Stop thinking it can’t happen here!


Crossposted from

je suis charlie

This started out as a comment on someone’s Facebook post on the relationship between Islam and terrorism in the aftermath of the Paris attacks on Wednesday, but it got so long I decided to make it into a blog post.

A common argument that Islam is “different” from the other Abrahamic faiths is due to it being hundreds, if not thousands of years younger than most Jewish and Christian sects. The claim is that Muslims are going though the growing pains that Jews and Christians went through much earlier, and this explains why there is more more violence from radical Muslims today.

Obviously the chronology is right but I’m skeptical on the growing pains theory nonetheless. The reason is that several of the countries experiencing the worst religious repression and violence under Islam were, until very recently, thriving, progressive, secular countries. What changed? A variety of things, including wars and meddling into their affairs by powerful countries (ie US), which created the perfect storm for the reactionary authoritarians that exist in every group to seize the opportunity to force their rules on everyone else. It never takes the majority of the public to support a theocratic takeover, though that’s certainly helpful. It only takes a small band of committed zealots to strike fear into people through chaos and violence, or to promise them stability, or both.

This is why people who think it can’t happen here in US are deluding themselves. I can promise you, from nearly three decades of pro-choice activism, that there is a not insignificant number of Americans who are itching to impose a Christian version of Sharia law on America. They have a strong case of Jihad Envy, as is often joked wryly on the internet. And no, sorry, these authoritarians are not generally amenable to liberal arguments about how Jesus preached love and tolerance. They have their own Christ – a muscular, supply-side, neo-con Jesus. Author Jeff Sharlet, who wrote the book The Family, among other pertinent things about the American Religious Right, really opened my eyes to this.

A good model for what America could feasibly resemble under a radical theocracy is Saudi Arabia. It was never what you would call a liberal country from its inception, but in the mid-20th century Saudi Arabia was a arguably more secular than it is now and women had more freedom. A confluence of geopolitical and domestic forces converged to make it into the very strict theocracy that it is now. This has not prevented the resource-rich country from amassing wealth and enjoying many of the advances of technology (the people at the top, at least). They are not mired in the 6th century, as they are so often described*. Saudis are ruled by 21st century theocrats. The internet and robotics and the most cutting edge extraction equipment and weaponry can co-exist with total female subjugation and public beheadings, as well as fatwas and similar forms of not necessarily state-sanctioned religious-based terrorism. On that last point I assert that “stateless” terrorism does not form in a vacuum. I believe that states succumbing, by varying degrees, to religious governance can be, and often is, a precondition to it**. It’s no accident that several of the 9-11 hijackers were Saudis.

My point is that there is nothing so exceptional about America, or Judeo-Christianity, that protects this country from becoming a theocracy. It’s not about the age of the religions or special triggering phrases in the Koran that aren’t in the Old or New Testaments. If you don’t realize that there are some powerful people in the United States doing their utmost to make this country into a theocracy – the kind that will spawn legions of angry young people willing to commit violence and give up their own lives in the name of The One True Faith – then you haven’t been paying attention. Start with Jeff Sharlet. I’m not suggesting it is inevitable by any means but it can happen here. We are not special and need to get out of denial about that.

*Which makes Islam a mere few centuries younger than Christianity, throwing more doubt on the “young religion” theory.

**It’s not like that kind of thing never happens in America as it is, thanks in part to laws legitimizing hatred toward abortion providers and patients. Same goes for anti-LGBT violence.


  1. islam is not liberal. normally the enemy of my enemy is my friend not in this case. are enemy the neo-cons have made a bad situation worse ;but the most peaceful muslim will tell you all others must submit to islam its in the koran. so isis must be destroyed and hope the rest of islam will evolve to being less aggressive. bush and the neo-cons made the situation worse by invading iraq ;but the answer is not doing as little as possible to stop isis. we should demand those who invaded iraq be severely punished for war crimes while we deal with islamo-fascism. bush cheney and the rest of the neo-cons should be jailed or droped into mosel.

    • Where did I claim Islam was liberal?

      Christian Dominionists are not liberal either and are every bit as determined to make everyone submit to their dogma. They have their own concept of Jesus and plenty of horrifying material in the Old Testament to justify whatever bigotry and brutality they want to mete out (google Uganda’s “kill the gays” law). All they need is the same opening radical Islam got and, as Bob pointed out, if things continue the way they are in this country, both politically and economically, they will. We are not special.

  2. Great post, Donna. Really, we’re at a crossroads here. The current dynamic is unsustainable. We can’t keep shoveling more and more wealth up to the very top and leaving everyone else behind. Inequality ultimately leads to instability, after first going through a phase in which stability is maintained only by force, the phase we’re going through now.

    At some point, we’ll go down one of two roads, either a populist uprising on the left, or an authoritarian takeover from the right, which easily (but not necessarily) could take the form you describe.

    Lastly, if you look at what is happening in Israel, particularly with the settlers on the West Bank, there’s pretty good support for your argument that the phenomenon is not unique to Islam, and also kind of destroys the young religion theory, given the age of Judaism.

  3. An excellent, albeit, fictional story of what America would look like under religious zealots is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Even in a fictional setting, she predicted what appears to be happening in America in the 21st century.

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