Sherin Khankan on Islam

Sherin Khankan (°1974), Denmark’s first female imam and one of the leaders of the Mariam Mosque in Copenhagen, was interviewed for Belgian television (May 29th, 2017).

The full interview can be watched here – definitely a MUST SEE:

Here are some transcripted excerpts from the interview:

Interviewer Bart Schols: Did you get some bad reactions on what you’re doing? Because every religion has a very traditional side sometimes, probably also in Denmark?

Sherin Khankan: Actually, I never focus on the bad reactions. I always focus on the support, and we have a lot of support from all over the world. Actually, recently we had a visitor, from one of the world’s largest mosques, the world’s third largest mosque – it’s the Grand Mosque in Indonesia –, and the grand imam he came and he blessed our mosque, and he prayed in our mosque, and he made a written document, saying that female imams are of course a possibility, and it’s a part of our Islamic tradition and theology… So, but of course, when you create change… When you change the structure, when you change the fundamentals, when you challenge the patriarchal structure, you challenge the power balance. And when you do that, people will get upset, it’s natural.

So we are prepared for opposition, but actually the worst opposition that we met so far was not from Muslims. The reactions from Muslims were quite moderate, but from the right wing parties, Islamophobes, Nazi-parties… we had very bad reactions.

Interviewer: More than from the inside?

Sherin Khankan: Yeah, I think it’s because… to Islamophobes progressive Muslims are a greater threat than Islamists are, because we are actually able to change the narrative on Islam in Europe.

Interviewer: Okay. You are traveling around the world with a message, if I may call it like that. What is the fight that you are fighting?

Sherin Khankan: First of all we want to give women the chance to disseminate the Islamic message. We want to create a place where women are equal to men. We want to challenge the patriarchal structure. We want to challenge the growing Islamophobia, and we wish to unite or unify all the great forces throughout the world who are fighting for women’s rights.

Interviewer: That’s in general, but if you, like in different countries, because you travel around the world, around Europe… you have different issues. There’s the headscarf, that’s a discussion about everywhere, also here in Belgium. What is your position on that?

Sherin Khankan: I do believe that, it’s stated very clearly in the Declaration of Human Rights, that any person has the right to practice his or her religion in the public sphere and in the private sphere. So if a person chooses to wear the headscarf of her own free will, it’s her choice and nobody should be able to touch that woman.

Interviewer: Also a police officer, for example?

Sherin Khankan: Of course, why not? A police officer, a doctor, a lawyer, a judge, anyone, because what’s important is not what you wear on your head. It’s what you have inside your head. So even if you ban the scarf, people will still have the same opinions inside. So it’s not a matter of the scarf, it’s a matter of realizing that we are living in a world and we have to accept pluralism as a factor, as a fundament for our societies. If not we are becoming oppressive. So I’m fighting for any woman’s right to wear the hijab and not to wear the hijab…

From a rational point of view, you would expect that Western extreme right-wing parties are delighted with the kind of Islam Sherin Khankan is advocating. After all, their message to people from other cultures has always been: “Adapt or go back to your country!” Exactly what culture people should adapt to or how that culture is defined is never quite clear, but anyways: here you have a kind of Islam that is perfectly compatible with the principles of a Western political, secularized culture, respecting the separation of Church and State. This separation goes both ways, of course. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes it very clear:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Sherin Khankan defends an Islam that does not interfere with the fundamental rights in a modern, Western democracy, so what are some extreme right-wing parties making such a fuss about? Aren’t they defending their “own” Western culture and values? Apparently, we shouldn’t expect too much rationality from them. What happens is quite simple: extreme right-wing parties partly need an “enemy monster” to justify and manage their own existence. If the so-called monster that is Islam turns out not to be such a monster after all, their reason for existence is threatened. That’s why extreme right-wing parties always make reasonable Muslim voices “the exception”. Sometimes they also argue that those reasonable Muslim voices are to blame for the infiltration of Islamist extremists in Western society, as if they function as “hosts” for extremist “parasites”.

What extreme right-wing parties rarely notice, of course, is the result of research done by security services all over the world: when people feel very oppressed or frustrated, they can radicalize very quickly one way or the other (extreme right-wing parties, as advocates of the reasoning that “our own culture is under threat”, are also an example). So to suppress a religion like Islam and Muslims is a very bad idea. The British Security Service MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5) claims there is evidence that a well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalization. Indeed, as the research by MI5 reveals, the vast majority of extremists participating in terrorist attacks in the UK, are British nationals. They are not illegal immigrants and, far from having received a religious upbringing, most are religious novices.

Ah, well… Are we strong enough to create identities beyond the need for an enemy monster? What if “the Wicked Witch of the West” isn’t wicked after all? I can’t help but mention in this context a great book that deals with the recurring dynamic of the need for a monstrous enemy: The Wicked Truth: When Good People Do Bad Things by Suzanne Ross. It is about the musical Wicked, the subversive and challenging prequel to the well-known story of The Wizard of Oz. Indeed, today we could ask the question: “What if the Wicked Witch of Islam isn’t wicked after all?” Maybe we remain anti-rational weaklings who need witches… Or maybe there’s hope, if we just listen to women like Sherin Khankan.

 

Let’s kill Jesus!

tintin-writingThis is the story of Jesus, the reporter. He did a series of interviews with representatives of different extremist factions in this world. This post contains fragments of his conversations, references to actual events and commentaries by an expert. It also reveals what eventually happened to this alleged devil’s advocate.

From an interview with Richie, representative of the Right to Eliminate Disorder (RED) party.

Jesus: What is your ultimate political goal?

Richie: We want to protect our western system of law and order by eliminating the main source of violence in this world, which is Islam.

Jesus: Don’t you think that Muslims might feel discriminated against if you try to ban their religion from your society? The majority of Muslims is not causing any problems. More of them might when they feel attacked.

Richie: Every Muslim is a potential terrorist because of the true, decadent, barbaric and violent nature of Islamic ideology. Only a tiny minority of so-called Muslims is able to live among us in a lasting peaceful fashion because they’re actually no real Muslims. We’re defending our western culture.

Jesus: One of the main achievements of your culture is the freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State. Aren’t you destroying that culture, instead of defending it, by prohibiting Islam?

Richie:  No. You have to understand that Muslims want to impose their way of life on the rest of the world. They have no respect for the separation of Church and State. Just look at Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. So, instead of destroying our culture with its separation of Church and State and freedom of religion, we would defend it by politically and legally prohibiting the religion of Islam.

Jesus: Aren’t you imposing your way of life then? In fact, aren’t you imitating countries like Saudi Arabia by imposing your ideological preferences?

Richie: We’re not imposing any ideological preference. We’re protecting a true, neutral perspective.

Jesus: By prohibiting Islam, based on your interpretation of that religion?

Richie: Our interpretation corresponds with the interpretation of organizations like ISIL.

Jesus: And that’s a neutral interpretation?

Richie: Well, yes!

Jesus: They are in favor of a particular ideological Islamic system, while you are against that system, but you are both convinced of the same system representing the true nature of Islam? There’s no discussion about that?

Richie: No discussion. Accept the truth: they want to eradicate us! Ask me something else!

Jesus: Are you willing to sacrifice yourself to protect your cultural identity?

Richie: Yes. I would consider it an honor.

Jesus: Am I getting this right? You are prepared to sacrifice yourself because you don’t want to become the victim of an organization like ISIL; becoming its victim would be a disgrace, becoming a sacrifice by fighting it would be an honor? You are prepared to die so you won’t get killed? It seems you’re accomplishing exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Instead of saving your life, you’re losing it.

Richie: Listen, for once and for all, the Muslims are attacking us. We have the right to defend ourselves. Our violence is justified, theirs is not justified. I’m willing to die in the name of righteousness to establish an order and a peace where the terrorists are eliminated.

Jesus: If I may refer to Star Wars, you are the Jedi and they are the Sith?

Richie: Exactly!

Jesus: But isn’t that a matter of perspective? In the end, you’re both killers, establishing a peace at the expense of sacrifices?

filip-dewinter-assadFACT, NOT FICTION: At the beginning of February, 2017, Filip Dewinter, member of Belgian’s federal parliament and one of the leaders of far-right political party Vlaams Belang paid a visit to Assad and his regime. He turned a blind eye to the massive violence of that regime (a new report reveals more Syrians are killed by Assad’s regime than by Jihadist organizations), claiming the regime of Assad was a bulwark against terrorism. Instead, he could have considered that the violence of Assad might convince more Syrians to take sides with Jihadist factions. What if your brother is arrested, tortured and murdered by the Assad regime on vague charges of ‘insulting the regime’? Wouldn’t you be angry at the regime, also at those you perceive as allies of the regime? So, instead of eliminating the threat of terrorism Filip Dewinter seems to feed it!

Richie: This is the way of the world. There’s a constant battle of good versus evil.

Jesus: But how good is ‘good’ when it establishes a system in the same way as the so-called ‘evil’ side would do it?

quebec-shooting-vigilsFACT, NOT FICTION: January 30, 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old university student, killed six people in a mosque in Québec (Canada). Sociologist Stephen Ledrew wrote a very, very interesting book (The Evolution of Atheism – The Politics of a Modern Movement) on the so-called New Atheism as an “atheist Right” that mirrors the Christian Right. Precisely the case of Alexandre Bissonnette is a symptom of this. Ledrew wrote an article about it, Atheism’s Dark Side Aiding the Trump Agenda. Find it by clicking here or here.

Richie: What do you propose then?

Jesus: Maybe the question is not whether you are in favor of or against a particular system. Maybe the question is whether the system can be used or transformed in such a way that it enables you to love your enemy? After all, our enemies remain fellow human beings. If we can love them, then they can love us too. If we can transform our system, then they can do the same thing.

My advice would be: don’t imitate the hatred and the violence of certain people by taking revenge on those you associate with them (but who are actually innocent). In other words, don’t look for scapegoats, because it will only plant seeds for new violence. The threat you feared but wasn’t there, will become real, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Richie: Shut up with your nonsense! The threat is real and has always been real. What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Richie: I’ll remember you.

From an interview with Idris, representative of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) party.

Jesus: What is your ultimate political goal?

Idris: We want to protect our Islamic system of law and order by eliminating the main source of violence in this world, which is western culture.

Jesus: Don’t you think that westerners might feel discriminated against if you try to ban their culture from your society? The majority of westerners is not causing any problems. More of them might when they feel attacked.

Idris: Every westerner is a potential terrorist because of the true, decadent, barbaric and violent nature of western culture. Only a tiny minority of so-called westerners is able to live among us in a lasting peaceful fashion because they’re actually no real westerners. They converted to Islam. We’re defending our Islamic culture.

Jesus: One of the core convictions of your culture is the conviction that there should be no compulsion in religion. Aren’t you destroying that culture, instead of defending it, by prohibiting western culture?

Idris:  No. You have to understand that westerners want to impose their way of life on the rest of the world. They have no respect for the conviction that there should be no compulsion in religion, one way or the other. Just look at western countries trying to ban Muslims. It’s just one of the measures suppressing Muslims. Muslims who live in western countries are constantly discriminated against. However, no one can prevent me from being a Muslim, and I will avert any culture that tries to suppress Islam.

US President Trump swears in General Mattis as US Defense Secretary . DCFACT, NOT FICTION: President Trump signed an executive order on January 27 that banned entry into the US by anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries for 90 days, and banned nearly all refugees for 120 days.

Jesus: But aren’t you imitating potential Muslim bans by averting western culture all together? Aren’t you imposing your ideological preferences just the same?

Idris: We’re not imposing any ideological preference. We’re protecting a true, divine perspective.

Jesus: By advocating Islam, based on your interpretation of that religion?

Idris: Our interpretation corresponds with the interpretation of the wicked who try to ban us.

Jesus: And that’s a true interpretation?

Idris: Well, yes!

Jesus: They are against a particular ideological Islamic system, while you are in favor of that system, but you are both convinced of the same system representing the true nature of Islam? There’s no discussion about that?

Idris: No discussion. They refuse to accept the divine truth and want to eradicate us. Ask me something else!

Jesus: Are you willing to sacrifice yourself to protect your cultural identity?

Idris: Yes. I would consider it an honor.

Jesus: Am I getting this right? You are prepared to sacrifice yourself because you don’t want to become the victim of an organization like RED; becoming its victim would be a disgrace, becoming a sacrifice by fighting it would be an honor? You are prepared to die so you won’t get killed? It seems you’re accomplishing exactly what you’re trying to avoid. Instead of saving your life, you’re losing it.

Idris: Listen, for once and for all, the westerners are attacking us. We have the right to defend ourselves. Our violence is justified, theirs is not justified. I’m willing to die in the name of righteousness to establish an order and a peace where the terrorists are eliminated.

Jesus: If I may refer to Star Wars, you are the Jedi and they are the Sith?

Idris: Exactly!

Jesus: But isn’t that a matter of perspective? In the end, you’re both killers, establishing a peace at the expense of sacrifices?

Idris: This is the way of the world. There’s a constant battle of good versus evil.

Jesus: But how good is ‘good’ when it establishes a system in the same way as the so-called ‘evil’ side would do it?

Idris: What do you propose then?

Jesus: Maybe the question is not whether you are in favor of or against a particular system. Maybe the question is whether the system can be used or transformed in such a way that it enables you to love your enemy? After all, our enemies remain fellow human beings. If we can love them, then they can love us too. If we can transform our system, then they can do the same thing.

My advice would be: don’t imitate the hatred and the violence of certain people by taking revenge on those you associate with them (but who are actually innocent). In other words, don’t look for scapegoats, because it will only plant seeds for new violence. The threat you feared but wasn’t there, will become real, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Idris: Shut up with your nonsense! The threat is real and has always been real. What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Idris: I’ll remember you.

Comments by Parry, the Paranoiac.

I’m an expert in politics. It is crystal clear that RED and ISIL made a pact. After all, they need each other to exist.

On the one hand, a violent act by RED can be presented by ISIL as proof of the fact that western culture is the enemy of Islam, and then ISIL can sell itself as a Messiah that will liberate the Muslim world of all evil.

On the other hand, a violent act by ISIL can be presented by RED as proof of the fact that Islam is the enemy of western culture, and then RED can sell itself as a Messiah that will liberate the western world of all evil.

Of course, in both cases, the evil cannot really disappear for these so-called Messiahs can only justify their existence and hold on to their power because of the problem they’re supposedly fighting against. In other words, they are false Messiahs.

Anyway, Satan cannot cast out Satan.

assad-false-messiahFACT, NOT FICTION: Syrian dictator Assad released Jihadist extremists to tinge the rebellion against his regime with extremism. Thus he made it harder for foreign forces to back the rebels, at the same time presenting himself as a ‘savior’.

From an interview with Seth, representative of the Secularists of Society (SOS) party, and some excerpts from comments by Robbie, yet another member of the Right to Eliminate Disorder (RED) party.

Jesus: You claim to have a solution for the problem of the so-called ‘culture war’ between parties like RED and ISIL. Could you present your main ideas?

Seth: I’d be happy to. The core of the problem is the very concept of a cultural identity based on all kinds of ancient national traditions or religious ideas. My organization is convinced that the economy, more specifically a global system of economic liberalism, serves as the best basis for developing whatever identity. Instead of one culture violently competing with another because they want to occupy the same position (and thus cannot accept each other’s differences), the economic system will guarantee that differences are established after an honest competition for similar positions (and thus must be accepted).

Peace would be established if everyone agreed upon the same economic system, and if everyone was granted the same chances within that system. If this were the case, your social identity and position would be based on your own merits, and no one would be allowed to question the identity and position of another. Cultural and religious items would become private items, available at and provided by the market as well, for each individual. The problems from the past, where social identities and positions were often established because of cultural and religious traditions, would evaporate. In any case, identities based on nationalism or religion (or both) need to disappear in favor of identities based on a global meritocratic system.

Jesus: But then again a type of rivalry will arise. Not everyone will accept a definition of his or her identity by the economic system. Also this system exists at the expense of sacrificing other systems. Moreover, what will happen if people don’t just accept their position and get frustrated because they belong to the so-called ‘losers’ of society? Maybe they will create a counter-culture like ISIL where they feel like ‘winners’, and, being guided by resentment, thus condemn the society they previously desired to be a significant part of. And then we’re back from where we started.

auto-radicalizationFACT, NOT FICTION: Europol notices that more and more young people who didn’t grow up in Muslim families become jihadists. The federal prosecutor of Belgium Frédéric Van Leeuw recently said that “the reason why young people depart for Syria lies in society”. The European Institute of Peace recently put together a social mapping of Molenbeek (Brussels), and looked at the causes of violent extremism in neighborhoods with the highest amount of foreign fighters. Not surprisingly perhaps, these neighborhoods were the poorest of Molenbeek. The research reveals that, because of the very superficial knowledge of Islam, religion is not the cause of radicalization; a feeling of being discriminated against is. Religion is an outlet, a consequence of frustrations which are the true cause of violent extremism. Young people with identity issues, who feel left behind and excluded by our performance oriented western culture, auto-radicalize through the internet where they find a virtual community of ‘fellow excluded people’ (for instance Muslims and refugees). CLICK HERE FOR AN ARTICLE WITH MORE INFORMATION BY DE STANDAARD (“Ze spreken amper Arabisch en kennen hooguit een handvol Korancitaten”). CLICK HERE FOR “WOMEN AND THE SPIRITUAL CLASH WITH TERROR”.

Seth: What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Seth: I’ll remember you.

Comments by Robbie, member of RED.

I totally disagree with the policy of Seth and SOS. I’m a nationalist, and I have the right to protect my national cultural identity. Moreover, I’m also religious (contrary to Richie, our representative). I just can’t stand God’s laws being threatened by a decadent consumer culture. Mark my words, it won’t be long until the wrath of God descends upon us.

From an interview with Lizzy, representative of the Being Left Unjustly Exposed (BLUE) party, and some excerpts from comments by Ibrahim, yet another member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) party.

Jesus: You criticize the solutions to the current crisis in the world proposed by SOS. Do you have a better one?

Lizzy: Well, yes. The problem is that meritocracy isn’t functioning like it should. People, especially young people, get frustrated because some people get way more than they deserve. If we redistribute wealth, give everyone the same basic income, we can stop organizations like ISIL from recruiting depressed and frustrated young people. The need for religion will automatically disappear, especially if we don’t talk about it anymore in schools and in education.

FACT, NOT FICTION: Communist regimes of the past already tried to eradicate religion, with due consequences for religious people (who experienced discrimination). For instance in the Soviet Union.

Jesus: Is that a good idea, making religion a taboo? It will continue to flourish on the internet, and young people who don’t know anything about it might fall victim to malicious minds who use religion for evil purposes.

Lizzy: We will do everything to eradicate religion, smoothly. After all, we don’t need it, do we?

Jesus: Once again, also this system exists at the expense of sacrifices. Is our identity as a human being only defined by what we need (or learned to need)? That’s a poor way of approaching others. As if others are only worth something because I would need them.

Lizzy: What did you say your name was again?

Jesus: Jesus.

Lizzy: I’ll remember you.

Comments by Ibrahim, member of ISIL.

At first I thought BLUE was protecting Muslim interests. It provided extra educational programs for free, which I thought was a good thing. Coming from a poor family, I didn’t have the means to catch up with my friends in high school. We were all just playing around, but the wealthy parents of my friends could pay for tutors and extra classes when they were not studying well. I was left behind. My friends were characterized as ‘adventurous youth’, while I was characterized as a ‘dipshit’ for committing the same misdemeanors. If BLUE thinks that I would give up on my religion to lead the same decadent life as my former friends, then it is wrong.

Epilogue by Parry, the Paranoiac.

This is how the story of Jesus and his interviews ends.

A small part of religious RED members forged an alliance with a small part of ISIL members, fighting the secularism of both SOS and BLUE. As the rivalry between RED and ISIL for the same position in society thereby somewhat temporarily ended because they found a common enemy, also the rivalry between SOS and BLUE to gain control over society temporarily ended because of their common religious enemy.

René Girard on Christian Martyrdom

FACT, NOT FICTION: Two days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two evangelicals, shared their “theological” views on the terrorist violence (transcript from the 700 club, a well-known evangelical television program in the States – September 13, 2001). Especially these comments are telling:
survivors of 9-11 attacksJERRY FALWELL: The ACLU’s got to take a lot of blame for this.
PAT ROBERTSON: Well yes.
JERRY FALWELL: And, I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But, throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say “you helped this happen.”
PAT ROBERTSON: Well, I totally concur…

As time went by, however, the old animosities became apparent again, until… the Evil Mastermind appeared. He was able to sense that Jesus had irritated all parties. Jesus had been everybody’s obstacle. The Evil Mastermind could turn him into the enemy of all, uniting the whole world against Jesus. “Let’s kill Jesus!” became his war cry. Thus the Evil Mastermind created peace, once again, at the expense of a sacrifice.

kruisiging-servaes

René Girard on the Death of Jesus

The story of Jesus could have ended here, were it not that within each faction against him, there were people who realized that Jesus had done nothing wrong. They felt guilty because they hadn’t done anything to protect him, although Jesus himself had always pointed out the danger of eliminating innocent people (scapegoats) to establish peace. Some of them claimed that they had experienced the presence of Jesus beyond his death, meaning that they experienced a second chance to protect his life, the life of the scapegoats. They started questioning the unity against the common enemy of their respective factions. They created non-violent enmity in their own household by loving their external enemy, thus opening up the possibility of a peace that is not established at the expense of sacrifice – a peace of a different world.

Lamb of God.jpg

 

The Trump Reflex

The door bell rings. I open the door. In front of me are two of Jehovah’s witnesses. I invite them in. It’s a force of habit, enhanced by the fact that I’m a teacher and student of religion. I always jump at the opportunity to ask them a few questions.

Actually, I’m really curious about their views on the evolution vs creationism debate. They assure me that Jehovah’s witnesses don’t accept creationism because some statements of creationism reject credible scientific evidence. No kidding. Thus I assume that Jehovah’s witnesses accept the theory of evolution. Which, I learn, they don’t either.

As the conversation continues, I come to the conclusion that Jehovah’s witnesses refuse to be labeled as creationists because it puts them in the same basket with Christian fundamentalist Evangelicals. From an outsider’s perspective, Jehovah’s witnesses and Evangelicals have a lot in common. However, as is often the case, it’s easier to admire those who do not belong to your own terrain than those who are close to you. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic law, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:

By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…

best-tennis-playersCompetition and rivalry indeed often increase because of similarities. Two tennis players with similar talents and competences will make for a good game. Another example is the feud between biker gangs Hell’s Angels and Outlaws, or the rivalry that existed at first between ISIL and Al-Qaeda. And most of the time, foreigners and their customs don’t bother us until, of course, they become refugees who seem to invade “our country” and might take “our jobs”.

The desire to differentiate yourself from an adversary increases as differences are actually disappearing. The tragic and ironic thing is, the more you then try differentiate yourself from your opponent, the more you become (like) your opponent. For instance, after the Second World War many Germans and German speaking citizens in Europe were brutally raped, tortured and murdered in a horrific frenzy of vengeful violence. This genocide truly became a mimesis of the holocaust, although the vast majority of perpetrators never had to stand trial for what they did. History is written by the victors, and they create the stories (which is, in light of Girard’s mimetic theory, the function of classical mythology) to cover up violence or to decide whose violence is justified and whose is not.

Back to my visitors, the Jehovah’s witnesses. Like their ideological kinsfolk and rivals, the Evangelicals, they reject the theory of evolution. They claim that the Evangelicals’ representation of God as Creator is not scientific enough, meaning that, in their view, it is just partly in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.

As strange as this may sound, both the religious movement of Jehovah’s witnesses and of Evangelicals are heir to modernity. They are not harking back to the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Christian humanists and reformers started protesting some of the (medieval, premodern) Catholic Church’s teachings (hence the name Protestantism). The protests eventually led to the second major Schism in the history of Christianity, the first being the Great Schism of 1054 (the separation of Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches).

christian-churches-timeline

Protestants are convinced that individuals can make up their own mind on what the Bible teaches. Therefore protestants attach great importance to the availability of the Bible in your mother tongue. According to them, you shouldn’t accept any dogma on the basis of clerical authority or Church tradition, which is a modern idea indeed. They are convinced that the Holy Spirit guides every reader to reach a correct interpretation of the Bible. The idea that every human being principally has access to some kind of transcendent, universal rationality as a criterion to determine what’s true, independent of the truth claims made by so-called authorities and historically, culturally situated traditions is, again, a focus of modernity.

However, Protestantism not only meant a separation of new churches from the Catholic Church, it also almost immediately became internally divided. Apparently, what the Holy Spirit teaches is not so easily agreed upon. Hence, today, there are a myriad Protestant denominations. Moreover, the history of Reformation and Counter-Reformation eventually brought an end to the central position of (the Christian) religion in Western Europe.

For centuries, the Christian religion had been a unifying, stabilizing factor in Europe’s society, important for the establishment of peace between people with different cultural backgrounds. The Christianization of pagan habits brought the nations of Western Europe under one and the same religious umbrella.

crusadesThe internal peace and identity of a Christian Europe was enhanced by military expeditions against an external Islamic enemy during the Crusades. In contrast, the violence and the wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation meant that religion was no longer experienced as a factor for peace. Thus it comes as no surprise that, in the 18th century – the Age of Enlightenment – many philosophers stressed the priority of the so-called transcendent, universally valid (and thus divine) Reason to determine truth, values and moral behavior.

In premodern thinking, reason and science had been servants of the so-called revealed truths in Christian religion. The clerical authorities, their interpretation of the Bible and the traditions of the Church set the agenda for reason and science. Someone like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) turns the tables. Sapere aude, he writes, which is Latin and translates to Dare to be wise or Dare to think. By that he means an individual should think independently of any religious dogma (whether it comes from scripture, tradition or authority). Religious dogma should stand the test of Reason, and not the other way around.

The Enlightenment thinkers are convinced that every human being is principally capable of reaching the universal (and therefore, for many of them, divine) truth by developing his or her reason. According to Kant, you shouldn’t accept any truth claim on the basis of authority and tradition, nor on the basis of an uncritical “own opinion”, but on the basis of the so-called transcendent Reason. Eventually, the modern secular State became the institution that at first seemed to provide its citizens the means to discover the so-called universal truth. Sadly, however, some of the modern states became totalitarian, claiming to own truth and morality, and violently suppressing any type of “otherness” that was considered a potential threat to the government’s policy. Hitler and Stalin were two leaders of infamous totalitarian states in their respective countries.

In short, after the historical period of the Church defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence, Europe gradually accepted the secular State defining Reason and exercising the power to distinguish so-called justified (“moral”) from unjustified (“immoral”) Violence. One of the main features of modernity indeed is the State’s monopoly on the use of violence. Both the Church and the State were experienced as totalitarian institutions at certain points in their history. The use of their force was not always experienced as something that provided safety, but as a source of terror.

theuniversaldeclarationofhumanrightsIn 1948 the world received The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is in fact a declaration on individual rights. After the traumas of violence motivated by religious ideologies in the 16th and 17th centuries and of violence motivated by secular ideologies in the 20th century, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be read as an attempt to protect the individual from too much influence by the Church (hence “freedom of speech”) or the State (hence “freedom of religion”). The secular violence in the 20th century also meant that we do not automatically believe anymore in reason and science as factors for the progress of humanity. Scientific progress and technological developments also made possible weapons of mass destruction, which caused violence at an unprecedented scale during the two world wars. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution also started an era of increasing social and environmental issues.

Anyway, a totalitarianism of the Church was replaced by a totalitarianism of the State, and is now replaced by a totalitarianism of the Individual. There used to be a time when educated citizens referred to the Church’s teachings as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life, followed by a time when they referred to the State’s program as a criterion for their personal opinions and way of life. Today, in our postmodern world, individuals refer to themselves as the ultimate measure of all things, very often unaware of the influences shaping their perspective (that’s why reflection, philosophy – the art of asking questions, also about yourself – is so important to gain some freedom!).

gravity-just-a-theoryIs it really surprising that someone like Donald Trump became the president of the most powerful nation in the world? We are indeed living in a world where there seems to be no truth more important than one’s own opinion, and everyone, including Trump, produces his own narcissistic self-validating bubble by ignoring certain facts and advocating others. It seems the most powerful individuals have the means to impose their bubble on others. When research on climate change is not favorable for his policy, president Donald Trump simply bans Environmental Protection Agency staff from talking to the press (as this happened on January 24, 2017).

I think about my visitors of the Jehovah’s witnesses again. They also had a “Trump Reflex”. When I confronted them with all the data, all the scientific research and all the logic supporting the theory of evolution, they simply replied: “It is just a theory.” In other words, confronted with reason and science questioning their own opinions, they reduced that reason and science to something like “mere opinion”. And then you get conversations like this one (from The Big Bang Theory, season 3, episode 1, The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation):

This dynamic, the Trump Reflex, is visible in all quarters, not only in religious circles. Anti-theists, for instance, when confronted with the fact that a modern, fundamentalist reading of the Bible is not the most plausible one from a scientific point of view (including historical and literary critical research), will also often speak of “just a theory” to uphold their views on the “stupidity” and “irrationality” of biblical narratives.

Georges Lemaître and Albert EinsteinBelgian Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, the famous physicist and founder of the “Big Bang” hypothesis, is a good example of someone who clearly distinguishes the questions of modern natural science from the questions the Bible is concerned with. In doing so, he criticizes both creationists and anti-theistic atheists regarding, for instance, their reading of the creation myths in the biblical book of Genesis. Both groups approach these texts with the same expectations, only to come to different conclusions. Creationists believe that the Bible and science tell the same story on the origin of the universe and of life, while anti-theists are convinced that, although the Bible tries to answer the same questions as science according to them, science actually contradicts the Genesis stories. Lemaître, on the other hand, sees no agreement nor disagreement between the Bible and modern science, simply because they are concerned with different questions.  Some quotes from Lemaître, taken from an article by Joseph R. Laracy (click to read) clarify his position on the relationship between modern science and the Bible:

Should a priest reject relativity because it contains no authoritative exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity? Once you realize that the Bible does not purport to be a textbook of science, the old controversy between religion and science vanishes… The doctrine of the Trinity is much more abstruse than anything in relativity or quantum mechanics; but, being necessary for salvation, the doctrine is stated in the Bible. If the theory of relativity had also been necessary for salvation, it would have been revealed to Saint Paul or to Moses… As a matter of fact neither Saint Paul nor Moses had the slightest idea of relativity.

The Christian researcher has to master and apply with sagacity the technique appropriate to his problem. His investigative means are the same as those of his non-believer colleague… In a sense, the researcher makes an abstraction of his faith in his researches. He does this not because his faith could involve him in difficulties, but because it has directly nothing in common with his scientific activity. After all, a Christian does not act differently from any non-believer as far as walking, or running, or swimming is concerned.

The writers of the Bible were illuminated more or less – some more than others – on the question of salvation. On other questions they were as wise or ignorant as their generation. Hence it is utterly unimportant that errors in historic and scientific fact should be found in the Bible, especially if the errors related to events that were not directly observed by those who wrote about them… The idea that because they were right in their doctrine of immortality and salvation they must also be right on all other subjects, is simply the fallacy of people who have an incomplete understanding of why the Bible was given to us at all.

As for the so-called mimetic theory on the origin and further development of culture, some people almost immediately, without really knowing what they are talking about, discard it as “just a theory” also. Even when solid scientific research that is in no way informed by this particular theory comes to very similar, if not the same conclusions (click here for more)!

Christopher Hitchens quote on own opinion

Anyway, Donald Trump is each and every one of us when we refuse to question our so-called “own” opinions by scientifically obtained facts and reasonable, scientifically supported theories. Of course, no one owns the complete, total truth, but some theories will be more plausible than others.

The day we started believing that our entitlement to own opinion was more important than a quest for truth and for understanding reality was the day we paved the way for the Donald.

alternative-facts-donald-trump-titanic

Tussen 9/11 (Twin Towers) en 11/9 (Trump Tower)

Op 7 september 2005, beïnvloed door het werk van politicoloog Benjamin Barber en socioloog Manuel Castells, schreef ik onder andere het volgende voor een artikel in Tertio. Blijkbaar is er sindsdien niet zoveel veranderd in de wereld. Enkele evoluties hebben zich gewoon doorgezet (ik geef een aantal voorbeelden tussen haakjes):

In Europa, maar ook daarbuiten, is aan de ene kant een soms merkwaardige alliantie ontstaan tussen linkse krachten en moslims [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: moslim Dyab Abou Jahjah in De Afspraak op één, 22 november 2016, die zijn sympathie uitspreekt voor sp.a, groen en PVDA] die de islamitische zaak bepleiten tegenover de rechtse politiek van een George W. Bush – vertegenwoordiger van een soort ‘christelijk patriottisme’ –, en aan de andere kant een even opportunistisch verbond tussen joodse en christelijke fundamentalisten met extreemrechtse tendensen [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: de – door sommigen genoemde – ‘christelijke kruisvaarder’ van het kabinet van Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, die goed bevriend was met wijlen Andrew Breitbart, een overtuigde jood; beiden zijn bekend van het rechtse Breitbart News Network].Beide partijen gaan elkaar te lijf met – alweer, hoe kan het ook anders – het recht op vrije meningsuiting. Dat conflict dreigt ons af te leiden van het echte probleem, namelijk dat zowel linkse als rechtse Europese politici en mediafiguren zich almaar meer uitspreken tegen een of andere vorm van geloof en godsdienst [ook nu nog, bijvoorbeeld: Filip Dewinter die de koran een ‘licence to kill’ noemt op 22 januari 2015, in het Belgische federale parlement; Joël De Ceulaer die op 13 januari 2015 via de website van Knack oproept om het godsdienstonderwijs af te schaffen na de aanslagen op Charlie Hebdo – zie ook Maarten Boudry in dit straatje, die ‘het politiek niet correcte denken over islam niet gemonopoliseerd wil zien door extreemrechts’; zie in dit verband: The Fascism of Anti-religious Utopians].

We mogen niet vergeten dat fundamentalistische christenen en moslims bondgenoten zijn in zoverre ze beiden strijden tegen een in hun ogen decadente westerse consumptiemaatschappij die geen voordeel haalt uit duurzame principes en levensprojecten, en er daarom ook weinig of geen ruimte aan biedt.

Kortom, de markteconomische ontwrichting van het sociale weefsel leidt, globaal, tot psychosociale problemen van autoagressieve aard (toename van het aantal depressies, zelfmoorden, zelfdestructieve verslavingen en eetstoornissen), alsook tot psychosociale problemen van heteroagressieve aard (extremistische, vaak gewelddadige en terroristische ‘tegenculturen’ – van zowel religieuze als seculiere aard – die hun leden een duidelijke identiteit verschaffen).

Polariserende identiteitsconstructies in onze samenleving, à la Trump, zullen niet gauw verdwijnen zolang de mainstream media weinig ruimte bieden aan diversiteit. Wie, bijvoorbeeld, als gelovige, maar ook als ongelovige, argumenteert tégen (de propaganda van) het mainstream idee over geloof en godsdienst, wordt vaak weggezet als ‘een uitzondering’. Als gelovige krijg je dan meestal te horen dat de eigen, individuele geloofsopvatting niet van tel is omdat ze niet zou overeenstemmen met wat en hoe ‘de meeste gelovigen’ geloven. Dat is alweer een standaardreactie die nauwelijks in vraag wordt gesteld.

Wat een Etienne Vermeersch als bevooroordeelde anti-theïst over godsdienst te vertellen heeft, krijgt in de mainstream meer ruimte dan wat een (eveneens bevooroordeelde) gelovige als Rik Torfs daarover kwijt kan. Het geloof van Torfs zou dan ‘te intellectueel, te gesofisticeerd en te specifiek’ zijn om er veel aandacht aan te besteden in de publieke sfeer. Verlichte geesten houden bij hun beoordeling van een bepaald gegeven echter geen rekening met wat een zogezegde meerderheid daarover te vertellen heeft. Verlichte geesten zullen nagaan of de rationele en wetenschappelijke argumenten die Torfs gebruikt in de voorstelling van – in zijn geval – het christelijk geloof al dan niet meer steek houden dan de argumenten die Vermeersch hanteert in de voorstelling van dat geloof. Of een meerderheid van gelovigen eerder aansluit bij Torfs dan wel Vermeersch is in eerste instantie niet belangrijk voor wie gelooft in de kracht van rationaliteit en wetenschap.

Los daarvan is de (minstens impliciete) opvatting dat de meeste gelovigen naïeve fundamentalisten zijn (van wie het geloof bijvoorbeeld in conflict zou komen met de moderne natuurwetenschappen) en/of enggeestige lieden (van wie de denkbeelden een voedingsbodem vormen voor geweld) misschien vandaag een van de hardnekkigste enggeestige vooroordelen. ‘De massa’ is altijd op zoek naar houvast en zekerheid. Vroeger vond de massa in Vlaanderen die in een vanzelfsprekend, nauwelijks bekritiseerd en gesocialiseerd katholicisme. Vandaag vindt de massa in Vlaanderen haar zekerheid in een vanzelfsprekend, nauwelijks bekritiseerd en gesocialiseerd atheïsme. Daarnaast zullen er altijd verlichte individuen zijn, zowel aan gelovige als aan ongelovige zijde, die ruimte bieden aan de twijfel.

In onzekere tijden, waarin mensen zich gemakkelijk laten verleiden door populistische extremen die zekerheid beloven, mag er misschien meer aandacht gaan naar de kunst om te twijfelen – ook aan onze eigen zekerheden en onze eigen neiging tot conformisme, diabolisering en polarisering (à la Trump?).

Hierna het volledige artikel uit 2005 (klik op de afbeeldingen om ze te vergroten):

 

Tertio 7 september 2005Tertio 7 september 2005_2

 

P.S.: In het weekblad Knack van 30 november 2016 staat op pagina 29 een vertaald interview uit Der Spiegel met Brits historicus en publicist Timothy Garton Ash. Een fragment:

Heeft de liberaal het ook niet moeilijk met meningen die hij verwerpelijk vindt? De atheïst verdraagt de gelovige soms even moeilijk als de gelovige de atheïst.

GARTON ASH: Consequent zijn in de tolerantie is voor liberalen soms inderdaad een uitdaging. Ik noem een concreet voorbeeld: de christen die beweert dat homoseksualiteit een zonde is, mag om die reden niet benadeeld worden. Dat verandert als die christen zich niet tot woorden beperkt. Als hij een homoseksuele persoon schade berokkent, bijvoorbeeld door hem een job te weigeren, is de grens overschreden.

Vergelijk dit met een voorbeeld uit het artikel van 2005:

De Italiaanse katholiek Rocco Buttiglione werd bijvoorbeeld niet aanvaardbaar geacht zitting te nemen in de Europese Commissie. Hij had gezegd dat hij homoseksualiteit zondig vond. […] Linkse politici wilden […] Buttiglione uit de Europese Commissie, ook al onderschreef die het principe van de scheiding tussen kerk en staat zeer duidelijk. De filosofieprofessor verklaarde immers dat het belangrijk is “een onderscheid te maken tussen moraal en recht. Vele dingen kunnen als immoreel worden beschouwd en moeten toch niet worden verboden. Ik kan homoseksualiteit een zonde vinden, maar dat heeft geen gevolgen zolang ik het geen misdaad noem. De staat heeft niet het recht zich op dit gebied te mengen.”

Voor alle duidelijkheid: lang niet alle christenen vinden homoseksualiteit een zonde (ik ben zelf christen en beschouw homoseksualiteit niet als zondig). Dat betekent echter niet dat anderen geen andere mening mogen hebben (hoezeer ik het ook oneens ben met die mening). Het is de discriminatie van mensen met een andere dan de zogezegd “liberale, progressieve” mening die een quasi geïnstitutionaliseerde vorm van hypocrisie openbaart. Het westers liberalisme blijkt helemaal niet zo tolerant te zijn als het van zichzelf beweert. Zoiets wordt vroeg of laat afgestraft. De verkiezing van Donald Trump heeft óók daarmee te maken. De satiricus Jonathan Pie zegt het goed:

In plaats van mensen te diaboliseren, ga je er beter mee in debat, en voer je discussies op grond van rationele argumenten. Dát zou “verlicht” zijn. Mensen met een andere mening dan de “liberaal progressieve” afschilderen als “kwaadaardig” en/of “achterlijk”, is een vorm van paternalistisch levensbeschouwelijk imperialisme, een vorm van cultureel totalitarisme. En daar zijn “we” zogezegd toch tegen?

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).

WEDNESDAY, 13 JULY

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.

THURSDAY, 14 JULY

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.

FRIDAY, 15 JULY

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:

Students

Immigrants

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…

SATURDAY, 16 JULY

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)

IMITATIO

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