AAA2011 – Cold War Christianity, Islam, and the Neoliberal Gospel of Prosperity

Looks like I’ll be attending the anthropology meeting in Montreal in November 2011. I submitted the following abstract to a session on the cold war and neoliberalism, and I have to say, I’m excited about this research direction — still broadly within the cultural politics of religion but involving Islam and oil more explicitly. Sure, it’s an abstract for a paper that will not materialize for quite a while, and in about 6 months when I start writing that paper, I’ll be cursing and miserable, squinting as I wonder, what the hell am i saying? 🙂

Cold War Christianity, Islam, and the Neoliberal Gospel of Prosperity

ABSTRACT. In a remarkably short period of time, Islam and “terrorism” have replaced Communism as the enemy of the Free World. In conservative evangelical circles throughout South Korea, where anti-Communism was once dominant and pervasive, Islamophobia is now routinely rationalized as theologically justified and geopolitically judicious. Ordinary evangelicals of all ages, occupations, and degrees of religious conviction are urged to volunteer for overseas missions to counter the worldwide “rise of Islam” and to promote Korea’s advancement on the world stage. As it was evident in the missionary hostage case in Afghanistan in 2007, some even target Muslim-majority areas where proselytizing is not only illegal but generally unwelcome. Closer to home, the domestic side of Korean-led world evangelization concerns the growing number of Muslims in South Korea—the Korea Muslim Foundation estimates there are 120,000 to 130,000 Muslims currently living in South Korea, many of whom are foreign workers and migrants from South and Southeast Asia, particularly Pakistan and Bangladesh. As such, Korean evangelical discourses have come to address Islam both as a domestic factor and a global force. This paper aims to locate the emerging evangelical attitudes towards Islam in the legacy of Cold War Christianity and the neoliberal gospel of prosperity. In particular, I focus on the evangelicals’ vehement opposition against the 2011 Islamic Bond Legislation in Korea, the so-called “Sukuk bill” which was introduced to grant enormous tax benefits for foreign investors from the Middle East. The timing was uncanny—the legislation coincided with South Korea securing a record-breaking US$40 billion contract to build nuclear power plants in the United Arab Emirates. Explaining how evangelical leaders sought to mobilize public sentiments regarding Islam’s influence on religious freedom and capitalist political economy, I discuss the multiple trajectories that converge in the political theology of Cold War Christianity and market triumphalism, and the complexities of evangelical Christian understandings of finance, wealth, and prosperity.

I mean, check out this sensationalistic illustration from the right-wing Chosun Ilbo, pitting the Ministry of Strategy and Finance against Protestants. See my translation below the image.

The “Islamic Bond Legislation” debate between the Ministry of Strategy and Finance (MoSF) and Protestants:

Concern MoSF Protestants
Excessive tax exemptions? There are no special exemptions in comparison to US Dollars or Japanese Yen. When only the UK, Singapore, and Ireland grant similar tax exemptions, Korea’s concessions are excessive.
Possibilities of a “financial Jihad”? It is nearly impossible that Islamic bonds will be misappropriated towards funding terrorism. Nobody knows where the bond profits go, so it is entirely possible that they will finance terrorism.
Jumpstart spread of Islam in Korea? Finance and religion are unrelated. It is not possible that this will have such wide influence. Because the Islamic Sharia Council will influence the management of the bonds, they will be able to influence Korea.