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Noam Chomsky

by NOAH Monday, Dec. 22, 2008 at 3:44 PM

Religious fundamentalism

Share International: What effect is religious fundamentalism having on democracy around the world?

Noam Chomsky: If religious fundamentalism is kept as a personal or community matter, it has no effect on democracy. But if it enters into the political system, the public arena, it has a very significant and, of course, negative effect upon democracy, because its principles are pretty much inconsistent with it. This is developing all over the world. It’s quite dramatic in the United States right now. The United States has always been off the chart in terms of extremist religious beliefs. It’s quite radically different from other industrialized societies. There is no industrial society outside the United States where you can find a significant number of people – about 50 per cent in the United States – who believe that the world was created several thousand years ago exactly as it is now. That’s similarly true for other extremist beliefs.

Religious fundamentalism has occasionally entered into the public arena and political life during periods of religious revivalism, which had an effect on policy in the 1950s, for example. But there has never been anything like the most recent 30 years or so. By the late 1970s political party managers began to realize that if they catered to the religious fundamentalist community, which is very substantial, by offering them small things that didn’t matter much to the policy makers, they could gain electoral votes. Since the 1980 election, every presidential candidate has had to declare themselves deeply religious. The question never really arose much before, but since the 1980 election that has been uniform.

In other parts of the world, Islamic fundamentalism is of most concern to the West. The most extreme Islamic fundamentalist state in the world has been and remains Saudi Arabia – also the closest US ally in the world, in part because of its Islamic fundamentalism. Back in the 1950s and 1960s there was a struggle between secular Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalist extremism. The two main figures in the struggle were President Nasser in Egypt and the King and Royal Family of Saudi Arabia. The US was strongly opposed to secular nationalism in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere, and favored Islamic fundamentalism.

That conflict was basically settled by Israel’s conquests in 1967, which pretty much destroyed the Nasser center of secular nationalism and one of the pillars of the Third World movement, the Non-Aligned Movement, which the US also despised. In fact, that’s when the US/Israeli relationship became really firm. A kind of ‘love affair’ developed between US intellectuals and Israel, which had not existed before as a real service to US power, supporting Islamic fundamentalism against the dangers of secular nationalism. The same thing happened inside the Israeli occupied territories: Israel supported the fundamentalist groups, which emerged finally as Hamas, as a weapon against the secular nationalist PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].

This has also happened elsewhere. It is well known that former US President Reagan supported the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists the US could round up around the world to try to bleed the Russians in Afghanistan.

During the same years, the 1980s, the US strongly supported the Zia ul-Haq dictatorship in Pakistan, which radically Islamized the country, established the famous Islamist madrasas with the funding of Saudi Arabia, which significantly moved the country towards Islamic fundamentalism. The Reagan administration also overrode congressional restrictions against aid to Pakistan, based on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, which the Reagan administration pretended they didn’t know about. Now, of course, radical Islamism has taken on its own very threatening and dangerous characteristics.

The same is true of Hindu nationalism. The fundamentalist nationalism is represented mostly by the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], one of India’s main political parties, which puts forth a dangerous and quite extreme Hindu nationalism. In Gujarat, the recent election was won by Narendra Modi (the main figure in the Hindu Nationalist Movement), who was largely responsible for the massacres there a few years ago in which a couple of thousand Muslims were killed. These are not minor developments, and are not only threatening to democracy, but to any meaningful conception of human rights.

Democratic movements in South America

SI: What effect are the socialist presidencies of Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Kirchner in Argentina, Correa in Ecuador and Lula in Brazil having on regional integration, socioeconomic sovereignty and democracy throughout South America?

NC: Let’s begin with democracy because that’s the easiest one to measure. There are regular polls taken throughout Latin America by a highly respected Chilean polling organization, Latinobarometro, which studies in depth the attitudes of the populations in the various countries toward democracy. Much to the discomfiture of the United States, Venezuela ranks way at the top in many measures. It ranks right alongside Uruguay at the top of support for democracy and support for the government. It ranks highest in assessing the role of the government in meeting economic progress and in a series of other measures. These results are so unacceptable in the United States that they’re just not reported but you can find them annually by looking at Latinobarometro polls. The last one was taken in November 2007.

As far as Venezuelans are concerned, they have made great progress in democracy and they’re proud of it and support the government. Of course, it’s the opinion of Venezuelans that matter, not [North] Americans. The same is true in Bolivia. In fact the election of Morales was a spectacular victory for democracy. It’s hard to find a comparable example in the world, certainly nothing like that is conceivable here. In Bolivia the large majority of the population, which is an indigenous Indian population, for the first time since the Spanish conquest, seriously entered the political arena, gained political power and elected someone from their own ranks – overcoming enormous odds. Could you imagine that happening in the United States or any Western country?

They didn’t just go to the polls on election day. These were mass popular movements, which had been struggling for crucial issues like cultural rights, control of resources, eliminating the neo-liberal policies that were destroying the populations, major issues they had been fighting about for years. When it came to the election they were organized and elected their own candidate. That’s democracy. The election in Bolivia in December 2005 is, far-and-away, the most remarkable democratic change anywhere in the hemisphere. Morales was immediately condemned for being autocratic and endorsing dictatorship and so on. The main reason was that he was calling for the nationalization of Bolivia’s resources. The critics failed to mention that this was with the approval of probably 90 per cent of the population. But that’s so autocratic and antidemocratic by our measures. It’s not following our orders, which is what democracy means to us.

Nestor Kirchner was a somewhat different story. Argentina had been the poster child of the International Monetary Fund [IMF], a great economic miracle they had created, except that it all collapsed in a total catastrophe and Argentina’s economy was ruined. Kirchner got Argentina out of it by radically violating the orders of the IMF and moving on, as he put it, “to rid ourselves of the IMF forever”. The IMF is essentially a branch of the US Treasury Department. Argentina restructured and paid off its debts with the assistance of aid from Venezuela. It recovered very rapidly, much to the surprise of the conventional economists who predicted disaster from these measures. Other countries in the region are going the same way. Brazil in its own way paid off the debt and rid itself of the IMF. Bolivia is moving in that direction, Venezuela and others. In fact, the IMF is in serious trouble now because the countries on which it relies for its funding, mainly by debt collection, are refusing to follow its orders and are paying off their debts or restructuring them.

All of these efforts are moves toward integration. The United States is now in a position where it is supporting South American governments of the kind it would have overthrown by military coups not many years ago. So Lula in Brazil is the ‘fair-haired boy’. His policies aren’t all that different from [former Brazilian President] Goulart’s back in the early 1960s. He was overthrown by a military coup planned by the Kennedy administration, which took place a few weeks after Kennedy’s assassination, by establishing a kind of neo-Nazi national security state of vicious murderers – a plague [which has] spread over the hemisphere.

Now the United States is supporting Lula as its hope and in order to maintain a fiction that there’s a split between the ‘good left’, Lula, and the ‘bad left’, Chavez and Morales. There’s some truth to that; they are different. But in order to maintain that fiction it’s necessary to suppress quite a lot of information. For example, it’s necessary to suppress the fact that when Lula was re-elected his first major act was to travel to Caracas, Venezuela, to support Chavez’s electoral campaign and to dedicate a major bridge over the Orinoco River, a joint Brazilian-Venezuelan Project, and initiate another one. It’s also necessary to suppress the fact that shortly after that – in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which was the center of the Bolivian democratic revolution – the leaders of the South American states gathered. They apparently papered over their differences and issued a declaration calling for integration of Latin America in the style of the European Union. They recognized there was a long way to go to reach that but it’s the beginning of moves in that direction. You don’t find this in the press but it’s very important. The Bank of the South was just initiated, joining the major countries – Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and others – which would concentrate on development problems in South America. That could turn out to be an independent funding institution independent from the World Bank.

There are two important, related steps being taken in South America, for the first time since the Spanish conquests. One is that countries are moving toward integration. They had been very separate from one another, each related to the imperial powers in its own way but separated from one another. That’s beginning to be overcome. That’s a prerequisite for independence. If they’re not unified they can’t resist an outside imperial power.

Also, they’re beginning for the first time to come to terms with extraordinarily important internal divisions in each country. South America has some of the worst inequality in the world. Traditionally it has been ruled by a small Europeanized, mostly white elite with very wealthy ties to the West: they send their capital to the West, they have their second homes in the West and their children go to the West to study. They’re pretty much disconnected from their own societies. On the one hand, you have the rich, dominant, mostly white elite, and on the other, you have a huge mass of deeply impoverished people. That gulf is beginning to be overcome.

What happened in Bolivia is a striking example. Even in Venezuela there’s an element of that. One of the reasons for the elite’s bitter hatred of Chavez is that he’s not white; he’s of mixed race. Racial issues are important there and they’re beginning to be overcome. There are plenty of pitfalls. You can’t predict the course it will take, but the developments are very positive ones.

Latin America is diversifying its economic relations. It had been totally dependent on US-European investment, trade and so on but that’s changing. There are now South-South relations developing – India, South Africa and Brazil. The raw material exporters in Latin America – Peru, Brazil, Chile and Venezuela – are beginning to diversify their exports to Asia. China is now beginning also to move in investments. All of this is giving Latin America many more options than they’ve had in the past.

The integration, the steps toward overcoming the radical internal divisions, and the diversification of relations with the world are all very significant developments. Sometimes it is called socialism, whatever that’s supposed to mean. But it is true that there are moves toward benefiting the general population. In Venezuela, for example, contrary to claims here [in the US], poverty has been significantly reduced. There are efforts – sometimes successes, sometimes failures, often corrupt, but efforts at least – to try to develop a popular control that undermines the traditional elite control. At the same time, there are also autocratic tendencies that are dangerous in the long run, maybe, but certainly complex arrangements. Overall, steps are being taken that are quite positive and you can see that by the hostile reaction here. It’s a good measure of it.

Steps are being taken in some countries toward shifting wealth and power toward the authority hated in the United States. In earlier days that would have led to military coups or economic strangulation but the United States is no longer capable of that. The last effort at a military coup was in 2002 when the United States supported a coup that briefly overthrew the government in Venezuela, kidnapped the President and disbanded parliament and the supreme court. This overthrow of democracy was supported by the United States and very publicly welcomed. In fact, they called it a step toward democracy. It was quickly overthrown by popular uprising and the United States had to turn to other ways to try to overthrow the government – propaganda, subversion and so on. But military coups are no longer as easy as they were in the Kennedy and Johnson years.

SI: What can we do in the US to move toward true democracy?

NC: We should take successful moves toward democracy tomorrow. It’s ridiculous to claim that in the richest, freest and most powerful country in the world we are incapable of doing what poor Bolivian peasants succeeded in doing. Of course, we can do it. But it takes commitment, energy, dedication, overcoming illusions, dismissing propaganda, developing real popular movements and demanding accountability from leadership. Develop your own programs and push them through the political system and get them implemented. If they can do it in a place like Bolivia and we say we can’t do it here, if someone were watching this from Mars they would be cracking up laughing. Of course, we can do it here but it doesn’t happen by itself.


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