Illustration by Tavis Coburn
If you pick up Extreme Islam expecting to have some easy yuks at the expense of Muslim fundamentalists, you may be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong. Adam Parfrey, (in)famous for his Apocalypse Culture collections and for publishing the complete works of Anton LaVey, is an equal-opportunity blasphemer, an infidel of the first order. And he comes out shouting with his opening essay, excoriating Muslim scholars (and, by implication, the Western mainstream in general) for pussyfooting their way around the violent exclusivity explicit in the Koran. (“Slay them wherever you find them . . . fight the idolators utterly . . . Fight those who do not believe in Allah and the Last Day and who forbid not what Allah and his messenger have forbidden — who do not practice the religion of the truth.”)
So, yes, parts of Extreme Islam simply expose fundamentalist Islamic, and a smattering of relevant Orthodox Jewish and fundamentalist Christian, texts to our examination, and invite us to re-experience the same fears, and the same sense of superiority, that have already been drummed into us by the media. But fortunately, as with the Apocalypse Culture books, there are other, deeper currents also at work here. Sure, Parfrey plays the cynical ringmaster once again pulling back the curtains to give us a glimpse at that most perverse aspect of humanity — the things people manage to believe. But the attentive reader won’t be wearing that self-satisfied smirk for long. Extreme Islam contains essays that will (or at least should) render you serious, humbled and even a bit sympathetic.
This is only partly because Parfrey’s eclectic collection doesn’t limit itself to fundamentalist texts — he also includes political moderates, Marxists, historians and human-rights documents. And it’s not entirely because so much of this material is suffused with legitimate outrage at the historic colonial arrogance of the West, or the brutality of Israel’s occupation and military adventures, that the religious madness almost becomes the subtext. Extreme Islam’s deranged carnival actually succeeds in shocking most when the “extremists” themselves are lucid, poignant and poetic.
On the crazy end of the spectrum, we have the expected list of Taliban laws (“Ban on male tailors taking women’s measurements or sewing women’s clothes. Non-Muslim minorities must [wear a] distinct badge or stitch a yellow cloth onto their dress to be differentiated from the majority Muslim population”). And we have the Hamas columnist Atallah Abu Al-Subh advocating anthrax in the U.S. water supply. There’s the meeting between Hitler and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. And there’s Louis Farrakhan, who gets the prize, in Parfrey’s estimation, for “bursting the limits of weirdness,” at a 1989 press conference (transcribed here in full) in which he warns of a genocidal racial war planned by George Bush the First and Colin Powell, based on a warning he received by the (long deceased) Elijah Muhammad inside a flying saucer.
As strange as Farrakhan’s prophetic channeling is, clearly the most batshit-crazy text included comes from Zionist Christian fundamentalists at TempleMount.org, whose expressed wish to start the final war of Armageddon over the Temple Mount inched toward plausibility when Ariel Sharon visited the site in 2000 and provoked the current escalations between the Israelis and Palestinians. In the essay “The Approaching Battle for Jerusalem and the War of Gog and Magog,” they write, “The prophet Zechariah states that the weapons (the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons) will backfire and will hurt the enemies of Israel and not Israel . . . (Zechariah 14:12, 13).” Comparatively, contributions from the political heavy hitters of the Islamic world, such as Khomeini, Hussein and Qaddafi, only expose the evil of banality. These texts are dull — Arabic/Islamic versions of the same kind of mind-numbing rhetoric and enemy bashing all politicians engage in.
The real challenges in the book come from the writings of a few eloquent Islamic true believers. Pieces like “Revolutions Are Never Brought About by Cowards and the Imbecilic” by Maulana Maudoodi, and especially “Islam and the Death of Democracy” by Shaykh Abdalqadir as-sufi al-Murabit, strike nerves with insights into the alienating, deadening nature of a Western culture that has been reduced down to “nothing but price tags.” Al-Murabit engages in a thoroughly contemporary analysis, dropping Western academic buzzwords like hermeneutics. But he really brings his point home when discussing an anthropological photograph in which the “primitives” appear noble, healthy and proud while the white interlopers are “bloated, fat, pinkish, suited, seated, frozen, impacted, opaque, dead creatures — there was really something so completely suffocating and stifling in their lack of transparency, so utterly geared to infantile projects.”
It’s a clever, sophisticated piece. More importantly, it manages to convey the sense of fearlessness, joy and deep connection that accompanies the Islamic sense of commitment and certainty about God’s love. And this is what’s so troubling. Al-Murabit’s poetic alienation from vacant, decadent, consumerist Western culture in favor of the vitality and authenticity of the God-intoxicated primitive reads profoundly countercultural, almost reminiscent of some of Hakim Bey’s neo-Sufic anarchist treatises. And yet for al-Murabit, the answer lies in rejecting democracy, free debate, pluralism and multiculturalism in favor of surrender to an absolute religious authority. One can’t help imagining that Western anarcho-counterculturalists, in their atavistic hunger for authenticity in the midst of this chaotic corporate postmodern swirl, might wish to anchor their neo-primitivist dreams in some totalizing belief system, Islamic or otherwise.
The contradiction between this hunger for authentic experience and the liberating elasticity of postmodernism’s inconclusiveness is stitched into nearly every page of Hatred of Capitalism. This mistitled collection of essays from the hipster avant-garde periodical Semiotext(e), edited by Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer, offers up text from many of the usual suspects: Foucault, Burroughs, Baudrillard, and several dozen other theorists and writers. In a very loose sense, Kraus and Lotringer try to present the avant-garde’s transgressive experiments in art and philosophy as a kind of conceptual revolutionary terrorist attack against the boundaries of the civilized ego and the alienating mediocrity of consumer capitalism. Read in tandem with Extreme Islam, the artistic terrorism seems rather pale and anemic, to which I can only say thanks be to Allah for small favors. On the other hand, the stylish European 1970s guerrilla Ulrike Meinhoff, of the Red Army Faction’s Baader-Meinhoff brigade, contributes some real cold-bloodedness to the artist’s pose of real cool extremism. Indeed, aside from the actual writings of Meinhoff, the entire book is oddly contextualized by Baader-Meinhoff. They pop up here and there, name-dropped, analyzed and, of course, romanticized.
Tim Leary, who gets a bit of a bashing in one of the pieces here, once said of Weather Underground leader Bernadine Dohrn, “Awww . . . she was just being naughty.” And for the most part, it’s easy to forgive Semiotext(e) its radical chic — and see it as part of its experimentalist project. However, Jean Baudrillard’s atrocity, “Our Theater of Cruelty,” should not be allowed to pass without comment. “Terrorism is not violence in itself,” Baudrillard writes, “it is the spectacle it unleashes that is truly violent.” This sort of abstraction just doesn’t seem cute anymore.
Discourses like the one by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari on France’s 1968 revolt, and Foucault’s contemplation of homosexuality and friendship, more than make up for the occasional piece here in which language tries to see how far it can crawl up its own ass. But the most poignant moments are not in the essays. Fragments of fiction, diary notes, poetry and interviews anchor Hatred of Capitalism in experience, and reveal a project that goes beyond fashionable radicalness. Assata Shakur’s prison notes, Nina Zivancevic’s memories of Yugoslavia during the war with Croatia, Kathy Acker’s study of romantic sexual desire between individuals separated by colonialism and borders, Jane DeLynn’s tale of surrender to the mysterious, Michelle Tea’s goth remembrance, Jack Smith’s queen-bitch complaints — all seem to share a common ground. The writers are desperately trying to break through their fear, their vacancy, their numbness, not by embracing the simplicity of a rulebook God but by locating authenticity in an experimental relationship with the unknown.
R.U. Sirius' book, The Revolution: Quotations from Revolution Party Chairman R.U. Sirius, was published in June 2000 by Feral House, which also published Extreme Islam.
EXTREME ISLAM: Anti-American Propaganda of Muslim Fundamentalists Edited by ADAM PARFREY | Feral House | 317 pages | $16 paperback
HATRED OF CAPITALISM: A Semiotext(e) Reader | Edited by CHRIS KRAUS and SYLVÈRE LOTRINGER | Semiotext(e) | 430 pages | $17 paperback
Get the Theater
Your weekly guide to local culture with calendar listings and theater, dance, and comedy reviews.