Fun@School (SJC Aalst, Collegecross, 2017)

Muslim WomenOnce upon a time, there was this Muslim woman who wore a headscarf and always went on a rant when she saw other Muslim women without headscarves. She thought Muslim women without the scarf were “bad Muslims”. After her husband died, however, she herself decided not to wear the scarf any longer and let her hair hang down. As it turned out, she had been afraid of her husband, her family and the village she used to live in, and that was the real reason why she had worn the scarf. She thought that she would have lost face when she didn’t dress like the other women in her village. All along, she had desired to walk around like Muslim women without a headscarf, but because she hadn’t been able to fulfill this desire, she had convinced herself that she didn’t want to walk around without a headscarf, and she had begun to despise women who didn’t wear a scarf. That’s how she had comforted herself, how she had reconciled herself with her situation. In other words, this woman had been driven by ressentiment: she had developed an aversion towards something she had secretly desired.

Muslim WomanA couple of years ago, I had the privilege of welcoming some Muslim girls in my religion class. Among them were two sisters from Chechnya. Years later I came across them again in the streets of my hometown. One was wearing a headscarf, the other was not. I asked the one without the scarf if she considered herself less religious than her sister. She assured me that this was not the case, and her sister, the one with the scarf, added that it was not really an issue. The latter also wasn’t at all disturbed that her sister didn’t wear a scarf. She was happy with wearing a headscarf, it was her freely chosen way of symbolizing her faith, but she could understand that her sister made other choices.

Makes you think… Apparently, to point the finger at someone sometimes has to do with a desire to uphold a certain reputation or image. If you do things because of love for what you are doing, you are less inclined to judge people who make other choices (within certain ethical limits, of course).

Collegecross SJC Aalst 2016Yesterday our high school (Sint-Jozefscollege, Aalst – Belgium) organized its yearly run. Since a couple of years, our senior year students try to make their run more playful and humorous, instead of competitive. They just want to have some fun together. What I notice, however, is that a few of them do feel tempted to act like a nuisance to other students (or, in the past, to teachers and principals as well). They can’t seem to accept that not every student has the same idea of fun and humor. To those (few) students who point fingers at supposedly “uncool” and “lacking sense of humor” classmates, I would ask: if you are enjoying yourselves and if you are having fun (because of love for… the fun!), why would you care about others and their idea of fun? The thing is, if “having fun” and “being humorous” become serious business, not allowed to being put into perspective and to being criticized, then they gradually lose the fun and the humor. Especially when they become moral instruments for judging others.

This all happens when “having fun” is not primarily a sign that people are enjoying themselves, but is a way of establishing a “cool” reputation or image. Some students seem to imagine that they are performing some “heroic act against an all too disciplined school system” (which is not the case; our school is very tolerating – but maybe some of our students are a bit spoiled?). Their all too necessary “humor” becomes an outlet for frustrations. Although they reproach others with being humorless, they themselves seem filled with bitterness, unable to minimize the importance of their “fun”. Fun at the expense of others is no fun at all. It is often a sign of ressentiment.

In short, like a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf because she wants to uphold a certain reputation, some students “have fun” because they want to be noticed as “cool dudes”. It’s basic narcissism. And like the Muslim woman who wears a headscarf because of her image has the tendency to point fingers at others (she blames Muslim women without a headscarf for “not being true Muslims”), some students who “have fun” because of their image also have the tendency to point fingers at others (they blame the student who doesn’t take part in their particular activity for “not being humorous”).

Charlie Chaplin Quote on Laugh

On the other hand, a Muslim woman who freely wears a headscarf, because of love, will not have the tendency to point fingers at others. She will not bother or harm others. After all, she loves how she dresses. Equally, students who freely enjoy themselves, because of love, will not have the tendency to point fingers at others. They will not bother or harm others. After all, they love what they are doing…

In Memoriam Michaël Ghijs

gabriel-garridoSaturday, February 23, 2008. Gabriel Garrido, a renowned conductor of Latin American baroque music, is about to begin an evening concert at Cité de la Musique, Paris. His equally famous Ensemble Elyma is ready, together with eleven members of the Belgian boy and men choir Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. All of a sudden, maestro Garrido turns around and addresses the audience:

“We are saddened to inform you that two days ago, on Thursday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs, the widely acclaimed conductor of the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino from Aalst, Belgium, passed away. We would like to dedicate this concert to his memory.”

Then he turns again and looks us straight in the eyes. We, the members of the Cantate Domino choir, all have a lump in the throat. We all try to hold back our tears. Finally, maestro Garrido raises his hands and off we go to sing Cantate Domino’s first concert after the death of its founder. We all know things will never be the same again (footage from the concert):

Only 5 months before, on October 8, 2007, on his 74th birthday, Reverend Michaël Ghijs got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I still remember it vividly, because we used to celebrate our birthdays together (mine is on October 6).

Michaël Ghijs conducts his choir one last time during Mass on Sunday, February 3, 2008, in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels. He is literally deathly sick at the time, no longer able to accompany his boys during the entrance procession, but still he manages to direct them for the remainder of the Mass. It is but one example of his tremendous willpower and passion. Of course, these personality traits make him stubborn at times. For instance, during a concert tour in Asia he asks me wether or not to include Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for an afternoon programme. My answer is not to include it, because I have the impression that the young trebles don’t seem sure about themselves. From his reaction I immediately know I shouldn’t have said that. He starts rehearsal with the Choral Fantasy, saying that the sopranos will show everyone who doubts them what they are capable of. Eventually, he shows me wrong. He is, as always, proud of the achievements of his singers. It is no coincidence that many former members of Cantate Domino have a career in music.

philippe-herrewegheMichaël Ghijs is proud of and grateful for the hard work and successes of the people he works with, yet he is not driven by pride. Although he can be stubborn, he can also say that he is sorry and admit to making mistakes. It is characteristic of the way he leads the choir. Conflicts are possible, meaning that Michaël Ghijs is not just a commander-in-chief who expects blind obedience. On the other hand, great discipline is needed and established because he wants to perform the often difficult music the best he can. Not because he wants to make a career or because he chases some kind of success, but simply because he loves the (mostly religious) music and the message it contains. His love of music itself and his artistic motivations became clear, for instance, when he compared different recordings of the same work. I remember very vividly, during my first year in the choir, that he really disliked a recording of Mendelssohn’s St. Paul oratorio by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. It’s the recording some of my friends and I had bought. He thought the overall interpretation didn’t serve the music nor the message. Also, after concerts, he could be very dissatisfied with our performance even when the crowd had given us a standing ovation.

I guess this is difficult to understand for people who are primarily driven by a desire to make a career and/or to become rich. True, eventually the Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino works with famous conductors like Colin Davis, Laszlo Heltay, Ronald Zollman, Philippe Herreweghe, Michael Tilson Thomas, Pierre Cao, Claudio Abbado, Alexander Rahbari, Johan Duijck, Rudolf Werthen and Dirk Brossé; with musicians like Vladimir Ashkenazy, José van Dam and even Toots Thielemans; with ensembles like Capilla Flamenca and the above mentioned Ensemble Elyma – listen to an excerpt from the collaboration on the CD Corpus Christi à Cusco (K617, 2006):

The choir even participates in the movies Daens and In BrugesNothing of the choir’s impressive resume, however, has ever been a goal. It’s just been a consequence of passion and hard work (the trebles alone practice up to 15 hours a week!). Moreover, Cantate Domino has never been a merely artistic project.



Michaël Ghijs has a hard time refusing boys who can’t really sing. Those who persevere find a way of making themselves helpful in the practical organisation of the choir. They are welcome to join the choir on its concert tours. Regarding these tours, Michaël Ghijs also has a hard time refusing members who don’t really deserve to come along because of longer periods of absence. Sometimes the yearly concert tours are undertaken by a group of around eighty individuals, making them a financially challenging operation. Yet Reverend Ghijs often pays the entire trip out of his own pocket for members whose financial situation doesn’t otherwise allow them to travel. The choir indeed is open to people of all sorts of cultural and social backgrounds. Reverend Ghijs also makes it a point to look after members and former members when they experience difficulties in their lives. For instance, he provides shelter for a young man who came out of the closet as a homosexual and whose parents threw him out because of that. Or he gives daily calls to a former member of the choir who is in the hospital for a treatment of meningitis. There are so many situations to mention… Perhaps it is in these social aspects that the priestly vocation of Ghijs is most apparent. The choir never is a money making machine. Singing at funerals and marriages, or performing in care homes, prisons, whatever: the choir often just receives enough to pay the bill of the bus (sometimes to the chagrin of the older members who are in charge of the finances).

diapason-cover-june-2005In any case, what Michaël Ghijs achieves with his choir, with boys who often don’t have any proper education in music, is nothing short of a miracle. One of his best qualities is his firm belief in the abilities of young people before they even believe in themselves. When some of us think we will never be able to properly perform Amen by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki, Michaël Ghijs pulls us through. He even wants us to sing it at the Belgian provincial choir tournaments, next to, among other music, Bach’s motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. In the end he is right. Our perfomance places us, once again, in the highest division. In the same period an album is recorded by Capilla Flamenca together with some trebles of Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino. Ten years later, this CD is listed among “the 25 most beautiful recordings of boy choirs” by renowned French magazine Diapason (June, 2005):


Listen to an excerpt from the CD Missa Alleluia (Eufoda, 1996):

If anything, these things prove that Michaël Ghijs above all educated young people to enable them to shine and to share their talents with the world. Of course, there will always be cynical minds who regard the work of a priest with young boys and men with suspicion. I know Reverend Ghijs got called names sometimes by so-called rebellious teenagers when he crossed the street with his boy sopranos. The words are not worth repeating. Reverend Ghijs, unlike me, ignored them and always continued his work with the same energy, passion, eagerness to learn and genuine concern for what happened in the lives of his singers.

I’ve had the privilege to have known this man, a true friend and mentor, for almost twenty years. Like everyone else, he was a complex human being with flaws and weaknesses, with doubts and frustrations. He dared to be vulnerable. He kept reading and studying, knowing that he never knew enough. He questioned the personal assumptions of his Christian faith and developed his theology in a different direction over the years (in no small part because he discovered the work of James Alison). He loved the good life and could enjoy delicious food and drinks in good company.

Michaël Ghijs is missed by friends all over the world, from the Americas over Spain, Italy, Bulgaria and a range of other European countries to South Africa, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and many other places. In the course of his lifetime, Reverend Michaël Ghijs discovered his own limits and cultural boundaries, not as ends in themselves to separate himself from others, but, on the contrary, as means to encounter others. His legacy is a spirituality to be imitated and a work to be continued, in whatever context, in true friendship and in gratitude.

May God bless him.

My trip down memory lane, compiled from different tv performances, pictures and records – life in Schola Cantorum Cantate Domino:

Invitations to Explorations (COV&R 2016)

COV&R 2016The annual and 26th conference of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) coincided with the 6th annual conference of the Australian Girard Seminar. It was the first meeting of its kind after the passing of René Girard (December 25, 1923 – November 4, 2015), whose groundbreaking interdisciplinary work and eventually developed mimetic theory is further explored by an ever growing number of scholars on these occasions. Certainly and sadly in this day and age, the theme of the conference couldn’t have been more appropriate: Violence in the Name of Religion. The academic yet also cordial gathering was held at the campus of ACU (Australian Catholic University) from Wednesday 13 July until Sunday 17 July 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.

As is always the case, also at this COV&R the participants gave each other lots of inspiration. In the coming months I will probably share some explorations I felt invited to on this blog. For now I’d like to highlight some of the ideas I thought were quite inspiring (at least to me).


The Myth of Religious ViolenceProf. William T. Cavanaugh started off the event by giving the Raymund Schwager Memorial Lecture. AS PEOPLE USED TO BELIEVE IN THE GODS – Girard and the Myth of Religious Violence was the provocative title of his contribution, which essentially stated that violence is not a religious problem but a universally human reality (as Dr. Petra Steinmair-Pösel succinctly pointed out in her response to the lecture).

Cavanaugh summarized the myth many people believe in nowadays as follows:

  1. There is a trans-historical and transcultural essence of religion that distinguishes it from essentially secular phenomena like reason, or politics and economics: religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism [Cavanaugh was aware that some people might not call Buddhism a religion] are essentially different from secular phenomena like nationalism, consumerism, and Marxism.
  2. Religion has more of a tendency to promote violence than secular phenomena.
  3. Therefore, religion should be marginalized from public power and secularism should be encouraged.

He then went on to debunk this myth by pointing out how the religious/secular dichotomy originated as a typically western phenomenon. In the words of Cavanaugh:

The religious/secular distinction is not trans-historical and transcultural: it is a contingent product of the modern West. What counts as religious and what counts as secular in any given circumstance depends on the political purposes of the one making the distinction. The distinction is commonly used to endorse as rational and peacemaking certain beliefs and practices, labeled secular, and to condemn others, labeled religious, as essentially irrational and prone to violence. The distinction does not simply describe the way the world is, but rather tells us about how the West distributes power.

The creation of the sovereign state meant that the ambit of ecclesiastical authorities would gradually be confined to religion – the realm of belief – while the civil authorities would take charge of the political. The religious/secular and religion/politics distinctions helped eventually to create the expectation that the natural place of the church was the private sphere.

Some more explanation might be in place here for some readers. Following René Girard, the possibility itself of a dichotomy between the religious and the secular can be considered as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian unveiling of the lie at the heart of archaic religious systems, namely the scapegoat mechanism. As such the Judeo-Christian tradition is, in principle, responsible for the gradual loss of belief in the effectiveness of ancient ritual sacrifices (even if these were sometimes revived in so-called Christian societies; criticism of these practices comes from the Gospel itself, for instance by Erasmus, “Prince of the Humanists”). Ritual sacrifices contained violence in a twofold sense (see also Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy): they were themselves of course a form of bloody violence, but they were also believed to control the possibility of greater violent (natural and/or social) disasters understood as “the wrath of the gods” (= violence transferred to a sacred or transcendent realm).

While secularism no longer endorses the belief that potentially violent gods should be appeased by bloody sacrifices to establish an eventually peaceful world order, it does try to locate potential sources of violence or disorder that should be eliminated (“sacrificed” in a sense). It is no accident that Dr. Steinmair-Pösel, in her response to the lecture, spoke of secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” in that it “scapegoats the scapegoaters”. In this sense it goes against the heart of Christianity as a call for forgiveness (from the part of the victim) and conversion (to neighborly love that is, from the part of the perpetrator). The imitation of the “kenotic movement of Christ” should result in attitudes refraining from revenge. Nevertheless, in today’s globalized human community, people often rival each other’s claim to be “victims” and as such feel entitled to sometimes violently prosecute others who are considered “perpetrators”. While we’re Wolfgang Palaver COV&R 2016at it, Prof. Wolfgang Palaver would later on, in his own lecture, rightly point to the fact that many of today’s terrorists legitimize themselves as victims or defenders of victims (from groups like ISIS to Aum Shinrikyo and people like Anders Breivik). Secularism thus is, in certain circumstances, but one of several contemporary ideological systems that can legitimize marginalization and even (violent) discrimination of certain groups in the name of victims. Mosques have been set to fire after ISIS attacks, for instance. As a means of victimizing others in turn, however, secularism tragically adds to the problem of violent extremism: it makes it more easy for organizations like ISIS to claim that “their people” are indeed “victims” or that they are being “marginalized”. And so the vicious circle goes on and on. In short, by labeling religion in general and its believers as “often dangerously irrational”, “potentially violent” and therefore “better if gone, eliminated or destroyed”, secularism ironically becomes a religious system itself. A religious system is understood then as a social order arising out of so-called necessary sacrifices to prevent potentially violent mayhem. All of this, again, in the words of Prof. Cavanaugh:

The point is not only that people are just as likely to kill for secular things like Marxism and capitalism [remember the Gulag or the Cold War] as they are for religious things like Islam and Hinduism. The point is that the religious/secular distinction is itself an act of power that labels certain things “religious” and therefore essentially irrational and potentially dangerous, while authorizing as “secular” other belief systems and practices whose violence is accepted as rational and peacemaking.

[Cavanaugh eventually quotes Girard on religion and religion in the secular, and provides further explanation (I took the picture on the right from the core of the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney):]

IMAG2676_1_1Girard: “Any phenomenon associated with the acts of remembering, commemorating, and perpetuating a unanimity that springs from the murder of a surrogate victim can be termed ‘religious’.”

Religion, in this sense, is not a sui generis phenomenon that can be separated out from culture, reason, politics, economics, or society.

Girard uses religion in a narrow sense to refer to the archaic (mis)representation of sacrificial violence, and in a broader sense to refer to the ways that all societies – even modern secular ones – employ the same mechanisms to legitimate and control violence. In good Durkheimian fashion, Girard uses the term “religion” to name the way that any society – including any “secular” society – represents itself to itself. As Girard writes “There is no society without religion because without religion society cannot exist.”

[From Girard’s anthropological perspective on secularism and anti-religion, the religious/secular dichotomy indeed becomes part of one of today’s most important myths (the discourse that establishes a distinction between illegitimate and legitimate violence). Cavanaugh continues and concludes:]

The religious/secular dichotomy is itself part of the apparatus whereby violence is concealed. Girard’s goal is to reveal it, and thereby undermine the religious/secular dichotomy.

As Girard says, the Christian “Revelation deprives people of religion, and it is this deprivation that can increasingly be seen around us, in the naïve illusion that we are finished with it… Today’s anti-religion combines so much error and nonsense about religion that it can barely be satirized. It serves the cause that it would undermine, and secretly defends the mistakes that it believes it is correcting.”

During the remainder of my time in Australia, about a week after the conference, I discovered that the myth of secularism is alive and well on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, Sydney:

IMAG2574 IMAG2575 IMAG2577

Secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” (see higher, Dr. Steinmair-Pösel) thus contains a warning for Christians themselves (and for all who try to develop a spiritual attitude that goes beyond the convenient and comfortable dualism of “good versus evil”, be it for instance “good secularism versus evil religion”): Jesus never attempted to completely abolish the existing cultural (religious) traditions and social systems, he merely tried to transform his own Jewish religion, whenever and wherever needed, in light of neighborly love. In their covert and overt attempts to completely remove religion from the public sphere, certain secularists attain the exact opposite of what they’re trying to accomplish: they continue an essentially sacrificial (“religious”) system. As Dr. Steinmair-Pösel concluded in her response to the first plenary session, the difference between so-called archaic religion and Judeo-Christian tradition (or religion and “secularism” for that matter) therefore can never result in a complete “separation” with one destroying the other, but should be thought of as a distinction. In other words and as I understand it, the ultimate human possibility of a humanitarian ethos, materializing in whatever cultural form, ceases to exist whenever one culture establishes itself at the expense of another (for sure, the colonial history of certain so-called Christians implied the disappearance of humanitarianism).

Evening Drink with COV&R friends Melbourne 2016Well, one thing became clear on the first evening of the conference. The organizers not only provided the participants with a great reception and dinner, they indeed also promised copious food for thought.


The high expectations for the rest of the conference were already met on the second day. Religion and Violence in Girard’s Mimetic Theory, the second plenary session, saw Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Dr. Sarah Bachelard and Dr. Chris Fleming engage in a discussion with Girard’s thought to approach modern politics and contemporary social phenomena.

Jean-Pierre Dupuy COV&R 2016From the lectures of Prof. Dupuy and Dr. Bachelard I became more aware of the difference between the terror of today’s violent extremism on the one hand, and the terror of “the fear of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction)” by a nuclear war during the Cold War on the other. During the Cold War, the threat of total annihilation served as a third party, a non-human entity (an exteriorization of violence) to which both the US and the USSR bowed. A “cold war” thus resulted in a “hot peace” (a nuclear peace). Today’s suicidal terrorists, however, don’t fear annihilation in any way. So the threat of annihilation as a means to establish an ever precarious peace doesn’t work. This means that we are challenged to look for other attempts to create peace which don’t alienate us from “the best of ourselves”.

Prof. Dupuy also made an intriguing remark on the relationship between “victim” and “crowd”. While the old sacred is based on the gathering of an undifferentiated crowd around a sacrificial victim (or a series of victims), today’s violent extremism basically consists of one or more murderous suicidal subjects who attack and disperse an undifferentiated crowd. Dupuy therefore considers modern terrorism as a sham or simulacrum of the foundational event (of the old sacred). The UNANIMITY of the crowd is swapped for the ANONIMITY of the crowd. Instead of containing violence, the self-sacrifice of the suicide terrorist implies not contained violence. In one of the concurrent sessions I attended, The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions, Prof. Thomas Ryba pointed to the difference between the dynamic of Christ and its “satanic” reversal, which joins the thought of Dupuy from a Christian perspective. Jesus is one who is willing to die for all (because he refuses the sacrifice of others to save himself), while a suicide terrorist wants all to die for one (for the purpose of his self-aggrandizement).

Dr. Fleming concluded the second plenary session by pointing to an interesting (mimetically opposing) parallel between the political left and right when it comes to interpreting violent extremism. Depending on the external features of the violent extremists in question, both the political left and right easily replace structural theories with theories of agency in explaining human behavior. For instance, the right tends to explain the violence of a Muslim shooter from the ideological structure that is Islam, while the left in this case generally claims that the problem lies in the individual and not in Islam. The reverse will happen in the case of a white (Christian) shooter, for instance. In other words, from a certain political left, Islam structurally remains something pure and worthy of protection by scapegoating an individual agent, i.e. the Muslim shooter. On the other hand, from a certain political right, Christianity structurally remains something pure and worthy of protection by, once again, scapegoating an individual agent, this time a Christian shooter. Contenders on both sides would try to generalize the disposition of one agent to a collective disposition of THE Muslim or THE Christian, or even THE believer (if certain atheists were to be believed). If you belong to a certain group and you want to protect the image of purity of that group, you might attribute the terrorist behavior of one of your own to specific circumstances explaining the erratic behavior of that individual. So there are different levels of attribution (see attribution theory in social psychology, click here) in all these cases.

In any case, it seems that violent extremists try to escape the limits of human existence by committing “non-negotiable” acts which make them feel like gods. In the words of Fleming, “gods don’t need politics.” Which made me suddenly think about the saying, “All’s fair in love and war…” A reflection that is to be continued, for sure.

The third plenary session, on the evening of the second day, was a lecture by Prof. Asma Afsaruddin, Islam and Violence: Debunking Myths. She gave a challenging assessment of the relationship between Islam and violence, stressing the point that poor religious education and a very limited understanding of Islam facilitate the connection between Islam and violence. Once again, removing a religion like Islam from serious public and academic debate and leaving it to the hands of self-declared imams on the worldwide web seems like a very bad idea. I can only highly recommend the work of Prof. Afsaruddin to clear some important misconceptions.


The first plenary session on Friday morning started with some turmoil. Prof. Wolfgang Palaver, Prof. Greg Barton and Dr. Julian Droogan eventually talked about Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam. Their session, sadly enough, was all the more topical since news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day had just arrived. Prof. Greg Barton came in a bit late because he was asked, being a counter-terrorist expert, about his first thoughts on the attack for Australian TV.

Dr. Droogan began his lecture by describing the main conceptual problems with “radicalization” as an explanatory tool for violent extremism. Again, also in this lecture, some common assumptions were challenged:

  • The assumption that violent extremism is caused by radical beliefs is not born out by research that suggests that violent extremism is more often supported by social dynamics and perceptions of identity.
  • By assuming that it is radical ideas that primarily lead people to violent extremism, an easy assumption is made linking religious or political concepts as the primary drivers of violence.
  • De-radicalization? It is a difficult and sensitive task to convince an individual to make changes to cognitive beliefs especially when these are tied to a person’s identity / reinforced through social networks.

So de-radicalization programs which merely focus on “ideas” won’t work, since violent extremism has more to do with building an identity than with ideology as such.

No wonder then that violent extremists like ISIS find their most ardent supporters in youth groups, traditionally groups in the midst of developing their identity. As Droogan pointed out, a 2014 ICM poll revealed that more than 25 % of French youth (of all religions and backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 24) had a favorable attitude towards ISIS.

The man who killed 84 people in Nice by driving a lorry through a crowd, 31 year old Tunisian delivery man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, clearly had identity and social issues as well. Dr. Droogan presented the profile of an ISIS fighter in the western diaspora, containing characteristics that would prove to be true for this terrorist too (inserted information about the Nice killer comes from BBC News, in italics):

Young – grew up in the post 9/11 world of counter terrorism and “clash of civilizations” rhetoric.

75 % joined Al Qaeda or ISIS through friends – social networks.

Almost 25 % joined through family or acquaintances.

Speak of the importance of finding meaning in their lives – a search for meaning and identity.

Very rare that parents were at all aware of their children’s desire; international affairs, foreign policy or terrorism not discussed at home.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel last visited Tunisia four years ago, people in his hometown Msaken told the BBC’s Rana Jawad. They said many people knew his family and were shocked by his actions. “We remember him as a normal person from a wealthy family,” a town resident told her.

Mostly youth in transitional stages of their lives:



Between jobs

Between relationships

Police say Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was married with three children, although he no longer lived with his wife. She was detained for questioning by police on 15 July but has since been released. A woman who knows the family told the BBC Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been thrown out of their home in the Le Ray area of Nice more than a year ago after allegedly beating his wife.

Left or about to leave their family

Looking for new family or friends or community of like-minded passionate idealists

Mostly youth who are deeply concerned with finding meaning, value and significance in their lives, and have a commitment to action

Examinations of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s browsing history showed he had carried out research for his attack. On 1 July he searched for details of the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice as well as videos showing “terrible” fatal traffic accidents. He had also read about recent attacks in Orlando, where a man proclaiming allegiance to IS shot 49 people in a gay nightclub, Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers, and Magnanville near Paris, where a French jihadist stabbed two police officials to death. In the days before the attack, he twice drove to the Promenade des Anglais in his rented lorry, sold his van and attempted to withdraw money, Mr Molins said. This showed that his act was “premeditated and deliberate”, he said. He reserved the 19-tonne refrigeration lorry on 4 July and collected it on 11 July in Saint-Laurent-du-Var, just west of Nice. During his reconnaissance trips, he sent a selfie photo from the driver’s cabin. Just minutes before launching his attack, he sent text messages asking accomplices to give him more weapons and boasting about having obtained a pistol. He fired that pistol at police during his rampage, before police shot him dead. “Bring more weapons, bring five to C,” one of the messages said. Police are trying to identify who the message was sent to.

No traditional religious education

The Nice killer lived a life “far from religion”, eating pork, taking drugs and indulging in a “wild” sex life, French prosecutor François Molins said.

Some “born again” or “conversion” experience

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the Nice killer had apparently been radicalized very quickly. From 1 July, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel made more or less daily internet searches for verses of the Koran and “nasheeds” – jihadist propaganda chants. He also researched the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Investigators found photos of dead bodies and images linked to radical Islamism on his computer, including the flag of so-called Islamic State, the cover of an issue of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – attacked by gunmen in January 2015 – and photos of Osama bin Laden and Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In the eight days leading up to the attack, he grew a beard and told friends this was for “religious reasons”. He also told them he did not understand why IS could not hold territory and showed them a video of a beheading on his mobile phone. In response to their shock, he said he was “used to it”. However, there was no evidence that he had pledged allegiance to any radical groups or had contact with known Islamists.

Those who do practice religious ritual may have been expelled from the mosque for expressing radical political beliefs

Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam COV&R 2016As is also clear from the research conducted by Prof. Barton, many of the recent terrorists have a history of violence and petty crime.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been in trouble with police between 2010 and 2016 for threatening behaviour, violence and petty theft. In March, a court in Nice convicted him of assaulting a motorist with an improvised weapon – a wooden pallet – during an altercation. He was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to contact police once a week, which he did. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was “never flagged for signs of radicalization”, officials say, and he was not on France’s “Fiche S” high-security watch list. The majority of attacks carried out in the country since January 2015 have been staged by men designated “Fiche S”, and also linked to IS. In 2014, IS spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani told supporters in an audio message: “If you can’t detonate a bomb or fire a shot, manage by yourself… run them over with your car.” Many of France’s jihadist killers, starting with Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in 2012, also began their journey towards militant Islam as petty criminals.

Dr. Droogan concluded that groups like ISIS capitalize on youth rebelliousness and the search for significance and glory. It should be stressed that the Nice killer, for instance, not only searched the web for “jihadist” terror attacks, but also looked at shootings like the one in Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers. He was apparently interested in violent acts that would put him in the spotlight and give him a sense of significance, no matter under what flag. The Nice killer thus showed signs of the “copycat effect” (a mimetic phenomenon, indeed): sensational media exposure about violent suicides and murders results in more of the same through imitation. Moreover, the Nice killer apparently had mental issues as well. Add this to the equation and you might get a very explosive, dangerous mindset.

A psychiatrist, Chamseddine Hamouda, carried out a mental assessment of the killer a few years ago after his father became concerned about his “troubling behaviour of a psychotic nature”. “He was a stranger to himself,” Mr Hamouda said. “I advised his parents that he needed treatment. At the time he exhibited violent behaviour towards his family… I’m sure that in the past 12 years something else happened that perhaps influenced how he thought.”

In short, ISIS is one of possible organizations, and a popular one at that, which provide an outlet for people who became extremely violent. These violent tendencies mainly have other causes than some twisted ideology. The allegiance with a twisted ideology should be understood more as a consequence of the obsession to achieve significance, attention or recognition through a highly publicized act of violence.

ProfSolidarity with France & Nice (because of terror attack) in Melbourne. Wolfgang Palaver’s contribution for this plenary session was all the more challenging as it highlighted the inspiration Islamic tradition itself could provide to create a more peaceful world. Prof. Palaver situated Islam within the Abrahamic tradition’s potential to criticize “sacred” phenomena born from bloody sacrifices. In the words of René Girard, “The peoples of the world do not invent their gods, they deify their victims.” This could be said of the way ISIS glorifies its suicide terrorists as well. In this context Palaver distinguished between the sacred and the holy, the first basically being the false transcendence of idolatry (as in ISIS claimed suicide attacks), while the latter points to the mysterious transcendence of a “God” who is other than the human projections of power. Seems like a grace needed in this ever broken world…


The final plenary session again was packed with impulses for further explorations. Prof. Frank Brennan SJ, Assoc. Prof. Kathleen Butler, Archbishop Philip Freier & Ms Naomi Wolfe formed the panel for Religion and Violence in Australian-Indigenous History.

One realization in particular struck me. When white people first came to Australia, they asked themselves whether aboriginals were actually “real human beings”, and tried to think of aboriginals as somewhat being in an animal stage instead. Similarly, however, aboriginals too asked themselves whether white people were actually “real human beings”, thinking of white people as ghosts instead.

I guess there is no greater challenge in human relationships than to think of the other as “other” without, however, situating that “otherness” in “something less” or “something more” than oneself. Idolatry of one’s self-image as “better than others” or of others as “better than myself” only leads to alienation, narcissistic illusions, hypodermic frustrations, self-loathing, hatred of others and eventually violence.

We are limited human beings, and as such we’re always called to the never-ending exploration and acceptance of the mystery we are to ourselves and to each other. Us is a life sizzling with creativity.

This COV&R has only been the third I went to (the first two I attended were in the US – Cedar Falls, 2013 & Saint Louis, 2015), but I must say that I always feel charged with energy when coming back. For this I’m very grateful. I’d like to end this report by explicitly thanking the organizers of all COV&R conferences, on this occasion the organizers of the 2016 COV&R.

So thank you:

COV&R 2016 Gala DinnerACU (Australian Catholic University)

Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (Charles Sturt University)


THE RAVEN FOUNDATION (Suzanne & Keith Ross)

THE AUSTRALIAN GIRARD SEMINAR (especially Prof. Scott Cowdell, Dr. Chris Fleming, Dr. Joel Hodge, Dr. Carly Osborn, Wojtek Kaftanski)

The Theory of René Girard by Carly Osborn

I’d also like to congratulate Yevgen Galona, Lukasz Mudrak and Elizabeth Culhane for winning the Raymund Schwager Memorial Essay Prize (place one to three, respectively).

Concurrent Session on Madmen COV&R 2016I’d like to thank the lecturers of the concurrent sessions I went to (they were all delightful): Jonathan Cole (The Jihadist Current and the West: The Clash of Conceptuality), Susan Wright (Rekindling a Sacrificial Crisis in the Eucharist: John’s Midrashic Reversal of the ‘Manna’ Metaphors), Chloé Collier (American Presidents and Apocalyptic Discourse: Justifying Violent Foreign Policies in Times of Crisis), Suzanne Ross (Acquisitive Desire in Early Childhood: Rethinking Rivalry in the Playroom), Mathias Moosbrugger (Ignatius of Loyola and Mimetic Theory: Is it a Thing?), Wojtek Kaftanski (Mimesis as the Problem and the Cure: Kierkegaard and Girard on Human Autonomy and Authenticity), Scott Cowdell (A Five-Act Girardian Theo-Drama), David Gore (The Call to Follow Jesus), Thomas Ryba (The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions), Jeremiah Alberg (Forbidding What We Desire; Desiring What We Are Forbidden – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue *), Diego Bubbio (The Self in Crisis: A Mimetic Theory of Mad Men), Paul Dumouchel (About Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing).Dekalog Kieslowski

* In his presentation on Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, Prof. Jeremiah Alberg mentioned that the co-scenarist for these groundbreaking movies, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, declared that his ideas are based on the books of René Girard. Something to look at more thoroughly in the future. For more on this, click here: Krzysztof Kieslowski – Jeux interdits – Essai sur le Décalogue de Kieslowski (extrait), Yves Vaillancourt (pdf).

Finally, I’d like to thank every single participant for making this a warm, loving gathering as well, with an ever present spirit of kindness and friendship. I’m already looking forward to the COV&R of 2017, in Madrid.

Lunch Field Trip COV&R 2016COV&R 2016 participantsLunch & Wine Tasting Field Trip COV&R 2016

What If Dirk Draulans Read René Girard?

Dirk DraulansDirk Draulans, biologist and science journalist for Belgian Knack magazine, wrote an interesting article on the question of violence in human life (Violence is deeply rooted in us – The biology of terror; PDF: Het geweld zit diep in ons – De biologie van terreur). He drew from several recent findings concerning the ongoing struggle with violence between and within human communities since prehistoric times. Perhaps not surprisingly, he came across questions as well as insights that are at the core of René Girard’s mimetic theory and its explanation of human culture. So I can only advice Draulans to read the work of René Girard and other scholars of mimetic theory. As I’ll try to show, it may resolve some of the ambiguities and dilemmas he touches upon in his article. I’ve translated parts of the article from Dutch, emphasizing certain sentences, before commenting from a Girardian point of view.

First of all, Draulans points to the importance of imitation or mimesis in the origin and maintenance of human culture:

Our culture is not in our genes, but is transmitted by copying and learning behavior.

Island of Wild ChildrenIn this context Draulans refers to a thought experiment conducted by scientists who specialize in the emergence of culture. More specifically, he refers to an article in New Scientist, Island of wild children: Would they learn to be human? (Christopher Kemp, June 3, 2015) that contains the experiment:

100 babies. No adults. One island. Without language, culture or tools, what would they become and how would their own children evolve?

Or, as Draulans puts it:

This led to the key question whether we humans are born violent.

Here’s how Draulans continues:

Protective ButtressingQuite a few scientists who participated in the thought experiment assumed that there soon would be tensions within the group, especially when food is scarce. Indeed, biologically speaking, violence is deeply rooted in us. Chimpanzees, who are models for the ape-men who were our ancestors, are ‘naturally’ violent. The world of chimpanzees is organized around the members of their own group, and neighboring groups are by definition enemies to be fought. Last year, Biological Reviews published an analysis of the skulls of australopithecines, chimpanzee-like ancestors of man who lived several million years ago. The results show that their hands were so evolved that they could easily make fists, not only for handling equipment but also to commit violence. Some skulls, especially of men, were hardened to better absorb punches. Yet in the course of our evolution we gradually became more gentle. We had to, if we wanted to survive in a world with ever more people, many of them we didn’t know. […] An average person would find groups of 150 people or more difficult to handle, for he wouldn’t know everyone personally.


7000 Year Old Mass Grave GermanyAlthough culture and morality became very powerful in the course of our history, they could never prevent the resurgence of extreme violence. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study of a 7,000 year old mass grave in Germany. It showed that dozens of people, including children, were brutally maimed and killed. It is not the only mass grave from that period. The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another, without any further information about the groups in question.

A Talent for FriendshipScientists are struggling with the difficult balance between our propensity to violence on the one hand and our ability to cooperate on the other. This is shown by two books published last year. In A Talent for Friendship an American ethnographer develops the idea that so-called primitive tribes are not as violent as we were led to believe for a long time. On the contrary, they would have had systems to learn to accept strangers as friends […]. They would even have had ‘ritual battlefields’ to turn hostility into friendship. In another book, Virtuous Violence (CLICK HERE FOR A PRESENTATION IN SLIDES), both an American anthropologist and psychologist defend the surprising statement that violence often is not the result of a diminished moral sense, but rather the reverse: people sometimes use violence because they believe that it’s the best thing to do. They often feel ‘morally obliged’ to be violent.Virtuous Violence


‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern. It should be possible with our culture, though. But unfortunately it is not always as powerful as it should be.

Pimu Alpha Male Chimpanzee killed by fellow chimps Mahala Park Tanzania 2011In a video compilation I made (on the origin of cultures) as an introduction to mimetic theory (click here), anthropologist David Watts filmed an event that normally doesn’t happen within groups of chimpanzees. True, chimpanzees often collectively inflict extreme violence on individual members of an outside community, but they would not do this to a member of their own community. And yet, that’s what Watts witnessed. It happened in the largest group that was ever observed in the wild, with over a 150 chimpanzees. Indeed, as Draulans writes, groups of 150 people or more become difficult to handle, and people no longer know each member of the group well. It is no surprise that chimpanzees experience similar problems in such a large group: tensions rise, and feelings of empathy are not as strong for every member. Interestingly, Yuval Noah Harari also stresses the critical threshold of 150 members in his bestseller Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind (Part One, Chapter 2 The Tree of Knowledge – The Legend of Peugeot):

“In the wake of the Cognitive Revolution, gossip helped Homo sapiens to form larger and more stable bands. But even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.

Even today, a critical threshold in human organisations falls somewhere around this magic number.”

What Draulans only partly emphasizes in his article is the fact that violent tensions within and between groups of primates may also occur when ‘survival’ (of the individual or of the group as a ‘species’) is not exactly the issue. In groups of chimpanzees, males constantly vie for dominance and form frequently changing alliances in order to move up the hierarchy. This has to do with an increased mimetic ability. In many circumstances a group benefits from mimetic (i.e. imitative) ability as survival and other skills are more easily passed on from one member of the group to others, but in the context of mutually imitated desires the mimetic ability often leads to violent conflict. Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (for an example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Collective violence of chimpanzees against individual members of an outside community thus also has a social function: it reunites normally competing males of the same group against a common enemy. This behavior forms the basis for the scapegoat mechanism in (primitive) human communities as it is described by René Girard.

It should come as no surprise that the rare event of collective violence against a member of one’s own group precisely occurred in an exceptional group of chimpanzees with over 150 members. Indeed: the bigger the group, the bigger the tensions, and the more individual members may fall outside ‘circles of empathy’, thus running the chance of becoming the victim of a ‘reuniting collective violence’. According to Girard, events of collective violence, releasing tensions within one’s own group, would have happened more in primitive human communities (as those became larger and as humans have even more mimetic ability and thus potentially destructive mimetic desires than other primates). This, again according to Girard, eventually resulted in rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture: ritual sacrifices (for more on Girard’s account on the origin of religion and ‘the sacred’, click here). These rituals try to distinguish so-called ‘good’, ‘justified’ or ‘regenerating’ violence from ‘bad’ or ‘destructive’ violence. For instance, in the AndesTinku of Bolivia descendants of the Inca stage a festival called Tinku to receive a good harvest from ‘the mountain spirits’ (this is also shown in the video compilation, on the origin of cultures – click here for more). Almost every year someone dies during this ritual battle, that nevertheless still often ends in an embrace of the fighters. Indeed, this ritual sacrifice of human blood wants to turn potential destructive enmity over scarcity of food into the maintenance of peace because of a good harvest. Honoring the spirits in maintaining certain taboos and sacrifices prevents their wrath (perceived as some sort of supernatural punishment by the contagious disease of destructive violence). A recent study in Science (click here pdf) claims that beliefs like these were necessary to make societies socially and politically more complex: indeed, the establishment of periodic ritual sacrifices would release tensions in a more controlled, structured way.

As said, all these observations from mimetic theory may resolve some of the dilemmas in the article of Dirk Draulans as well as nuance some of his statements. Summarized:

1) Humans are not ‘naturally violent’. We don’t automatically feel nor need to suppress the urge to attack others. What is the case is that we are ‘naturally mimetic’ and that mimetic tendencies in the context of desire might lead to violent conflict (read also pdf The Two Sides of Mimesis by Vittorio Gallese). As Draulans observes, commenting on the study of a prehistoric mass grave:

The question is whether the violence was provoked by famine, by the need for survival. It could just as well have been an expression of the expansion of one group at the expense of another…

Even if there’s enough food and water for everybody, mimetic desire might cause violence as individuals do not want to share the objects of their desire (again for the aforementioned example of two babies fighting over two identical cans of coke that could easily be shared, click here). Humans sometimes even suppress instinctual needs and desires because of mimetically enhanced ambitions. Germany, for instance, entered the first world war as one of the most powerful nations in the world. It had no shortage of consumer products, let alone of basic food supplies and water. It mainly wanted to express its supremacy. Of course, tragically, Germany came out of the war as a broken nation (for more, click here). On an individual level, things like anorexia would not be possible if humans were mainly guided by their ‘natural needs’. Moreover, a recent study once again reveals what happens when mimetic desire is not kept in check by certain beliefs (“I have to accept my social position because of karma”) or taboos (“I cannot question the authority of my king because god will punish me if I do so”). The article of this study, in Nature (October 15, 2015), Conspicuous wealth undermines cooperation, concludes:

Visibility of WealthWealth inequality and wealth visibility can both potentially affect levels of cooperation in a society and overall levels of economic success. Akihiro Nishi et al. use an online game to test how the two factors interact. Surprisingly, wealth inequality by itself did not damage cooperation or overall wealth as long as players do not know about the wealth of others. But when players’ wealth was visible to others, inequality had a detrimental effect.

2) Human culture (and morality – Draulans seems to use this term as a synonym) arises both as an attempt to suppress violence and as an attempt to justify so-called ‘necessary’ violence. Draulans refers to the ambiguity of ‘ritual battlefields’, which is in itself a way out of the dilemma of ‘cooperation vs violence’. Following René Girard and mimetic theory, basic cultural religious institutions such as ritual (sacrifices) allow for a fundamental distinction between so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence and provide individual members of human communities with the collective means to justify the violence they inflict on others. This justification is part of what Girard calls the scapegoat mechanism. As it provides ‘distinctions’, ‘definitions’ and ‘(psychological and social) identity’ against the threat of undifferentiated, ‘contagious’ violence, the scapegoat mechanism also forms the basis of human culture according to Girard. It might shed more light on this quote by Draulans:

‘Normal’ people can be victims of thinking in terms of one’s own group just as much as terrorists. It is a modern variant of the biological tribal feeling. If we can position ourselves as a group against another group, feelings of empathy easily erode as we cannot possibly sympathize with large numbers of strangers. People more easily commit violence in groups than on their own, partly because they then can evade personal responsibility. Research into activity of certain areas in the brain clearly revealed this. Thus our brains not always contribute to the accomplishment of a more livable world. That is not their concern.

René Girard portraitI guess ‘reason’ alone doesn’t make us human. There are ‘matters of the heart’ too, guiding us to use our brains not to build weapons of mass destruction but to build ‘bridges of solidarity’…

Anyway, Dirk, read René Girard!

Highly recommended:

How We Became Human – Mimetic Theory and the Science of Evolutionary Origins

How We Became Human

Mimetic Food Habits

Paul RozinIt would be very interesting to create an intensified dialogue between Paul Rozin‘s research on the acquisition of likes and dislikes of foods and René Girard’s mimetic theory. Although some scholars already made some connections between the two (for instance in Culinary Cultures of Europe: Identity, Diversity and Dialogue, ed. by Darra Goldstein & Kathrin Merkle, Council of Europe Publication, 2005), much promising work remains to be done.

bugpartywormeatingAmong other things, biology and psychology professor Paul Rozin conducted a research with children from 16 months to five years of age. This resulted in a paper first published in Appetite (7: 141-151; June 1986), The Child’s Conception of Food: Differentiation of Categories of Rejected Substances in the 16 Months to 5 Year Age Range (click for pdf). The abstract from the article:

Children (N = 54) ranging in age from one year four months to five years were offered over 30 items to eat. The items included normal adult foods and exemplars of different adult rejection categories: disgust (e.g. grasshopper, hair), danger (liquid dish soap), inappropriate (e.g. paper, leaf) and unacceptable combinations (e.g. ketchup and cookie). We report a high to moderate level of acceptance (item put into mouth) of substances from all of these categories in the youngest children. Acceptance of disgusting and dangerous substances decreases with increasing age, while acceptance of inappropriate substances remains at moderate levels across the age range studied. Although the youngest children accepted more disgust items, the majority rejected most of the disgust choices. Almost all children at all ages tested accept combinations of foods which, although individually accepted by adults, are rejected in combination. No significant differences were observed between ‘normal’ children and those with a history of toxin ingestion, although there was a tendency of ingesters to accept more inedible items. In general, the results suggest that a major feature of the development of food selection is learning what not to eat.

disgust“A major feature of the development of food selection is learning what not to eat.” In other words, disgust is not just a biological thing, a matter of nature. It is a cultural thing too, a matter of nurture. In yet other words, a huge part of our development concerning likes and dislikes of food lies in the imitation of others. If disgust is a matter of nurture it is also a matter of mimesis. Powerful social models have the potential to increase or decrease the disgust for certain foods. For instance, the disgust for organ meat is decreasing since it is increasingly perceived as food served to the beau monde in fancy restaurants. Organ meat thus becomes an object of mimetic desire, while at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it used to be something undesirable for the rich as it was “meat for the poor”.

Further considerations by Paul Rozin on the origin of disgust as a specifically human trait include the possibility that disgust arose around things that were (considered to be) contagious. Which brings us back to René Girard, whose mimetic theory could explain why things that are not actually contaminating on a purely biological, “natural” level are indeed considered disgusting to the extent that they were once associated with “contaminating” violence (on the “cultural” level).

Well, let’s explore!