Liberation and Purity: Race, New Religious Movements and the Ethics of Postmodernity

By Jenkins, Ben | Capital & Class, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Liberation and Purity: Race, New Religious Movements and the Ethics of Postmodernity


Jenkins, Ben, Capital & Class


Liberation and Purity: race, new religious movements and the ethics of postmodernity. UCL Press, London-Bristol & Pennsylvania, 1997. pp. 306 ISBN 1-85728-424-4 (pb)

Liberation and Purity asks an unsettling question. What if our postmodern advocacy of mutual respect and cultural difference paradoxically enabled the flourishing of authoritarian gangsters virulently opposed to these very qualities? Bhatt contends that the rise of authoritarian religious movements has produced an uneasy silence rather than the necessary radical critique. He asks the post-modernists and supporters of new social movements: where is your critique?

On one level Bhatt is rightly sympathetic to the postmodern critique of Enlightenment reason. He acerbically points out that women, slaves and colonized peoples did not need to wait a few hundred years for postmodern thinkers to insist that a supposedly universal modernity had excluded and subjugated them. This powerful and helpful postmodern critique, however, tends towards paradox. Critics of the Enlightenment often-and rightly-- advocate a complex plurality of social and individual practices. Such courtesy does not extend to the Enlightenment. Manifold debates are lumped together as a `grand narrative', 'Reason', 'Enlightenment', `Western thought'. Everyone speaks with a tedious and monolithic voice, almost as if they were waiting around for the postmodern bus. Contemporary shopping, it seems, can be the acme of radicalism but the eighteenth century doesn't have much to offer. This strange desire to make reason into an authoritarian straw target rather than a supple means of critique has, Bhatt argues, resulted in the relativistic crisis that enables such forces as Hindu and Islamic authoritarianism.

Bhatt considers how these movements challenge our overly simple concepts of `Western reason', `fundamentalism', 'primitivism'. He convincingly establishes the reactionary politics of his chosen subjects. Khomeini's Iran saw `thousands of executions, incarcerations, acts of torture and murder' (p. 107) against any form of dissent. Contemporary Hindu authoritarianism is a `new Hindu tradition based on mythic history, new conceptions of blood superiority and new ideas of Hindu nationalism' (P.222). These movements emerge as repressive and hyper-masculine.

Bhatt's book, however, would be useful rather than stimulating if it merely told us the necessary but unsurprising truth that authoritarian religious movements are somewhat unpleasant. His main point is that they have been erroneously labelled as other to a misnamed Western modernity. This has important consequences for the development of a radical critique and implications for our wider historical periodization.

Bhatt contends that contemporary Islam and Hindu authoritarianism shares much with modern Western social movements: the mobilization of civil society, the rescue of a purer, primordial inner self, an urgent concern with the politics of everyday life (notably gender and sexuality).

Equally contemporary is their use of mass media and Bhatt interestingly discusses how Islamic fundamentalism used information technology in the Rushdie affair. Science-or quasi-- science-is another obsession. Religious authoritarians shiftily oscillate between desperate attempts to ground their beliefs in scientific rationalism and an insistence that, since it is all anticipated in ancient scriptures, modern science is irrelevant. This schizophrenic colonization of science results in research that is both laughable and sinister: chemical formulae to calculate levels of anti-- Islamic hypocrisy, an insistence that HIV/AIDS can be spread via kissing, the use of ultra-sound technology to abort female foetuses. …

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