Melting Away the Matrix: Modernity, Terrorism and Us

Mark LeVine

TikkunOnline, October 2001

Today we are all stand in judgment–not just the West, but the Rest too. Arguing that globalization has tied us together inextricably has become banal, but the events of this week bring home how much it has penetrated the imagined communities of race, class and nation. Unfortunately, not just Western policies or mainstream media coverage of the slaughter of 9/11, but also much of the critical writing on these issues has left unanswered the urgent questions of how to build alternatives to the status quo of occupation and autocracy in the Middle East, US hegemony in the world at large, and the widening cycles of violence they perpetuate.

To do so we all need dig beyond the easy symbolism of "freedom," "democracy," "Zionism=racism," and other mantras and challenge a matrix of discourses–modernity, colonialism, capitalism and nationalism; what I call the "modernity matrix"–that are each based on the creation of zero-sum oppositions between (individual or collective) Selves and Others, us and them, and which together have supported a five-hundred year old world system that supports slavery in the Sudan and Mauritania and IMF bailouts, organized terrorism and "le peuple du Seattle" alike.

Like its cinematic counterpart, the modernity matrix has for hundreds of years both determined our social existence and sugar-coated the oppressive, exclusivist and segregated reality underneath the glossy propaganda of markets, democratic capitalism, development, and freedom. But unlike the movie, there is no "one" who can lead us out of our dark age; the task is our collective responsibility.

How do each of us do our part? In no particular order: Israelis and Jews need to stop denying reality and accept the many ways in which Zionism has equaled racism in Israeli ideology, history and state policies. Sadly, because of its explicit and uncritical identification with Israel, in many ways contemporary Judaism has succumbed to the same chauvanism plaguing Israel, whether it’s the mutual hatred of many secular and ultra-orthodox Israelis to the general prejudice and unthinking hostility towards the Muslim world among Jews.

Israelis and Diaspora Jews should say "Yes, Israel is racist. And if the self-proclaimed paradigmic ‘modern,’ European-inspired post-colonial nation-state has failed to rise above its inherent racism, what does that tell us about all modern nation-states, about the entire project of modernity and the modern world system itself? Importantly, in doing so Jews would the prophetic injunction to be a light unto the nations

But Palestinians and the larger Arab and Muslim world must also stop making excuses and apologia for the violence, intolerance and autocracy that characterize too much of modern Muslim politics, theology and culture–even though that too much is in fact a very small part of the whole discourse. As a scholar of Islam, I have countless times had Muslims tell me that intolerance, sexism, and violence are aberrations from "real" or "true" Islam? But is there really such a thing as some pristine "Islam" out there, free of all the prejudices and sins of its followers? Islam, like Judaism–or any religion or ideology–is no more than what its adherents make of the traditions they have inherited, and right now too many Jews and Muslims, too many Americans, are making a mockery of the highest ideals of our traditions.

In the fall of 2000 I received a lot of criticism from Arab and Muslim friends and colleagues when Michael Lerner and I wrote in Le Monde that the violence characterizing the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada was not just politically but also morally unacceptable; both because Palestinain society had not done nearly enough to evolve new, non-violent strategies against the Israeli Occupation and because it would allow Israel even greater latitude in prosecuting its war on Palestine. Within months many of them agreed with me, calling on their brethren to focus on building a non-violent mass movement. But by then it was too late, the logic of violence was too deeply imbedded to be defeated by the courageous Palestinians and Israelis who still are putting their bodies on the line to fight the occupation through non-violence and mutual solidarity.

I fear we are similarly too late to stop the larger "clash–soon to be ‘war’–of civilizations." The entire catastrophe of the contemporary Middle East (and now America) thus presents an urgent challenge to come together across boundaries of race, nation, religion, gender and class; to tear open the modernity matrix and shine a light into our collective soul. What we would find there is that we are all still living in the colonial age, the difference between today and one hundred years ago being the power of culture to blur the boundaries between colonizer and colonized, to bring "the horror," as Conrad’s Kurtz called it, home.

The alternative globalization movements and communities that first emerged publicly in Seattle 1999 understand this dynamic and constitute a first step to a truly "post" colonial world. Yet they have yet to move beyond critiquing the existing system to offer a vision of and strategy for what the world could look like if our values prevailed. Thus they lack the power to shape a new world culture of peace and liberation. Moreover, the Muslim world has been largely excluded from these movements, in large part because of the ignorance, prejudice, and perhaps youth of its Euro-American leaders. Until it is invited into the conversation, other avenues of attack will apparently be pursued.

The organizers of the recent World Conference on Racism in Durban–which failed precisely because it avoided tackling any of these hard issues–invited the world to "take stock" of how we’re progressing toward a shared vision for an inclusive, non-racial and non-discriminatory world. The events of this week demonstrate how far we are from accepting such an invitation. But with corporate titans, political scions and terrorist icons against us, taking stock is a good place to start–only, however, if it is followed by more and more of us putting our bodies on the line for real peace, solidarity and social justice.