by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 11, Jumada' al-Ula', 1441)
While America’s claim to exceptionalism is well known, it would be wrong to assume that it is the only country that suffers from such delusional fantasies. There are other entities, big and small, that also harbor such pretensions. Zionist Israel, the not-so-great Britain and, even India with more than 400 million people living in abject poverty lay claims to such title. We can add Bani Saud as well to the list.
So what makes a country “exceptional” and what precisely is exceptionalism? It is easier to deal with American exceptionalism since it has been around the longest. Some have traced it to the French philosopher and writer, Alexis de Tocqueville, and his 1835/1840 work, Democracy in America in which he wrote,
The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward…
Was de Tocqueville really unaware of the barbaric practice of slavery or the earlier genocide of the Native populations in America? Since the Frenchman’s ancestors were also involved in these barbaric practices, perhaps he considered this to be normal.
Others have traced US exceptionalism to American Puritan roots (Anna Gandziarowski, for instance, in her 2010 book, The Puritan Legacy to American Politics). Many Puritans with Arminian leanings embraced a middle ground between strict Calvinist predestination and a less restricting theology of Divine Providence. They convinced themselves, not for the first time one might add, that God had made a covenant with their people and had chosen them to provide a model for other, less gifted people in the world. One Puritan leader, John Winthrop, metaphorically expressed this idea as a “City upon a Hill” — that the Puritan community of New England should serve as a model for others not just in America but worldwide.
This narcissist view, ordained by God no less, is what turned America into a global cop delivering democracy and other American “values” — real or imagined — through cruise missiles to less endowed people in other parts of the world. The idea of “City upon a Hill” or “light unto other nations” was later taken up by President Ronald Reagan and in more recent times by Vice President Dick Cheney (Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney, Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, 2015).
In a perceptive article, “Eroding Exceptionalism — America In Decline” Mark Hannah provides a definition of American exceptionalism. He writes, “[It] is the belief that the foreign policy of the United States should be unconstrained by the parochial interests or international rules which govern other countries. Writing in The Atlantic earlier this year , Jake Sullivan defines American exceptionalism as the understanding that, ‘despite its flaws, America possesses distinctive attributes that can be put to work to advance both the national interest and the larger common interest’.”
Armed with such self-serving beliefs, it is not surprising that the US military indulges in destructive adventures smashing other societies in total disregard of all rules that govern the conduct of states. That it has not always succeeded — or seldom succeeded — in its objectives has not deterred American warmongers from indulging in mischief.
In fairness to the US, its claim to exceptionalism is neither the first nor unique in human history. Muslims know from the Qur’an that Iblis was the first to claim exceptionalism when he disobeyed Allah’s command to bow to Adam (a). He insisted he was “superior” to Adam because he (Iblis) was made of fire while Adam was made of mud! This Iblisi tendency has also infected other tyrannical figures in history such as Nimrod, Qarin, and the Pharaoh.
Their modern-day equivalents can be found among the British (“the Sun never sets on the British Empire,” although in recent times they have been living in total darkness and squalor), Germans and their notion of the “master race,” the Zionists’ claim that they are the “chosen people” and God promised them the land of Palestine even though they do not believe in God, and finally the Hindus. The idol- and cow-worshipping Hindus also claim superiority over other religions and people. Why and how this is the case is not quite clear. They practice the demeaning caste system and rigidly enforce it. In the caste pyramid, people at the top (Brahmins) enjoy privileges and rights denied to others. Those at the lowest rung, the untouchables or Dalits, are subjected to extremely degrading treatment. There is no escape from the caste straitjacket. That such mistreatment can be inflicted on people even in the 21st century is a blot on the conscience of humanity.
But what about Bani Saud, the uncouth Bedouins from the desert? They claim exceptionalism on the basis of controlling the Haramayn — the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. They have no historic link with or respect for the Haramayn. If they could get away with it, Bani Saud would turn the two holy cities into cheap replicas of Las Vegas. It is not for lack of trying. The massive clock tower that dwarfs the Ka‘bah is an insult to every Muslim in the world yet there is little opprobrium of Bani Saud’s misdemeanor. We are not against modern architecture or tall buildings per se although they violently assault the spiritual ambience of Makkah and Madinah. Tall buildings symbolize the socio-political context of the current political order in the Muslim East. What we oppose is the neocolonial mechanism governing occupied Arabia. This makes every Muslim who refuses to condemn such sacrilege an accomplice to the crimes of Bani Saud.
To end on a positive note, exceptionalism has a short shelf life. Many proponents of exceptionalism have bitten the dust and are long forgotten. The modern-day exceptionalists, led by the US will not escape the verdict of history either. Sooner rather than later, they too will bite the dust. All the signs are already there.