Commentary

The “Fundamentalist” Folk Devil

I just finished reading an interesting article given to me by Ronit Lentin titled ‘Islamophobia: a very (Post)modern fear?’.  It was written by Pnina Werbner as a presented paper at the Closing Conference of Cost A2 in Brussels, December 7-9, 1995.

One particular point of Werbner’s stuck out from the rest, which is, the concept of ‘folk devils’.  In a nutshell, for Werbner, folk devils are those ‘Other’ people who bring about a ‘moral panic’ within a nation-state.  For example, ‘the rebellious slave, the black mugger who refuses to accept his lowly place’ must, according to Werbner, ‘be controlled and subordinated’.   The ‘folk devil’ type of racism which Werbner addresses is, however, a bit ‘more subtle and insidious’ than our traditional conceptions of racism, examples including American slavery, colonialism, and the Holocaust.

In any case, the presence of ‘folk devils’ inevitably erupts into a new type of racism – albeit a culturally constructed one.  For Werbner, racism, in this ‘folk devils’ view, ‘is born out of the economic and political contradictions and scarcities of the present, the uncertainties of modernity and late Western capitalism.  The folk devil of racism is, in this view, a displaced figure of collective anxieties and fears and, as such, an arbitrary scapegoat embodying racist paranoid convictions that only cultural, ethnic and racial purity can stem the breakdown of social order, the collapse of society, the final destruction of the nation-state’.

The contemporary ‘folk devil’ in Western societies for Werbner is the Muslim fundamentalist, which she deliberately named the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ rather than several more obvious epithets – ‘the terrorist, the fanatic, the fundamentalist’ – ‘the reason being to draw attention to the reflexive fear Islam conjures – not (as in the case of the black mugger) the fear of physicaility unbound, the Freudian id let loose, but the fear of the super-ego gone wild’.

Ever since the Crusades, it has been the goal of many European leaders to rid themselves of the grip of the notion of the Grand Inquisitor, regardless of its form.  Indeed, as Werbner notes, ‘European history is marked by the long struggle to escape the Grand Inquistor, the domination of the Church over the soul, the stranglehold exerted over the bound body’.  In the light of the Muslim fundamentalist as the contemporary Grand Inquisitor, Werbner argues that the ‘Muslim fundamentalist folk devil’ represents a new form of racism in that they’re perceived as being ‘up front, morally superior, openly aggressive, denying the validity of all other cultures; in short, a different kind of folk devil altogether.  He is a figure constructed by fearful elites which legitimise far cruder forms of biological racism’.  Notwithstanding, Werbner also suggests that Islamophobia ‘is like other phobias and racisms, an incapacity to cope not only with difference but with resemblance’.  What is scary about Islam, however, ‘is the way it evokes the spectre of puritanical Christianity, a moral crusade, European sectarian wars, the Crusaders, the Inquisition, the attack on the permissive society’.

In conclusion, Werbner mentions that while the globalised images of the Muslim religious fanatic seem to deny the possibility of ethical commonalities with ‘Western culture’, the obvious fact is that ‘few Muslims in Europe are religious fanatics; the majority share the same ethical space that we occupy’.

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