The Social Functions of Obligatory Denunciations

Image result for al qaeda

In preparation for a new course I’m teaching this fall, I’ve been reading a great deal on Islam. I’ve surveyed both scholarly and popular narratives on Islam, particularly as I hope to compare and contrast such narratives in my course. One thing that has struck me is the near-universal and apparently obligatory denunciations of “extremist Muslims,” “Islamic fundamentalists,” or “Islamic terrorism,” and of course Al-Qaeda in particular. In addition, the condemnations are presented as if obvious or common sense. It’s apparently “obvious” that the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. are “terrible” or “evil.” Interestingly, these denunciations appear even when—or perhaps because—the prose that follows goes on to historicize or contextualize the form of violence under consideration. Apparently, if one is going to offer reasons for which a group might perpetrate violence, one opens oneself to the charge that one is excusing that violence—hence the obligatory qualifications of the following sort: “before getting to the reasons behind 9/11, I want to make it clear that Al-Qaeda’s actions were evil and unforgivable.” Such denunciations, it is worth noting, appear in both scholarly and popular literature.

For all of the reasons outlined by Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, signifiers signify only in relation to their differences from other signifiers. As such, condemnations of “illegitimate” violence are meaningful only in relation to its other: “legitimate” violence. For words like “illegitimate violence” to be meaningful, there must be a contrast—implicitly or explicitly—with “legitimate violence.”

Consequently, I would argue that these obligatory denunciations of illegitimate violence have a dual social function (and here I play off of the double [and opposite] meanings given to the word “sanction”): such denunciations negatively sanction—by decrying—illegitimate violence, but simultaneously positively sanction—by implicitly condoning, absolving, or excusing—legitimate violence. Every such denunciation is simultaneously a signal of approval.

This is why the one-sided or unidirectional nature of these obligatory denunciations are so revealing: in all of the literature I’ve been reading, I’ve not seen a single obligatory and obvious denunciation of, e.g., the violences perpetrated by the United States. Even when criticized, the actions of the United States are, at worst, complicated, lamentable, unfortunate, but never obviously terrible or evil.

So, as I head back to the classroom this fall, I’m going to think before I qualify my lectures by delivering “obvious” and obligatory condemnations of the forms of violence we’ll necessarily cover. Such verbal sanctions—especially when unidirectional—function implicitly to legitimate other forms of violence.

Image result for afghanistan drone bombing

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On Neo-Perennialism

Last year I commented on Facebook that I thought there were structural similarities between classical perennialism in religious studies and the arguments in three recent monographs I had read, specifically Stephen Bush’s Visions of Religion: Experience, Meaning, and Power, Jason Blum’s Zen and the Unspeakable God: Comparative Interpretations of Mystical Experience, and Kevin Schilbrack’s Philosophy and the Study of Religions: A Manifesto.

In summary, my claim was that all three worked with an implicit, universalistic schema whereby all religions throughout history are ordered according to an experience–belief–community schema: humans have exceptional experiences, form beliefs on the basis of those experiences, and then form religious communities around those experiences and beliefs. Unlike classical perennialism, all three of these authors intend to be unreservedly historicist in their approach—they all explicitly denounce classical perennialism—and yet, in my opinion, this ahistorical experience–belief–community schema haunts their work. Aaron Hughes—editor of Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (alongside Steven Ramey)—asked me to put my argument on paper, and this resulted in an essay titled “Yes, … but …”: The Neo-Perennialists.” The abstract reads:

This essay argues that despite their opposition to perennialism, a number of recent scholars inadvertently repeat some of the problematic gestures of perennialism. These scholars are attempting to push the field forward after poststructuralist critiques of religious studies, particularly regarding the varieties of essentialism that have plagued the field. However, their account of “religion” ends up looking, at least in some respects, little different from the pre-critical, essentialist, and ahistorical accounts of religion that were regnant prior to the wave of poststructuralist critiques of religious studies. To some extent we appear to be back to where we started.

Cover image for Zen and the Unspeakable God: Comparative Interpretations of Mystical Experience By Jason N. BlumMTSR sent the piece out for comment to all three of the authors I criticized. Thus a symposium or conversation of sorts began, resulting in my article, their three responses, and my rejoinder. (All five pieces are now pre-published electronically and can be found on MTSR’s website [links below].) All three authors accused me of misinterpreting them, insisting that there is no such experience–belief–community schema to be found in their work; I’ll leave it to others to decide if my claim is a total fiction or if there is indeed some truth to it.

Despite our disagreement and whatever our differences, I do believe that the exchange was useful insofar as it allowed all four of us to clarify some of the similarities and differences between our approaches; thus I’m greatly in debt to Bush, Blum, and Schilbrack for their willingness to participate in the conversation (many thanks to all three of you!). I hope others find our exchange to be of use for thinking about the nature of and appropriate limits to scholarship in our field.


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A Canadian Myth of Origin

The following is an excerpt from a chapter I’m writing for a book on mythmaking and identity formation at public tourist attractions, edited by Erin Roberts and Jennifer Eyl. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to share this prior to the book’s publication.

In January of 2017 I visited Ottawa, Canada’s capitol city. At that time the downtown area was saturated with banners and signs marking “Canada 150,” the year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the creation of Canada as a self-governing dominion or confederation, independent of Britain (established via the British North America Act, 1867). The Canada 150 logo could be seen on just about every street:

canada 150

As the Canada 150 website claims,

[t]he logo is composed of a series of diamonds, or “celebratory gems,” arranged in the shape of the iconic maple leaf. The four diamonds at the base represent the four original provinces that formed Confederation in 1867: Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Additional diamonds extend out from the base to create nine more points—in total representing the 13 provinces and territories.

The Canada 150 logo is an evocative symbol and will become an enduring reminder of one of Canada’s proudest moments. The maple leaf motif is recognized at home and abroad as distinctively Canadian, and it fosters feelings of pride, unity and celebration.

Although the four diamonds are said to represent the “original” provinces, just what exactly constitutes the “origin” of Canada is, in fact, a deeply contested matter. The website claims the maple leaf “fosters unity,” but other cities—such as Vancouver—have launched a “Canada 150+” campaign in order to note that there were aboriginals in North America long before the formation of the confederation in 1867, and that those aboriginals are perhaps a part of a “Canada” that existed prior to that particular point in time. Tensions between aboriginals and those descendants of the French and British colonials have been present since the settlers first arrived, and the status of the First Peoples is to this day subject to ongoing legal battles.

I found a particularly interesting site for the complex discursive construction of “Canada” at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, particularly in the “Early Wars in Canada” permanent exhibit. According to the museum’s website, this exhibit focuses on “The wars of First Peoples, the French and the British [which] shaped Canada and Canadians.” What is ambiguous here, of course, is just what the referent of “Canada” is in “Early Wars in Canada.” Since most of the exhibit concerns a time period before the confederation of 1867—the exhibit begins by noting that it will cover “earliest times to 1885”—to what does the term Canada refer? The exhibit claims to depict “Wars on Our Soil,” but who constitutes the “we” behind the “our” in “our soil”?

One of the first messages in the exhibit claims that “War has shaped Canada and Canadians for at least 5,000 years.” The excavation of 11 bodies with “fractured skulls and smashed facial bones and teeth” at an archaeological site at Namu, British Colubmia—dated from four or five millennia ago—is cited as evidence.  Notably, such a claim implies that the region in North America that eventually became the state of Canada was always Canada, and that the people who lived there were always Canadians—or, if not always, at least from approximately 3000 BCE. In this way, Canadian-ness is anachronistically—yet strategically—projected backwards in time from the present, making the present a teleological end-goal of the last 5,000 years.

Notably, such an anachronistic projection of the present into the past could be done at any moment in history. For instance, imagine that in a thousand years what we now consider the nation of Canada becomes annexed to Mexico; at that point, the narrative could be altered such that, “War has shaped Mexico and Mexicans for at least 6,000 years.” Nothing ensures that the retroactive identification of the past with the present will be stable; the past, then, can continually be rewritten. Revisionist history is, perhaps, the only type of history possible.

The survey of particular wars that have taken place across “Canada” begins with inter-tribal battles between First Peoples. Citing a narrative from the Odawa tribe, the exhibit notes that hunters who went beyond the respected boundaries of their tribe risked death at the hands of neighboring tribes; as more deaths occurred, “several states were obliged to declare open hostilities against each other …. From this time they were engaged in constant warfare.” The inclusion of the Odawa tribe and the First Peoples generally in an exhibit within the Canadian War Museum implies that these peoples were Canadians, even if they did not identify as such. Much as many Christians co-opt ancient Israelite traditions for Christian purposes, here it seems contemporary Canadians claim ancient First Peoples as their own, for contemporary purposes.

Further into the exhibit, following displays of material evidence of the means of war between such tribes (i.e., spears, bows and arrows, etc.), a more cautious note appears: “In Iroquoian communities in what is now southern Ontario, every man and woman had a military role” (emphasis added). This is notable insofar as it attempts to avoid the anachronism seen in the previous parts of the exhibits. However, it also rhetorically distances the First Peoples from contemporary Canadian identity. Although the Iroquois may have lived on the land now known as Ontario, perhaps they were not Ontarians. (Arguably, the creators of the exhibit want to have their cake and eat it too: staking out Canada’s ancient authority or authenticity by including First Peoples at one point, but excluding First Peoples when it comes to contemporary political authority.)

Mere presence upon what came to be known as Canadian soil is apparently insufficient to make one a Canadian, as museum-goers next learn when the exhibit comes to the Vikings, who are described as “alien invaders.” Although they “established an outpost” at what came to be Newfoundland, they were enemies of the First Peoples and were eventually defeated and forced to leave the continent. From this it appears that the First Peoples were Canadians, but the Vikings—despite their stay—were not.

By contrast, when the exhibit gets to the arrival of the French, the French are not characterized as “alien invaders.” On the contrary, they are said to have “settled” and to have “founded” Quebec. In addition, they built forts “for defence against European rivals.” The status of the French is thus, at this point, ambiguous. Although they have “settled” in Canada, they are also “European” and have “European rivals.” Perhaps at that point the French occupied a liminal space between France and Canada? Perhaps their parturition from France and the birth of Canada was not yet complete? Either way, it is clear that their identity is here, at this point in the narrative, individuated primarily from the fact that they arrived from France, insofar as they are consistently referred to as “the French.” That individuation seems to have priority over their other possible identities.

The Europeans brought guns with them, and the exhibit notes that as the First Peoples adopted their use, it changed the way they engaged in war. “Algonkians and Hurons acquired matchlock muskets through trade. When they realized that wooden armour provided no protection against lead bullets, First Peoples stopped wearing armour and fighting battles in the open.” Here the First Peoples’ identities are individuated through their tribal names—Algonkian and Huron—but insofar as the header above this text claims that “Firearms changed First Peoples warfare in Canada” (emphasis added), perhaps as First Peoples they are nevertheless still Canadians. However, the exhibit then turns to note that as the Algonkians and Hurons allied with the French, they collectively warred against “the Iroquois League and the British.” Is Canada a land divided at this point? If the Iroquois are part of Canada, is this civil war?

The “Post-Contact Wars” between the Iroquois and the “Algonkian-French-Huron alliance” had the effect of “militarizing” Canada:

Every man became a soldier, every parish had its own militia, and every town had a garrison, fortifications, and a military commander. The Governor-General, who served as commander-in-chief, could mobilize Canada’s entire armed strength within days.

The use of the word “entire” is instructive here; if the governor can mobilize all of Canada’s military against the Iroquois League, then it follows that the Iroquois are, apparently, not part of Canada. Later the display claims that “Canada faced defeat by the Iroquois League,” further implying that the Iroquois were not included among the Canadians. The exhibit goes on to say that, “[b]eginning in 1669, Canadian men aged 16 to 60 received military training and served in the militia …. They joined First Peoples warriors on raids against the Iroquois League and the British.” Here Canadian men joined First Peoples, in which case First Peoples are apparently not Canadian; here “Canadian” appears to refer only to the French forces.

Later in the exhibit, museum-goers learn that the relations between the First Peoples and the Europeans involved both tension and accommodation. “First Peoples found themselves accommodating to or resisting the European presence, while working to preserve their own culture and heritage.” What is remarkable about this statement is, in part, that First Peoples’ “own culture” seems, implicitly, to be something pre-Canadian. They had their own culture, which they tried to preserve from (corruption by?) European influence. Are they, then, pre-Canadian Canadians? The same paragraph continues: “This accommodation and resistance continues today.” This last claim implies that perhaps there is still something un-Canadian about both First Peoples and the “European presence” in Canada. Perhaps, then, we are dealing not with civil war but a war between foreign nations on Canadian soil?

This conclusion seems to be confirmed when the narrative goes on to emphasize ongoing conflict between the French and the British, culminating in the “Seven Years’ War.” The “local clash” between the French and the British

quickly escalated into a world war. Beginning in 1755, Britain and France sent thousands of professional soldiers to North America. A year later, hostilities spread to Europe and both nations formally declared war. By 1759, war raged in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and the Caribbean, and Quebec was under attack by a British fleet and army.

Here, it seems, there are foreign nations—France and Britain—clashing on Canadian soil. The one discursive exception is in the last clause: if Quebec is part of Canada, then perhaps the French there were Canadian, as opposed to the British foreigners at their door. This is confirmed when the exhibit goes on to say that Louisbourg, “a Canadian city” founded by the French, was destroyed by the British. Apparently the French in Louisbourg were Canadians, although the British exiled them to France after the defeat.

By the time museum-goers get to the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, we learn that the partition of the United States from Britain helped to constitute Canada as a nation. British-American colonists who rebelled against the British homeland also attacked Canadian territory, forcing Canadians to collectively defend their territory. The display says that during the War of 1812, “British regulars, Canadian militia, and First Peoples warriors smashed a major American invasion at Queenstown Heights.” What’s interesting here is that apparently First Peoples are not part of Canada, as they must be mentioned in addition to the Canadian militia. The exhibit insists that this alliance repelled similar American attacks from 1812 to 1814, “and saved Canada from annexation.” Are the British and First Peoples part of this Canada that resisted annexation, or are they merely allied with the Canadians? The narrative draws attention to one “Canadian civilian” who alerted “Mohawk and Ojibwa warriors” of important intelligence regarding the American armies; if she was Canadian but they were Mohawk and Ojibwa, perhaps they were not Canadian?

Later we’re told that in 1885 “a small Canadian army suppressed Métis and Cree resistance” to Ottawa’s administration of the province. The narrative assures museum-goers, however, that “both societies survived as viable communities, which continue to work to protect their rights and heritage.” Here, it seems, not only were the Métis and Cree not part of Ottawa or Canada, but that they continue to be distinct communities. Eventually “Canadians” took the Prairies away from “First Peoples”: “In 1870, First Peoples controlled the Prairies. By 1880, Canadian settlers dominated the region.” Here it is quite clear that First Peoples are not Canadian, especially as “First Peoples resented the Canadian settlers.” The French settlers have, at this point, now become Canadian settlers.

We have, then, an inconsistent and contradictory message. Despite the inclusion of First Peoples as part of Canada at the beginning of the exhibit, the overwhelming message throughout is that the French settlers are the real Canadians. The French are the only group consistently identified as Canadian, and First Peoples are largely depicted as either allied with or against these authentic Canadians, rather than as Canadian themselves.


The matrix of individuation applied in this origin myth involves all of the following identities: Algonkian, American, British, Canadian, Canadian militia, Cree, European, First Peoples, French, Huron, Iroquois, Iroquois League, Louisboug, Métis, Mohawk, Odawa, Ojibwa, Ontarian, Québécois, and Viking. Mere presence on “Canadian soil” (at least as drawn at the time of the exhibit’s creation) does not make one “Canadian,” as many of those groups present on that “soil” are depicted as invaders, interlopers, outsiders, or allies. In the case of most of the groups mentioned, their initial identity or primary individuation appears to be based on their European country of origin or their tribal name. That is, at first French Canadians appear to be French first, and Canadian second; Canadian-ness thus seems to be a second order individuation built upon other, previously existing identifications. By the end, however, the French Canadians become the true Canadians.

As noted above, at first the exhibit seems to want to include the First Peoples’ tribes as part of Canada—hence the claim that Canadian wars go back 5,000 years. However, by the time we get to the end of the nineteenth century, it appears that those individuated as First Peoples are not part of Canada and, in some cases, perhaps at odds with or at war with Canada. By contrast, the Vikings and the British-Americans mentioned, despite their residency on “Canadian soil,” are consistently treated as alien interlopers, clearly outside Canada proper.

If a group’s presence on Canadian soil does not qualify one as Canadian, what does? What criterion underlies the determination of Canadian-ness? No such criterion is made explicit in the exhibit, although those first identified as French (and a few of the British) eventually became Canadian. Arguably, there could be no objective or publicly available criterion by which some are identified as Canadian and others not—ultimately, Canadian-ness is accomplished by fiat via the recitation of these very sorts of discourses. The discourses cannot appeal to something outside themselves to justify their boundary-drawing, as the Canada they point to is the performative result of their recitation rather than their condition.

The discourses that individuate Canada in this exhibit clearly have no legal authority—to some extent it’s merely a museum discourse. Border control agents cannot appeal to it in order to determine who may enter the country. However, that does not mean the discourses at such sites are meaningless, purposeless, or completely without social consequences. On the contrary, insofar as the functions of discourse include the ranking, normalization, and valuation of distributed identities, subjects who identify as Canadian may develop sentiments of affinity or estrangement—or sympathies and antipathies—toward the various groups individuated in the discourse at hand. In Discourse and the Construction of Society, Bruce Lincoln rightly argues that mythic narratives are “one of the chief instruments through which [groups] maintain themselves separate from, hostile toward, and convinced of their moral … superiority to their … neighbors.” French Canadians may, for instance, develop sentiments of estrangement toward those who identify with their aboriginal ancestry; they may perceive First Peoples as a “them” apart from an “us.” So although the discourses found in a museum may not have an official, legal status in Canada, they may indirectly shape the voting choices of citizens or the judiciary’s interpretation of the law. These discourses can interpellate subjects, teaching them who or what they are, but also telling them who they are not.

Special thanks go to Naomi Goldenberg, Cameron Montgomery, and Stacie Swain at the University of Ottawa for hosting my trip to the war museum, and especially to Stacie for helping me interpret those parts of the display that depended on background knowledge about Canada that I did not have; I couldn’t have written this without her help.

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Disambiguating Normativity

marx+fem+dialecticI’ve grown increasingly frustrated with a certain type of argument about the use of norms in academic study. It usually goes something like this: “If we accept poststructuralist critiques of the field, everything is imbricated with values and power relations—these are, a priori, inescapable. As such, there are no grounds for excluding value-laden approaches from the field. On the contrary, constructive normative or theological approaches should be as acceptable as critique.”

To offer just one example, consider Thomas A. Lewis’ recent book, Why Philosophy Matters for the Study of Religion—and Vice Versa (Oxford University Press, 2015; I pick out Lewis merely because his book was the last I read that made this sort of claim ). He writes,

[t]oo often, we distinguish those who are doing normative work—ethicists, theologians, and philosophers of religion, for instance—from those who are doing more descriptive work—such as historians—as engaged in fundamentally different activities. … [However,] all are making normative judgments; much of what distinguishes them is that the first category are more likely to be reflecting explicitly on the justification for their normative claims, whereas the second are more likely to focus their energy elsewhere. … Nonetheless, both are making normative claims. (53)

Lewis’ conclusion? “Normative claims are inevitable in the study of religion (as in most if not all disciplines). What is important is not to try somehow to exclude normative claims but rather be willing to offer justification for the norms that we invoke” (45-6).

The problem with this, from my perspective, is that it collapses together what I would prefer to separate out as different types of normativity. That is, this argument strikes me as a bit ham-fisted, and I think we need to disambiguate further.

As a poststructuralist, I’ve long since given up on the dream of objectivity or objective truth, and thus I’m completely in agreement with the basic premise of this type of argument. However, I still find it both important and useful to appeal to intersubjective verification (of the sort we see in the work of the American pragmatists)—and it is this concern for intersubjective verification that drives me to seek to disambiguate different types of normativity. Let’s consider four different types of cases.

  1. Scholarly investigation may be motivated by normative concerns or sympathies, e.g., an individual or collective desire for social equality between men and women, or a desire for economic equality.
  2. Scholarship may employ a grid of classification that incorporates normative standards, e.g., “advanced” vs “primitive” societies.
  3. Similarly, scholarship may use evaluative concepts, either praiseworthy or pejorative, e.g., the first generation of sociologists talked about “healthy” and “sick” societies.
  4. Scholars may explicitly make normative recommendations or “should” statements regarding the relationship between the academy and the world at large, e.g., we “should” promote social justice or “should” foster certain values or virtues in our students.

What does intersubjective verification have to do with these examples? I would argue that even when sympathies or antipathies are divided, we can potentially still have intersubjective verification in the first type of case, but not in the latter cases.

Many feminist scholars of religion are motivated by normative concerns about patriarchy. Thus a feminist historical-critical reading of the Torah might demonstrate that the text depicts women as subordinate to men in a variety of ways, and that interpretations of this authoritative text have been used to reinforce patriarchal social relations in Jewish and Christian communities over the last couple of millennia. Provided we’re clear about our stipulative definitions of “Torah,” “women,” “men,” “patriarchy,” etc., even someone who shares no feminist sympathies could potentially agree with the historical-critical analysis. Although normative feminist concerns may have driven the analysis in the first place, the conclusions are, in principle, intersubjectively verifiable even by those who feel antipathy toward feminism.

The same would not be true of the other three cases provided above. As concerns the second and third cases, someone with competing sympathies would likely object to the implicit normative standards set up in the discourse at hand. Of course I can understand why, from Durkheim’s European perspective, he depicted “advanced” societies as superior to “primitive” societies. However, insofar as I don’t share his social or political sympathies or his normative assumptions about which kinds of societies are better or worse, I would wholly reject these normative evaluations embedded in his grid of classification. It would be intersubjectively verifiable—independently of one’s sympathies—that Durkheim made these valuations. But those of us who aren’t sympathetic to the devaluation of kinship communities could not verify the truth of Durkheim’s claims, precisely because we’ve rejected his grid of classification in advance. For those of us with different sympathies, we couldn’t verify Durkheim’s claims any more than a modern doctor could verify the truth of a claim about the balance of the four humors in a human body.

Similarly, the fourth case involves a type of normativity that would not be intersubjectively verifiable by those with competing sympathies. “We should promote equality between men and women” could only be agreed upon by those who share feminist sympathies. Individuals or groups who hold patriarchal norms cannot intersubjectively verify the truth of this “should” claim.

As a poststructuralist, I accept that everything we do is imbricated with norms and relations of power—whether we like it or not, our work is motivated by social concerns and can advance or retard varying social interests. As Foucault claims, knowledge is a weapon of war. However, because not all forms of normativity are equally intersubjectively verifiable, I still draw the line at negative critique (even as I recognize that critique may be motivated by norms or sympathies), and I think we should attempt to avoid using praiseworthy or pejorative evaluative terms, as well as “should” statements about our objects of study.

Of course, this normative conclusion could be intersubjectively valid only for those scholars who, like me, value intersubjective verification.

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Whenever there is a “terrorist” attack by anyone who identifies as Muslim, the first tendency of the press is to blame some reified, monolitic “Islam” for the event.

By contrast, when there is a mass shooting by a white man in the US, the first tendency of the press is to isolate the individual from American culture, usually by appeals to the discourse of “mental illness.” White men shoot not because of any cultural influences; they only do it because they, as individuals, are sick. Nothing in American culture (e.g., sexism, racism, libertarian paranoia, etc.) have anything to do with the actions of these mentally ill loners.

Thus it was a shock to see this headline after the recent shooting at a gay night club in Orlando, Florida (a case in which the perpetrator self-identified as Muslim): “Attacker appeared to be self-radicalized.”

Apparently we are now including Muslims in the number of folks whose actions we refuse to historicize. Apparently no one perpetrates illegal gun deaths (as opposed to legal gun deaths, which are justified with a totally different, problematic set of discourses) for any reason whatsoever, other than their inner unmoved-mover randomly flips a switch.

So, we’ll proceed to ignore any possible role of Islamic homophobia, gun culture, American Islamaphobia, etc. in motivating action. Once again, we’re all individuals.

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No One Misunderstands Their Own Religion

The claim that “this person/group does not understand their own religion” should be eliminated from academic prose. If we think someone misunderstands their religion, it’s we who misunderstand.

Of course it’s clear that many Christians don’t know the history of Christianity, and many Muslims don’t know the history of Islam, just as many Americans don’t know much about the history of the US.

However, imagine someone saying that the 2nd amendment protects the right to bear arms, including semi-automatic assault rifles. While that’s clearly not what the 2nd amendment meant for the framers of the constitution, it would be stupid of us to say that this individual doesn’t understand their own politics. They understand their politics quite well.

When we say that someone misunderstands their own tradition, what we’re doing is constructing an authentic history and placing this person outside of it.

I often hear my students accuse their nominally Catholic peers of not understanding Catholicism. By contrast, I’d say most Catholics are nominally Catholic, and that they therefore represent the majority or the center (at least on the northeast United States). And my nominally Catholic students understand nominal Catholicism expertly. 

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When Your Theory of Religion Is Part of the Problem

Yesterday the New York Times ran a story about a “decorated Army Reserve officer” and veteran of the war in Iraq who “left bacon at a mosque and brandished a handgun while threatening to kill Muslims.” One of the men at the mosque reported that Russel Thomas Langoford “told me to go back to my country. I said, ‘Which country do you want me to go to? Give me the ticket and I will fly.’ He said, ‘No, I will not give you a ticket. I will kill you and bury your body right there.’”According to the Times, Langford “was charged with ethnic intimidation, assault with a deadly weapon, going armed to the terror of the public, communicating threats, stalking and disorderly conduct,” and it appears that a spokeman for the Army denounced the alleged behavior as “totally contradictory to Army values.”

Stories such as this are appearing more and more often, particularly with presidential hopeful Donald Trump publicly fanning the flames of communalism. For most of us on the political left, such incidents are immediately denounced as offensive and appalling. And the Times article, although written with neutral prose, gives pride of place to the voices of the Muslim men at the close of the article, in a way appeared to be designed to elicit sympathy for those at the mosque over Langford and his actions.

From the perspective of ideology critique, identify formation, and social categorization, Langford’s actions are easily explained , and thus the story isn’t all that provocative or interesting to those of us who do critical theory, except insofar as it’s an opportunity to express collective disgust.

However, much more interesting is the way the Times explains Langford’s use of bacon. According to the story,

Advocacy groups say pork is often used to insult Muslims, whose religion does not allow them to eat it. The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said the act constituted a desecration of the place of worship.

Although just one phrase, the “religion does not allow them” line does a great deal of explanatory heavy lifting for the article. This is an incredibly abbreviated version of the theory or religion according to which “religion” is fundamentally about “beliefs” that are based on “doctrines” or “sacred texts”—and these “beliefs” directly guide the behavior of the practitioners in the “religion.” It’s a simple formula, and a common one:

Belief —> Behavior

While I’ve little doubt that the editors at the Times find Langdon’s actions reprehensible, I would argue that this theory of religion is part of what directs these sorts of actions in the first place. Why is Langdon so hostile to Muslims? Likely because he thinks their religion is something that makes them do things like not eat pork, or, perhaps, fly planes into buildings. Disseminating or reinforcing this theory of religion—one that assumes everyone in the tradition partakes of the same central beliefs that universally drive their behavior in the same ways—is an excellent way to provide the conditions under which it is rhetorically effortless to demonize the group as a whole.

In addition, presenting “religion” as a form of culture that directly drives behavior is consistent with a sui generis perspective that treats “religion” as fundamentally different than other forms of culture. For instance, I have a hard time believing that the Times would ever publish a story about how French secularism forces the French to oppress religious practitioners. Beliefs that force practitioners to behave a certain way seems to be uniquely a feature of those forms of culture we label as “religious.” The other forms of culture, we presume, are more complicated than the Belief —> Behavior formula we use for “religion.”

While I doubt the Times wants to reinforce Langdon’s “us vs. them” ideology, by presenting “Muslims” as forced by their “religion” to behave in ways that are different from their neighbors, that is exactly what they’re doing.

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