor those without power, fear change. It is only those with the illusion of power.

This expression of fundamentalism aggrandizes the aggrieved individual, which is why it is self-reflexive. The individual believes that his life was perfect “before,” and therefore he was living the life of his prophet. He is engaged in the myth of the eternal present, where his reality is the way the world has always been, and it is only changing now – today. He wants to return to yesterday. It is this narcisstic view that give rise to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the eponymous founder of the Wahhabi cult, who felt that anyone other than him was not a true Muslim. The myth of the eternal present is what allows al-Qa’ida to be so technologically modern, culturally regressive, theologically vacuous, and politically meaningless.

As a reactionary philosophy, fundamentalism is not new nor limited to religion. The Nazis, the Lord’s Resistance Army, the RSS, and the KKK, all represent reactionary, fundamentalist movements seeking a cultural purity. The experiences of the last several generations have taught us to be wary of the overt exercise of purity doctrines, but they continue to appear in various guises. In the US, the latest push seems to be coming through legal channels, excluding Muslims from the idea of “American.”

The articles linked above speak of targeting Iranians in response to 9/11 and the Christmas bomb plot, which involved Arabs and a Nigerian respectively, but no Iranians. State Rep. Dov Hikind from NY also wants to allow racial profiling of Southeast Asians and Arabs in response the Christmas bomb plot, although neither screening would have stopped a Nigerian man. Ultimately, what Hikind, and the Senators, wish to do is profile Muslims in general. The problem is how you say that without sounding like a bigot. Hikind opts for race, The fact that Arabs make up about 20% of the worldwide Muslim population seems lost on him. As does the fact that most Southeast Asian nations have very close relations and positive opinions of the US, particularly after the tsunami.

More important is the question of how one identifies a Muslim. We can force them to register their religious identities and carry around special papers, but the Fourth Amendment keeps officers from randomly asking people for identification. The only recourse is to force Muslims to wear visibly identifying brands on their clothing or bodies that lets people know that they are not real “Americans.” Sen. Lieberman seems to understand the problem of immediately forcing this type of marking on American citizens. As a result, he is starting with foreign nationals. By either excluding them from entry, or branding them once they are here, it is easier to impose the same visibility on American Muslims. The law can be constructed to be both neutral and highly discriminatory.

These sorts of discussions are reactionary and strive to create an American purity that denies the Muslim presence since Columbus, or more largely during the slave period. I wonder if Lieberman and Hikind remember the status of Jews in America before Muslim-hating became popular? This historical amnesia is the myth of the eternal present at work. Anti-semitism and Islamophobia are symptoms of the same poison. Of course they are helped by certain segments of the Muslim-American community who are involved in using the law to define what it means to be Muslim. Looking at research conducted by Kathleen Moore, one can see how CAIR (national) uses its civil rights suits to advance an understanding of what a Muslim is. They too are stuck in the self-reflexive myth of the eternal present, ignoring the vast diversity of cultures and thoughts present throughout the Muslim world. By turning Islam into a monolith in the legal system, they make the work of Islamophobes easier, both legally and culturally.

Ultimately, we must fight the legal fights, but we cannot forget about the core reasons of this irrationality. There is a movement to a reactionary, fundamentalist reading of America that denies that all people have had to fight for their right to be called “American.” This applies to Germans, Irish, Italians, Catholics, Jews, and now Muslims. The fallacy in the argument of excluding Muslims is that we all got along fine as a nation before Muslims came. If the fundamentalist forces win, and start defining America based on race or religion, it will not stop with Muslims, but continue onwards, following the business model of “last one in, first one out.” I am not sure anyone really wants to find out when it will be their turn to be told they are not “American.”


Moore, Kathleen M. “Representation of Islam in the Language of Law: Some Recent US Cases.” In Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens, edited by Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, 187-204. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.