Reflections on recent developments in the American political scene

First, I would like to second Terry in thanking the organising team of this interesting conference. Managing such events is never stress-free, so the least we can do is acknowledge the effort of all the people who were involved in this launching event. I am sure that this will only be the first of many good intellectual gatherings. Second, I would like to share with you my reflections on some recent developments in the American political scene that impact on global society at large. The construction of a “9/11 Christian Centre at Ground Zero”, a counterweight to the Islamic cultural centre which is being planned in Manhattan has been the issue of angry protest for a good few weeks now, but it seems that our self-professed civility cannot put up with the presence of non-Christian ‘‘Bibles’’ either. As America prepares for yet another tearful commemoration of the 9/11 disaster, this vengeful suggestion gains both in poignancy and stupidity.

On the second day of the Bauman conference I presented a paper that explored some stark similarities between the rationale of (Islamic) terrorism that seeks to restore honour and respect for the Muslim way of life by destroying the opponent’s global reputation and the security measures that it generates (But perhaps such measures produced this uncontrollable situation in the first place). Such fundamentalism, I argued, is also constitutive of the Christianocentric logic of prestige that has become more pronounced in Western leaderships’ self-presentation in more recent decades. The discourse that elevates the nation-family’s protection to a Western value par excellence is, of course, anything but alien to Eastern cultural formations. In this instance Western democracies either manage to forget that honour and shame permeate behavioural codes and Islamic cosmologies or they repress the fact that they draw upon the same themes to address their own citizens. But surely we cannot equate or identify our Western democratic codes with this barbarism, someone from my audience suggested. It seems that we can: in Gainesville, Florida, another preacher, the Rev Terry Jones, has also made international headlines by threatening to hold a ceremonial burning of the Koran. It is particularly frightening that his plans to celebrate “International Burn the Koran Day” were announced last July but we got to hear of them now.

The Baumanesque critique of the ‘gardening state’ that produces social order through the arbitration – if not elimination – of ambivalence is both reinstated and put to the test. We do not deal with a Bush administration that incites fanaticism any more: President Obama has to deal now with the insanity of lowbrow American priesthood that takes issue with peaceful Islamic integrative attempts in Manhattan’s cityscape. I cannot help but wonder about the actual culprits of this mayhem, which continues to build in scope and critical mass through the media. The manipulation of public opinion by the previous American administration was achieved by similar means – in particular, the channelling of images and ideas through conservative representational apparatuses (media conglomerates). The 9/11 culprits knew full well that the transformation of disaster into a public spectacle would be the best way for fear to travel around the world (just as anti-Muslim propaganda had been disseminated before the tragedy by the centre). Now it is institutionalised religion’s turn to sit exams in media use.

In the conference we talked a lot about the trauma of the Holocaust, omitting by default the Nazi legacy of Europe. I cannot help but wonder if the nihilist prophecy of ‘eternal returns’ is about to be actualised through the staging of new book burnings. Florida’s bonfire would, of course, be a good example of Western barbarism – one of the many committed in the name of ‘’civilisation’’.