Since the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there has been no shortage of events that have been milked by the Islam-bashing authors who have hijacked the European and American public spheres with their insistence that Islam is structurally immune to reform and incompatible with the West, democracy and Enlightenment. These polemicists, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-Dutch authors and politician currently residing in the US; Christopher Hitchens, also in the US; Pascal Bruckner in France; and Necla Kelek in Germany, have been dubbed “Enlightenment Fundamentalists.” They claim the problem is that Islam is intrinsically backward and evil; those who argue that Islam has been seized by fanatic groups that exploit the economic deprivation, political disenfranchisement, and symbolic humiliation experienced by various Muslim populations, are accused of being cowardly appeasers, squandering Western values. Even liberals who are seen as opponents of the Enlightenment fundamentalists, such as Ian Burma, share some of their presuppositions when they reduce Islamic fundamentalism to a pathological, hysterical and prudish Occidentalism. In this climate, right-wing populists such as Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders can garner publicity (and votes) by comparing the Qur’an to Mein Kampf and demanding that it be banned. Meanwhile, the increasing importance of Christian fundamentalism in the United States is downplayed, as are the close historical ties between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
What makes the Enlightenment fundamentalists’ writings deeply problematical is not primarily their manifest content. As the Enlightenment fundamentalists are keen to ask: How could anyone be against them criticizing the lack of democracy in Muslim societies, fundamentalist intolerance and anti-Semitism, the oppression of women, forced marriages, and female circumcision? The problem lies in the latent content of their discourse. By presenting all problems in Muslim societies and communities as an inevitable outcome of “Islam,” they deflect attention from the West’s destructive political, military and economic operations – including support for various charming dictatorships. In the process, they disavow any link between religion and the “western values” they claim to represent. Given the Bush-style “let’s bomb Iraq” stance taken by many Enlightenment fundamentalists while it seemed politically opportune, and given their reluctance to attack Christian-fundamentalist elements in the Republican party, their avowed secularism seems to be blind in one eye. That Hirsi Ali now works for the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, which had a very cozy relationship with the Bush Administration, is one symptom of her and others’ instrumental use of Enlightenment rhetoric.
The Enlightenment fundamentalists’ avowed opponent is a type of Islam that attempts to put everything in the service of a transcendental God. There is a great interest in “Salafism” and “Wahhabism” as dangerous fundamentalist movements, which claim to go back to the origins of Islam, but even while those tendencies within Islam are criticized and accused of being at the root of Islamic terrorism, many authors effectively seem to agree with Salafist radicals’ interpretation of Islam: yes, Islam indeed has a timeless essence, a core that is resistant to change and historical development, to critique. As Talal Asad puts it “A magical quality is attributed to Islamic religious texts, for they are said to be both essentially univocal (their meaning cannot be subject to dispute, just as ‘fundamentalists’ insist), and infectious. For Western Enlightenment fundamentalists, this timeless Islam is the perfect Professor Moriarty – an unyielding, tenacious, omnipresent threat. However, contrary to the Enlightenment fundamentalists, Judaism, Christianity and Islam propelled secularization forward by attacking idolatry. As Marc De Kesel puts it, monotheism already revolves around the criticism of religion, even if this criticism in turn takes on the form of a religion. Atheism is the continuation of monotheism with other means.
- from Idols of the Market by Sven Lütticken