Milestones: Ratzinger and Qutb

When Cardinal Ratzinger was elevated to Pope, my standard joke to relieve the tension in liberal company involved pointing out the fact that the title of Ratzinger’s memoirs, Milestones, was exactly the same as the title of the terrorist primer of the Egyptian radical Islamist Sayyid Qutb, who Paul Berman has called “the philosopher of Al Qaeda.” I was indulging in gallows humor, of course, not because I thought that Ratzinger was planning to unleash new Crusades against the infidels, but instead because I’ve grown tired of hearing the sweeping and ignorant claims about the “sickness” or “rot” at the heart of Muslim society from pundits who seem unaware that their own fundamentalist worldview overlaps at many points with that of their declared enemies.

I’m not proposing a knee-jerk argument of “moral equivalence,” as Tariq Ali did in The Clash of Fundamentalisms, which suggests that both sides of this equation are equally pernicious. The unique aims and methods of Al Qaeda, with its emphasis on maximum civilian deaths, open season on Americans and Jews as a blanket ethnic license to kill, and willingness to pursue catastrophic terrorist attacks, tend to make any such comparison trivial. Even the likes of abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, whose vile beliefs share an equally vicious fundamentalism and similar murderous tactics, do not, of course, represent the same scale of threat to the state as bin Laden. When Timothy McVeigh indulged himself in a death-bed turn to religion by taking the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, which involves a confession and the absolution of sins, it showed the humanity of the Catholic faith, in the person of an unidentified prison chaplain, more than anything else. Even the Branch Davidians at Waco seemed content to wait for the apocalypse rather than bringing down the government. That said, as House Democrats complained in April, internal Homeland Security Department documents indicate a mystifying lack of interest in the potential terrorist threat of right-wing hate groups, while oddly listing the Animal Liberation Front as a group that might potentially support Al Qaeda. It was these right-wing extremists, of course, in addition to some well-known Christian fundamentalists, who welcomed September 11.

If there is a real comparison to be drawn, however, it is not between Muslim and Christian terror groups, or “who to worry about more.” It’s about the nature of the ideas underlying fundamentalism, which in their radical forms are worrisome to opponents of theocracy everywhere. When it comes to ideas, the splinter in our eye is curious; the United States is prosecuting what it perceives to be an ideological war of ideas with fundamentalist Islam abroad, while the ruling party largely turns a blind eye to religious fanaticism at home. Christopher Hitchens, for example, referred to the election of 2004 as “Bush’s Secularist Triumph” in Slate, mocking the Catholic writer Garry Wills for worrying over Bush’s Armageddonism. (Wills compares Ratzinger to Ashcroft.) Hitchens stretched contrarianism to new levels by declaring that the left was “making excuses for religious fanaticism” by sympathizing with suicide bombers and Iraqi insurgents. As it happens, there remains a large legion of committed liberals who understand the necessity of fighting terrorism. They shouldn’t be intellectually bullied into ignoring the entirety of the domestic political scene, where rampant theocons are giddy with power.

When Andrew Sullivan, in a New Republic essay “Crisis of Faith,” calls America’s homegrown theocrats a “milder” form of fundamentalism, he seems to de-emphasize the fact that in the wake of the Schiavo case, prominent Republicans were making highly emotive attacks on Federal judges that seemed to question the Rule of Law or threaten to overturn it. Similarly, one of the first proclamations made by the new Pope was a threat against Catholic clergy who helped enforce Spain’s new and more liberal marriage act, which allow legal rights for homosexual couples. Here it was again: a sense that the Rule of Law was subordinate to religious dictates (a notion which, incidentally, flies in the face of Christian doctrine). Since then, the new Pope has backed down and tried to present a more inclusive face.

When I went back to the experts, I found that I was not mistaken to wonder whether radical Islam and fundamentalism Christianity shared similar worldviews. Extrapolating from the work of Karen Armstrong, in The Battle for God, and Gilles Kepel, in The Revenge of God, it’s plausible to draw connections, though not identities, between the thought of Ratzinger and Qutb. Kepel, in fact, mentions them both in his book. The reason is that both thinkers had their intellectual life-worlds formed in basic opposition to liberal, pluralist, capitalist modernity, in an era dominated by Western secular humanism and the expansion of American culture. Armstrong and Kepel agree that contemporary fundamentalism, while deploying the rhetoric of returning to a simpler past of traditional faith, in fact is modern through and through. Yes, it’s a kind of modernism that rejects and despises modernity itself, but while it cries out for humanity to turn back the clock to a time before birth control, AIDs, working women, and biological theories of homosexuality – though not, interestingly enough, a time before the discovery of germs or antibiotics – in reality its aims are modern, a highly politicized form of authoritarian control over personal morality and privacy.

A comparative investigation of Ratzinger and Qutb must focus upon their shared horror of modern life and its putative ethical decay. For Qutb this involved the “hideous schizophrenia” he saw at the core of modernity, which broke apart the sacred and secular realms of existence, disrupting a meaningful view of creation, the individual’s role in life, and his or her relationship with God. Thus Islam, which in Qutb’s native Egypt had begun rapid modernization under Nasser, must radically reject “the European mentality,” because it cannot provide salvation. Thus Islamists are encouraged to get free of freedom, at least the pernicious model of freedom offered by the tempting but vacuous illusions of consumer capitalism. Ratzinger’s views strike a similar chord. “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism,” he warned fellow cardinals before they elected him in conclave, “which does not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” In fact, either man could have written these lines. Qutb’s own remarks are: “This religion is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men and from servitude to his own desires.”

The “desires” that seem to bother both thinkers the most are the most sensual and private ones. Qutb argues in Milestones that “if the relationship between man and woman is based on lust, passion and impulse, and the division of work is not based on family responsibility and natural gifts; if woman’s role is merely to be attractive, sexy and flirtatious, and if woman is freed from her basic responsibility of bringing up children…then such a civilization is ‘backward’…” Ratzinger puts the same case in another fashion. “What is the woman to do when the roles inscribed in her biology have been denied and perhaps even ridiculed?” he asks. And what if “her wonderful capacity to give love, help, solace, warmth, solidarity has been replaced by the economistic and trade union mentality of the ‘profession,’ by this typical masculine concern?” Funny that Ratzinger should mention his opposition to women working in exactly this context, because the above passage from Qutb rails against those women who take jobs as airline hostesses. St. Paul, on the other hand, asked women preachers only to cover their heads when they were at work in the faith, so that the vision of women’s roles in the faith was more progressive 2000 years ago than it is today.

A troubling picture of resemblances emerges here that cannot be easily denied. Both thinkers are authoritarian fundamentalists operating against the grain of the same modern global culture of tolerance, pluralism, and relativism. Thus their critique of our world has mutual resonance – it sounds similar, it rings a bell. At the very least this ought to give us pause. Rightwing religious pundits busy themselves with vacuous assertions about the need to uproot the inherent sickness of Muslim society – and not just the real enemy, the sinister terrorist groups who take bin Laden as their inspiration, who are a much smaller, much more dangerous demographic that needs to be separated out from even conservative Islamism.

The great difference, of course, is that Qutb’s writings form a direct incitement to violence, although not, it must be said, against innocent American civilians. ”Those who risk their lives and go out to fight,” he says, “and who are prepared to lay down their lives for the cause of God are honorable people, pure of heart and blessed of soul. But the great surprise is that those among them who are killed in the struggle must not be considered or described as dead. They continue to live, as God Himself clearly states.” Qutb’s appeal for Qaedists is based upon this conception of martyrdom. Ratzinger, on the contrary, shifted toward a more conservative outlook at the result of his opposition to militancy. As a young professor at Tubingen University during the 1960s, Ratzinger recoiled from the student protest movement that wished to politicize the Church. Persistent rumors that hostile students once grabbed a microphone away from Ratzinger have been officially denied. But Ratzinger’s distress created a lasting impression of “instrumentalization by ideologies that were tyrannical, brutal, and cruel.” If there is violence encoded in the doctrine of Ratzinger, it involves acts of omission (the cover-up of the sex abuse scandal, for example, in which he directly participated), and the propagation of measures that lead to poverty and war, such as the denial of birth control. But the views are consistent with an absolute protection of life, part of the “seamless garment” of Catholic theology which opposes war and the death penalty as well as the right to choose.

If we found that the person who mailed anthrax to the U.S. Senate was a huge fan of The Passion of the Christ and an owner of The Ratzinger Report, we might blame Mel Gibson for being a propagandist of extremist Catholicism, and revisit his father’s remarks about the holocaust, as well as Ratzinger’s stint in the Hitler Youth. But nobody would advocate the invasion of Vatican City. That would be as silly as invading Iraq to defeat bin Ladenism, or trying to make Qutb, not Atta, the mastermind of September 11. But since such silliness is happening, and since we are going through the full immersion experience in nationalistic zealotry and the degradation of foreign cultures and entire regions of the globe, it’s worth remembering the motes and the splinters in the eyes of the theocrats on both sides who want to make this a clash of civilizations.