In their spirited assault on Islam, conservatives have seized upon one notion with particular delight: the Abrahamic faith embraced by a quarter of humanity is a "cult."
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey popularized the claim in July when a constituent asked about the "threat that’s invading our country from Muslims"; Ramsey wondered aloud whether Islam "is actually a religion or is it a nationality, way of life or cult" and later asserted that "far too much of Islam has come to resemble a violent political philosophy more than peace-loving religion." Soon after, some of Ramsey’s constituents set ablaze a planned mosque site near Nashville and fired shots when parishioners tried to inspect the damage.
Farther south, in Florida, Pastor Terry Jones proclaimed that Islam is not just a cult but a Satanic creation — hence his planned bonfire of Qur’ans. He is not alone among Floridians. Congressional candidate and retired Army officer Allen West announced earlier this year that Islam is "not a religion" but a "vicious enemy" intent on "infiltrating" America. Another candidate in the sunshine state, Ron McNeil, described Islam as a malicious plot to "destroy our way of life."
And in upstate New York this August, teenagers who viewed the local mosque as a "cult house" terrorized mosque-goers by blasting a shotgun and sideswiping a parishioner.
What accounts for this renewed alacrity in attacking Islam?
Muslim paratroopers did not suffuse the skies with crescent-shaped parachutes and descend on America. Nor did Muslim terrorists unfurl prayer rugs camouflaged as conifers and seize the highways. The bleating about the Muslim "cult" was provoked by nothing more than a proposed Muslim YMCA, one which is to be headed by a State Department-sponsored Sufi imam and located no closer to Ground Zero than sundry pubs, food stands, pornography stores, and strip clubs.
To repeat the facts, however, is to miss the point. The "Islam is a cult" mantra is not an epithet: it is the axiom of a belief system that outmatches any religion in America in influence and irrationality.
Within this belief system, facts cannot weaken the pull of the idea that "whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad,’" and reason cannot compete with the coveted "habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects."
This belief system is nationalism (distinct from patriotism), and the quoted descriptions are two symptoms of the disease as identified by George Orwell in his matchless 1945 essay on the subject.
The source of sustenance for our endless and boundless wars, American nationalism brooks neither logic nor nuance.
When Ramsey complained that Islam resembles "a violent political philosophy" while cheering invasions, occupations, and bombings that form the apex of violence, he showed more than a personal failing. For the nationalist, Orwell observed, "Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them."
Likewise, when Sherry McLain, a protester of the proposed Tennessee mosque, told Nashville public radio, "Something’s going on, and I don’t like it. We’re at war with these people," this reflected more than individual ignorance. It was an expression of adherence to a belief system — a cult, to borrow popular parlance — that demands ignorance as a condition of entry.
Anyone who doubts the cult-like qualities of American nationalism need only examine the signature slogan of the anti-Muslim movement. When Newt Gingrich averred that no "mosques" should be built near Ground Zero so long as there are no churches in Saudi Arabia and no non-Muslims in Mecca, his pout became the indignant refrain of many protesters.
Critics rightly countered that America should not devolve to Saudi levels of intolerance and that American Muslims should not be conflated with the tiny Wahhabi sect that rules over the Arabian Peninsula (with American support, no less).
But that is beside the point: why compare a site of 3,000 deaths to a place of religious significance at all? Mecca’s Kaaba is comparable to, say, the Temple Mount or the Chapel of the Ascension; these are places where religious leaders inspired their flocks and urged them to lead just and pious lives. Ground Zero, on the other hand, is a site of destruction surrounded by trinket-peddlers, food stalls, and cheap bars.
And yet the nationalist cult hankers to place a halo of sanctity around the site. The cultists do not complain about the seedy environs and they do not care about first-responders who forfeited their health to rescue the victims. But the idea of Ground Zero serves as a fountainhead — one which allows the nationalist faithful to soak in vengeful anger against Muslims and fulminate for more war — and is thus "sacred" to the war project.
Deep irrationality and false sanctity are not the only characteristics of a cult. Belief in the infallibility of specious leaders is also a marker. In the case of American nationalism, it is the most striking one.
In the hazy, distant past — that is to say, seven years ago — the high priests of the Iraq War promised that Iraqis would warmly embrace us. Neoconservative soothsayers prophesied that Iraq would be just the first of many Muslim countries to fall under America’s awesome sway.
The catastrophic result of the invasion was matched only by the willful ignorance of its proponents. None knew or cared to know about Arab or Muslim sentiment, the differences between Sunnis and Shiites, or the role of Israeli loyalists in pushing for war against one of Israel’s most hated enemies.
And now, as we receive official blessings to "turn the page" on the war, the leaders of the war cult are not humbled but brazen. They have not only escaped punishment but attained a platform to pine for a repeat performance.
Witness the spectacle of Bush loyalists begrudging Obama for not "crediting" Bush with the surge; the men demand gratitude for slowing the bleeding they themselves caused by carving wounds into Iraq’s flesh. Witness the gaggle of Israel-friendly figures peddling war against Iran; they are led by former Israeli soldier Jeffrey Goldberg, who once admonished "people with limited experience" for reaching the "naive conclusion that an invasion of Iraq will cause America to be loathed in the Middle East."
Such is the backdrop of the anti-Islam movement in America. Learning from past mistakes, filling gaps of ignorance, and engaging with Muslims might produce the dreaded result of peace, so disciples of the nationalist cult fan the flames of hatred at the altar of endless, winless war.
It is tempting to believe that this cult is limited to conservatives, but some liberals are also devotees. A writer at American Prospect recently inveighed against a new book that dared to compare American conservatives to Islamic extremists, intoning that there is no "excuse" for the "obscenity of comparing our political opponents to killers and terrorists." As Glenn Greenwald reminds us, the comparison "is true by definition": those who attacked Iraq are responsible for ruining and ending the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The nationalist, however, always places the nation "beyond good and evil" and "the smallest slur upon his own unit…fills him with uneasiness which he can relieve only by making some sharp retort," as Orwell observed.
It is also tempting to believe that our nationalism-gone-amok is a new phenomenon, but America’s militarist and messianic strains go back to its early days. As the scholar Eric Foner noted in his 2001 address to the American Historical Association, "The nation’s rapid territorial growth was widely viewed as evidence of the innate superiority of a mythical construct known as the ‘Anglo-Saxon race,’ whose special qualities made it uniquely suited to bring freedom and prosperity to the continent and the world."
There are, of course, other, more noble impulses evinced in American history: justice, prudence, and pragmatism. These are the attributes that must resurface if America is to wean itself from its violent political philosophy and become a peace-loving country.