Q: Since religion is such a major theme in your work, I want to begin with this quote from your book Saints and Sinners: “…spiritual matters are far more influential in people’s lives than, for instance, politics, the mainstay of the journalist’s craft. This is true even in this supposedly secular age in which we live.” Would you mind explaining your thinking here?
A: Well, I’ve observed that people can hold very strong political views, and it might not change their behavior at all, but that’s not true with religious people. People who have strong religious opinions, they tend to build their lives around them. So, if we think about what really influences our behavior, I think for people who are believers, it’s those beliefs that arrange the lives that they have, and I don’t think that journalists pay enough attention to that. They don’t take religion seriously, and I also think most reporters are skeptics by nature. For them, religious faith is embarrassing, and they don’t want to inquire about it. But it’s fascinating to know why people believe one thing rather than another.
Q: For me at least, whenever the connection between politics and religion is drawn, I think of totalitarianism in the 20th century. What do you think about this common intersection between religious and political belief, when the latter often resembles the former? How do you interpret secular obsessions and fixations which mirror their religious counterparts?
A: Well, there are times when politics merges into faith, and that is a very dangerous combination. The concept of political Islam is one that meshes faith into the political system, and makes it, for people who believe it, mandatory: “You have to believe this, or you’re not a good Muslim.” Communism was a kind of belief system. I’m always fascinated about how all sorts of faith always seem to go back to a book. Fascism goes back to Mein Kampf, communism goes back to Karl Marx, and so on. Even with animal rights, there’s a document at the bottom of all that. Religious faiths all have a sacred text. When people read these texts, when they come at them new, when it’s not like they’ve grown up with it, they’re transformed. They organize their lives around these texts. Whether you call it religion or politics, it’s the same experience.
Q: To branch off into your writings on the Middle East, the big belief system that was counterpoised to radical Islam was Arab nationalism. What is the legacy of the Arab nationalist movement today?
A: Well, the dream of Arab nationalism is still there, but the fact of the Arab world is one of chaos and splinter, rather than unity. I think that the Arab nationalist dream has impoverished the political culture in the same way that Marxism did and now political Islam. The concept that there is a single solution to the despair that is so prevalent in that part of the world is a dream that just never seems to die. The manifestations of this dream always share a very similar scheme. “Islam is the solution” is just the current formula. Arab nationalism has similar underpinnings, and so does Marxism. All of those things were false promises. Because the people of the Arab world continue to chase them, those promises become ghosts. They haven’t spent the time required to build mature political institutions.
Q: Your response reminds me of another quote from Saints and Sinners: “I too was drawn to the edge of what I think of as the wilderness, the place where sophistication and learning and the defenses of civilization become moot and silly. The wilderness is a savage democracy; perhaps that’s why the poor and the unlettered go into it more readily—they have less to lose. The legend is that deep in the heart of this howling wild place there is ecstasy and holiness itself.” Where is this “wilderness” today, and where does it come from? Why does this “wilderness” exist, and what is its relation to religious belief?
A: The wilderness is not civilization. It is outside. The spiritual ideal tends to move around. There are a lot of people who want to put it in the center of civic life. I don’t consider those people very spiritual or religious. When you want to impose your Christian views or Islamic views on everybody else, that’s not the wilderness. The wilderness is a solitary experience, and dangerous. You lose yourself in the wilderness, but you hope to gain some access to transcendence. You might not. It is not our daily, civic life. If we could imagine that religion is something that takes place in a private wilderness rather than in a public square, I think that you could defuse a lot of conflict.
Q: To go deeper into the question as to where religious belief comes from, in The Looming Tower you comment on how radical Islamists like Sayyid Qutb, Osama bin Laden, and Mohamed Atta severely repressed their sexuality. The same applies to Christian fundamentalists like Jimmy Swaggart. What is the relationship between repressed sexuality and religious fundamentalism?
A: There does not necessarily need to be a relationship. There are definitely some people who are repressed sexually and who are not religious, but there are some for whom the priesthood or being a religious warrior serves as a diversion from sexuality. Usually, there is a tremendous amount of guilt involved. Where there is repression, there is guilt. The practice of running away from sexuality into religion has been going on for a long time. Now, I’m not trying to say that every nun is repressed, but certainly she’s decided to turn off that part of her in order to gain access to a spiritual dimension. That may be fine, but for others it is dangerous.
Q: In your profile of Will Campbell, you present a wonderfully idiosyncratic conception of spirituality, one which I am tempted to call a spirituality of human love. What is your view of spirituality, and what does spirituality mean to you?
A: Well, I think spirituality has become a catchphrase for people who don’t want to say they’re religious. So, it’s hard to distinguish true spirituality from pseudo-spirituality. I used to be a Methodist. I was in a church, and I was inculcated in those values. I think there are a lot of wonderful values in Methodism. If you’ve read my profile of Walker Railey, you’ve seen my ambivalence toward the damage that kind of religion can do. It’s Methodism; you don’t really think of Methodism as being very stringent. My concept of spirituality is one of being receptive and aware. I’m not out pursuing a spiritual experience right now, but I want to be open and aware if something comes that awakens me somewhere. Living a life on the line is what writers do. You can close off, through prejudice, or fear, any kind of relationship with unseen powers. A friend of mine who went to a Church of Christ basically ran from there screaming. Well, I’ve have had an experience like that before, where you get caught up in the thrill of transcendent possibilities. Those transcendent experiences are, for many people, real experiences. We draw a line in our society. The idea of somebody who is a Jehovah’s Witness teaching at the University of Texas is almost absurd. There is a divide. We aren’t the kind of people who believe in those kinds of things, and moreover the Jehovah’s Witnesses feel threatened, perhaps, by placing themselves in that environment. It’s almost like a military-civilian divide. There are two different societies. One of the things I’ve tried to do in my work is to be not entirely in one camp.
Q: Your reference to Walker Railey reminds me of one of your central themes in Saints and Sinners, namely “that the desire to be saintly is perilous, perhaps evil, perhaps even a form of mental illness” and “that the pursuit of goodness is a treacherous path, and that what one may discover at the end of the journey is not enlightenment but the dark side of one’s self.” How did you arrive at this conclusion? What does this idea of a straight path from saintliness to sinfulness imply for society as a whole?
A: Well, I think abnegation of ordinary human desires can be seen as a form of mental illness. Let’s say that someone is cutting himself or herself with a razor, which happens a lot. Of course, one would say that there is some sort of mental illness there, but there are also monks who flagellate themselves on Friday and Shiites who bloody themselves on the Day of Ashura. So, what’s the difference? They manifest themselves the same way, but one is ostensibly in pursuit of higher access to spiritual experiences while the other is a way of calming down in a bizarre fashion. Self-mutilation sometimes relieves tension, I understand.
Q: One could argue that you find the same attitude of self-abnegation in present-day Israel. Does this same aggressive, violent pathology play a role in Israeli policy and in the collective consciousness of Zionism?
A: Israel did not start as a religious state. Zionism was a secular movement. What has been fascinating, and a little disturbing, is to watch Israel morph into a far more religious entity than it was originally conceived as being. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was the turning point. He was the first real, believing Jew to be elected to lead the country. Since then, it has been a steady progression away from the secular goals of the original Israeli state. When Israel was first created, it did not need to justify itself on biblical grounds, but now it does. So, it is clinging to this biblical mythology, which is scientifically unsubstantiated. There is no evidence that the stories of the Old Testament are accurate. In fact, we have a lot of evidence that Jews were not in Egypt and that Egypt is exempt. The Israelites were part of the Egyptian empire, which extended all through Canaan. We have plenty of archaeological remains of Egyptian military outposts, and trading posts, and so on. We know through DNA evidence that the Palestinians and the Jews are essentially the same people. Now, the fundamentals of the state rests on a myth, rather than on the need of the Jewish people to find a homeland. It creates a vulnerability, and unfortunately it also creates this exclusionary doctrine. The logic of this doctrine, if you start following it, leads to ethnic cleansing.
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