Barack Obama’s inauguration promises to be one of the most important civic events in American history. Millions will make their way to the National Mall. More than 10,000 buses will be chartered. At a website called Inauguration or Bust, people anywhere in the country can find locals to travel with. At the site, the contingent from Savannah, Georgia, refers to its trip as a “pilgrimage”. That word, most often associated with religious fervour, is appropriate here. The inauguration buzz is reminiscent of the excitement I have encountered in Muslim countries in the days preceding the hajj.
The theological comparison isn’t far-fetched. Emerson, Whitman, Dewey, and Rorty all suggested that politics is America’s civil religion. This makes the constitution the country’s holy text. The division of government into a legislative, executive and judicial branch is an earthly version of a triune deity. As for the presidency, the novelist EL Doctorow described its metaphysical role when he wrote: “With each elected president the nation is conformed spiritually. He is the artificer of our malleable national soul. He proposes not only the laws but the kinds of lawlessness that govern our lives and invoke our responses. The people he appoints are cast in his image. The trouble they get into, and get us into, is his characteristic trouble. Finally, the media amplify his character into our moral weather report. He becomes the face of our sky, the conditions that prevail.”
The inauguration is a ritual, akin to Muslims touching the walls of the Ka’bah in Mecca. It renders tangible the ethereal. It is a reminder that the government is like an idol, a fact that was well known to those who introduced the modern nation-state – the French even raised a new goddess after the revolution – but which goes entirely forgotten by us.
The comparison is not all exalted, however. Quite like the hajj – where wealthy western and Gulf-based Muslims discover their piety in five-star hotels while everyone else stays in a tent city on the desert plain of Mina – the inauguration also offers an insight into inequality.
For example, minor ticket touting has been made illegal, but members of the presidential inauguration committee – ie donors who have paid $50,000 or more – are invited to experience the event from exclusive Washington restaurants. Major law firms like Vinson and Elkins are reportedly holding a sumptuous party high above the masses, where the only sardines will be the ones in cliched analogies. Nearby, a lobbying firm will be holding a celebratory event for fellow legislative mercenaries, a chilling reminder of the establishment’s intractability. Change you can believe in.
Certainly the more mundane issues of the hajj – no taxis, crashing wireless networks, dirty toilets and bad manners – will also be on prominent display.
And, of course, the parallel wouldn’t be complete without the religious police. Enter Pastor Rick Warren, who will give the invocation at the inauguration. He is the man who last summer blatantly administered a religious test upon the presidential candidates at his Saddleback Church, making certain that the world is well aware that in America only someone with Christian credentials should aim for the highest office.
Still, for its various issues, the thing about the hajj, ultimately, is that it erases all previous sins. It is a time for renewal. Reincarnation without death. A hopeful look forward. It is upon that principle that Obama’s inauguration, the coronation of the first black president in American history, is to be valued. He is a mea culpa for America’s original sin. A trip to this inauguration thus becomes a secular hajj for collective redemption.
Exactly 150 years ago in Savannah, 400 people were sold in one of the largest slave auctions ever held in the US. On the Inauguration or Bust website the city has so far registered 560 people. They will return as hajis of America’s future.
Ali Eteraz is a frequent contributor to altmuslim and the author of the forthcoming book Children of Dust. This article was previously published in The Guardian.