Robert Scheer and James Harris speak with Chris Hedges, the veteran journalist and author of the new book “American Fascists,” about the threat of the radical Christian movement, and about how getting it right on Iraq ended his relationship with The New York Times.
Listen to the full interview (running time: 44:56 / 41.1 MB)
Harris: James Harris sitting down with Mr. Robert Scheer, and special guest on the phone is Chris Hedges, the author of the new title “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” Chris is currently a senior fellow at The Nation Institute, and a former correspondent for The New York Times. Chris, how are you today?
Hedges: I’m all right—just flew in from Seattle.
Harris: Let’s start by talking about your 2002 book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” In this text, you talk about nations and their behavior during wartime. Looking back at our behavior over the last three and a half to four years, as we’ve been at war with Iraq, how have our citizens and our president—how have we behaved?
Hedges: Well, the book, because I spent almost 20 years covering various wars around the globe, the book tried to explain the patterns of war—what happens to individuals and societies in war, and how they react. Unfortunately, we reacted in the way that most countries react when they go to war. It wasn’t just the Bush administration that pushed us into war. The media was completely in complicity with very few exceptions. The population at large got off on it; the cable news channels pumped out this garbage over 24-hour news cycles with graphics and drum rolls. And this was part of the whole sickness that happened to the country after 9/11, where unbridled nationalism—which I think is a disease—was unleashed. It brings with it—it really is just a form of crude, self-exaltation, but it brings with it a very dark undercurrent of racism—racism towards Muslims, towards anyone, including the French, who disagreed with us. And our society was really enveloped with this sickness. It really was a sickness that I had seen on the streets of Belgrade. It wasn’t a new sickness to me, but of course it was disturbing because this time around it was my own nation. And that euphoria lasted basically until the war went bad, or until people realized that it was going badly. And then we forgot about it. There’s a kind of willful amnesia that is also a pattern of wartime society—certainly something I saw in Argentine society after their defeat in the Falkland war. And now these very cable news channels and media outlets that sold us the war virtually don’t cover it. They pretend the war doesn’t exist, and they feed us this trivia and celebrity gossip that unfortunately in American society is consumed as news.
Harris: The situation that constituents, that the media was complicit in starting the war, I think some people may take offense to that. How was that received at the time, and what do you say to the criticism of, “Chris Hedges, I think you’re crazy.”
Hedges: Well, as one of the very few people, along with Bob Scheer, who was speaking out against this war, I can tell you that it was a very lonely position to be in. And I worked at the time for The New York Times. The New York Times acted as nothing less than a stenographer for the Bush White House—pumping out the lies used to justify the war. And there were reasoned, thoughtful, well-informed voices questioning, for instance, whether Iraq was trying to reconstitute a nuclear weapons program, or whether it actually had WMD, or whether it was actually a threat or had links to al-Qaida—and they couldn’t get into the mainstream media at all. I think you’d be very hard-pressed—with the exception obviously of the alternative press. But we live in a country where the press, like everything else, has become completely corporatized. I think it’s something like 80 percent of American newspapers are controlled by six or eight corporations. And it’s pretty hard to break through that wall. So there were people around the edges, and there were a few of us even within the mainstream who spoke out against the war, but our voices were pretty much drowned out in this cacophony of war rhetoric and fear.
Harris: I don’t know if you know the name Scott Ritter—you probably do.
Hedges: I know Scott.
Harris: I remember at the time hearing Scott Ritter say, without reservation, that there are no weapons in Iraq, but still we went in; still Colin Powell stood before the United Nations and showed them the video, showed them the footage where there were weapons in Iraq. And Scott Ritter all along said, “There are no weapons.” I do blame, and in retrospect say that there should have been more effort to bring these stories to the forefront. Are you suggesting that propaganda was used by the media, perhaps by the government to suppress these types of stories?
Hedges: At the inception of any war, the press is part of the problem. That’s a pattern I certainly saw—and there are almost no exceptions to that. When your nation goes to war, there’s a kind of knee-jerk kind of response on the part of most of the press that their job is to boost morale, maintain the myth of war, vilify the enemies. And that goes all the way back to the Crimean War when the first modern war correspondent was invented.
Harris: Chris, a lot of people may not know that you are a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and your new text, “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America,” I like your perspective, because you, obviously from an educated standpoint, can speak to the theology around this war.
Hedges: I look at the religious right, the radical religious right, those people who want to create a Christian nation, as a mass movement. I don’t give them much religiosity at all. I think they have acculturated the Christian religion with the worst aspects of American imperialism and American capitalism. They prey on the despair of tens of millions of Americans in this country who have been completely disenfranchised and shunted aside with the creation of this American oligarchy. That is the engine of the movement. These people, their lives have become train wrecks, their communities have been physically obliterated with the flight of manufacturing jobs, or they live in these soulless exurbs, in places like Orange County, with no community center, no community rituals—you know, they don’t even have sidewalks. And they’re lonely, and they’re alienated, and they’re lost. And that’s the fodder that demagogues use to amass totalitarian movements. And they do that by offering these people a world of magic, of belief in destiny and miracles and angels, that Jesus has a plan for them. And they essentially remove them from the reality-based world. That’s what creationism is about. And everybody who’s written about despotic movements, from Hannah Arendt to Karl Popper to Fritz Stern to Robert Paxton, cites this despair as being the kindling that allows despotic, totalitarian movements to tear apart the open society. So for me the radical Christian right is very much a manifestation of the inequities and the injustices that plague American society. We now live in a country where the top 1 percent control more wealth, or have more wealth, than the bottom 90 percent combined. The absolute destruction of the working class—and much of my family has been a victim of this—has now been accompanied by an assault on the middle class. So anything that can be put on software, from engineering to finance to architecture, can get outsourced, where it’ll end up in India, where they’ll work for a third of the wages, with no health insurance, no benefits. These kinds of assaults against the working and middle class are absolutely deadly to a democratic state. And that’s something that even the Greeks wrote about. I mean, Plutarch and Thucydides understood that.
Harris: Clarify for me, though, the relation to the evangelical right, or evangelists in general. I understand the preying on a particular class—because they’re vulnerable. When you live without for most of your life, you’re vulnerable to anything that looks appealing to you. How are the evangelists using this to influence government? Because you seem to be implying that they have a profound effect on the way that American government works.
Hedges: Well, they are. When this notion of a new political religion was first articulated in the early ‘80s by people like Pat Robertson, the proponents of this were on the margins or fringes of American society. They’ve now moved into the corridors of power—into the House of Representatives, the Senate, the executive branch and the courts. And they’ve received under the Bush administration hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money. They’ve gone a long way toward setting up hermetic, closed indoctrination systems through Christian radio and television. They’ve brought the teaching of this mythology of creationism into public schools in places like Kansas. The advances that this movement has made in the last 20-25 years, is frightening. There’s no question that unless we begin to rectify the imbalances within this country, this will become the dominant political force. And it is a force in which all who do not subscribe to this narrow, frightening ideology—which bears many similarities with classical fascist movements—and all those who do not submit to these so-called Christian leaders, will at best become second-class citizens.
Harris: As a country, aren’t we open to this by virtue of the phrase “One nation, under God”? We’ve never been—you may argue otherwise—we’ve never been terribly eager to disassociate ourselves with religion. All of our presidents, except for one, practiced some sort of religion. So the fact that 20 million or how many other million Americans find interest in this practice of evangelism isn’t really that shocking, is it? Is it problematic, Chris Hedges, when you see church and state joining hands like this?
Hedges: Well, of course. Because it essentially serves the same purpose as the fusion of party and state, which is what totalitarian movements do. The state implements the policies of the party; they become essentially one entity. And that is by its very definition what a totalitarian state consists of. I think we have to remember that this new political religion is a radical mutation from traditional fundamentalism, or traditional evangelism. Evangelical leaders in the past, like Bill Graham, always warned their followers that—and he of course got burned and used by Richard Nixon—to keep their distance from power. And fundamentalists have traditionally called upon their followers to remove themselves from the contaminants of secular society, and to shun political activity. This is something we have not seen in the past. And yes, the nation has had certainly a Christian component to it, but there was always that understanding that religious belief was a private, internal affair, and not something that would be propounded by the state. And of course the architects of the Constitution were terrified of going back into the kind of tyranny and repression that was practiced by the puritan states, and more importantly by the religious states in Europe, because they understood the danger of that sectarian violence. And I think we should also be clear that the early Christians in this country, most of them were Deists, which these radical Christians would consider as heretics, the notion that you could find God in nature, as Jefferson and others believed.
Scheer: If I could just interrupt for a second, I feel like—this is Bob Scheer—I’m sort of a bystander to a very interesting discussion about a world that I don’t inhabit. I know James here is a practicing Christian.
Harris: Yes, I am.
Scheer: And Chris, I know you’re a person who’s been involved with religion.
Hedges: My father was a minister and I graduated from seminary.
Scheer: And so when I’m sitting here thinking: Well, what about all those other Christians—I know I traveled around with Jerry Falwell once and wrote a piece for the L.A. Times. Almost everyone I ran into, even in Lynchburg, Va., everywhere, they said they thought the guy was something of a charlatan. “Why is he on TV? Why is he getting all this money?” And this came from other “born-again” ministers and other evangelical people. And I’ve looked at some of the polling data and so forth, and evangelicals, I think, were a bit disillusioned with George Bush’s use of religion. Isn’t there a tradition of skepticism? Isn’t this what the Protestant religion was all about—skepticism of too organized, too powerful a church?
Hedges: I think you raise a really good point. Even within a single congregation, people are not going to walk in lock step. But I think that what’s happened is that with this notion of the creation of the Christian state, it has managed to overcome these doctrinal schisms. When I would attend an anti-abortion event, I would see Priests for Life, Catholic priests with people from the Salvation Army, with Baptists, with fundamentalists, with charismatics, and traditionally fundamentalists have always looked at charismatics as Satan worshippers, because they speak in tongues. But they’ve all managed to come together—although these factional disputes remain, and these differences remain—under this notion that our goal is to create the Christian state. There is a very ruthless core of people who are better described as dominionists. One thinks of Dobson, Robertson, LaHaye, Benny Hinn. These people who are pushing through a radical Christian agenda, who essentially control all Christian radio and television, and who have been quite ruthless—as we saw in the Southern Baptist convention—in pushing aside those people who don’t accept that particular political agenda, even if they’re born again, and even if they subscribe to some of the hot-button issues, like thinking that homosexuality is a sin. And they count on the sympathy or support or tacit acceptance of 80 to 100 million evangelicals in the United States, because they have been very effective in using the religious vocabulary and religious iconography—in the same way that they wrap themselves in the American flag. But I think that when you look closely, which is what my book tried to do, at what their belief system is, it is really a theology of despair. It is about bigotry, intolerance, there’s not only a lust for violence, but a kind of pornographic fascination with violence. There’s a cult of masculinity. There’s a war on science, a war on truth. And what they do, like many totalitarian movements, is speak in a language that’s comforting to the rest of us, but hollow out the definitions so they mean something else. It has a kind of newspeak quality, so peace is war. The concept of liberty, for them, as it is defined, is not our traditional definition of liberty, but liberty that comes with giving yourself over to Jesus and complete submission to Jesus Christ. And of course, in their minds, leaders who speak to Jesus. So yes, there is a great deal of skepticism. And I actually think that the most virulent opposition will rise not from the liberal church, but from within the evangelical movement itself. But these people are well financed, oftentimes by corporate interests—Wal-Mart—a lot of right-wing foundations. They’ve harnessed the power of modern communications systems and they’ve locked tens of millions of followers in closed systems of indoctrination, where they get their news, their spiritual guidance, their health and beauty tips, their entertainment, all filtered through this ideological prism.
Scheer: In your [most recent Truthdig column] you refer to your original mentor, James Luther Adams. That paragraph that caught my attention—because your book has not been easily accepted this time around, right?
Scheer: It’s interesting, when I look at your place in American letters, on the one hand you’re often celebrated as this brilliant person, you get awards, high prestige, and then every once in a while you hit some third rail, whether it was the graduation speech on the war [which resulted in your dismissal from the N.Y. Times], or when you mention Israel, even in pieces for our site, we seem to get a lot of mail, and now with this book. And when I was thinking of the criticisms of your work, I was thinking you wrote something about Adams. You wrote:
His critique of the prominent research universities, along with the media, was no less withering. These institutions, self-absorbed, compromised by their close relationship with government and corporations, given enough of the piece to be complacent, were unwilling to deal with the fundamental moral questions and inequities of the age. They had no stomach for battle that might cost them their prestige and comfort.
Is this what you’re experiencing with some of the criticism that you’ve been getting?
Hedges: Yes, although that’s not a new phenomenon, because when I was speaking out against the war, I was on the news staff of The New York Times, and I had been at The New York Times for 15 years. I knew what I was doing—that it was a kind of professional suicide. But at the same time I felt that it was morally incumbent upon me as someone who spoke Arabic and spent seven years in the Middle East, and because I had a platform because of my book—to avoid those questions or not answer them, or give non-answers to them, was not morally defensible. And then of course after I was booed off this commencement stage in Rockford, Ill., I was given a formal reprimand by the paper, and told to stop speaking out against the war. And at that point I knew my relationship with The New York Times was over, because I didn’t want to be muzzled for [the rest of] my career. And that comes out of the church. It comes out of having a father who was in the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and finally the gay rights movement. And as a young boy I watched him take a lot of heat for that—not only from people in the community, but from the institutional church as well. And it was a pretty good reminder that you don’t get rewarded for taking a moral stance. And the sooner you learn that, the happier you are.
Scheer: What about the criticism of your current book? It seems petty in a way—again coming often from the universities. How do you respond to it?
Hedges: I try not to focus on it. I’ve had to deal with the Israeli lobby for so long that I really try and shut it out and try not to read it, because a lot of it is just completely untrue and unfair, and I don’t want to burn up a lot of energy. I’d rather just put the blinders on and keep going and say what I have to say. I don’t like it, obviously, and I especially don’t like it when it devolves—as it usually does—into character assassination. We saw that with the response to Jimmy Carter’s book [“Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid”]. Nobody actually talked about the book; they talked about it as a controversy, at best; and usually they went after him. I sort of plow ahead. I’m not going to pretend that it’s pleasant. But at the same time I try not to waste a lot of emotional energy on it.
Harris: Do you validate or recognize any of the criticism that you’ve received? Does any of it mean anything? How do you support this? How do you stand by this point when there’s really no proof of that?
Hedges: Well, there is proof. We know Tim LaHaye has formed an organization where he matches donors with these organizations—groups like Sam’s Club have brought evangelical chaplains into their plants. There is evidence to that. And that relationship between these neocons and Christian radicals, there’s evidence within the Bush White House itself. I’m sure Cheney laughs at these people, but he finds them convenient allies. And of course, when you get people to believe in a system of magic and miracles and healings, then you don’t need health insurance; you don’t need unemployment [benefits]; welfare doesn’t matter, because as long as you get right with Jesus, you’re going to be taken care of. And I think there’s plenty of evidence to support that relationship between these sort of Straussians, like Richard Perle and others, and these Christian radicals who essentially get out the vote in places like Ohio.
Scheer: Is that an alliance that can hold?
Hedges: It’s always an uneasy alliance, and Paxton, in “The Anatomy of Fascism,” writes that, unlike communism, there’s no such thing as a purely fascist movement. Fascist movements make alliances with conservative sectors of society and often very uncomfortable ones. You saw that in Nazi Germany with Hitler and the German industrialists.
Divisions between the Bush White House and the Christian right arose over the issue of immigration, where Bush sided with the corporations—angering many within the base of the Christian right, because there’s a real backlash against immigrants within the Christian right. So it’s an uneasy alliance, but they both need each other. And in fact, this nonreality-based belief system, this ideology that is now peddled into the homes of many marginalized and desperate Americans, is one that plays into the hands of corporations that really want to defang the federal government. [The corporations] find in the ideology that’s promoted a very convenient vehicle to do that.
Harris: Have you seen Alexandra Pelosi’s movie on HBO?
Harris: She talks about the evangelicals and the extremist nature of their approach. So if you haven’t seen it—
Hedges: I don’t own a television.
Harris: A traditional man. A traditional man.
Hedges: No, I’m a freak.
Scheer: We lump all these evangelicals together. But first of all, there is a racial divide.
Hedges: Yeah, and you know, the black church has been very wary of this movement traditionally, because this movement comes out of the John Birch Society, like Tim LaHaye, and the World Anti-Communist League, all the way back to the Klan. Jerry Falwell got his start as a racist demagogue who got up and talked about how desegregation was going to destroy the white race. That’s how he made his money, that’s how he built his church. And he went back in a kind of Stalin-esque purge and destroyed copies of almost every sermon he preached over a 10-year period, because it was so virulent and raw. He still preaches, in my mind, bigotry and racism. It’s just that he’s turned it on others, like homosexuals or liberals or feminists or immigrants, or whatever. But this man, he has the profile of a classic demagogue. And I think the African-American church has been very wary of these people—with good reason. Now, this movement realizes it has to bring African-Americans into the fold. So if you listen to “Focus on the Family,” this very popular radio program run by James Dobson, during Black History Month, every day they fall all over themselves to celebrate black history. I went to an event called Patriot Pastors in Ohio—this rally where they had adopted as their symbol an American flag with a Christian cross superimposed on it. They had a choir singing hymns while we watched video clips of American soldiers in Iraq. But they began by showing pictures of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, because they’re trying to co-opt the civil rights movement and present themselves as the natural heirs of the civil rights movement. Now not a lot of people of color were in the audience. Most of the people of color were sitting up on the podium. But one of the stars of the Christian right, a guy named Rod Parsley in Ohio, is being heavily promoted and bankrolled by people like Dobson and others because, although [Parsley’s] white, 40 percent of his congregation is African-American. So yeah, the African-American church traditionally has been sympathetic on issues such as homosexuality, on some of the hot-button issues. But as African-Americans they get institutional repression, because they’ve been a victim of it. They’ve been very wary of this movement because of the antecedents of the movement, and because they understand in a way that perhaps even whites who are at the same economic level don’t always understand, the way institutions work in places like the urban ghetto—to make sure that poor people remain poor.
Scheer: You know, one reason I don’t panic—I’m reading you and all that, and I think it’s probably that I’m just kidding myself—I just assume capitalism will triumph and that these people are at war with capitalism, for better or worse. For instance, just the whole question of creationism—that you can’t have good science if you embrace creationism, you just can’t, and then you’re not going to be competitive with people who are doing good science, and it seems to me that, and I think this might be naive on my part, you know I’m very old-fashioned, but I have this idea that somehow they are out of step with the modern world, whether it’s controlling the lyrics in music or ... images that are shown on television or blaming Hollywood for everything. I guess I always assume they’re going to lose. Tell me why that’s wrong.
Hedges: They present themselves as a traditional movement, but they’re a distinctly modern movement, in this sense: that they promote an ideology that’s superstitious, magical and primitive, but they can only do it by co-opting the language of science, and there’s a huge industry of creationist scientists who will “prove” through scientific jargon and pseudo-science that the creation myth in Genesis is true. They don’t have a problem with technology itself, and I think that creationism serves the same role eugenics served in Germany, which was a pseudo-science about measuring people’s skulls and all this garbage, and they set up huge institutes. It was a way of turning lie into truth, of making facts interchangeable with opinion, of removing people from a reality-based world into the world they want them in, but at the same time the process of sort of building a machine is not going to interfere with that. And we’ve seen [that] Islamic groups which originally were, for instance, very distrustful of the Web have now adopted it. So I think sometimes you can have the marriage between very primitive superstitious belief systems and very advanced technology. I think one could argue that fascism in Nazi Germany did that.
That’s the first point. The second point is that this movement cannot come to power unless there is a period of prolonged instability or a crisis. I covered the war in Yugoslavia and we heard all these stories about ancient ethnic hatreds. The war in Yugoslavia had nothing to do with ancient ethnic hatreds; it had to do with the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia in the years leading up to the war, which, again, created deep despair and dislocation which the nationalist demagogues like Milosevic or Tudjman played upon. And I think that if we don’t enter a period of crisis, this movement can make creeping gains, as it has, but it probably can’t take power. But if we suffer another catastrophic terrorist attack—and I spent a year of my life covering al-Qaida for The New York Times, and there was not an intelligence chief that I interviewed here or abroad that didn’t talk about an eventual attack as inevitable—should we suffer a series of environmental disasters, or an economic meltdown, if we watch petrodollars become petroeuros, if we enter a prolonged period of instability, especially if people become afraid, then I think this movement does stand poised to reshape the country in ways that we’ve not seen, probably since our founding.
Harris: Chris, aren’t people already afraid? I mean, you look at this event that happened in Boston, where they posted these little electronic devices around the city, and Homeland Security was alerted, traffic was shut down. Aren’t we afraid right now?
Hedges: I think we’re paranoid. I think there’s a difference. I think we’re paranoid and they work to make us afraid. But I lived in Israel when the suicide bombings began. I was in Sarajevo during the war. I know what it’s like to be afraid. And you start thinking with another part of your brain. You reach out to people like Dick Cheney, who talk tough and promise to stomp the vermin out—if we’ll just give them the power to do it. That’s the appeal of an Ariel Sharon at a moment like that. That’s the appeal of a Slobodan Milosevic. So you’re right that they’ve worked really hard to try and make us afraid, but real fear, to be gripped with fear, in the sense that, “If we get on the subway it could blow up,” that’s another state and another level. And if we reach that level, especially with instability, especially with chaos, then we’re in trouble.
Scheer: As you know, the Intelligence Estimate Report, which the Washington Post had, and even [Sen. John] McCain said in his questioning of [U.S. Army general in charge of Iraq operations George] Casey—that the last two and a half years have been a disaster. And then you’ve got [Sen. Joseph] Biden coming along with this plan to partition—the old imperialist model of “divide and conquer”—and break Iraq up into three states. As probably the most experienced person who’s looked at this thing, what do you think is going on, what’s going to happen, how do you see it?
Hedges: Well, let me stress the issue of partition. Because partition presupposes that Sunni, Shia and Kurds are divided up into neat little areas—and that’s not true. There are 1 million Kurds in Baghdad alone. A partition plan would mean the dislocation of millions of Iraqis and probably murder of many Iraqis—in the same way that we saw the disasters that befell India and Pakistan during the partition plan. Because they’re mixed together. You have a huge Arab population up in the Kurdish north in Kirkuk. A partition plan like that is going to be a bloodbath.
So, what’s going to happen? A lot depends on Iran, because if—well, we’re losing the war and we’re going to have to leave, is the short answer. But the wild card becomes a hit against Iran, because a hit against Iran would ignite a Shiite uprising throughout the Middle East and become incendiary within Iraq. Whatever constraints had been placed on Shiite forces in Iraq until now would be lifted. Iran, which I’m sure is supporting the militias, would do everything in its power to turn what is already a hell into a nightmare of unimaginable proportions for American troops there. It would ignite a regional conflict, I fear, because you have Hezbollah, which is Shia; Pakistan has a huge Shia minority; Bahrain is Shia; there are 2 million Shia in Saudi Arabia—most of whom work in the oil sector; the Straits of Hormuz would get shut down. Iran does not have the capacity in a conventional sense to hit us; they might find a way to hit us in a nonconventional sense. But they certainly can hit Israel. Israel would hit back. And we’re already fighting a proxy war with Iran in the Middle East now. It happens to be a proxy war that we’re losing, because Iran backs Hezbollah; they back Hamas; they back the Shiites in Iraq. And in all of those fronts, we’re not doing real well—us or our Israeli allies. So this proxy war, which is already under way, would devolve into a full-fledged war, and I think it does have the possibility to ignite within the region, something that comes pretty close to this catastrophic Armageddon that many people in the Christian right see as a great sign, because it’s the end of history and the return of Jesus Christ.
Scheer: Now why doesn’t that scare many of the Jewish—and if they’re not Jewish, secular—neocons? I don’t get it.
Hedges: Because the neocons have built an unholy alliance with a group that’s—these people are anti-Semites, and I think the smart ones know it. But it has built an alliance between messianic Jews and messianic Christians, who believe that they have been given a divine right to rule one-fifth of the world’s population who happen to be Muslim. And that alliance is very convenient. It’s shortsighted on the part of the Jews, but for now it works. And I think that’s where they converge. There is a horribly racist element towards Muslims and a belief that we can impose through military might massive social engineering to create a Muslim Middle East which we can control, and that is amenable to our interests. And that, the messianic Jews and the messianic Christians share.
Harris: Do you think the media has done a good job of making us hate Middle Easterners? If we see someone who looks Middle Eastern, even the most educated, I think we all question, we all say, “What are their intentions?” Do you think I’m a bit off base with that question, or that thought?
Hedges: No, I think the things we say about Muslims in this country could not be said about any other ethnic group. I think the racism is raw, the ignorance is appalling. The way we denigrate their culture, their religion, talk about how they only understand violence, or that they want their children all to be suicide bombers, it’s just a huge advertisement to our incredible lack of understanding and appalling ignorance. And for somebody who’s spent so much time in the Middle East, it’s almost impossible to counter. The notions that all Muslims—who are one-fifth of the world’s population, most of whom are not Arab—[the notion that they] all think the same way, or that there isn’t a moderate center, or that Algerians are the same as Iraqis—you don’t even know where to begin.
It’s so vast, and it’s pervaded the mainstream to such an extent that I think you raise a good point. We’ve turned 1 billion people into a caricature or stereotype—and not a very pleasant one. And it’s ominous, if we should have another catastrophic terrorist attack, it’s going to be pretty ominous for Muslims in this country. And ominous for us because once again we’ll be responding or at least supporting a violent response, probably, in the Middle East, without any kind of cultural understanding or sensitivity. And all we’ve done since the war in Iraq is essentially dumped gasoline over the best recruiter that al-Qaida has—the conflict. And it comes because we’re walking blind into an area of the world we know absolutely nothing about, and dealing with people we’ve turned into cartoon figures.
Scheer: Basic to that cartoon image, when people talk about Islamo-fascism—which Bush seems now to have accepted—is a very simple, crude idea of religious evolution, that they didn’t have the religious reformation, that there’s an arrested development to the Muslims. And that takes all responsibility off other people who interacted, say, with Afghanistan, with Indonesia—the role of foreigners. And the example I think of is Afghanistan, which was not particularly given to a virulent form of fundamentalism, at least not in Kabul, where, under the king, women could get doctorates and be gynecologists, and so forth. [There, under Jimmy Carter,] we weighed in on the fundamentalist side. It seems to me that that was a perfect example; it wasn’t that they reread the Koran. It wasn’t that they did or did not suddenly discover the reformation. But in fact they were responding to a set of circumstances. And I think that could be said about Iraq, which was, after all, a primarily secular country at one point.
I don’t know if you agree with that, but I just wonder what happens when you have discussions with people who are in the State Department, or pundits commenting on all this. What do they say to that?
Hedges: Well, the State Department actually isn’t the problem. The best Arabists in the government are in the State Department and in the intelligence services. Because they speak the language and they spend time there. They get it. And I have friend who are Arabists in the State Department. They’re pretty lonely figures, because nobody in the Bush administration gives them the time of day. Oh, the issue of the reformation: Islam itself is so varied; there are mosques in India where men and women pray together; Egyptians could drink me under the table, for the most part. The notion that there is any kind of strict Islamic code that is pervasive throughout the Muslim world is just not true. Most Muslims, although that moderate center is under attack, do not live lifestyles that are particularly different from most mainstream Christians. So I think you’re right. Fundamentalism, and Karen Armstrong has written about this, is very much a response to essentially despair—to being pushed, like the Christian right, to be pushed into corners where you don’t have any hope. Where the only hope you have if you’re a kid locked up in Gaza, the only way that is left for you to affirm yourself, is through death. And they are responding to real conditions around them, and real conditions of oppression. And that is far more influential in fueling their belief system than the reformation.
I think you’re right. It’s the conditions that they live in that form the ideological belief system, rather than antecedents. Because Islamic scholarship is quite profound, and certainly rivals the great Jewish thinkers, or the great early church fathers. This is a religion that has deep and an incredibly rich intellectual tradition. It’s just not a tradition we know about.
Harris: Thank you, Chris. That was Chris Hedges, who is currently a senior fellow at The Nation Institute, and former correspondent for The New York Times. He’s also written the new and controversial title “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” For Bob Scheer, this is James Harris. And this is Truthdig.
Chris Hedges graduated from seminary at Harvard Divinity School and worked for many years as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, where he also served as Mideast bureau chief. Hedges’ latest book, based on two years of reporting, is “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” He is also the author of the bestseller “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.”
Click here to read Hedges’ biweekly column on Truthdig
From left to right: Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer; Truthdig contributing editor James Harris; author Chris Hedges.