Sunday, October 3, 2010

Militant Pluralism and Exclusionary Extremism: Reflections on Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is a pluralist. As he has made abundantly clear in an interview with Soledad O’Brien on CNN, and elsewhere too, he wants the Muslim Center 3 blocks from Ground Zero to be a place where people of multiple faiths gather, worship, and explore alternative creeds and modes of worship.  
   The YMCA, he reminds us, started off as a place where Protestant Christians of several sorts could meet, participate in sports together, and explore ways to connect to each other across differences in theological creed.  The point now, however, is that the faiths to be so engaged embody a much broader array than the YMCA recognized: Judaism, Protestantism, Catholicism, Sufi Islam, Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, nontheism (of various sorts), Buddhism, and Hinduism, for starters.  All these faiths and creeds find expression in the country Rauf calls home, the United States. 
Such inter-sect engagements are no longer a luxury, given the territorial and cross-territorial politics of today. For, as I put it, today multiple pressures have arisen within and across territorial regimes to “minoritize” the world along several dimensions.  By “minoritization” I mean processes by which national and regional identity groups are rendered more diverse, so that it now becomes either necessary to forge a positive ethos of engagement between them or to try to ward off those pressures by repressive means. What are the pressures that push in this direction?  They include the globalization of capital, with the financial, travel, managerial, communication, trade, and labor mobilities that accompany it. There is the system of uneven exchange between different regions of capitalism, pressing many to cross the porous borders that divide territorial regimes. There is the acceleration of speed in many zones of life, which enable such crossings and spread news so that any insult against a constituency in one region is quickly communicated to those in others. There is the resulting ways in which people of different faiths rub shoulders together more often and in more places. There is the globalization of many cities, which, among other things, become seed beds for new movements in the domains of sexuality, gender practice, and household organization. There are the effects of climate change, which increase pressures for population migration. There is the more rapid exchange of news, films, music, internet communications, books, and TV Dramas across regions and between minorities within each region And these different processes amplify each other.
Today, minoritization of the world along multiple dimensions will either be accepted increasingly in territorial regimes as they seek to negotiate a more expansive ethos of engagement or it becomes necessary to enact repressive policies to stifle these flows: territorial walls, growing prison populations, bombing campaigns, media campaigns to demonize internal minorities, anti-immigration and other anti-minority campaigns, virulent talking heads on TV, new wars, and so forth. The irony, in the United States at least, is that many who resist the internal drives to minoritization the most also support militantly the expansionary drives of capitalism that contribute to them. Fox News does its best to hide that irony.

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Imam Rauf’s way of recognizing this condition is to say that the moderates in each minority must organize to defeat extremists in every minority. The extremists in all camps, he says, need and want each other. For when extremists in one zone take action that attacks or insults those in another, the latter up the ante from their side as they mobilize their troops to tighten their exclusionary drives.  Amidst the antagonisms between them, extremists on all sides promote closed religious systems, enclave territorial regimes, and singular family arrangements in a world that is increasingly structured to stymie the success of these agendas. The intensified demands for a world of enclaves amid conditions unamenable to success of those very agendas create an antagonistic spiral that feeds on itself. Extremists on all sides inspire each other to new levels of antagonism.  I appreciate the Imam’s point, then, but I would also describe the types in question a little differently.
Not “moderates” and “extremists”. Today, nonviolent militant pluralists must combine together on multiple fronts to recruit more moderates as they ward off exclusionary extremists on these fronts. It is thus misleading to call pluralists moderates. Moderates try to avoid the extremes they stand uncomfortably between. Mostly they try not to get involved. Moderates, for that reason, are often inattentive to what is happening around them.  They want to be in the middle so much that they unconsciously cultivate a studied innocence of the world, and they do not pay attention to how the battles between extremists move the middle to the right.  They are often surprised and shocked by an ugly event, only to forget it soon.  Moderates are okay.  They are even indispensable, I suppose, and greatly to be preferred to exclusionary extremists. But we need more militant pluralists who cultivate traits that exceed the innocence of moderatism. These, traits do not always fit together perfectly, but they must nonetheless be cultivated in relation to each other in the current epoch. 
Militant pluralists will try to recruit moderates as they also reach out to minorities outside their own comfort zones, listening to their grievances and aspirations, engaging them on their faiths, sexual practices, ethnic commitments, household arrangements, gender priorities. A militant pluralist will also seek to understand more profoundly things in the life circumstances of exclusionary movements that push them toward extremism. Often enough, circumstantial arrangements of repression, punishment, extreme inequality, and misunderstanding are mixed together. But a militant pluralist will band together periodically with pluralists from different faiths, gender practices, ethnicities and sexualities to stop exclusionary extremists from carrying the day. We expose their tactics in our churches and neighborhoods; challenge the assumptions built into their attacks; cultivate and deploy our own media skills, and shift our role practices in this or that way. And when the issue is on the line, we take more stringent actions. 
A key difference between militant pluralism and exclusionary extremism is that the combination that defines the first type stand in a relation of torsion and oscillation with each other, while the combination that marks the second type stand in a relation of mutual amplification. Another is that the first group seeks to convert oppositions into contrasts, where possible, to increase the chances of negotiation across lines of difference, while the second seeks to dogmatize further the constituencies it purports to represent, that is, to convert contrasts into oppositions.
It is not easy to listen and engage at one moment and enter into militant combinations withs other pluralists at others. Few pluralists do or can carry out such a bi-focal mission without running into hitches, the need for a reprieve, or the risk of burnout.. It is just that the current world conjuncture cries out for such an untimely combination.  Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Henry David Thoreau may provide illuminating models here, even though the example of each needs to be adjusted to fit the new world.  
  But what about Imam Rauf? At first he sounds like a moderate fending off extremists.  He speaks softly.  He calls for moderation. But soon you notice a pluralist fierceness inside these calls. He has, after all, refused to accede to the intense exclusionary demands (and moderate pressure) to move the Center to another place, doing so because that would play into the extremists on both sides of the divide he seeks to overcome.  His fierceness is contained within a responsiveness that keeps the door open to engagement. He is an in-formed militant. Imam Rauf is a militant pluralist who negotiates two dispositions situated in a relation of interdependence and tension with each other.

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