GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

October 15, 2006

On Conversion

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:01 am

Islam has been making steady headway in increasing its numbers in the West not only through a higher birthrate but through conversion, which has apparently accelerated since 9/11.  I would present, as a useful hypothesis, the likelihood that the emergent alliance between the Left and totalitarian Jihad will be “consecrated” at some point by substantial conversions among Leftists to Islam.  Why not?  Islam is undoubted the stronger, ascendent party and whatever secularist, Enlightenment scruples the Left once had are incompatible with postmodern White Guilt; anyway, the radical left in particular has always been confronted with the dilemma of how to communicate with its “natural” constituency (the “masses”) who, according to leftist (especially Marxist) theory itself are inevitably in thrall to all kinds of “reactionary” (nationalist, sexist, etc.) ideologies–one solution to this dilemma has always been to “speak in the language of the people” and conversion to Islam would simply be a somewhat more consistent version of this strategy. Not to mention that Islam is in many ways the religion most compatible with various positions of resentment within the West:  some sectors of the poor, racial minorities, prisoners, etc., who desire a religion that demands of them commitment, conformity and sacrifice while preserving and refining the intensity of their resentment for the normal bourgeois world. 

What, then, is the answer on the part of us members of the anti-White Guilt coalition, those who want to make the world safe for firstness?  I will suggest here that we should ourselves adopt “conversion” as a model of political and moral communication, one which is far more effective than models of “persuasion” which, to paraphrase Eric Gans on metaphysics, assume that the answer to one declarative statement is another declarative statement which in turn (here is the part generally left unexplained) somehow produces a third, significantly different declarative.  If such change takes place, though, it is because the ostensive has entered somewhere, and if the ostensive has entered it means a new sacred object has been indicated, leaving us with the question, how does one represent such an object to someone who embraces another mode of sacrality?  This seems to me to be a better, and more originary question, than those regarding which reasons people might find more convincing (which already presupposes a shared sacrality).

The answer to Islamic conversion, then, is a missionary spirit of our own.  I do mean this in the most literal sense: first of all, a primary pivot of our foreign policy should be insisting upon (first of all) the rights of Christians to proselytize and the rights of Muslims to convert.  Second, though, we should hope that Christians and even Jews take up (or where appropriate, intensify) the project of converting others–we should all be trying to convert each other, in other words.  At the same time, I present this proposal as a thought experiment, to indicate the kind of cultural transformations that would be necessary for us to possess and project a genuine civilizational self-confidence.  To the rather too obvious (and, of course, true) objection that people trying to convert you are inevitably obnoxious and the urgency invested in missionary activity necessarily subverts personal interaction–if you believe that Jesus and only Jesus saves (or–fill in the blanks), and all boundaries relegating this belief to certain areas of life are removed, what prevents you from becoming terminally intolerable and relations between co-workers, colleagues and even family members from becoming impossible?  Well, the answer is new conventions and norms of politeness–what interests me is the general possibility that conversations could at any point turn toward conversion if they attain the right level of seriousness and trust, not that it actually happens according to any preferred schedule or degree of regularity.  The removal of this taboo, at any rate, need not lead to an orgy of the kind of behavior we fear will raise the level of resentment on both local and global levels.  Our ability to sustain relationships which need not take such possibilities off the table will be an index of our freedom and culteral maturity (and a useful reminder that any religion supportive of habits required for modernity will have to be self-consciously chosen–which further helps us to counter the tendency to absorb religion into the “ascriptive” categories like race, gender and ethnicity, a mere source of victimization rather than an argument about the sacred).

Even more, I am contending that the notion of conversion needs to encroach upon secular territory, where it is already far more relevant than we might imagine:  think, for example, of how you came by your own political commitments and opinions–if they weren’t inherited from your family, then I would argue that you probably had, at some point, what was in effect a conversion experience:  such as being affected by the radiant example of some icon of resistance to injustice, or some violation of sacred principles by members of your own grouping so unforgivable that the principles are themselves irremediably tainted.

So, I will conclude with three points for further discussion:

First, a pillar of our foreign policy must be an open market in faith everywhere, but especially in the Muslim world.

Second, that conversion be seen as a broader, even privileged way of understanding subjective transformation in GA:  we move from one scene to another, drawn by the greater sacrality at its center (which leaves open for inquiry, of course, what makes one sacrality greater than another at a given point in space-time).  Not the only way of understanding subjective transformation, of course:  in fact, moving toward something like an originary psychology, we should want a catalogue of possibilities (another one, I would suggest, being “seduction”).

Third, we should see our own commitments to market society and constitutional order as something to which one converts, in the wake of being granted a revelation regarding the inadequate deferral capacities (the fragility of the scene) constituted by various “Big Man” models of order, attempts to return to a primitive egalitarianism, and so on:  our efforts at persuasion, then, can become the establishment of scenes rendering such revelations more accessible.  And this doesn’t mean PR efforts aimed at showing Western society in an unrealistically positive light:  rather, its a question of arranging in a spectacle all aspects of our society.  And, by the same token, we would thereby be devising tests to determine whether nominal commitments to freedom and democracy are merely that.


Scenic Politics


  1. SP,

    A couple of comments. First. I’m skeptical that leftists will be converting to Islam, although it’s a provocative idea, which I assume is your purpose.

    Second, on conversion. In scenic terms, conversion usually involves a revelation from the center, or rather from above and beyond. To some extent, isn’t that antithetical to GA, the whole point of which is to rationalize the sacred? We place our faith precisely in rational dialogue in antithesis to the absolutes of the sacred, which cut off dialogue. Rational dialogue may not have the sacred aura of revelation, but the hope of modernity, it seems to me, lies in the former not the latter. Religion is, or should be, the private, while politics is the public.

    Sociologists usually theorize conversion in terms of assimilation to a group. In practical terms, this will be the mode to bring people into originary thinking. Once people see that an established group of people committed to GA exists, then they will be attracted to us mimetically. Right now, the only people in GA are individuals with the courage to swim against the stream (a concept which itself is mimetically attractive, but only in relative terms). The existing core group of GA is key, but it’s not yet at a critical mass which will attract large ## of new members. Conversion proceeds piecemeal, although I think that we are making progress, as the success of Anthropoetics suggests. Of course, personal charisma is a great attractor but also a problematic attribute in modernity.

    Comment by Q — October 15, 2006 @ 11:17 am

  2. Five years ago I would have been skeptical if someone had predicted the alliance between radical Islam and the Left would be anywhere near as close, and, from the standpoint of the Left, as unconditional as it has already become. And we’re just getting started–the Left has chosen sides and for most of them there is turning back–so, what’s the way “forward”?

    With regard to your broader remarks, which bring us back into what is for me at least a very interesting and important discussion, for now I would just counter as follows: could you really say that a foreign policy that forced open Muslim societies and led to a wave (even a “wavelet”) of conversions to evangelical forms of Christianity wouldn’t have all kinds of positive effects (weakening and dividing our enemies, introducing complications to Islam, gaining us allies and influence) including rationalizing Middle Eastern politics (in the sense that really counts, making it less driven by ever more ridiculous grievances), and would in fact do so far more dramatically than trying to increase the pathetically small number of genuine Muslim liberals? Certainly among intellectuals we can hope for conversions to GA–but couldn’t we first of all say that introducing a bit of Christianity into the Muslim world, regardless of how we measure that on a secularly determined rationality “scale,” would be a great improvement?

    On the even broader point, I don’t think a more universal embrace of market society and the kind of individual that presupposes will or should turn us into Habermasians (Habermas seems to see American society, at least under Bush, as a scary, threatening quasi-theocracy–and from his standpoint he may be right). I’m sure we’ll be coming back to that argument, but for now, it seems to me if one accepts my point about promoting Christianity–or, more precisely, the conditions that make it possible–then “rationalization” must already take a very indirect route, one that takes us through revelations (for that matter, the US is probably more “Christian” in important ways than it was 50 years ago–so where are we in terms of rationalization?).

    Comment by adam — October 15, 2006 @ 12:49 pm

  3. adam, to clarify the relationship of revelation and rationalization, I’m curious how you would describe, historically, the revelation and rationalization that leads some Moslems to become leftists – first in the days of socialism and now of White Guilt. If the Western left is a secularized or heretical/Gnostic form of Judeo-Christianity, how do we explain the left’s appeal to those who continue to profess faith in Mohammed’s revelation while rejecting much about the west, save for the leftist rhetorics? Is the devout Moslem who practices White Guilt, without a sense of their incompatibility, simply demonstrating that Islam is an outgrowth or corruption of the western Judeo-Christian tradition? and might our attempt to convert him involve arguing/showing that Islam is a heresy? Or is it rather the case that a given secular compact is just as readily rationalized from Islam as Christianity once one accepts certain facts about the secular world as neutral in respect to the tradition(s) from which they were first derived?

    Comment by John — October 15, 2006 @ 1:45 pm

  4. These seem to me to be, on the one hand (or on the more practical level) open questions, to be answered by practice. I am open, theoretically, to the possibility that Islam as a whole must ultimately be dismantled (as someone like Hugh Fitzgerald seems to me to argue); and just as open to the possibility that a gradual and largely peaceful erosion of some its more violent and imperial tendencies (say, their transformation into “metaphors” or historically obsolete elements) will do the job. I want the strongest anti-Islamic arguments to be allowed, though–Muslims themselves must sooner or later come to terms with a world in which such ideas circulate, and they can ultimately only benefit from being compelled to answer them. But I’m not sure I can answer what is really the more interesting question regarding the relation between Islam as an early heresy and the Left and then White Guilt as more recent ones. It would certainly be elegant, but Islam is not gnostic, is it? It seems to me exactly the opposite–the absolute otherness of God, the “uncreatedness” of the world (and the Koran) seem to suggest that the divine is inaccessible to humans. But I also agree that “radical Islam,” or, as I prefer, “totalitarian Islam,” is a hybrid of Islam and various Western ideologies, including fascism, Communism, of course anti-Semitism and, as an essay in the current Weekly Standard argues, Fanon’s anti-colonial valorizng of “violence” as a way of cleansing the self which has been degraded through the theft of its native identity. But there are clearly some contradictions in these accounts, which I don’t feel competent to work out at this point. What do you think? (Am I missing your point?) (I’m also not sure I would say that Muslim’s are becoming Leftists, as opposed to drawing upon some particularly virulent elements of anti-imperialist leftist thought and exploiting Leftists with access to the media)

    Comment by adam — October 15, 2006 @ 5:41 pm

  5. Adam, you’re not missing my point, since I don’t have one. I’m just trying to think through what is involved in the compact between the Left and Islam. If it depends today on the revelations and rationalizations that make possible White Guilt, it earlier depended (during the cold war and with the Soviet – and earlier Nazi – influence in much of the Muslim world) on more or less Marxist and/or gnostic revelations.

    Now, when it comes to developing an art of conversion, we need to know what to make of earlier western-oriented conversions or revelations that affected Muslim intellectuals and politics. As the revelation of White Guilt is increasingly voiced by Muslims in their conversations with the West today, it seems evident to many, if not the more totalitarian (who, as you note, are not purely Islamic anyway), that Islam must supplement itself with revelation and reason appropriate to a modern global politics. I’m just wondering how we best describe (and help undermine) this process to encourage future developments in directions in which we put our faith. In order to forge the next conversion and compact between westerns and (ex) Muslims, we have to unveil the present one.

    Is Islam Gnostic? I take your point that it can be seen as the opposite. And yet some western commentators (an example, here do draw analogies between today’s totalitarian Islam and western Gnostic movements. After all, how else are *we* to see Jihadists (and their bloody sacraments) who think of themselves as some kind of elect out to bring about an apocalyptic moment? To our eyes, those who would politicize the Umma as a mass movement that will move from present stuggles to some future victory, a return of the Mahdi, etc., are practioners of a fantasy ideology who believe in some final struggle that will not end in some temporay peace before the next final struggle, but will rather be the end of struggle and conflict itself. Of course, conquering the world for Islam will not end conflict but only exacerbate it.

    Ibn Khaldun showed how Islamic history is full of fundamentalist reform movements, tribesmen who grow tired with the decadence of the towns and who set out to restore the true faith by conquering the corrupt regimes. Of course, in time the reformers are themselves corrupted by power, and the cycle renews itself. It is as if there is some pure Islamic vision that can never maintain itself in the face of worldy realities for more than a generation or two – how much longer with the Mullahs in Iran, with their apocalyptic visions, retain power?

    Perhaps we could say that while Gnosticism is not part of Islamic self-consciousness, from the etic perspective of the Western observer, Islam has its “Gnostic” movements that may at root be motivated by similar existential problems as are the Gnostic movements in the West.

    Comment by John — October 16, 2006 @ 12:36 am

  6. I suppose, for the purposes of politics at any rate (if not for a PhD in Religion) we can consider anyone a gnostic who believes they know what God wants them to do within history (i.e., not “God wants me to be good, God wants us to defend freedom,” etc., but “God wants me to set in motion this specific chain of events”)–so the Islamic totalitarians would certainly seem to qualify. And that certainly involves a kind of total resentment, directed at the system of deferral itself, which is shared by the Left. But I’m not sure if I’m quibbling or if there is something more important at stake if I say that White Guilt doesn’t really seem to me to be a revelation experienced by Muslims, but rather a weakness they see and can exploit in their enemies. People on the ground–missionaries actually trying to “spread the word” will be able to answer the question of what works best; our job is simply to open even a little space, because a little space can go a long way–and continue to try and transform Islamic totalitarian dreams into a “fantasy ideology”: there will always be some for whom even every defeat is a “proof” of a final victory yet to come, but for many more it is important to see something like “progress,” and this must be denied absolutely. And anyway, what Islam “really is” will always depend upon the world surrounding it, so as soon as we define it will have evaded our definition–it is the relationship between Islam and other formations that we can define to the extent that we can participate in it. But I should say that what strikes me today is that, with all the shouting about “theocracy” in the US and the seemingly absolute dismissal of Christianity in Europe, there has never been a time in history when Christianity, in pretty much all of its denominations, has been so humane, mild, and interested in dialogue rather than aligning itself with any state power. What I am curious about is to what extent the matyr in the Christian sense, i.e., the figure who suffers violence without resistance to embody the word of Christ (i.e., not a warrior, not a worldly success in any way but in the name of all innocent victims) is at all intelligible in Islamic terms. Does one already have to be outside Islam in order to even “see” that figure?

    Comment by adam — October 16, 2006 @ 7:09 am

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