here & there

August 21st, 2015

The religious roots of ISIS

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At Arc of the Universe, Daniel Philpott draws from Rukmini Callimachi’s recent The New York Times article, “ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape,” and Graeme Wood’s earlier The Atlantic article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” to emphasize the importance of political theology in understanding ISIS’s actions.

Is it theology that explains the behavior of the attackers or is it economic dislocation, resentment over colonialism and present-day imperialism, weak states, the desire for adventure, and other alternative causes? Of course, most who think that religious beliefs play a strong and independent role, as I do, also believe that these myriad factors are commingled and contributory. It is also the case that members of ISIS will hold their beliefs with greater and lesser intensity. Some are very bad Muslims. But the behavior and tactics of the group cannot be explained apart from the theology that governs it and is promulgated within it. This is what is denied by a striking number of analysts writing today. See only the reaction to Wood’s piece.  The critics are dismissive of religion altogether and hold that theology is almost entirely a rationalization, not a driver or a motive.

Read his full piece here.

In pointing out the religious motivations for ISIS’s abuse of Yazidi women, Philpott adds to an ongoing debate on the nature and universal applicability of religious freedom claims and protections. Writing at The World Post, Kecia Ali calls attention to the way that focusing on ISIS’s brutality, and the religious claims they make to justify it, occludes both problematic stereotyping and hypocrisy on the part of Americans.

By focusing on religious doctrine as an explanation for rape, Americans ignore the presence of sexual abuse and torture in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and in Assad’s Syria by the regime and other factions in its vicious ongoing war. None of this is to deny the horror of the systematic rapes Callimachi reports or the revolting nature of the theology she describes. It is to point out that there are reasons why the story of enslaved Yazidis is one that captures the front page of the New York Times: it fits into familiar narratives of Muslim barbarity.

In focusing on current abuses in the Middle East, perpetrated by those claiming the mantle of Islam, Americans — whose Constitution continues to permit enslavement as punishment for crime — deflect attention from partial U.S. responsibility for the current crisis in Iraq. Sanctions followed by military invasion and its brutal aftermath laid the groundwork for the situation Callimachi describes. Moral high ground is in short supply. The core idea animating enslavement is that some lives matter more than others. As any American who has been paying attention knows, this idea has not perished from the earth.

Read her full piece here.

August 21st, 2015

Faith caught between racism and resistance

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Lighted Candles | image via flickr user Elvert BarnesOn June 16, a young white man motivated by white supremacist ideologies entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic black Church in Charleston South Carolina, and murdered 9 of its congregants. This massacre in Charleston joins the lengthy list of incidents, drawing increased attention over the last year, in which black Americans were targets of racism and violence. It also continues the long history of burnt black churches in the country, in which Emanuel has not been the last.

In the wake of the attack on Emanuel, comments revolved around the contradictory aims that religion has served when it comes to race relations in the US. Religion has provided a way to sustain racial discrimination and justify violence against African-American communities; it has also been a source of healing and resistance for those same communities. How should religious individuals and groups confront this paradox? Questions of spiritual renewal are also posed by political activists who connect faith and activism while not necessarily identifying with any institutionalized religion.

The murders in Charleston raised complex issues around race and religion. Many attempts to address these have focused especially on three aspects:

Religion & White Supremacy

A number of articles have set out to discuss the collusion between religion and racism, or what one observer calls “Christianity’s lingering complicity.”

For R. Drew Smith at Religion Dispatches, “white supremacy is a much more central part of American socio-religious culture than generally acknowledged and … its investigation cannot be limited to ‘lone wolf’ racists such as the 21 year-old in Charleston.” Addressing the history of racist-religious ideas and movements is one necessary step in exposing “cloaked versions” of white supremacy. This means taking a look at the (ab)use of the Calvinistic idea of predetermination by slave owners as well as at contemporary supremacist groups such as Christian Identity.

Mark Lewis Taylor, Professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, puts forward another link between religion and racism as he draws attention to the quasi-religious power of racism itself. Taylor revisits the long-standing history of discrimination, in which all groups of color “have been hoisted up—often by Western Christians—onto the altar of sacrifice to the god of white supremacy.” But discrimination works not only as a social system “from without.” Racist ideas and the fear of admitting them also exert an inner, psychological force. Quoting James Baldwin, Taylor argues that the fight against racism is existential: ”one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating.”

Religious Leadership in Racist America

A symposium at Syndicate Theology connects religion and racism with thoughts on religious teaching and leadership. Reggie Williams speaks about the role of the black church today, a topic especially pressing in the face of enduring racism, which can make it difficult to believe in the existence of a just god. Is the role of the church “to help black people realize the American dream of equal opportunity” or “one of brokering resistance and revolution?” M. Shawn Copeland criticizes Christian organizations for not addressing pervasive racism and calls for a “critical re-education.”

Christian teaching has done too little to confront and to challenge racist and discriminatory behavior at worship, at work, at school, at home, in restaurants, in stores, in playgrounds, on radio, on television, online. …[moreover, many] churches have not yet taught that the practice of racism and discrimination obstruct the realization of authentic Christian discipleship.

Kaya Oakes at Killing the Buddha also voices her disappointment with a church that neither sees nor responds to the realities of people of color, and what it means to feel abandoned by religion: “I can’t find a church where there is talk about a Jesus who looks like those friends I grew up with, like my godfather, like my sister’s husband. . . . I am white, but I am done with White Jesus.”

Religion, Spirituality, and Activism

Critique of churches’ failure to address issues of racial justice is, however, accompanied by the assertion that religion also continues to be a source of faith and strength. Some articles note that the link between faith and resistance extends well beyond religious communities.

Jesse James DeConto at Religion News Service reports on the biblical inspiration activist Bree Newsome drew on when illegally removing the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse. Hebah H. Farrag at Religion Dispatches discusses how contemporary activists’ involvement with faith differs from earlier, well-known alliances between religion and the civil rights movement. In conversation with Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Farrag explores the spirit “essential to a new generation of civil rights activists” and a move from religion to spirituality. Cullors-Brignac is a member of a network of activists that denounces the “martyr mentality” often adopted in political struggle. They are “expressing a type of spiritual practice that makes use of the language of health and wellness to impart meaning, heal grief and trauma, combat burn-out and encourage organizational efficiency.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom at The Atlantic turns to literature to find evidence for a new generation of “black politics without churchiness.” For her, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book Between the World and Me stretches the boundaries of black literature in ways akin to what she sees as a current reinterpretation of black politics. Cottom is struck by the book’s departure from a theological rhetoric of hope, “solutionism,” and thus eventually from the legacy of the civil-rights movement. At the same time, she sees Black Lives Matter activists “who seem to also be articulating a post-black church political language. Even as they welcome elders like the theologian and academic Cornel West as foreparents of the movement, some organizers are speaking without explicitly religious themes.”

August 19th, 2015

Coalitions and slippery slopes: The same-sex marriage debate continues

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Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court of the United States confirmed the constitutional right of same-sex couples to marry. Unsurprisingly, debates on the meaning and future of marriage have not subsided, but have taken on new directions. Among the hottest topics of debate are how American Muslims should respond to the ruling and whether polygamy will be the next battleground.

American Muslims’ views on same-sex marriage have recently become an issue of wider public debate, and particularly in response to an open letter by Reza Aslan and The Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj. Aslan and Minhaj’s letter is a political appeal for embracing the rights of LGBT communities. “No one is asking you to change your beliefs. If you feel your faith tells you that homosexuality is haram, fine,” they write to American Muslims.  Their contention is that American Muslims should empathize with and support other minority groups, because as a minority they know only too well about discrimination and the importance of enjoying legally protected rights.

We shouldn’t be perpetuating our marginalization by marginalizing others. Rejecting the right to same-sex marriage, but then expecting empathy for our community’s struggle, is hypocritical.

At HuffPost Live, Aslan and Minhaj spoke further about a critical moment of heightened tolerance in the U.S. and about the challenges that Muslims face when voicing their opinion.

Wondering whether Muslims outside the U.S. would support a “coalition of minorities,” BBC’s World Have Your Say asked young Muslims from different countries about their responses to the open letter. Participants were as hesitant as Aslan and Minhaj to enter a theological debate, but highlighted yet another motive for supporting gay rights: they suggested that American Muslims simply cannot afford to be critical of same-sex marriage given widespread anti-Muslim sentiment and the pressure to distance themselves from Islamic extremists, including the atrocities these have committed against homosexuals. Unlike their Christian and Jewish counterparts, Muslims who oppose gay marriage might not only be looked upon as too conservative but also (once more) as a threat to democratic values. One participant said:

If we want to show that Islam is truly a religion of peace, and being part of peace is accepting others and being at peace with others, then we must be able to demonstrate, we can peacefully coexist in a society where there are people whose beliefs, act or have sexual identities we don’t agree with.

BBC moderator Chloe Tilley raised the question of whether Muslims should be asked to support homosexual marriage in order to avoid “giving Americans another reasons to dislike them” and, further, whether it is not “a leap too far” to expect people to accept something that their faith and understanding of the Quran clearly forbids. Can—and should—shared political values trump individual religious beliefs?

Few writers have made a historical and religious case for Muslim support of homosexuality. Ali A. Olomi at ISLAMiCommentaryargues that Islamic history also offers examples of toleration of same-sex relationships and romances. Revisiting the use of homoerotic imagery in Islamic poetry and historical evidence of same-sex romance, among other things, Olomi counters allegations that Muslims that accept non-heterosexual relationships are Westernized (for a similar position see this reference offered by Aslan and Minhaj and this publication). Muqtedar Khan for Al Jazeera America also suggests that transformations of the social and political landscape may eventually lead to a change in religious convictions.

True, Islamic law forbids homosexual relations. And same-sex marriage is considered a sin. Still, that does not mean this particular understanding of Islam is not contestable.

While American Muslims have become more assertive in commenting on the same-sex marriage ruling, it is not hard to see that those in support of LGBT rights have been the most vocal. Muslim dissenters, unlike those of other religious groups, have not spoken up to defend their disapproval of same-sex marriage in the public media. This silence may also be understood as prioritizing political choices over religious beliefs, albeit in a different way than envisioned by Aslan and Minah’s “coalition of minorities.”

Meanwhile, slippery slope arguments of a familiar sort have gained steam now that same-sex marriage is legal. A common hypothetical used against the legalization of same-sex marriage was that if same-sex marriage were allowed, polygamy, incest, and bestiality would be next. While the latter two remain strictly taboo, the possibility of polygamy becoming legal has been taken up by people across the socio-political spectrum. With Supreme Court justices themselves having raised the question of legal limits on the concept of marriage and the fundamental right to marry (see Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s 2013 comments in the oral arguments over California’s Proposition 8 or Associate Justice Samuel Alito’s recent interview), it is no surprise to see political commentators and legal pundits weighing in as well.

At Religion Dispatches, William E. Smith engages with the wealth of arguments for and against the idea that “same-sex marriage is a slippery-slope-to-polygamy” to make a case for “a limited version” of the argument that “ends well before the plunge to bestiality or other ‘pro-family’ bogeymen.” As polygamy has gained acceptance, it has also gained more attention, yet both anti- and pro-same-sex marriage advocates have argued against it. Intriguingly, Smith notes, each side lays the blame for the increasing acceptance of polygamy at the feet of the other. Smith faults everyone for not recognizing current developments as part of a “larger reformation period of marriage” that includes the abolition of laws preventing interracial marriage, the advent of feminist movements, and changing practices within religious communities, and is unlikely to stop after the ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.

We have been busy overhauling our marital system at least as thoroughly as happened in the Protestant Reformation so we must ready ourselves for a debate on polygamy, as they had to. And the Reformation debates on, and experiments with, polygamy could be valuable resources—indeed, richer in this vein than they were for same-sex marriage. All of which is to say nothing of the easy biblical case that can be made for polygamy.

Much of the current talk seems to revolve around whether polygamy is in fact the next hot topic, rather than actually debating for/against polygamy, though there are some exceptions. William Baude writes for The New York Times that even if polygamy is next to be debated, the same-sex marriage debate should tell us that it’s difficult to predict how things will unfold.

The deeper point is that we should remember that today’s showstopping objections sometimes come to seem trivial decades later. Very few people supported a constitutional right to same-sex marriage when writers like Andrew Sullivan and Mr. Rauch were advocating it only two decades ago. (Judge [Richard A.] Posner, for example, did not.) As we witness more experiments with non-nuclear families, our views about plural marriage might change as well. As Justice Kennedy put it, “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.”

So the real force of the polygamy question is a lesson in humility. We should not assume that our judges have all the answers. And we should not assume we have them either. Instead we should recognize that once we abandon the rigid constraints of history, we cannot be sure that we know where the future will take us.

August 18th, 2015

A View from the Margins of the Banlieue

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What light does the experience of Salafi Muslim women shed on satire mocking Islam and Muslims?

New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Z. Fareen Parvez takes up this question in her recent article on the place of female Muslim piety in contemporary France. Parvez, who worked with Salafi Muslim women in Lyon, contends that religious worship and community are particularly meaningful for women whose “status as French citizens remains precarious.” Nineteenth-century Catholicism, which was the topic of political satire back then, was the religion of a privileged class. Islam in France is not. These observations on discrimination against Muslim minorities problematizes the use of satire and the solidarity expressed after the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo:

[T]he implications of the slogan “je suis Charlie” are not as straightforward as they are made to appear. To say “je suis Charlie” is not only to denounce the killings and express one’s sympathy with the victims and their societies. It is not only to show one’s support for protected speech and the use of satire. Rather, it simultaneously has the effect of dismissing and invalidating the persistent reality of aggression, harassment, and political and economic exclusions that have been plaguing French Muslims, especially women among the unemployed working-class. Furthermore, it ignores the history of satire and perverts its logic by prodding and provoking those without social power—those who are excluded from public space and denied various dignities of citizenship.

Parvez’s article is part of the series Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo published by Reviews & Critical Commentary.

August 10th, 2015

Politics of Religious Freedom

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In a just-published edited volume, Politics of Religious Freedom, editors Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and Peter Danchin ask contributors: what is religious freedom, why is it being promoted, and how are we talking about it? From the publisher:

Taking a global perspective, the more than two dozen contributors delineate the different conceptions of religious freedom predominant in the world today, as well as their histories and social and political contexts. Together, the contributions make clear that the reasons for persecution are more varied and complex than is widely acknowledged, and that the indiscriminate promotion of a single legal and cultural tool meant to address conflict across a wide variety of cultures can have the perverse effect of exacerbating the problems that plague the communities cited as falling short.

Many of the essays collected are the result of this earlier collaboration with The Immanent Frame.

For more on the book, click here.

August 5th, 2015

The public voice of Muslim women

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In an essay here back in 2011, I sounded the alarm about the ubiquity and mainstreaming of hate speech directed against Muslims in Norway. That item was published a mere month before a white, Norwegian, right-wing extremist—who claimed Christian conservative leanings, and who had, since 2006, drenched himself in the netherworld of far-right online conspiracy theories about Islam and Muslims in Europe—committed the worst terrorist attacks in modern Norwegian history, killing seventy-seven people in Oslo and at Utøya on July 22, 2011.

In that essay I was concerned with a state of affairs in Norway in which anti-Muslim ideas and sentiments had become so ubiquitous in the media and in public discourse—and legitimate and necessary critique of “religion” so conflated with hate speech—that few seemed to have the stomach to engage in any form of counter-speech, and hate speech against Muslims was hardly ever prosecuted.1

Some years prior to this, realizing that there was a new generation of often well-educated, socially mobile young Muslim Norwegians who were born and raised in Norway and trying to make themselves heard in Norwegian mainstream media, I had set out to interview a number of them about their experiences with readers and with the media editors who provided them with access to the mediated public spheres in Norway.

In the course of working with these informants between 2009 and 2013, it became clear that most, if not all, had experienced harassment as a result of expressing their views in public. Given the general societal climate, in which the populist, right-wing Progress Party had, since 1987, mobilized on the back of popular concerns over immigration and the increased public presence of Islam in a Norway that had historically conceived of itself as being relatively homogeneous, this was hardly a surprising finding. More disturbing, though, was that there appeared to be a gendered pattern to the harassment, with my Muslim female informants more likely than their male counterparts to have experienced various forms of harassment—including death threats and even violent assaults—as a result of their public participation.

And it was not as if this harassment only came from non-Muslim Norwegians: many of my female informants found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place as they were targeted by non-Muslims and Muslims alike. A number of my female Muslim informants received hate messages and threats from conservative Muslim males who considered them to have taken up roles in public and to dress and behave in ways they deemed “inappropriate” for Muslim women. Others received hate messages and threats from both Norwegians with salafi-jihadist sympathies and those with discernibly right-wing symphathies for having publicly spoken out about violence and terror perpetrated in the name of Islam.

Scholarly discourse on hate speech has long been dominated by scholars whose approaches often seem to seek recourse to abstract and formalistic thought, rather than to the actual experiences of individuals targeted by hate. In academic texts, we rarely get a sense of what hate speech actually looks and feels like, of how individuals targeted by hate speech experience it, or of the repercussions it may have in their lives and on their willingness and ability to speak back. Scholarly debates on free speech and its dark twin, hate speech, stand to gain from integrating empirical experiences with various aspects of hate speech, particularly on the part of minority individuals often targeted by it.

Here are just a few of the threats my female Muslim informants received:

You fucking Muslim whore, get out of the country which has accepted you with open arms. You are not welcome in this country. Get off the TV screen and know where your place is.

I will find you when you least expect it. You will taste your own blood, and I shall wipe the blood off my hands with pleasure, for I will know that I have done my job

You fucking whore! I will have the blood pour from your filthy body and quash the air from your lungs next time I hear from you. You either shut up, or I will have you shut up forever. The choice is yours.

Judith Butler writes that “the public sphere is constituted time and again through certain kinds of exclusions: images that cannot be seen, words that cannot be heard.” Historically, there is of course nothing new in attempting to prevent women from expressing their views in public, whether in the Western or the Muslim world. Mary Beard has referred to “the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard.” With reference to the abuse on various social media that women speaking in public regularly face, Beard pointedly argues that “many more men than women are the perpetrators of this stuff, and they attack women far more than they attack men.” Beard also contends that “it’s not what you say that prompts it, it’s the fact that you are saying it.”

Mysogynist hate speech is by no means a peculiarly Norwegian, Scandinavian or European phenomenon. Danielle K. Citron has cataloged the myriad ways in which relatively new and largely self- or unedited online media platforms may act as enabling circumstances for harassment and abuse that can add serious burdens to individual lives.

Speech that silences speech

Katharine Gelber contends that the very purpose of hate speech is “to exclude its targets from participating in broader deliberative processes.” For Jeremy Waldron, hate speech undermines not only formally equal rights to citizenship in liberal, secular, and democratic societies, but also equal rights to human dignity as a “public good” in a Rawlsian sense. Hate speech is, according to Waldron, a “world-defining activity” designed to make the visible world it creates “a much harder world for the targets to live in.”

Gelber describes the “hate speech acts of hate speakers [as] acts which are capable of inhibiting the ability of their targets to speak back.” Several of my informants who have withdrawn temporarily or permanently from mediated public spheres on account of their exposure to hate speech provide empirical examples of this.

But not only that: the demonstration effects of exposure to repeated and continuous hate speech may inhibit the willingness and ability of the wider group of which such individuals to engage in counter-speech. Individual experiences with the most vicious forms of hate speech often gets very well and very rapidly known among minority communities, demonstrating to communities what happens to individuals who speak back, and thereby enforcing silence.

The Norwegian context

What might seem paradoxical, then, is not so much the fact of particularly gendered hate speech in Norway, but the fact that it is happening in a country that has long prided itself on its achievements in the realm of gender equality. Norway has, in recent years, been regularly rated as one of the most gender equal societies on the globe. In Norwegian self-understandings, relative gender equality plays an important role.

But women’s rights and relative gender equality did not emerge out of thin air in Norway. It was, in fact, the result of sustained and long-term mobilization. The feminist struggle in Norway was, in part, cross-political, but arguably dominated by secular feminists on the political left. Norwegian feminism has been characterized as a form of “state feminism.”

As in many parts of the modern Western world, the main proponents and beneficiaries of state feminism in Norway have been highly educated, white, middle class women. Norwegian state feminism—which has, more often than not, been secular and a-, if not anti-religious—has historically displayed some notably illiberal tendencies in regard to the life choices and aspirations of women of working-class and minority background.

Bearing this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that public discourses casting Islam and Muslims as embodied threats against both women’s rights and gender equality should have become pronounced in Norway by the 1990s, or that many Norwegian secular state feminists took the lead in promoting and legitimizing such discourses.

It was not as if this trope is particularly new in the framing of Muslims in Western countries. But after 9/11, the trope of Muslims as embodied threats against women’s rights and gender equality went viral with the so-called “war on terror.”

In the new political and social climate, calls for “white men (and women) to save brown women from brown men,” to paraphrase Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s apt formulation, would steadily increase in secular pitch and ferocity. The Muslim male would henceforth be identified in many Norwegian social imaginaries as a potential or actual oppressor denying Muslim women in his immediate surroundings their freedom in the name of Islam, the Muslim woman as a potential or actually liberated figure embodying a purported universalistic passion and yearning for “freedom.” In this set-up, young Muslim women would emerge as the most problematic figures of all for secular feminist hegemonic conceptions.

Young Norwegian Muslim women have, in this context, often found themselves to be between a rock and a hard place. Though often appreciative of the life choices and opportunities for education, employment, and the pursuit of a career that Norwegian society has to offer, many of them have also been exasperated by a public and mediated discourse that have, more often than not in recent years, cast them in the role of victims of a male patriarchal tradition by virtue of their background in and adherence to Islam, rather than as active agents in the shaping of their own destinies and aspirations.

Charles Tripp has noted that “to be a Muslim in the modern world is both to be shaped by that world and to take part in its shaping.” In my research, I found Muslim female informants deeply engaged in feminist literature, issues, and concerns profoundly shaped by the Norwegian context in which they lived and had been raised. And much like other researchers in this field, I found that they—by virtue of choice and preference—generally expressed themselves in an accessible language describable as “secular,” with limited references to Islamic foundational texts.

Many of my female Muslim interlocutors were highly ambivalent about their role in and engagement with the mediated public sphere in Norway, which they saw as requiring a mode of expression that was often polarizing and sometimes even contrary to what they believed in. They were well aware of the fact that, as Muslims, they made for good copy for most mainstream Norwegian media. They were aware that they were privileged—both on account of their background (in comparison with women from other minorities in Norway) and on account of their gender (in comparison with their male co-religionists). But among the mainstream liberal media editors (generally White, middle-class and non-religious) who regulated their access to mediated public spheres, I found numerous instances of the subtle imposition of a clear hierarchy that privileged voices of Muslim background willing to engage in auto-criticism of Muslims and Islam and to express views aligned with the editors’ own comprehensive rather than political liberal views. One female media editor even went to the lengths of getting one of my conservative Muslim female interlocutors to describe herself as an “extremist” in the title of a commissioned op-ed— a none-too-subtle means of rendering her public voice irrelevant or marginal by means of tendentious labeling.

The long-standing idea of freedom of expression as constituting a free “marketplace of ideas” may be a comfortable illusion to many. But freedom of expression is, of course, not equally free and accessible to all in a given society. The “words that cannot be heard” belong, all too often, to women, even in liberal-secular societies that count as advanced in terms of women’s rights and gender-equality, such as late modern, neoliberal Norway.


  1. “Counter-speech,” in recent scholarly usage, refers to minority individuals’ “speaking back” to racist and/or discriminatory speech and stereotyping.

July 28th, 2015

Materializing the Bible

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Materializing the BibleThe Immanent Frame contributor James S. Bielo and co-curator Amanda White have recently launched a new website called Materializing the Bible. The site, a “curated, online catalogue of Bible-based attractions around the world,” the site is designed to aid visitors in exploring and understanding these places, and to serve as a research and curriculum resource for students and educators.

Materializing the Bible is intended for multiple audiences. First and foremost, we hope educators and students at various levels will find the site productive and provocative. We also hope the site will be fruitful for public audiences, in particular to advance comparative, ethnographic ways of understanding Bible-based attractions. And, of course, for travelers of all kinds: use this site to locate an attraction near you or your next destination. While the websites are fascinating, sometimes you have to… go.

Bielo has written previously at The Immanent Frame on one such attraction: Ark Encounter, a biblical theme park currently under construction in Williamstown, Kentucky.

Read more about Bielo and White’s digital project here.

July 2nd, 2015

How will the same-sex marriage ruling affect religious liberty?

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On Friday, June 28, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5 to 4 decision that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry. The Court’s ruling overturns restrictions on same-sex marriages in 13 states. While many have celebrated the landmark ruling—which was announced just before last weekend’s gay pride events in cities nationwide—the decision has also sparked concerns about the effect it will have on religious liberty in the United States.

Emma Green at the Atlantic talks about the kind of legal conflicts that are likely to follow from the Court’s decision for gay marriage. These potential conflicts are also addressed in the dissents of justices Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr., John G. Roberts, Jr., Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.

The question, now, is what will happen to the many, many religious organizations that don’t support homosexuality, let alone gay marriage. This involves everything from stated policies—“for example, [when] a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples,” Roberts writes—to issues of employment and benefits for employees in gay unions.

Religious organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation are not the only ones likely to face new legal challenges. The dissenting justices also voiced concern about adoption agencies that have religious objections to gay parentage and judges whose faith may now conflict with their institutional role of performing marriages. According to Green, the Court’s decision does not put an end to the debate on same-sex relationships and marriage but only changes its parameters.

The future of gay marriage has long been a question in the United States, and on Friday, the country got an answer. The questions and conversations surrounding gay marriage now will be of a different kind: what it means to oppose, rather than support, same-sex marriage.

A recent article by The New York Times revolved specifically around the question of whether schools and colleges that “forbid sexual intimacy outside heterosexual marriage” and that refuse to extend housing and other services to same-sex partners could soon be denied tax-exempt status. A frequent reference in the current debate is Bob Jones University, which was denied tax exemptions due to its opposition to interracial marriage. During arguments for Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Alito referred to the 1983 Bob Jones University v. United States decision, asking if opposition to same-sex marriage would follow the same precedent.

University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock suggests that Alito and others are overestimating the likelihood of seeing attempts to deny religious schools and institutions tax-exempt status on the basis of their views on homosexuality in the immediate future, saying that only once “gay rights looks like race does today, where you have a handful of crackpots still resisting,” will this become more likely.

David Masci, writing for Pew Research Center, shows that it is neither certain nor inevitable that the ruling will curtail religious liberty and set off further legal cases. As he notes, 13 of the 22 states with laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation include some level of protection for religious groups.

“There’s a big difference between something that could be an issue and something that’s likely to be an issue,” says Robert Tuttle, who teaches religion and law at George Washington University. Tuttle says he believes there may be some lawsuits, but he predicts that in more cases than not, accommodation and compromise are likely to win out. “After all, we still allow institutions, like universities, to discriminate based on gender,” he says.

But University of Illinois law professor Robin Fretwell Wilson says it’s possible that institutions will be pressured to give ground on gay marriage by federal authorities (such as the Internal Revenue Service, which could take away an institution’s tax-exempt status), state civil rights commissions or private lawsuits.

While some predict “accommodation and compromise,” others echo Tamara Audi’s observation at The Wall Street Journal that “religious organizations are sounding alarm bells regarding the ruling and what it could mean. National Public Radio reports on churches and their congregants who oppose the Court’s ruling viewing it as an infraction of their religious convictions. Some conservative pastors in New Orleans have proclaimed that the “law of the land” cannot change what is “biblically correct.” And dozens of evangelical pastors around the country“—like Jack Hibbs, who “will no longer perform any marriages in his church rather than be pressured to marry same-sex couples”—have enlisted in the American Renewal Project, which aims to “train pastors to become politically active in the public arena to defend what they call biblical values.”

NPR’s Tom Gjelten points out, the Court’s ruling has no direct affect on religious ceremonies. 

In fact, the Supreme Court said ministers who do not approve of same-sex marriages can’t be forced to perform them. The court decision applies only to government functions, not religious ceremonies. But many of those who are now criticizing the court decision don’t recognize that distinction.

May 22nd, 2015

5 questions (and answers) about religious exemptions for vaccines

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The measles outbreak originating in Disneyland in California—which was finally declared over last month after 169 cases in the United States—thrust the issue of non-medical vaccination exemptions into the political spotlight again, and fueled the growing public controversy over their place in mandatory immunization policies. Personal exemptions for moral or philosophical reasons exist in some states, but religious exemptions, which are allowed in forty-eight states, are far more prevalent. Determined to cut down on the number of unvaccinated people, lawmakers across the U.S. have proposed restrictions and bans on religious exemptions, triggering heated (and ongoing) debates in California, Maine, and Vermont. The current backlash raises a series of important legal, political, and religious questions about these exemptions, beginning with the most basic one.

Why do these religious exemptions exist?

Christian Scientists played an important role in establishing religious exemptions as they relate to the medical care of children. In 1967, Christian Scientist Dorothy Sheridan was convicted of manslaughter under the child neglect law for not seeking medical attention for her daughter, who died of pneumonia (Sheridan had to tried to treat her daughter solely with prayer). In response, Christian Scientists began to mobilize against the various laws regarding child abuse and neglect by lobbying for religious exemptions. Their campaign met with great success; Sheridan’s home state of Massachusetts, for example, added a religious exemption to its child neglect law in 1971. In 1974, religious exemption clauses were added to the Code of Federal Regulations (since repealed), as well as to the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act.1

The legislative and political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, coupled with scientific advancements2, contributed to the creation of a series of diagnostic, medical care, and preventative measures for children, including immunization—the product and legacy of the Great Society era. Along with these measures, however, came religious exemptions, in many cases the product of the same lobbying efforts from Christian Scientists. New York was one of the first states to institute a religious exemption to its vaccine mandate (for polio) in 1967, but when Iowa, one of the last states to mandate immunization for schoolchildren, passed its legislation in 1977, it too included a religious exemption. However, according to the Iowa’s director of the immunization program at the time, “he knew of only two religions — the Christian Science Church and the Netherlands Reformed Church — that might qualify.”

What is the religious basis for not vaccinating?

Like Iowa’s director of immunization, John Grabenstein of Merck (a major pharmaceutical manufacturer) reached the same conclusions when he studied different religions’ doctrines on vaccinations. Christian Scientists often rejected vaccines because of their belief in faith healing: “Disease, in this construct, is not fundamentally real, but rather something that can be dispelled, to reveal the perfection of God’s creation.” As for the Netherlands (or Dutch) Reformed, Grabenstein cites Frits Woonink of the Dutch Centre for Infectious Disease Control, who states that some Traditional Reformed believe that “protection through vaccination would make a person less dependent on the Living God. If God sends an illness, he has a reason for doing so.”3

But Traditional Reformed adherents do not necessarily follow a strict anti-vaccination policy. Woonink writes that acceptance of vaccines among the Traditional Dutch Reformed is increasing in the Netherlands, especially as community leaders argue in its favor. Meanwhile, Christian Scientist communities were responsible for a few notable disease outbreaks in the 1980s and 1990s, but Grabenstein notes that many have since been willing to accept immunization.

How many people claim (and support) these religious exemptions?

Not very many. Some commentators have noted an increase in religious exemptions in the last few years in certain regions, with others pointing out that these exemptions are likely being abused. Still, a 2009 study from the New England Journal of Medicine shows that exemption rates in states with only religious exemptions did not budge between 1991 and 2004; states with personal exemptions, however, did see their rates increase from 0.99% to 2.54%. The latest data from the CDC indicates that vaccination rates are still generally high. Clusters of unvaccinated people still do exist—one Amish community had a significant measles outbreak last year—but they are in the clear minority.

However, support (though not actual claimants) for exemptions is higher, particularly among those with children. In a recent NPR poll, 38 percent of households with children supported both personal and religious exemptions, compared to 28 percent of households without.

Will bans on these religious exemptions be passed?

A ban on religious and personal exemptions looks likely to happen in California, after the bill passed in the Senate just last week. But it’s difficult to imagine bans taking effect in more than a few states, especially as media coverage of the issue subsides. Yes, Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), Zucht v. King (1922), and Prince v. Massachusetts (1944) established precedents that personal and religious liberties cannot supersede the health of the children or the community. But disease, medicine, and society have changed drastically since then, and religious exemptions have been increasingly the norm in the last 50 years, both among legislators and the public.

The recent history of exemptions begins with Sherbert v. Verner (1963), which established a high standard that laws need to pass before they can burden the free exercise of a person’s religion. But then Employment Division v. Smith (1990) declared that laws are not required to accommodate these objectors. In response, Congress (with substantial public support) passed the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which reinstated the Sherbert standard for (federal) laws, which was then followed by multiple states passing their own RFRAs. In this climate, legislators will likely face challenges if they attempt to institute a ban; even in the midst of the latest outbreak, legislators in Colorado and New York have proposed expanding vaccine exemptions.4

What about raising the standard for those requesting religious exemptions?

This is certainly more likely to happen than a blanket ban, though several attempts—like this proposal in Arizona—have failed to even get a hearing. Even if they pass, however, these laws come with their own issues, if other states are any indication. Several states with religious exemptions do already have restrictions in place, most of which require some combination of a demonstrated genuine or sincere belief, membership in a recognized church, and a notarized note from a religious official. But that places them in potentially murky judicial/legal waters; namely that they do not pass the test set by Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) for legislation on religion.5

Take New York, which has religious exemptions with such strict requirements. Parents have tested these requirements across multiple school districts over the last few decades, with some success. In McCartney v. Austin (1968), the court ruled that since Roman Catholicism doesn’t forbid vaccines, mandatory immunization law “does not interfere with the plaintiffs’ freedom of worship.” In the similar Berg v. Glen Cove City School (1994), however, the court accepted the parents’ own (anti-vaccine) interpretation of Judaism as religious and sincere, and granted an exemption despite lacking Jewish doctrinal support.

Meanwhile, Sherr v. Northport-East Northport Union Free School District (1987) held that the restriction on anti-vaccination parents being “bona fide members of a recognized religious organization” violates the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. In Turner v. Liverpool Central School (2002), the court upheld the religious exemption of someone belonging to the Congregation of Universal Wisdom, essentially a mail-order religion that requires nothing beyond a “customary donation.”

But New York still has the power to verify the legitimacy of religious exemptions; in other states, that’s no longer the case after that part of the law was challenged in court. In 1999, the Wyoming Department of Health denied a religious exemption request after they determined it was not actually based on religious beliefs. But the Wyoming Supreme Court later overturned that decision in In re: LePage (2001), saying that the Department (and government in general) lacked the authority to investigate how “sincerely held” those beliefs were. As a result, anyone who fills out this form will be granted a religious exemption.

So while additional legislation placing more restrictions on religious exemptions may pass, it remains to be seen if they can withstand judicial scrutiny.


  1. It is worth noting here that John Ehrichman, H. R. Haldeman, and Egil Krogh, close advisors to then-President Richard Nixon, were all lifelong Christian Scientists.

  2. The measles vaccine was licensed in 1963, the mumps vaccine in 1967, and the rubella vaccine in 1969, before they were combined in the now-used MMR vaccine in 1971.

  3. Many Traditional Reformed live along the Bijbelgordel (“Bible Belt”) in the Netherlands, which had its own measles outbreak in 2013.

  4. This in in line with the recent general trend; of the 36 state bills on exemptions to immunization mandates between 2009 and 2012, 31 of them were to expand exemptions (though none of them passed).

  5. The test is as follows: (1) The statute must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religious affairs. (2) The statute must not advance nor inhibit religious practice. (3) The statute must have a secular legislative purpose.

May 14th, 2015

Madonna’s “Isaac”/Madonna’s Akeda—A lesson for scholars, old and young

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In 2009, and again in 2010, I taught a class on the Akeda (“Binding of Isaac”) in the arts and the humanities (syllabus). The story of the Akeda, from Genesis chapter 22, is one of the central narratives of western culture. For Jews, the Akeda became a central motif of the penitential season, during which the merit of Abraham’s faith and Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed is invoked to call upon God to forgive the people their sins and to save them in times of persecution and danger. For Christians, who often call this chapter the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” the Akeda became a foreshadowing of the crucifixion in which God sacrificed his only son for the salvation of humankind. For Muslims, the identity of the bound one became, in the post-Qur’anic period, Ishmael, the biblical founder of the Muslim people and religion. For secularists of all types, the Akeda became the embodiment of the conflict between the parental willingness to sacrifice children to various political and other causes, as well as the focus of the Oedipal conflict between father and son.

There are thousands of renderings of the Akeda in painting, sculpture, literature, drama, and poetry. Rembrandt tried his hand at this theme three times, in 16351645, and 1655. Marc Chagall painted it twice, in 1956 and 1966. Caravaggio’s two paintings of the Akeda, in 1598 and 1601, are so different that it is hard to believe that the same person did them. Modern Israeli culture in particular used the Akeda in literature and in art in a very wide range of interpretations. There are also musical renditions that include: Abramo ed Isacco (Josef Myslivecek, 1776); Five Canticles, Canticle II (Benjamin Britten, 1952); War Requiem (Benjamin Britten, 1961), which includes a poem on this theme by Wilfred Owen; Highway 61 Revisited (Bob Dylan, 1965); Abraham and Isaac (Igor Stravinsky, 1962-63); Story of Isaac (Leonard Cohen, 1969); The Sacrifice of Isaac (Judith Eisenstein, 1972); Isaac and Abraham (Joan Baez, 1992); Genny 22 (Apologetix, 2000); Abraham (Sufjan Stevens, 2002); and Mr. Shiny Cadillacness Clutch, (2007), among many others. I am not an expert in any of these sources and would not have discovered them had it not been for my enterprising students who, being fluent in navigating the web, found them and brought them into class. (PowerPoint presentations by students, for private use only, are available upon request.)

To these examples above must be added Madonna’s “Isaac,” featured on Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005) and in her celebrated world tour supporting the album. Two things made Madonna’s “Isaac” different from the other pieces examined in the context of the Akeda.

The first was the use of a popular Yemenite Jewish song as a chorus. The Yemenite song, “Im nin’alu daltei nadivim,” is based on a beautiful medieval mystical poem, written by the famed Yemenite kabbalist Rabbi Shalom Shabazi in alternating Hebrew and Arabic verses. The first stanza (“If the gates of the leaders …”) became a popular song (“Im Nin’alu”); it was most famously recorded by famed Israeli singer Ofra Haza, first with the Shechunat Hatikva Workshop Theatre. That lovely performance, from 1978, has been viewed over 2.5 million times.

Those accustomed to hearing Hebrew will notice that Haza sings here in “Yemenite,” the Hebrew dialect used by Yemenite Jews. Haza recorded the song again in 1988—much later in her career, after she had become a famous singer—with a strong jazz beat. “Im Nin’alu” has been remixed and reissued many times since, even after Haza’s death in 2000, but I confess that I much prefer the earliest recording, which captures the popular Yemenite culture from which the poem and the song came.

Second, by the time Madonna performed “Isaac,” she had acquired the reputation of someone interested in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) and so this piece might be seen as a commentary on the Akeda. Madonna’s “Isaac” begins with a Yemenite singer, Yitzhak Sinwani, blowing the shofar, then singing part of the first verse of the popular Yemenite song. The lyrics and dramatic sequence to Madonna’s “Isaac” are as follows:

Sound of shofar blowing

Im nin’alu daltei nadivim, daltei nadivim
Daltei Marom lo nin’alu, lo nin’alu.
[“If the gates of the leaders are locked,
the gates of Heaven are not locked.”]

Sound of shofar

Im ninalu, im nin’alu, im nin’alu daltei nadivim
Daltei Marom lo nin’alu.

El hai marom, El hai marömam, El hai marömam al kol karuvim
Kulam beruho ya’alu.
[“If the gates …
Living God, exalted above the cherubim –
They all rise with His spirit.”]

Figure in blue cape dancing in a cage; sand dunes; Madonna appears

Staring up into the heavens
In this hell that binds your hands.
Will you sacrifice your comfort?
Make your way in a foreign land?

Wrestle with your darkness.
Angels call your name.
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

Chorus with images of dancer and eagle, the singers, sand dunes

Mmmm mmm mmm
Im nin’alu, im nin’alu
Mmmm mmm mmm
Im nin’alu, im nin’alu
Mmmm mmm mmm.

Madonna sings

Remember, remember.
Never forget.
All of your life has all been a test.
You will find the gate that’s open
Even though your spirit’s broken.

Open up my heart.
Cause my lips to speak.
Bring the heavens and the stars
Down to earth for me.

Chorus; the woman in cage reaches out; the cage lifts up

El hai, El hai, Marom, marömam al kol karuvim
Kulam beruho ya’alu.

Madonna liberates the caged woman

Wrestle with your darkness.
Angels call your name.
Can you hear what they are saying?
Will you ever be the same?

Chorus; woman dances in freedom; Madonna dances with male dancers

Madonna’s interpretation thus interweaves the themes of liberation and of life as a test together with Shabazi’s mystical poem in its incarnation as a modern, popular Israeli song. The themes of bound hands, liberation, and life as a test with an open gate, are references to the Akeda, though it is a loose, very modern interpretation of the Akeda, not unlike other secular interpretations: redemptive but without direct allusion to the story of Genesis 22. It is an amazing palimpsest of texts.

How Easy it is to Be Completely Wrong

Alas, none of the above turns out to be true. Shalom Shabazi’s poem, beautiful as it is in its bilingualism and its poetic and mystical subtlety, is a wedding poem, not an Akeda poem. The song it gave rise to also has nothing to do with the Akeda. One can, however, easily trace the musical development from Ofra Haza’s initial recording to her later recordings and to the version used in Madonna’s “Isaac.” Madonna’s lyrics and dramatic imagery, redemptive though they are, have nothing to do with the binding of Isaac—even the title, “Isaac,” has nothing to do with the Akeda, as Madonna herself noted:

It’s named after Yitzhak Sinwani, who’s singing in Yemenite on the track. I couldn’t think of a title for the song. So I called it “Isaac” [the English translation of “Yitzhak”]. It’s interesting how their minds work, those naughty rabbis…. [Yitzhak] is an old friend of mine. He’s never made a record. He comes from generations of beautiful singers. Stuart and I asked him to come into the studio one day. We said, “We’re just going to record you. We don’t know what we’re going to do with it.” He’s flawless. One take, no bad notes. He doesn’t even need a microphone. We took one of the songs he did and I said to Stuart, “Let’s sample these bits. We’ll create a chorus and then I’ll write lyrics around it.” That’s how we constructed it.1

The piece was named after the singer Yitzhak Sinwani, who had gone to study, and then teach, at the Kabbalah Institute in Los Angeles and London. Madonna met him there, heard him sing some traditional Yemenite songs, and invited him to record for her. According to one report, itself a partial translation of a long interview with Sinwani in Yediot Aharonot: “… she said that when Sinwani sang her the song for the first time, she was overwhelmed with emotions and started to cry, even though she couldn’t understand a word. ‘After he translated the lyrics for me,’ she said, ‘I cried even more.’”

So, Madonna’s “Isaac” would be one of many of Madonna’s performances that carry a prosocial message. Indeed, the Confessions on a Dance Floor tour opened with a performance of Madonna’s “Live to Tell,” which she sang while “hanging” from a cross, in front of projected images and text intended to draw attention to the millions of children being orphaned by AIDS in Malawi and other African countries. (This produced, as one can imagine, great criticism from serious theological circles; personally, as a theologian of long standing, albeit not in a Christian tradition, I feel that the number captured well the message of the figure of Jesus.)

How did we get from Madonna’s “Isaac” to the Madonna’s Akeda in the first place? Credit must be given to Zach Thompson and Mary Ruf, the students who uncovered the link, because in their original presentation, they did specifically draw attention to the possible naming of the piece after the singer. But enthusiasm for the juxtaposition of a mystical Yemenite song and a modern interpretation of the Akeda swept the other young scholars in the class off their feet. To tell the truth, I too, a scholar and professor of quite some experience, was also swept off my feet and began to talk about “Madonna’s Akeda.”

“Scholars, beware of your words lest you be found guilty” (Mishna, “Avot” 1:11).


  1. Madonna’s reference to “naughty rabbis” is drawn from criticism expressed in the Israeli press that the song was blasphemous because it associated the name of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the great 16h century kabbalist, with Madonna’s work. The press reports are very distorted: Yitzhak Luria is not the author of the poem, his name is not spelled “Lurier,” “blasphemy” would have been the wrong word, etc. Still, Madonna vigorously denied that any “blasphemy” was intended.

April 20th, 2015

The Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy (and what you need to read to understand it)

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Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants,” published in The Atlantic in February 2015, sparked a massive debate. The controversy concerns whether the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is Islamic or not, and especially whether ISIS accurately understands Islam’s “medieval tradition”whatever that may mean. Wood correctly argues that ISIS cannot be understood without reference to its understanding of Islam, but he also impliesdisturbingly, to manythat ISIS’s understanding of Islam is just as representative of the religion as any other view would be.

Scholars and commentators contended that Wood and his interlocutors missed the dynamism of Islam’s intellectual traditions. Wood, the critics continued, overlooked ISIS’s own penchant to read Islam’s history and foundational texts selectively, and thereby suggested that the group’s particular brand of scriptural literalism was somehow more legitimate than other interpretations.

One problem with the debate, however, is that it has not detailed ISIS’s intellectual foundations in a way that is accessible to the broader public. Responding to Wood, scholars of Islam argued at a level of abstraction, leaving readers without a background in Islamic studies on their own as they decided whom to trust.

Wood writes, “We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.” One analyst, Cole Bunzel, recently shed significant light on ISIS’s worldview in his forty-page article “From Paper State to Caliphate.” But this is the point: academic experts know a considerable amount about ISIS and the thinkers that influenced it, but few commentators are using such in-depth studies to inform popular debates about where ISIS comes from.

Here, then, are ten thinkers that influenced ISIS—directly or indirectly—with links to one English-language source and one Arabic-language primary document for each. I group these thinkers into three strands: rejectionist Salafism, global jihadism, and the medieval tradition.

When tracing intellectual lineages, it is important to avoid teleology—the argument that past thinkers’ ideas inevitably led to ISIS. Taking a teleological view can lead to unfair accusations against these thinkers, some of whom have rejected ISIS and others of whom would almost certainly have done so were they still living. It is also important to use precise definitions, especially of “Salafism” and “jihadism,” which are often conflated.

For this post’s purposes, “jihadism” is an ideology that advocates armed struggle not just to defend Muslim lands under occupation but to overthrow allegedly apostate Muslim rulers and (in some versions) to fight the United States as a “far enemy” of Islam, the puppet master who pulls the strings of the “near enemy,” namely occupiers of Muslim lands or corrupt local regimes.

“Salafism,” meanwhile, is an ultra-Sunni identity that rejects allegorical readings of scripture, views scripture primarily as proof-texts that determine correct belief and action, rejects the four major Sunni legal schools, and describes today’s world in theological terms derived from the early centuries of Islam—for example, by calling the Shia rawafid, or rejecters of the first three Sunni Caliphs. To call ISIS “salafi-jihadi” is accurate, but some of its influences are only one or the other, not both.

Strand A: Global Jihadism

Even though ISIS has broken with al-Qaeda, it is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaeda in both ideological and organizational terms. More broadly, it originated in the global jihadist movement that emerged after the Cold War. ISIS shares in al-Qaeda’s complex genealogy, which includes not just Salafi influences but also contemporary ideologues. Here are a few key thinkers in ISIS’s global jihadist genealogy:

1. Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi (1966-2006): This Jordanian militant spent time in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, where he met al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden. Returning to Jordan, al-Zarqawi was imprisoned from 1992-1999 on charges of involvement in jihadist plots. Upon his release, he traveled back to Afghanistan for several years. His group of militants became active there during the U.S. invasion of Iraq; they became al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), ISIS’s predecessor organization, in 2004.  AQI brutally targeted Shia Muslims, considering them infidels. ISIS continues to memorialize and invoke al-Zarqawi (who was killed in a U.S. air strike in 2006) in its messagingISIS’s magazine, Dabiq, is named for a town in Syria where they expect an apocalyptic battle to occur and the issues begin with a quotation in which al-Zarqawi referenced the battle.

English Source: Jean-Charles Brisard, Zarqawi: The New Face of al-Qaeda. Arabic Source: Writings of al-Zarqawi.

2. Abu Bakr Naji (real identity unknown): This anonymous jihadist ideologue wrote an influential text called The Management of Savagery: The Most Dangerous Stage through which the Muslim Community Will Pass, in which he lays out a strategy for establishing an Islamic state. Naji’s book appears to have influenced ISIS, particularly regarding its insurgent and strategic ambitions.

English Source: The Management of Savagery (translated by William McCants). Arabic source: Naji’s page at Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s website.

3. Osama bin Laden (1957-2011): The son of a Yemeni-Saudi construction magnate, Bin Laden became involved in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s as a financier and fighter. He founded al-Qaeda in 1988 and declared war on the United States in 1996. Al-Qaeda absorbed not only “Arab Afghans”Arabs who had fought in Afghanistanbut also Egyptian jihadists who opposed successive military heads of state in that country. Al-Qaeda was responsible for numerous attacks in the years after 1996, including 9/11.

Bin Laden supported Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi in the context of the Iraq War after 2003. Even at that time, though, differences in strategy appeared: al-Qaeda’s leaders were concerned about al-Zarqawi’s emphasis on sowing sectarian tension between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Although ISIS and al-Qaeda (now led by Bin Laden’s former deputy, Egyptian radical Ayman al-Zawahiri) have broken with each other, ISIS remains keen to claim Bin Laden’s legacy and invokes him positively in its magazine (see: Dabiq, issue 7, p. 25), even as it excoriates al-Zawahiri.

English Source: Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Arabic Source: “O People of Iraq.”

4. Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966): An autodidact and a literary critic, Qutb joined the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood late in life and became one of its most famous thinkers. During his imprisonment in the 1950s and 1960s, Qutb wrote Milestones, which influenced al-Qaeda’s founders and other jihadis around the world. Qutb argued for the absolute sovereignty of God on earth and pronounced all Arab rulers of his time apostates for having undermined God’s sovereignty.

Qutb is an indirect influence on ISIS. Part of the Salafi movement has been reluctant to embrace Qutb, given his deviations from the Salafi creed; some Salafi-jihadis are more eager to cite Qutb’s contemporary, the judge Ahmad Shakir, who also wrote against secularism but had much more formidable scholarly credentials. But leaders like al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri, have continued to praise Qutb, and Salafi-jihadi thinkers like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (see below) have been able to restate Qutb’s core ideas in a Salafi idiom. It would be difficult to imagine ISIS’s religious and political rejection of contemporary Arab regimes without the indirect influence of Qutb.

English Source: Albert Bergeson, The Sayyid Qutb Reader. Arabic Source: Ma‘alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones).

Strand B: Salafi “Rejectionism”

ISIS’s intellectual influences also include a “rejectionist” Salafi stranda line of thinkers who used Salafi language and theology to reject contemporary Arab regimes. Two important thinkers in this strain are Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Juhayman al-‘Utaybi, both of whom were influenced by a mainstream Salafi scholar, Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani. Both al-Maqdisi and al-‘Utaybi were also influenced by highly exclusivist nineteenth-century voices from the Wahhabi movement.

5. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b. 1959): Born in Palestine, and now living in Jordan, al-Maqdisi is the former teacher of al-Zarqawi and of Turki al-Bin‘ali (b. 1984), one of ISIS’s affiliated scholars. Two of al-Maqdisi’s contributions relevant to understanding ISIS are his efforts to promulgate a strict argument that Muslims should be loyal only to other Muslims and to provide a Salafi theological framework for ideas popularized by Qutb, especially the idea that contemporary Arab rulers are infidels.

Al-Maqdisi broke with al-Zarqawi over their disagreement about whether preaching or violence should take precedence. He has rejected ISIS, yet ISIS continues to use some of al-Maqdisi’s key metaphors, such as the idea of Millat Ibrahim (literally “the community of Abraham”), understood as an uncompromisingly monotheistic group centered on the Prophet Abraham and as a symbol of the Sunni Muslim exclusivism that ISIS champions (see: Dabiq, issue 3, p. 10).

English source: Joas Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. Arabic source: al-Maqdisi, Millat Ibrahim wa-Da‘wat al-Anbiya’ wa-al-Mursalin (The Community of Abraham and the Call of the Prophets and Messengers).

6. Juhayman al-‘Utaybi (ca. 1935-1980): Famous for leading the two-week siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979, al-‘Utaybi was a leader of al-Jama‘a al-Salafiyya al-Muhtasiba (The Salafi Society for Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong), a Salafi group that began in Medina in the mid-1960s. Initially supported by senior Saudi scholars, the group’s increasingly uncompromising stances and iconoclastic worship practices eventually generated conflict with the scholarly establishment.

In the late 1970s, al-‘Utaybi’s faction of the Society rejected the Saudi state and came to believe that one of its own members was the Mahdi, an Islamic figure expected to appear for the Final Battle. This belief inspired its uprising in Mecca. Al-‘Utaybi’s ideas influenced al-Maqdisi, making al-‘Utaybi an indirect influence on ISIS.

English Source: Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix, “Rejectionist Islam in Saudi Arabia: The Story of Juhayman al-Utaybi Revisited.” Arabic Source: Al-‘Utaybi’s page at al-Maqdisi’s website.

7. Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani (1914-1999): This Albania-born Muslim scholar dedicated his career to re-evaluating the authenticity of hadith, or reports of things the Prophet Muhammad said and did. Al-Albani, one of the towering figures of the Salafi movement, felt that many commonly accepted hadith were “weak,” meaning they lacked credibility and should not be used for deciding what Sunni Muslims should believe and how they should worship. Although he was politically quietist, his teachings influenced figures like al-‘Utaybi, and even jihadi thinkers like al-Maqdisi continue to respect much of his scholarship. ISIS does not claim al-Albani’s mantle, and were he still living al-Albani would no doubt reject ISIS as he did jihadism in 1990s Algeria. Nevertheless, given al-Albani’s massive impact on the contemporary Salafi movement and its understanding of Islam’s foundational texts, he is an indirect influence on ISIS.

English Source: Stéphane Lacroix, “Between Revolution and Apoliticism: Nasir al-Din al-Albani and His Impact on the Shaping of Contemporary Salafism.” Arabic Source: Al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifa wa-al-Mawdu‘a wa-Atharuha al-Sayyi’ fi al-Umma (The Series of Weak and Forged Hadith Reports and Their Negative Effect on the Muslim Community).

8. Hamad ibn ‘Atiq (1812/3-1884): This scholar from present-day Saudi Arabia epitomized a school of thought within nineteenth-century Wahhabism that rejected any friendly interaction between those considered to be true Muslims and outsiders. This exclusive conception of Muslim identity informed the thought of al-‘Utaybi and al-Maqdisi and, through them, the thought and actions of ISIS.

English Source: David Commins, The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia (see also Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi). Arabic Source: Al-Durar al-Saniyya fi al-Ajwiba al-Najdiyya (The Glittering Pearls of the Najdi Responses).

Strand C: Medieval Thinkers

ISIS is keen to claim that it is following the footsteps of medieval authorities respected by Salafis of all political stripes around of the world. These authorities include Ibn Taymiyya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim. Howeverand it is important to bear this in mind when debating whether or not ISIS represents the “medieval tradition” of IslamIbn Taymiyya was in some ways a minority figure in his own lifetime and the centuries that followed, and his legacy had to be deliberately revived and defended in the nineteenth century. Moreover, Ibn Taymiyya’s body of writing is so vast, and his thought so complex, that ISIS cannot lay exclusive claim to understanding or applying the medieval theologian’s legacy.

9. Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328): The Damascene theologian was an extremely prolific and controversial scholar in his own time and after. He has influenced the Salafi movement through his writings on creed and politics, and through Salafis’ glorification of Ibn Taymiyya as a fierce opponent of any perceived heresy. Some Salafis read the present conflicts in the Muslim world as a re-instantiation of conflicts that occurred during Ibn Taymiyya’s era, when Mongol armies captured and threatened Muslim territory in the Middle East. ISIS invokes Ibn Taymiyya frequently to claim his scholarly authority for its highly exclusivist Sunni identity and its embrace of jihad (see: Dabiq, issue 3, p. 32).

English Source: Yossef Rapoport and Shahab Ahmed, eds., Ibn Taymiyya and His Times. Arabic Source (for a sense of Ibn Taymiyya’s creed): Al-Aqida al-Wasitiyya (The Creed of Wasit [an Iraqi town]).

10. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (1292-1350): A major student of Ibn Taymiyya and an accomplished scholar in his own right, Ibn Qayyim is one of the medieval authorities invoked most by ISIS. The jihadist group cites Ibn Qayyim when discussing diverse topics but especially in two areas, scriptural interpretation and legal rulings. For example, ISIS quotes at length from Ibn al-Qayyim in discussing the issue of mubahalaa session in which two sides invoke God’s curse upon whomever is in the wrong (see: Dabiq, issue , pp. 21-22).

English Source: Birgit Krawietz, “Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyah: His Life and Works.” Arabic Source: Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma‘ad (Provisions of the Hereafter).

Conclusion

Two final points should be made about ISIS’s intellectual genealogy. First, no senior scholars, even within jihadi circles, have associated themselves with ISIS. ISIS’s most prominent scholar (Turki al-Bin‘ali) is barely thirty years old, and even al-Maqdisi has rejected the movement, which should give outsiders great pause when asserting that ISIS has a sophisticated understanding of any tradition, even the contemporary Salafi tradition.

Second, and despite the rich potential for scholarship on and debate around ISIS’s religious roots, the movement’s political context should not be downplayed. ISIS’s causes are not reducible to the Iraq War or the Syrian revolution, but without the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the Syrian Civil War there would be no ISIS. The Iraq War made a decisive contribution to the political chaos, sectarian tensions, and widespread brutalization that have fueled ISIS’s rise, as did Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s suppression of more moderate elements among the opposition to his regime. Whatever Islamic ideals exist within ISIS, they have found a mass Sunni constituency because of politics. Rather than arguing over whether ISIS represents some inherent pathology in Islam, analysts would do better to examine how ISIS’ peculiar religious genealogies have intersected with the tragic and complex politics of Iraq and Syria.

April 17th, 2015

Remembering Martin Riesebrodt

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On December 6, 2014, influential sociologist of religion Martin Riesebrodt died at the age of 66. Professor Riesebrodt was the author of two groundbreaking comparative studies: Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran (1993), and The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (2010).

Pious Passion explores the phenomenon of contemporary religious fundamentalism, focusing particularly on the relationship between religious fundamentalisms and the structures and ideology of patriarchy. Riesebrodt argues that fundamentalism in post-revolution Iran and among early twentieth-century Protestants in the United States represented a form of patriarchal traditionalism that, as a result of urbanization and state-driven secularization, had become reflexive and politically mobilized. Driving this reflexive turn was a perceived moral crisis within the wider culture that threatened traditionalists’ very capacity to transmit their value orientations to the next generation. This sense of crisis coincided with structural changes that had depersonalized political and economic institutions and transformed gender relations within the family. In response, fundamentalist intellectuals and activists advocated for a return to a legal-rational, “book-centered” religious order that would renew patriarchal controls on women and revive paternalistic authority in politics and the economy.

In summary, fundamentalism in Iran and in the United States was “directed primarily against the dissolution of personalistic, patriarchal notions of order and social relations and their replacement by depersonalized principles” (9). It was a radicalized patriarchalism that critiqued the “antagonistic interests and class conflict” of contemporary society from a perspective that emphasized “the ideal of religiously and morally integrated society” (207-208). Ultimately, Riesebrodt argued, the comparative sociology of fundamentalism revealed the limits and unforeseen consequences of the processes that had produced the secular-bureaucratic nation-state. The state was not a neutral force. Its modernizing interventions could marginalize traditionalist milieus; and this marginalization could generate a radical fundamentalist response. Historian of religions Bruce Lincoln described Pious Passion as “the best study of fundamentalism that’s ever been produced.” Riesebrodt would later expand his explorations of “the return of religion” in the form of fundamentalism and culture wars in a second book, Die Rückkehr der Religionen und der “Kampf der Kulturen.”

In a third book, The Promise of Salvation, Riesebrodt sought to construct—through a wide-ranging and thorough comparison of different religious traditions—a definitive, practice-based theory of religion, in order to explain religion’s persistence throughout history and the modern world. In insisting on comparison, Riesebrodt countered prevailing postmodern and post-colonialist approaches that had sought to “provincialize” Western categories of analysis and thereby argue for the impossibility of universal definitions. Such notions were nonsensical, Riesebrodt asserted, because understanding of particularities was impossible without comparison. Moreover, as the historical study of religious polemics revealed, individuals and groups had always sensed continuities in practices across cultures. Even if religious practitioners may not have shared a common word or notion for “religion” they nevertheless perceived shared assumptions concerning superhuman powers across their social and cultural boundaries. There was, therefore, what Riesebrodt termed a “relational justification” for theorizing religion transhistorically and transculturally.

The core of Riesebrodt’s theory is a definition of religion that makes “interventionist practices” the center of analysis. Interventionist practices comprise any type of practice that “aim[s] at establishing contact with superhuman powers” with the objective of averting or mitigating misfortune and securing salvation in areas of existence—individual, social, and in the natural environment—that exceed “direct human control” (75). Other religious practices—second-order discursive or behavior-regulating ones, for example—”logically, systematically, and pragmatically…presuppose the existence of interventionist practices.” Interventionist practices “ground and strengthen the experience of religious reality emotionally and cognitively” by dramatizing “the existence of superhuman powers and their accessibility.” The legitimacy and effectiveness of discursive or ethical practices flow from the prior existence of these interventionist techniques and the “aura of factuality” they instill within practitioners. Methodologically, too, interventionist practices “offer the clearest and strongest basis” for transhistorical and cross-cultural comparison because they “are much more strictly regulated and fixed in their liturgical meaning” (86-87). With this definition of religion and practice-centered method in place, Riesebrodt proceeds to demonstrate the validity and utility of his theory by examining a range of empirical examples spanning diverse religious traditions.

The Promise of Salvation concludes by arguing that precisely because technological means will likely fail to resolve the uncertainties of human life—and indeed produce new uncertainties, as climate change demonstrates—religions will persist as cultural resources for rendering crisis and suffering comprehensible and thus emotionally manageable. Indeed, groups that believe seriously in their religious premises and advocate for them convincingly may very well thrive in moments of heightened unpredictability and precariousness. Such insight raises a range of questions for our understanding of secularism and secularization. In his most recent remarks on this subject, an April 2014 talk on religion and empirical research, Riesebrodt probed these implications, arguing for the need to conceive of secularization and religious revitalization as interlinked processes.

Further Reading:

Konieczny, Mary Ellen, Loren D. Lybarger, and Kelly H. Chong. “Theory as a Tool in the Social Scientific Study of Religion and Martin Riesebrodt’s The Promise of Salvation.” The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (September,2012): 397-411.

Riesebrodt, Martin. “Fundamentalism and the Resurgence of Religion.” Numen 47 (2000): 266-287.

__________. Pious Passion: The Emergence of Modern Fundamentalism in the United States and Iran. Translated by Don Reneau. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993. [Published originally as Fundamentalismus als patriarchalische Protestbewegung: amerikanische Protestanten (1910-28) und iranische Schiiten (1961-79) im Vergleich. Tübingen : J.C.B. Mohr, 1990.]

__________. The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion. Translated by Steven Rendall. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2010. [Published originally as Cultus und Heilsversprechen: eine Theorie der Religionen. München: Beck, 2007.]

__________. Die Rückkehr der Religionen : Fundamentalismus und der “Kampf der Kulturen.” München : Beck, 2000.

April 16th, 2015

Projecting religious futures

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Projected Cumulative Change Due to Religious Switching, 2010-2050Earlier this month, Pew Research Center published its projections on what religious affiliations might look like in 2050, in what it describes as the “first formal demographic projections using data on age, fertility, mortality, migration and religious switching for multiple religious groups around the world.” Demographers from Pew and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Laxenburg, Austria gathered data from more than 2,500 sources, and covers eight groups: Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, adherents of folk religions, adherents of other religions and the unaffiliated.

Among its most notable conclusions are that the number of Muslims will eventually match and then exceed the number of Christians in the world, and that Muslim and Christian adherents will double in sub-Saharan Africa by that time. China looms large in the report, as any religious shifts there would have massive implications given the sheer size of its population. But the country remains, to a large degree, terra incognita: up-to-date data on the religiously affiliated (or not) is simply unavailable. The forecasts provide a vague outline of trends that will surely have major sociopolitical ramifications globally.

Read the full report here.

April 6th, 2015

Blasphemous cartoons: The old threat of secularism and the new threat of Islam

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Moses Getting a Back ViewAround Christmas time, in the heart of Europe, furor broke out over blasphemous cartoons. The newspapers and public opinion were split. Was the blasphemer a public martyr for “liberty of the Press, or the right of free speech and free thought”? 1 Or did the cartoons represent a “gross and gratuitous insult to the religious convictions of others”? 2

The date was 1882. The cartoons were the “Comic Bible Sketches” published in the Christmas edition of the Freethinker by George Foote. They were based, as it happens, on precedents from a French publication, La Bible amusante. The cartoons look laughably innocent compared to some of the blasphemies that the gods have suffered since. For example, in “Moses Getting a Back View” (right) a bewildered Moses gets to peek at God’s appropriately massive posterior. The cartoon is a pastiche on Exodus 33:23, where Moses asks to see God’s glory and God only allows him see his back. It was not by accident that Foote seized on one of the many moments where God hides himself from representation and institutes a wariness about imaging the divine. For this and other similar images, Foote was indicted and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment with hard labor. In this case, the British courts meted out the physical punishment for pen-crimes.

God’s back, cheekily switched to his backside, is very modest compared to recent images of holy figures with their buttocks exposed (though note the tear in the trousers, and what might be a hint at a little piece of toilet paper). Similarly, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, released in 1979, seems so nice and genteel when compared to the horrendous The Innocence of Muslims, uploaded onto YouTube in 2012. But Life of Brian was not genteel enough for the Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and the satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, who in 1979 turned up on the debate show Friday Night, Saturday Morning to lambast John Cleese and Michael Palin. The bishop (flamboyantly Christian in his giant cross and purple robe) addressed Palin and Cleese as fellow Oxbridge boys: he reprimanded them for having betrayed their privilege by failing to abide by rules of courtesy and tone.

The bishop was looking back to the old rules of blasphemy, old rules stretching back to the late seventeenth century—the time of John Locke, the Deists, and the rise of the coffee shop and the expansion of the public press. As Steven Shapin argues, truth was (and is) a matter of credibility, status, etiquette and “epistemological decorum.” The biblical god could be subjected to erudite in-jokes safely confined to the inner circle of learned gentlemen. But gods and state apparatuses were far more sensitive to jokes made in the vernacular, which lowered the social status of holy figures. Thomas Woolston (1668-1733) remained in prison until his death for making some excellent one liners—my favorite being the quip that Jesus’s failure to recognize his mother at the wedding in Cana (‘Woman, what have I to do with thee?’ [John 2:4]) was clear proof that the messiah was drunk. If Woolston had been able to pay the exorbitant fine of 25 pounds per publication he could have got out of jail. (By way of rough comparison, 1 pound equaled 20 shillings; 8 shillings would buy a bottle of champagne in Vauxhall; and 2 shillings 6 pence would get you a whole pig.)

For centuries, we have negotiated a very awkward and much-compromised path between the prohibition and the celebration of freedom of speech and critique. Criticism and freedom of speech are not just to be tolerated: they must be publicly exhibited as proof of the liberal polities to which we aspire. But evolving freedoms of speech and religion have to be managed: freedoms have always been carefully regulated and have never been allowed to run wild.

Censorship and prohibition rapidly became an affair of class and style. Law has struggled, ludicrously, to set out a space for legitimate criticism or “argument[s] used in good faith and conveyed in decent language,” while trying to build a firewall between such critique and its opposite, blasphemy. As a nebulous and highly volatile category, blasphemy can only be pegged out by strange and special adjectives such as “contumelious,” “scurrilous,” “ribald,” “derogatory,” “defamatory,” and “puerile.” As these words clearly show, blasphemy is a social-political drama of respect and respectability. It is a spatial and directional term. “Scurrilous” claims are claims which damage a reputation. The prefix “de-“—meaning “down from”—implies a spatial demotion from high to low.

And “ribald” means bawdy. As Foote’s image of God’s giant bum shows, old style blasphemy was not averse to being a little bit bawdy, indelicate, off color, risqué. But for Foote’s contemporaries, God’s braces and patched checked trousers may have been equally or even more offensive. Here, God is not dressed as a gentleman or a Member of Parliament; in other cartoons he is dressed like a traveler or vagabond. Blasphemy is, similarly, a matter of access, circulation. Foote sold his Freethinker for what he termed the people’s price of one penny in a deliberate inversion of the astronomical fine of 25 pounds—he was doing the very best he could in the media of the 1880s to spread blasphemy-sedition to the working class.

Blasphemy is a ritualized act, with iconic flash points that change over time: today the flashpoint is sex. Foote’s giant divine posterior is completely outflanked, so to speak, by the sexual humiliation of sacred figures that has now become de rigeur. Blasphemers now activate the idea of “blasphemy” by showing holy figures stripped naked, or involved in demeaning sex acts. The homoerotic poem “The Love that Dares to Speak its Name,” written in the 1970s (around the same time as the far more jocular Life of Brian) turns Jesus into a homoerotic lover of men—to the point of necrophilia. These days, the gods long for the days when their worst problems were cheeky presentations of (clothed) butt cheeks, or cheeky accusations about a tipsy messiah.

Rites of blasphemy show what first comes to our minds when we think about freedom. Since the (still very recent) decriminalization of homosexuality and the alleged sexual liberation of the 1960s and 1970s, sexual liberation is what first comes to mind. In the 1880s, for Foote and his contemporaries, the idea of freedom was firmly attached to political freedom—related, for some, to the campaign to be free to be an atheist or, in the recently coined jargon, “secular.” The authorities were threatened by a terrifying array of political freedoms: nascent socialism, communism, and new anarchist movements—as well as mass popular movements for the working class (male) vote. These campaigns had only been partly pacified by the Reform Act (1868), which had enfranchised “respectable” working men (read: an income of 26 shillings a week) while excluding the “residuum.” In other exclusions from the democratic process, public atheists or secularists were not allowed to be members of parliament. As a site of morality and public value and respect, secularism did not exist.

Foote was campaigning for (among other things) the right to be secular. He represented a minority. Minority is not just a matter of numbers, but value; status in relation to social and moral values. Foote wanted to give the newly defined (and for many unbelievable, non-existent) space of the secular value, plausibility, and respect. He wanted to force credence and respectability for the category of non-belief. And there was something audacious and daring about seeking validity andcredibility for the realm defined as the lack of belief. Blasphemy was essential to the substantiation of the secular. Like all public movements that are retrospectively claimed as natural flowerings of democracy—just like, for example, universal suffrage, or the removal of civil disabilities for Jews and Catholics and nonconformists—the secular did not follow naturally from (Christian) democracy, but forced itself, becoming increasingly assured and confident through acts of blasphemy and comedy.In the 1880s, the secular was as implausible and threatening as the prospect of the vote for male laborers or women. Through the insult of blasphemy, the secular was naturalized, so much so that it was assumed to become the default ground beneath our feet.

In Foote’s day the British authorities were deeply fearful of the threat of Home Rule in Ireland and were reeling from the threat of revolution so vividly demonstrated in the Paris Commune of 1871. By importing blasphemous cartoons in the style of La Bible amusante, Foote deliberately provoked fears of revolution flooding across the channel. The same year that Foote was convicted, the Explosives Act was rushed through Parliament. Today the political options seem far more contracted and consensual. We look back at the world that never was and the dreamers and schemers for whom politics was an incendiary affair. Perhaps our freedoms become more vivid for us if we provoke religious fanaticism to re-commit ourselves to our shared value of being free, but the duel between freedom of speech and prohibition or respect for religion is not an old record that can be pulled out and replayed in the same old way, with the same old effects.

Blasphemy does not take place in some timeless context-less space where none of us (not even the gods) get to live. Timing and direction are everything in comedy—and in blasphemy. Foote was a late Victorian addressing and taunting a conservative Christian political establishment. His satire punched upwards, towards the heavens and the courts. Blasphemy once applied to gods, or more accurately gods and governments. It is now widely understood as an offense against religious subjects, rather than an offense against the gods in which not all of us believe. But traditionally, blasphemy has been satire that punches upwards—towards the gods—and then towards those special figures that seem to stand closest to the powers that be.

It can be profoundly unhelpful to use a catchall term like blasphemy that seems so oblivious to space and time—or to repeat vague dichotomies about freedom of religion versus freedom of speech. Surely blasphemy changes when it changes direction: when one is “derogatory” or “defamatory” to a group on the periphery, in the banlieue.3 Islam in Europe has but a fragile, nominal equality. Note the bizarre regularity with which European Muslims have been called on to publicly declare themselves against the bloody massacre of journalists and shoppers at a kosher supermarket. In the U.K., the conservative Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, took the opportunity to write a public letter to Muslim authorities asking them to “explain and demonstrate how faith in Islam can be part of British identity.” No one called on Norwegian Christians to reassure the public that they did not support the mass killings by Anders Behring Breivik in the name of a rogue Christianity—or his rage against women and Islam. While few know much about the details of (any) religion, in Europe, Christianity—the “home” religion—is widely believed to have some kind of foundational value or to be generally in tune with democratic values. Islam has the same kind of standing as Foote’s nascent secularism: irrespective of numbers, it is a “minority” because it lacks credence, credibility, value. Unlike Christianity or today’s secularity, Islam it has no automatic social standing in relation to shared European values, but is widely perceived as standing in a combative relation to those values in the name of Islam.

Why do we keep summoning and provoking religion (but not in the generic sense, never in the generic sense) in our ongoing battle for freedom? Don’t we know what else to ask to the duel? I don’t want to simply echo the point that Joe Sacco makes so deftly in his recent cartoon for The Guardian. My own poor pen can add nothing to this brilliant cartoon. But my own question are: Are these acts of blasphemy strangely comforting, because they suggest that religion—fanatical religion—is the only remaining, or the most important obstacle remaining, between us and the holy grail of being really “free”? Are gods and the god-fearers really where the power is these days? Or are other transcendent, invisible forces afoot, ones in which we all believe? Does focusing on the freedom to damn the religions allow us to forget all the pressures of security and surveillance, copyright and accountability and regulation? Does a fanatical obsession with the fanatical god-fearers help us forget the whistleblowers imprisoned for leaking military secrets; those prosecuted for insulting widely shared values (such as cherished nationalisms); or the force of law that in so many ways regulates our being, our bodies, and our speech? Law really gets around, far more effectively than the old gods ever did. As Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos puts it: “The city is so thick with law that the law is not perceived.” Law and the economy are not as easy to summon to court or accountability as the gods and religious believers—even though they are more ubiquitous and potent than the gods could ever be. Perhaps we keep summoning and provoking the old religions because we don’t know what to do with these new forms of divinity. Concentration on the fury of the old gods and their supporters at least gives us a target we can see.


  1. Daily News, March 2, 1883

  2. Birmingham Daily Post, March 5, 1883

  3. I don’t mean to flatten the complexity of the suburbs or deny the high social standing of many Muslims in Europe, but the cartoonish, broad brushstrokes convey an important truth, even if they run the danger of caricature.

March 27th, 2015

Is ISIS Islamic? Why it matters for the study of Islam

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Recent months have witnessed considerable angst in the academy over what is and isn’t Islam(ic). Spurred by events from the attacks in Paris to Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on ISIS, scholars of Islam have agonized over whether and how to apply the label “Islamic” or “Muslim” to characterize recent events. Reviewing various commentaries, there is a limited range of arguments that, by proffering competing positivist accounts of the Islamic, thereby play into a climate of moral panic about the threat Islam poses to domestic and international orders. By playing into the moral panic, such arguments, in the aggregate, preclude both critical interrogation of the scholarly production on Islam and Muslims and reflection on the possible contribution Islamic studies can make to advanced research more broadly.

I suggest that the study of Islam holds out the promise of a two-pronged capacity for critique. On the one hand, and as scholarship has already shown, the study of Islam allows critique of Muslim elites of varying political persuasions who claim an Islamic mantle. On the other hand, and most salient for North American producers and consumers of Islamic scholarship, the study of Islam offers a powerful vehicle for both interrogating the questions and parochializing the assumptions that inform North American scholarly production on Islam and much more.

Recent arguments on whether ISIS is Islamic reveal two approaches to defining and studying Islam and “the Muslim”: (a) an originalism that runs the risk of pushing Islam out of history, and (b) a representative liberal-cum-protestantism that, by reading the Muslim subject both atomistically and representatively, either upholds or subverts an aggrandizing state.

Rather than asking whether ISIS is Islamic or not, the better question is why it matters so much and to whom. To ask this question, though, requires that “we” (i.e. producers of knowledge on Islam) interrogate our understandings of religion, politics, law, reason, and the state, and the consequences that follow when we encounter others whose different understandings appear to be the inverse of our own. At its most provocative, the study of Islam, as Dipesh Chakrabarty might say, allows us to provincialize categories that we take for granted, and even to recognize the “us” in the “them.”

Is ISIS Islamic? A typology of arguments

The typology of arguments offered in response to Wood’s article might best be understood as Weberian “ideal types,” such that any actual argument will traverse the neat categories delineated below. But as Anthony Kronman reminds us, even in their unreality, ideal types illuminate what is at stake.

“ISIS is Islamic” I

One version of the claim that ISIS is Islamic focuses on their invocation of pre-modern Islamic scriptural and legal texts and concepts; this is what many claim is Wood’s principal argument. ISIS’s own leadership would probably make this argument. In its decree on the Christians of Raqqa, for instance, ISIS invoked pre-modern rules on the dhimmi (non-Muslim permanent residents) when it imposed the jizya (historical poll tax).

One cannot deny that ISIS’s language, concepts, and intertextual references have a pedigree in the Islamic tradition; to suggest, however, that the authentic meaning of Islam is captured by (literal) references to texts unduly reduces the dynamism of Islam across time and space and reflects an Orientalist predisposition to view and construct Islam solely by reference to texts and their demands upon the believer. As Naomi Davidson has brilliantly shown in her book Only Muslim, to reduce Islam—and thereby Muslims—to the ritual requirements that the Islamic textual tradition places on them saturates the Muslim with an exclusive “Muslimness” that can be seen as an analog to how some perceive race (e.g. natural, self-evident, unyielding), thus subjecting Muslims to the all-too-familiar dynamics of state regulation amid racialized politics.

“ISIS is Islamic” II

The second argument for considering ISIS Islamic relies on the fact that some Muslims support ISIS and consider it Islamic. Media accounts are rife with stories about young Muslims leaving North America and Europe to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq; the Atlantic story, in fact, features an interview with such a person. In the study of Islam, this focus on the experience of individual Muslims resonates with a turn in North American religious studies in general, and Islamic studies in particular, toward the anthropological and, more specifically, the ethnographic. Ethnographers, trained in participant-observer methods, increasingly dominate the study of Islam in North America. While ethnography offers important insights, it also has its own politics, such as an implicit (if not explicit) reaction against both the Orientalist priority of philology and an older style of anthropology that treated its subjects as primitive and unmodern. If the first argument is premised on the centrality of an Islamic textual tradition, this second argument is premised on the centrality of the voices of ethnographic Muslim subjects, as documented in field notes, and from which generalizations are made to construct “Muslim” as a group identifier.

Importantly, though, the ethnographization of the Islamic or the Muslim reveals a representative liberal-cum-protestant mode of analysis. Representative, in that the views of individual subjects are generalized as applicable to a group. Liberal, in that the ethnographic subject, before being ethnographized, maps neatly onto the atomized rights-holder subjected to state law. Protestant, in that what counts as Islamic is what any given believer says or does, without reference to an institutional or clerical authority. According to this approach, religion is analyzed atomistically, but is made to represent something more collective; given this, when Muslims in North America and Europe—however few they may be—claim that ISIS is Islamic, their claim is taken as authoritative, representative of a more general or widespread consensus. And when individual Muslims espouse ISIS-like ideology, or commit lone-wolf acts of aggression (as in Ottowa and Paris), they are viewed as anything but individuals. These Muslims represent, in their embodied performances and utterances, the threat of more violence to come, thereby providing support for those political elites who demand policies that would expand and enhance the already securitized state.

“ISIS is not Islamic” I

The first type of skeptical argument is simply the mirror image of the first “ISIS is Islamic” position: it defines Islam by reference to historical pedigree and replicates many of the same assumptions about where and what the Islamic is, but focuses on the various ways in which ISIS departs from the norms contained in an Islamic textual tradition that is presumed to capture the full normative content of Islam. According to this argument, whether something is or isn’t Islamic depends largely on its fidelity to (as opposed to simple invocation of) the textual tradition; ISIS is not Islamic, because it departs from an accepted literary canon of authoritative texts, misconstrues that canon, or cherry-picks from that canon without regard to the whole.

“ISIS is not Islamic” II

These skeptics vehemently distance Muslims and/or Islam from ISIS; their argument relies on the fact that Muslims around the world have condemned ISIS. Given the sheer number of Muslims who disavow ISIS’s brutal practices, so the argument goes, it is outrageous to suggest that ISIS is Islamic. But this reference to what Muslims do or say is, again, the mirror image of the second “ISIS is Islamic” argument—a representative liberal-cum-protestant approach, except that, in democratic fashion, the majority rules. A slightly different version of this argument asserts that Muslim scholars around the world have condemned ISIS. These authorities on Islam presumably embody a professional training (and thereby an intellectual elitism), which makes their voices count far more than ordinary Muslims and ISIS leaders, let alone untrained media pundits. Their voices, so the argument goes, carry considerable weight in defining what is and is not Islamic. This is more akin to a representative liberal-cum-high church approach that invokes the voice of certain Muslims who presume representative authority by virtue of their scholarly credentials, though without occupying a formal institutional office, such as the Vatican or Lambeth Palace.

These four arguments offer important insights into how scholars frame their understanding of “Islam” and the “Muslim.” But they also betray a missed opportunity to reflect on the value of studying Islam as a mode of critique in the North American academy. The first version of both conclusions associates the “Islamic” with the historical and textual. What counts as Islamic today (and thereby, as Muslim) are those acts and people who manifest some continuity with or loyalty to that earlier tradition. Discontinuity (or disaffection), on this mode of analysis, implies that one falls outside the ambit of the Islamic. As a historian I am not convinced that separating continuity from discontinuity is possible because attention to both necessarily situates Islam in history rather than out of history. If the study of Islam is to be more than antiquarianism, then one cannot discount the discontinuities with the past as having a claim on the label “Islamic” without running the risk of treating Islam as an artifact.

The second versions of both conclusions draw upon a view of religious experience in which the voices of individuals (whether many or few) stand on their own and are made to stand for the group, thereby collapsing the individual and the group. But analytically reading the Muslim subject as the collective “Muslim” precludes the possibility of answering definitively whether or not ISIS is Islamic, given the epistemic implications of sample size. The ethnographized account of the Muslim is made at a time when Muslims are under increased surveillance and scrutiny. For the political right, that surveillance and scrutiny reflects a view of Muslims as potential threats, based on what a limited sample of Muslims have said or done. For the political left, that surveillance and scrutiny are palpably unfair, again, based on what a limited sample of Muslims have said or done. To characterize these two arguments as representative liberal-cum-protestant is thereby to reveal their underlying politics about the state. Ethnographizing particular Muslims’ experiences to generalize about Muslims as a group or Islam as a religion can either uphold or subvert the securitization narrative that has informed so many states since the events of 9/11.

From Moral Panic to Islamic Studies as Critique

After the tragic events of 9/11, some universities and colleges immediately expanded their institutional capacity to teach and research about Islam and Muslims. Given this, it is not surprising that the stakes in the scholarly debate on ISIS and Islam concern the haunting specter of security and/in the state. Indeed, the arguments noted above either create moral panic (“ISIS is Islamic”) or refuse moral panic (“ISIS is not Islamic”) at a time when North American and European states are deciding courses of action in Iraq. But the moral panic principally provides cover to real-time decision-making processes that would otherwise have to account for a much more complex—and less flattering for all sides—political, economic, and social history of dispossession of those who now live in ISIS’ shadow. This dispossession has taken various forms, such as colonial administration in the service of an industrializing Europe hungry for natural resources; or the authoritarian nightmares that took the place of wishful anti-colonial dreams.

For the study of Islam to be a vehicle for expanding the scope of advanced scholarship, scholars of Islam might find greater intellectual payoff by focusing on the contest over definition, why it matters as much as it does, and to whom. Arguably, this contest over definition has everything to do with managing the borders between “us” and “them,” and determining what those borders imply about international aid, security and torture, and of course, war.

For instance, suppose instead of asking whether ISIS is Islamic, we were to say that ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of broken promises at the end of the British and French mandates; ISIS is as much Islamic as it is a product of the American interventions in Iraq; ISIS’s brutality is as Islamic as the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching of Black Americans was Christian, both Islam and Christianity having been used to justify violent brutality. To baldly pose these claims is to reveal the parochialisms that frame debates on Islam and Muslims, that inform certain politics of belonging and difference (read, Fox News), and that bolster the state policies that flow therefrom (e.g. Shari’a legislative bans).

To reveal these parochialisms illuminates how the arguments for and against moral panic artificially reduce the debate on ISIS to an unhelpful zero-sum game of Islamic/unIslamic. The label of “Islam(ic)” in the case of ISIS might be better appreciated as what James Scott in Domination and the Arts of Resistance would call a “hidden transcript” that is now made public. Scott writes about how the oppressed hew to “public transcripts” that might appear as their contented resignation to the status quo. But when they are able to avoid detection, the dominated employ “hidden transcripts” (like dragging one’s feet) to quietly subvert that same status quo.

But what happens when the dominated no longer want their hidden transcript to remain hidden? Unlike Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Manwhere the main character retreats from the public to find solace in a space all his own—perhaps ISIS’s followers either could not yield the public sphere to the status quo, or could not (in the wake of US invasions, the humiliations of Abu Ghraib, or the trauma of torture) find solace in a private space of their own. Suffering from domination, humiliation, and/or trauma—or co-opting others’ suffering to dramatize their own middling discontent—their invocation of Islam offers the language by which they can now transform their hidden, grumbling dissatisfaction about the status quo (whether in the Arab world or in the West) into an explosively subversive public transcript.

But by transforming their hidden transcript into a ferociously successful public one, ISIS has become the oppressor. Drawing again upon Scott’s “transcripts,” dominant powers both employ and often define the terms of the public transcript to which the oppressed must yield if they are to survive. ISIS’s public transcript of an Islam that sanctions violent spectacle has certainly created sufficient compliance for purposes of (per)forming its state.

ISIS’s violent spectacles in the name of Islam remind us that religiously justified violence is part of our shared history. As another Atlantic article recalled, Confederate leaders in the US Civil War invoked Christian justifications for slavery to legitimate the South’s utterly violent pursuit of secession. As much as we tell ourselves (hi)stories about nationalism and the self-determination of peoples, we cannot ignore how they—just like the question about ISIS and Islam—distract us from the unrepentant, spectacularly violent birth of a state. In the case of ISIS, though, the violence retorts the violence that preceded it. The history of ISIS is a history of political violence. And some of it was ours, which is presumably what ISIS, through its public transcript, wants us to repent.

If Islam is the language of ISIS’s public transcript, though, Scott notes that even oppressors have hidden transcripts. ISIS’s intentional and deliberate use of social media ought to alert us precisely to the likelihood that there is much we are not permitted to see. To dispute whether ISIS is or is not Islamic assumes the exclusiveness of ISIS’s public transcript as the only transcript. ISIS’s hidden transcript, though, will remain hidden for as long as we remain focused on whether ISIS is Islamic or not.

March 23rd, 2015

Religious freedom at Religion Dispatches

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As part of a joint project between The Immanent Frame and Religion Dispatches, RD contributing editor Austin Dacey has written a series of posts on religious freedom in the United States. His latest piece tackles Winnifred Fallers Sullivan’s “The impossibility of religious freedom” and potential alternate regimes for legislating religious freedom in the United States:

For those opposed to the regime of religious freedom, the question is what could replace it. Is there a system that would be morally preferable yet also administratively implementable? Although her recent article doesn’t address it, Sullivan’s 2005 book of the same name closes by gesturing towards an alternative.

Under this legal regime, religious individuals and communities would “have to make arguments for the special legal accommodation of difference to legislative bodies.” Those making a case for “differential treatment would be required to make a very strong showing, as in race cases, of past discrimination or present need, to justify special legal treatment.” While these remarks are promising and suggestive, they do not constitute a workable theory. Attempts to construct such a theory—and attempts to show that there could be no such theory—presently preoccupy much legal scholarship. Insofar as there is no feasible alternative to a regime of “religious freedom,” Koppelman’s larger challenge remains in force: Religious freedom may be impossible, but compared to what?

Dacey has also written about the impact of the Holt v. Hobbs and Hobby Lobby decisions, the concept of corporate personhood, and the differences between religious non-profit and for-profit companies.

This collaboration with Religion Dispatches is made possible by funding from the Henry Luce Foundation.

March 10th, 2015

CFP: Freedom of (and from) Religion

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The Department of Religious Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara, with support from the Cordano Endowment in Catholic Studies, will host a conference on “Freedom of (and from) Religion: Debates Over the Accommodation of Religion in the Public Sphere” from April 30 to May 2, 2015. The keynote speaker will be Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair, Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington, and Affiliated Professor of Law, Maurer School of Law. Full details in the call below:

Accommodation of religion in the public sphere has often been a source of contention in the American context. Historically the Supreme Court of the United States has made clear that the separation of church and state must be preserved at almost all cost. However, this position has been increasingly challenged over the last thirty years. Since the Equal Access Act was legislated in 1984 –which guaranteed public school student groups, whether religious or secular, equal access to meeting spaces and school publications — the practice of public accommodation has burgeoned. And the very legislation that Christian groups lobbied for in order to insure that high school students could hold after-school Bible study groups on public school property was subsequently also used to insure the right to form gay student alliances and to form campus groups that focused on any religion or on secularism. In a similar vein, laws guaranteeing religious freedom have been used to demand accommodations of religious objections to, and exemptions from, valid public policy (e.g., the Affordable Care Act). These and many other examples suggest that accommodation has become a new front in the culture wars and implicate important questions about freedom from religion as well as the freedom to act on the basis of religious beliefs.We invite papers that engage with the theme of public accommodation of religion, particularly as it comes into conflict with the values of equality and/or nondiscrimination. The conference will explore this topic from various disciplinary standpoints, such as history, law, political science, religious studies, sociology, ethics, public policy, or others. Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • the projected effects of the Hobby Lobby decision for RFRA laws at federal and state levels
  • how religious freedom is represented through various types of media, including social media
  • how a variety of religions and denominations have been understood in legal cases
  • critical perspectives on concepts of religious freedom, freedom of conscience and accommodation
  • ramifications for health care, public safety, the workplace and other issues we’re facing today
  • the various ways in which law intersects with religion and health care.

We welcome proposals from established scholars, graduate students, and independent researchers.

The deadline is rapidly approaching so please send an abstract of 300 words to Kathleen Moore at kmoore@religion.ucsb.edu by March 13, 2015. The PDF of the full call for papers can be found here.

February 23rd, 2015

Religion in Britain: Demography, identity, and the public sphere

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At Public Spirit, to coincide with the publication of the second edition of Grace Davie’s Religion in Britain, Tariq Modood comments on three significant changes in demography, identity, and the public sphere that are going to characterize the next few decades and perhaps beyond:

…when historians look back at the post-war Commonwealth immigration they will note of course the ethnic transformation…but also note the religious transformation of this country that no one at the time foresaw. These two transformations are working their effects across so many features of social, economic and political life but one which I think we have been slow to recognise is what it means in terms of the place of religion and belief in British public life. Unfortunately, for too many politicians and others this question is too dominated by issues of extremism, violence and terrorism. Such phenomena are exceptional and it is a great mistake to judge religion, not to mention Muslims and Islam, in such fearful terms. We need to think of not just the harm that some militants can do but about the good that religion has to offer, not just to individuals but to communities and society as a whole; not just about religious minorities as fringe movements but about their place in the mainstream.

Read the full article here.

February 22nd, 2015

Frequencies

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Some readers may have recently returned to Frequencies only to find that its spiritual focus had radically shifted. Due to hijinks (perhaps predictable) relating to transitory labor, scholarly ignorance, and the virtualization of just about everything, the original site has experienced foreclosure. Its contents will soon be reconstituted in new http territory.

Which is to say that the original Frequencies domain is now in the hands of a self-described “growth hacker” who has replaced our “collaborative genealogy of spirituality” with the “mejores webs de porno en español,” so we’re setting up an archival edition at a new URL. As soon as the site is settled in at its new location, we will let you know. Stay tuned for the resurrection.

We apologize for any inconvenience.

Yours,
The Frequencies Collective

February 20th, 2015

The ISIS shock doctrine

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The rapid and shockingly violent establishment of a self-declared Islamic Caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq by The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), rebranded in 2014 as The Islamic State (IS), has led to what Issam Eido describes as an explosion of narratives about ISIS, many of which seek a doctrinal basis for its beliefs and behavior from within the Islamic tradition.

Given the emphasis that ISIS places on promoting its austere brand of Islam, symbolized by the stark black and white of its ubiquitous flag, it is not surprising that many accounts subsume ISIS under the doctrines of Salafism, a backward-looking reformist current within Sunni Islam hostile to perceived deviations from the Islam allegedly practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his successors. ISIS’s emphasis on a purified Islam and its hostility to Shia Islam and other allegedly “apostate” traditions have led others to link its Salafism with Wahhabism, the conservative eighteenth century Islamic revival movement that is the foundation of the modern Saudi State. The New York Times asserts that ISIS has “clear roots” in Wahhabism and British diplomat Alastair Crooke contends that ISIS shouldbe seen as a corrective movement within Wahhabism due to its revolutionary rejection of the offiial Wahhabism of the Saudi State.

But as Alireza Doostdar points out, any account of the ambitions and behavior of ISIS cannot end with the doctrines of Salafism or Wahhabism because actors labeled Salafi or Wahhabi frequently promote opposing political agendas and have diverse orientations towards action and violence. His reasoning is that Salafism is at root more a theological orientation than a blueprint for action, particularly when it comes to organized violence. Thus, Doostdar concludes: “Focusing on doctrinal statements would have us homogenizing the entirety of ISIS’S military force as fighters motivated by an austere and virulent form of Salafi Islam. This is how ISIS wants us to see things, and it is often the view propagated by mainstream media.”

By contrast, when one considers what ISIS is actually doing in practice—waging a protracted and violent insurgency in various locations and phases that aims to undermine existing authorities and establish zones of control—it becomes clear that the ambitions and behavior of ISIS have less to do with doctrines derived from the Qur’an or the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad than with the strategic doctrines of Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and the tradition of revolutionary insurgent warfare in the twentieth century, dressed up for the information age. While ISIS may have a Salafist orientation, they are also a revolutionary insurgent organization. As the political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas notes, “There is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space.” In other words, the twenty-first century Sunni Salafist insurgents of ISIS may have added a new chapter to the modern theory and practice of insurgent warfare; a hybrid blend of the sacred and profane.

Insurgent Genealogies

As a growing number of analysts have pointed out, the doctrinal basis for the insurgent ambitions and behavior of ISIS, including its use of spectacular and shocking violence, can be traced to the jihadist military strategy text entitled The Management Of Savagery (Idarah al-Tawahhush) first posted on-line in 2004 under the pseudonym of “Abu Bakr Naji.” Since then, this text has become a doctrinal touchstone of many Sunni jihadists involved in insurgencies, including the al-Shabaab in Somalia and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Close observers of radical Islamist movements such as Lawrence Wright, Michael Ryan, and Alastair Crooke have all noted a strong correlation between ISIS actions and behaviors in Iraq and Syria and the strategic doctrine prescribed in The Management of Savagery.

The Management of Savagery is a distillation of writings and postings that compose what could be referred to as the emergent field of “jihadi security studies,” which arose in response to Al-Qaeda’s chief strategist and current leader Ayman Zawahiri’s call for new strategic and military thinking after the fall of Al-Qaeda’s safe haven in Afghanistan in 2002. As Michael Ryan explains in his useful book Decoding Al-Qaeda’s Strategy, the writings of a distinctive genealogy of jihadist military thinkers such as Abu Ubayd al-Qurashi, the military tactician Abd al-Aziz al-Muqrin; and broader strategists like Abu Bakr Naji and Abu Musab al-Suri, among others, increasingly inform the practice of militant Islamist groups and fighters.

While these authors situate themselves and their work within a broadly Salafist vision of Islam, their core assertions primarily draw upon the strategic doctrines of communist and leftist insurgents such as Mao, Che and Western theorists of insurgent warfare, the most consistently cited of which is Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea. This work counsels revolutionary actors to develop unconventional forms of protracted political-military conflict that include guerrilla warfare, psychological warfare, and political mobilization designed to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control and legitimacy. In addition, they reference heterodox American military thinkers such as William S. Lind and Thomas X. Hammes and their concept of Fourth Generation War (4GW), which prescribes using information-age media networks to convince opponents that their strategic goals are unachievable or too costly.

In order to legitimate their reliance upon communist and atheist traditions of revolutionary and insurgent warfare, many of these writers make a distinction between “time tested” principles or “universal laws” (sunan kawniyyah) of military or political behavior and “divine laws” based on sacred texts or traditions. Abu Bakr Naji, for example, urges successful jihadists to embrace the latest writings on military science, administrative science, and economics drawn from Western and non-Western sources. Naji implies that, provided they do not contradict the sharia and are used to establish a purified Islamic state, every rule of warfare and politics does not need a specific justification in the sharia.

Naji’s Savage Shock Doctrine

In its particular contribution to “jihadi security studies,” The Management of Savagery provides what Will McCants and Jarret Brachman call the “playbook” for what is referred in these writings as “regional jihad”: the attempt to seize territory within the Muslim world and establish a self-governing Islamic state in a sea of hostile opponents backed by the West.

In order to do this, Naji’s strategic doctrine echoes Mao’s familiar three-phase theory of revolutionary warfare in which the insurgent organization can be in one or all phases simultaneously. In the first phase, the Islamist insurgent actor seeks to create or exploit “regions of savagery” through violent or shocking actions that collapse central authority or state control via “damage and exhaustion.” The second phase establishes primitive forms of government to “manage” such “regions of savagery,” which he claims would be accepted by shell-shocked people desperate for security. These forces would gradually expand government services while engaging in even more shocking violence in order to extend the “regions of savagery” and defend them. The final phase is the transition from the “administration of savagery” in various regions to a fully governed Islamic state under a Salafist version of Islamic law.

What is distinctive in Naji’s doctrine is his emphasis on shocking and spectacular violence as an asymmetric warfare strategya jihadist shock doctrine. One of most important lessons of Robert Tabler’s The War of the Flea is that insurgent actions must always mobilize a population to side with their cause. In a chapter dedicated to “Using Violence,” Naji emphasizes that shocking violence is not only effective for recruitment and instilling fear, but that it is the primary means to create a society-wide crisis that will polarize the population and drag everyone into the battle. Naji contends that, “We must make this battle very violent, such that death is a heartbeat away, so that the two groups will realize that entering this battle will frequently lead to death. That will be a powerful motive for the individual to choose to fight in the ranks of the people of truth in order to die well, which is better than dying for falsehood and losing both this world and the next.”

From the perspective of Naji’s strategic framework, then, in parts of Syria and Iraq today ISIS is in the process of moving from the first phase of creating or exploiting “regions of savagery” to the second phase of crudely administering these “regions of savagery” and has even taken the initial step of declaring the caliphate in Mosul. In this second phase, ISIS is engaging in the process of internal pacification, providing basic services and establishing Islamic justice as well as “plundering the financial resources” for the purposes of becoming financially self-sufficient. This second phase of “managing savagery” is also characterized by even more shocking violence in order to deepen chaotic conditions, especially in response to its opponents. Naji argues that countries who bomb or attack the Islamist insurgents should be made to “pay the price” — meaning some form of retribution — which we are seeing today in such gruesome acts as beheading hostages or attacking opponents abroad.

Syncretic Insurgents

This novel blending of doctrinal orientations and prescriptions from both the Salafist tradition of Islam and twentieth century communist and leftist traditions of revolutionary warfare, updated for the information agea hybrid combination of divine law given by God and the allegedly universal laws of revolutionary politics and warfare—has led some observers to see ISIS as an incongruous comingling, more contradiction than consequence.

Some like Brian Fishman, for example, cast doubt on the compatibility of blending these two traditions“Che Guevara warmed over for jihadis”while Hussein Ibish highlights the ideological contradiction between communist and Salafist ideals, in a useful article accusing ISIS of plundering Mao’s playbook. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that despite their claims to religious purity, ISIS actually embodies a very modern form of nihilism in which their zealous embrace of brutality even up to their own violent self-destruction reveals a lack of true conviction or faith, making them, in his words, a “disgrace to true fundamentalism.”

But rather than constituting a lack or contradiction, it may be the case that the hybrid doctrine at the root of ISIS simply reflects what Navid Karmani in an earlier discussion of al-Qaeda calls the “explosive synchronicity of non-synchronous elements” in a world where no space remains untouched by hypermediated and globalized information-age capitalism. Like other many other syncretic actors in contemporary global society, both violent and not, ISIS has taken “isolated features from one’s own tradition” and “combined them with foreign as well as with modern elements, images and structures of thought” to construct a tradition “combined with borrowings from a past which isn’t even their own, plus elements which are completely and utterly contemporary.” Paraphrasing Karmani, the hybrid doctrines of ISIS may actually represent a form of belief and action that can spring up anywhere today, given a set of violent conditions and grievances to work with.

In this sense, then, the search for the doctrinal roots of ISIS must also locate its origins in what Alireza Doostdar refers to as the “ecology of cruelty” in Iraq over the past decade resulting from the neoconservative Bush administration’s implementation of what Naomi Klein has described as its own “Shock Doctrine”: exploiting the public’s disorientation following massive collective shockswars, terrorist attacks, or natural disastersto impose unpopular policies. Klein contends that the Bush administration adopted a year zero strategy when invading Iraq that deliberately collapsed the Iraqi state and society and created what Naji would term “zones of savagery” that it sought to “manage” through the likes of Paul Bremer, Ahmad Chalibi and the U.S. military. But as Klein observes, this strategy “has transformed Iraq into the mirror opposite of what the neocons envisioned: not a corporate utopia but a ghoulish dystopia, where going to a simple business meeting can get you lynched, burned alive, or beheaded.” More than any text or doctrinal tradition, this is the fertile ground that is at the root of the shocking doctrines of ISIS.

February 18th, 2015

CFP: Secularism and Secularity

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Now entering its third year, the Secularism and Secularity Program Unit of the American Academy of Religion is going strong and looking forward to another great set of proposals. The call for papers for the 2015 meeting in Atlanta is now available, and the deadline for submissions is March 2nd.

In its first two years, the Secularism and Secularity Group has explored the secular and its precarious, shifting boundary with religion. We now aim to take stock of its lacunae. Our group is especially interested in papers that investigate the secular’s complicated relationship with race and sex/gender. What new spaces has the secular opened up for women and people of color, and what new barriers has it created? What forms of activism does the secular enable that are not available in spaces governed by religious norms, and what forms does it foreclose? How does the divide between secular and religious map onto different kinds of feminism and struggles for rights and recognition? In turn, how do critical analyses of race and sex/gender disrupt that divide? And why are self-avowed nonbelievers disproportionately white and male? We invite paper and session proposals that engage these and related questions through original historical or social scientific research.

We also welcome papers that explore any of the following areas:

Humanisms, religious and secular, historical and contemporary.

The role of the secular in effecting a distinction between economic and religious spheres. For instance, how do “private” and “public” become constructed as religious and secular in the discourse and practice of economic development? And how does law work to disrupt or reinforce these distinctions?

The spiritualization of the secular and the secularization of the spiritual in the context of health, healing, and medicine. For instance, how are certain “spiritual” practices being integrated into “secular” medical settings, and how has secular medical research influenced spiritual and religious practice?

For more information, or to be added to the group’s email list, contact the group’s co-chairs, Joseph Blankholm and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, at secularism.secularity@gmail.com.

February 10th, 2015

Keeping sex sexy: American evangelicalism and the problem of sexuality

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Do Christians have the best sex? What kind of sex is best? And what does sex have to do with salvation?

If you have ever wondered how evangelicals seek to answer these questions, then Amy DeRogatis’s recently published book Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism is for you. In Saving Sex, DeRogatis meticulously documents how American evangelicals talk about sex and sexuality. Her primary argument is that evangelicals have long attempted to use sexual practice as a marker of distinction from “secular” American culture. In particular, proper sexual practice becomes a symbol of Christian salvation and is imbued with eternal and spiritual significance, which is intended to testify, or serve as a witness, to a broader public. Despite this, evangelicals are not disconnected from popular American culture. Evangelical authors are eager to prove their cultural relevance, even as they claim the authority of scripture to differentiate themselves from one another and American culture at large.

DeRogatis convincingly shows the seriousness with which evangelicals since the 1970s have set out to prove that Christian sex—that is, sex ordered by “biblical principles”—is the best kind of sex. To do this, evangelical authors and leaders are extremely engaged with wider conversations and social trends, debating and discussing issues such as sexual surrogacy, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual health, reproductive rights and contraception, and the gendered dynamics of sexual desire and pleasure. While reading her text, I was struck by the degree to which evangelicals have long sought to convince themselves and others that their lives, in all dimensions—including sex or lack thereof—differ qualitatively (for the better) from the lives of “secular” others. The irony, of course, is that the sheer volume of evangelical popular literature on sexuality suggests that, when it comes to the mechanics and meaning of sex, believers need extra guidance and support in order to materialize the promise of better sex in their own lives.

Sex and Salvation treats evangelical belief and practice with nuance and seriousness. The book is intended to be accessible to a general audience, and DeRogatis delivers. Her tone is even-handed and sympathetic to the internal contradictions, dilemmas, and desires of evangelicals, as she helps to make sense for outsiders of what might be considered strange or retrograde evangelical beliefs. DeRogatis does an exceptional job of breaking down and analyzing several different streams of evangelical literature, teaching the reader much about the desires, practices, and ideals that shape a significant number of American lives. Chapters deal with purity literature, which promotes an ideal of chastity; Christian sex manuals that extol the benefits of marital sexual pleasure; charismatic “deliverance” literature that warns of the invisible negative effects of illicit sex; and Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull literature, which focuses on sex for reproduction and teaches total submission (including sexual) of wives to their husbands. The final chapter deals with how these ideas are reframed by African American evangelicals who emphasize themes of sexual redemption and healing.

The inclusion of a final chapter on African American evangelical views, after four chapters of predominantly white evangelical discourse, is important: it underscores the diversity of the evangelical movement, which is often treated as homogeneous, but it also serves to highlight the role of race in American evangelical thought. Careful reading of Saving Sex reveals how American evangelicalism is insidiously wrapped up with the production of whiteness—the cultural processes that work to hold up white practices, beliefs, and ideals as superior, natural, and normal. As many critical race scholars have argued, ideas about sexual propriety cannot be divorced from race. Sexual practices have long been used to differentiate and maintain the lines between white Americans and their racial “others.” Sex and Salvation illustrates how white and black evangelical discourses indirectly reinforce a binary whereby white evangelicals are able to define and police the proper boundaries of respectable sexuality, and African Americans continue to be represented (and to understand themselves) as hypersexual and in need of reform. For example, DeRogatis notes white evangelical obsession with metaphors of purity—the spoken desire for unmarried daughters to remain “lily-white” by practicing self-restraint and marrying a suitable spouse—as well the dominance of military metaphors of attack and defense. By contrast, black evangelical leaders affirm many of these ideals, but tend to assume that their unmarried audience has been, or will be, sexually active. Unlike white evangelicals, they acknowledge complicated sexual histories and work with their audience to remove stigmas associated with sexual impropriety. In short, they preach redemption rather than perfection.

However, the book fails to consider the degree to which white evangelicals might obscure their own investment in racial purity by making “secular” culture their primary point of distinction. Much could also be said, for example, about how an extreme focus on fertility and reproduction by white evangelicals might be tied to broader cultural anxieties regarding the collapse of Western civilization and a white “Christian” America.

White evangelical teachings on sex, sexuality, and gender not only reproduce ideas of racial purity, they also reproduce ideas of the heterosexual nuclear family as normative, and they communicate much about American ambivalence towards things like feminism and science. DeRogatis discusses, for example, how the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movement is almost exclusively white and promoted by self-publishing women who are outside the evangelical mainstream and remain skeptical of male “experts” and science. These women extol the benefits of large families, natural birth, and strict, traditionally defined roles for men and women. This made me wonder how the Quiverfull movement might be understood in relation to other social movements, such as the more secular “New Domesticity” movement, which DeRogatis does not explore. Like Quiverfull writers, the New Domesticity movement also extols the “natural” role of women as caregivers and homemakers. Both movements position themselves as critiques of second wave feminism and appropriate feminist language of empowerment and control to describe their beliefs and values, though an explicit emphasis on patriarchy is unique to Quiverfull thought.

When it comes to the role of gender in evangelical sex talk, DeRogatis’ text raises difficult questions regarding consent and abuse. Just as Sex and Salvation was published, the news was filled with stories of the collapse of Mars Hill church in Seattle and the downfall of its high-profile pastor Mark Driscoll, whom DeRogatis writes much. Driscoll is notorious for his views on sex, marriage, gender, and family. Though Driscoll is best known for his “Christian hedonistic” approach to sex, Sex and Salvation reveals how he is also indebted to many of the ideas and beliefs found in purity and deliverance literature, including the idea of literal “sexual demons.” Many former members of Mars Hill have started to speak out about the destructive impact of the church’s teachings and Driscoll’s leadership.

It is worth noting here that there is a growing “post-purity” discourse among evangelicals that focuses on experiences of trauma and shame tied to evangelical teaching on sex, sexuality, and gender, and psychologists who work in the evangelical world are starting to raise significant questions about the long-term effects of Christian purity movements on adult sexuality. At the same time, many of these reform attempts follow the familiar evangelical model of focusing on (heterosexual) marital sex as the ultimate and most fulfilling form of sexual practice. To extend DeRogatis’ argument, post-purity discourse might be seen as a new way for those identified with evangelicalism to once again define a “Christian” ethic that resonates with broader conversations about sexual health, wellness, and pleasure.

I approached this text curious to learn not just what evangelicals teach and believe about sex, but how their beliefs and teachings are shaped by American culture. DeRogatis shows how Christian sex manuals build on earlier historical material and are influenced by outside events, such as the rise of the sexual liberation and equality movements. The fact that Mark Driscoll and his wife Grace were, in 2011, writing about anal sex, masturbation, and cybersex speaks to the anxiety that evangelicals feel about proving that their vision of biblical sexuality can accommodate a multiplicity of desires, albeit always within a heterosexual marital frame. At the same time, the evangelical focus on the pleasure-giving, unitive, and mystic dimensions of sex is not particular to evangelicals, and DeRogatis makes some fascinating links to the broader therapeutic and wellness culture that began in the 1960s. A next step would be to theorize how secular and evangelical American discourses on sex are related to a shared cultural, political, and historical horizon. I suspect that the desires, ideals, and themes promoted by secular American culture might not always be as far removed from evangelical ideas as evangelicals themselves imagine them to be.

To be fair, DeRogatis is clear in her introduction about what the book is and what it is not: it is primarily a study of evangelical discourse as it is articulated by key figures and not a study of believers’ lived realities. Thus, it would be impossible to expect her to explore all of the issues raised here. But Saving Sex could easily be the starting point for a broader scholarly investigation of contemporary American evangelicalism and sexuality, which could include historical, literary, and ethnographic studies. What is clear from Saving Sex is that popular evangelical literature (formal and informal) is meant to instruct Christians on proper sexual practice, to place shifting notions of sexuality in a theological frame, and to warn believers about the dangers of illicit sexual activity. Evangelical writers take very different approaches to what is considered godly and illicit sex, and herein lies the value of DeRogatis’s work. In showing the diversity of thought within American evangelicalism, she allows evangelicals to emerge as a complex social category whose views on sex have local and global implications.

February 5th, 2015

Norse pagan temple to be built in Iceland

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Roughly a millennium after Christianity overtook Norse paganism, there will soon be a new temple devoted to Odin, Thor, and Frigg overlooking Reykjavík. Ásatrúarfélagið, a religious organization devoted to a contemporary form of Norse paganism, will be building the temple. From The Guardian:

Worship of the gods in Scandinavia gave way to Christianity around 1,000 years ago but a modern version of Norse paganism has been gaining popularity in Iceland.

“I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet,” said Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, high priest of Ásatrúarfélagið, an association that promotes faith in the Norse gods.

“We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

Membership in Ásatrúarfélagið has tripled in Iceland in the last decade to 2,400 members last year, out of a total population of 330,000, data from Statistics Iceland showed.

Read more about the actual design and building of the temple here.

February 4th, 2015

Conference: Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer

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January 29th, 2015

CFP and fellowship opportunities

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The Religion Network of the Social Science History Association has announced a call for papers, panels, and book sessions for the 40th annual meeting of the Social Science History Association in Baltimore, Maryland, November 12-15, 2015. The deadline for submissions is February 14th, 2015.

We welcome and encourage papers and panel proposals on a wide array of issues related to the historical study of religion and society. While complete panel proposals (consisting of 4-5 individual papers, a chair, and a discussant) are preferred, we also seek out high-quality individual paper submissions. Panels and papers may address the topics below, or any other relevant and related topic examining religion in a historical context:

Religious Pluralism and Community

Religion, Ethnicity, and Nationalism

Empire, Missions, and Global Religious Encounters

Religious Minorities and the Public Sphere

Religion, Education, and Diversity

Secularization and Secularism

Religious Identities

Religion, Science, and Medicine

Religion and Law

Religion and Genocide

For more information, including contacts and requirements, read more here.

Two full-time Ph.D. research fellowship positions are also available at The Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo. Tentative starting date is April 15, 2015.

1. One research fellowship positions is specifically related to the project The Ambigous Memory of Nordic Protestantism (MEMORY)

The MEMORY project shall take advantage of a comparative Nordic approach, ready at hand, but too seldom applied when studying Nordic religious history. In the project, priority is given to a spatial perspective for analysing and interpreting the specific character of Nordic Protestant tradition, with a focus on three Nordic countries: Denmark, Sweden and Norway.

Theories from Cultural studies on “lieux de mémoire” (Erinnerungsorte) will serve as a point of departure for analysing a) the reformation of religious topography in the 16th and 17th centuries, and b) elite and popular uses of Medieval and Reformation holy places especially in the 19th and 20th centuries in a Nordic context.

The sub-project of a PhD fellowship applicant has to be related to the overall comparative MEMORY research aims, and should have a main research focus on the reformation of religious topography in the Nordic Countries in the 16th and 17th centuries.

For further information, see the project homepage (http://www.tf.uio.no/english/research/projects/memory/) and contact the project manager Tarald Rasmussen

2. One research fellowship positions is specifically related to the project “Good Protestants, bad religion?” (GOBA)

Norwegian debates on religion are often characterized by simple dichotomies. On the one hand, there is a well-established majority Protestant religion which has dominated culture and society for centuries and contributed to the general values of society. On the other hand, Norway (and especially the Oslo region) now also is a society more and more characterized by religious diversity, and in an international media-transmitted perspective religion very often is presented as a negative force, contributing to conflict and challenging common social and political values.

Taking observations like these as a point of departure, the research project “Good protestants, bad religion?” shall take a closer look at ways in which religion is formatted in Norwegian society, and also compare the Norwegian situation to the situation in some other (mainly Protestant) countries in order to better understanding the Norwegian case, but also in order to contributing to the general discussion of religion in modern Protestant societies.

The sub-project of a PhD fellowship applicant is expected to be explicitly related to these overall GOBA research aims and contribute to a better understanding of the specific dynamics of formatting of religion in a Norwegian/North European context. At the same time, the sub-project of an applicant is expected to contribute to the specific research aims of GOBA-Project 1: “Private Religion, Public Affairs“ or GOBA-Project 2: “Formatting Religion beyond the State“.

For more information, including contacts and requirements, read more here.

January 20th, 2015

Opportunity at Connecticut College

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The Department of Religious Studies at Connecticut College has an opening for a visiting assistant professor:

The Department of Religious Studies at Connecticut College seeks a Visiting Assistant Professor in the “Religious Histories of the Americas,” with a focus on Africana/African American religions and/or Latin@/Latin American religions.  The visiting faculty member in Religious Histories of the Americas should have the Ph.D. or equivalent degree completed by the beginning of the Fall of 2015 semester.   The Department seeks candidates with training in interdisciplinary fields, innovative methodologies, critical approaches, and advanced training in religious studies, history, anthropology, American studies or other area studies, global studies, cultural studies, or other comparable units.

Read the full job description here.

January 16th, 2015

A new year at The Immanent Frame

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TIFvatarHappy New Year from The Immanent Frame!

The end of 2014 saw us kicking off a new series on religious freedom in the United States, in response to questions raised by guest editor and contributor Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. Contributions so far have included Sarah Imhoff, Andrew Koppelman, Finbarr Curtis, Amanda Porterfield, Isaac Weiner, and Ronit Y. Stahl, with more to come.

In the book blog, we wrapped up our forum on Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern, with contributions from Thomas Joseph White, Borja Vilallonga, Victoria Kahn, Mark Alznauer, Elizabeth Pritchard, Paul Silas Peterson, Charly Coleman, Brad S. Gregory, and a multipart response from Pfau.

Our here & there section continues to feature relevant events, news, essays, and reviews.

As we move into the new year, we are excited to announce a new discussion series on religion and digital culture, which has started with Kathryn Lofton’s “The digital is a place to hide,” Jason Anthony’s “Religion: The Game,” and Austin Dacey’s “How to make someone famous for the wrong reason.” Finally, in addition to new content, we look forward to a site-wide redesign, which is currently in the planning phase.

To keep up with The Immanent Frame in 2015, be sure to follow us on Twitter or subscribe to our RSS feed. You can also find us on Facebook.

January 13th, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo shootings

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On Wednesday, January 7th, two masked assailants stormed the Paris headquarters of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdokilled 12 people, and wounded 11 others. Police quickly identified 3 suspects—the shooters and a suspected getaway driver. The following day, in a suburb of Paris, a masked gunman (later linked to the brothers suspected of carrying out the magazine massacre) fatally shot a policewoman. By Friday, all three gunmen had been killed in separate hostage situations, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying that they were intended to teach the French “that the freedom of expression has limits and boundaries.”

For The New Yorker‘s Philip Gourevitch, the attack affirmed the necessity of Charlie Hebdo‘s “loud, lewd, provocative, blasphemous” caricatures and satires.

Ideally, it would never require great courage and commitment to make puerile doodles mocking those whom one perceives to be making a mockery of the things that they purport to hold sacred. But those dead French cartoonists were braver by far than most of us in going up against the deadly foes of our civilization, armed only with a great talent for bilious ridicule. On any given day, we might have scoffed at the seeming crudeness of their jokes, rather than laughing at their jokes on crudity. But the killers proved the cartoonists’ point with ghastly finality: theirs was a necessary, freedom-sustaining, and therefore life-giving, form of defiance. Without it, they knew, we—humankind—are less.

At New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait writes what he sees as the hypocrisy of many who defend “the right to commit blasphemy“:

On the one hand, religious extremists should not threaten people who offend their beliefs. On the other hand, nobody should offend their beliefs. The right to blasphemy should exist but only in theory. They do not believe religious extremists should be able to impose censorship by issuing threats, but given the existence of those threats, the rest of us should have the good sense not to risk triggering them.

The line separating these two positions is perilously thin. The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome.

The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.

On a similar note, Emma-Kate Symons, at Quartz, writes:

There can be no compromising on freedom of speech. For the killers there is no compromise.

Now, all we can do is say #JeSuisCharlie.

However, David Brooks has suggested that “it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo,” since “most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.” Still others, like Teju Cole, emphasize that “it is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech,” and call attention to other threats to the freedom of expression.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were not mere gadflies, not simple martyrs to the right to offend: they were ideologues. Just because one condemns their brutal murders doesn’t mean one must condone their ideology.

Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen. The U.S., for example, has consolidated its traditional monopoly on extreme violence, and, in the era of big data, has also hoarded information about its deployment of that violence. There are harsh consequences for those who interrogate this monopoly. The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.

The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible.

In the midst of these debates, and the anti-Muslim violence that has followed the shootings, Dilshad Ali, writing at Patheos, gives voice to the frustration of trying to live “lives as good Muslims, good humans,” while attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo are committed in the name of Islam:

There are so many of us trying so hard to just live our lives as good Muslims, good humans, the way our faith teaches us, the way we learned from the example of the Prophet Muhammad. Peacefully, lovingly, faithfully. In the coming days there will be a rush to opine on the tragedy in Paris, to send prayers, to make the same arguments made a thousand times before, to condemn, to be silent in our sorrow (which doesn’t mean that we don’t condemn), to be vocal in our outrage.

Even now I’m wondering what good there is in writing this, in throwing this out there into the cacophony of screaming voices. Better live my life like I’ve always done – with as much dignity, class, faith, joy and even-handedness as possible. Raise my kids, help my eldest son manage his autism as best possible, be a good mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, human. Be a living example as best possible for what I know to be good and true. Pray for those whose lives were so violently snuffed out, pray for God’s mercy, pray for His justice to be rained down on those who commit such horrors, pray for humanity.

On Sunday night, millions in Paris and other cities around the world rallied in a show of unity.

Charlie Hebdo will print 3 million copies of Wednesday’s special edition.

December 18th, 2014

Church of England has its first female bishop

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Following a July 2014 vote to allow female bishops, the Church of England has named the Reverend Libby Lane as its first female bishop. Speaking on her appointment, Lane said:

I am grateful for, though somewhat daunted by, the confidence placed in me by the Diocese of Chester. This is unexpected and very exciting. On this historic day as the Church of England announces the first woman nominated to be Bishop, I am very conscious of all those who have gone before me, women and men, who for decades have looked forward to this moment. But most of all I am thankful to God.

The church faces wonderful opportunities, to proclaim afresh, in this generation, the Good News of Jesus and to build His Kingdom. The Church of England is called to serve all the people of this country, and being present in every community, we communicate our faith best when our lives build up the lives of others, especially the most vulnerable. I am excited by the possibilities and challenges ahead.

Over at The Guardian, Haroon Siddique has a short profile of Lane’s life in the clergy:

Libby Lane, who has been chosen by the Church of England as its first female bishop, has long been one of the most influential women in the church.

She is one of eight clergywomen from the church elected as participant observers in the House of Bishops, as the representative from the dioceses of the north-west, and has been a bishop’s selection adviser for 10 years, making recommendations to the church about candidates offering themselves for ordination.

Meanwhile, Alan Cowell at The New York Times highlights some of the divisions that the issue of female bishops has caused within the Anglican Communion:

The halting process toward her consecration reflected deep divisions between liberals and conservatives in the Church of England that are likely to be cemented rather than resolved by the move.

“Without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures,” said the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who backed the push for female bishops, after a final vote on the matter last month.

Read the Church of England’s full statement on Bishop Lane’s appointment here.

December 9th, 2014

Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer

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New Directions in the Study of PrayerThe Social Science Research Council’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere announces Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer (February 6-7, 2015). This two-day gathering will showcase the work of over 30 scholars and journalists exploring what the study of prayer can tell us about a range of topics.

Please join us February 6-7, 2015, for panels and presentations on topics including religious technologies, embodiment, material culture, language, politics, and the mind. Beginning Friday afternoon, the conference will also feature the Prayer Expo—a pop-up installation of multi-media presentations and material objects that call attention to the myriad representations of prayer shaping discourse and practice. On Saturday, two plenary events will highlight the multiple registers of engagement occasioned by new, transdisciplinary research on the practice of prayer.

For more information on the conference and how to register, please click here. Registration is free, but space is limited.

December 4th, 2014

CFP: The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology

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On Friday, March 6th, 2015, the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Martin Marty Center will host “The Psychology of Religion/The Religion of Psychology,” a conference exploring the relation between two problem children of modernity.

Both to the discomfort and excitement of psychologists, scholars of religion, and religious practitioners, the overlap between the histories of psychology and religion is rather significant. Like philosophy, psychology was once pegged, in the words of Frank E. Manuel, as the “newest handmaiden of true religion.” However,with the emergence of new experimental methods in the late nineteenth century and of psychoanalysis (an inherently anti-religious discipline, according to its founder) in the early twentieth, psychology attempted to distance itself from religion, though with mixed results. Although psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals today understand their respective disciplines to have grown increasingly scientific and thus less “religious,” the various ways in which psychology and religion were interrelated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries could be used to tell a different story.

The conference will be keynoted by a roundtable discussion by Jeffrey Kripal, Jonathan Lear, and Tanya Luhrmann. Proposals for this conference are due by January 5th, 2015. Read the full call for papers here.

December 3rd, 2014

Book launch for Queer Christianities

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TONIGHT at 6PM, Eugene Lang College will host a book launch party for Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms, edited by Kathleen T. Talvacchia, Michael F. Pettinger, and Mark Larrimore. The event will feature a brief discussion with remarks from Pettinger and Talvacchia, followed by a reception. About the book:

Queerness and Christianity, often depicted as mutually exclusive, both challenge received notions of the good and the natural. Nowhere is this challenge more visible than in the identities, faiths, and communities that queer Christians have long been creating. As Christians they have staked a claim for a Christianity that is true to their self-understandings.  How do queer-identified persons understand their religious lives? And in what ways do the lived experiences of queer Christians respond to traditions and reshape them in contemporary practice?

Read the full announcement here.

November 24th, 2014

The Devil: A New Biography

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A great deal of ink was spilled in the medieval and early modern period on the nature of demonic copulation. Could demons engage in sodomy and other “perverted” sexual practices with human beings? No, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) opined, because demons retained a residue of their original angelic nature, which prevented them from engaging in sexual acts against nature. Why was sex with demons so pleasurable for women? Because, the philosopher Francesco Pico Della Mirandola (1470-1533) suggested, their “virile members were uncommonly large … and stimulate something very deep inside the witches” (104). The jurist Pierre de Lancre (1553-1631), who had interrogated a number of accused women during the witch hunts he conducted in Bordeaux, disagreed: Satanic sex was not pleasurable, he wrote, because the Devil’s organ was covered in scales that tightened and pinched the skin during intercourse.

What do these seemingly bizarre inquiries into the nature of Satanic sexuality tell us about Christian thought in the pre-modern period? Far from being the delusional products of over-sexed minds, these accounts remind us that for the greater part of Christian history, the Devil was seen as a tangible, active agent in the natural world. Handling a textual canon spanning nearly two and half millennia, Philip C. Almond’s new book The Devil: A New Biography reconstructs the evolution of this idea of an embodied, interventionist Devil, from its inception in Jewish Biblical and extra-biblical sources in the sixth century BCE, to its decline at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Almond shows that the story of Satan, emerging in its definitive form in the second-century BCE, provided a solution to a paradox that was at the heart of the Christian tradition: how to explain the persistence of evil within a world that was governed by a just and benevolent God?

In the Satanic story inherited from the early Church Fathers, Satan and his demons were fallen angels who retained their free will despite their rebellion against God. They were thus tacitly sanctioned by God to intervene in human affairs. Yet questions about the nature and extent of demonic power remained, eventually giving rise to the theological subfield of demonology in the Middle Ages. For Saint Augustine (354-430), demons had subtle corporeal bodies made of thin air that gave them extraordinary mobility and allowed them to enter the bodies of human beings. Peter Lombard (1100-1160) believed that demons possessed bodies made of thick gloomy air, derived from the dark layer of the atmosphere beneath heaven within which they resided. Thomas Aquinas, for his part, denied the corporeality of demons, but wrote that they were capable of condensing air into visible shapes and bodies. In Aquinas’s influential account, demons were spiritual beings with preternatural powers: only God possessed the power to create miracles, but demons had the power to create visible and marvelous effects through their sophisticated knowledge of the occult laws of nature.

Far from being a matter of sterile academic debate, demonology provided the intellectual foundations for the great witch hunts of the early modern period. The possibility of demons that could assume the shape of visible bodies, engage in copulation with witches to seal Satanic pacts, leave physical marks on the bodies of sorcerers and witches, and take control over human bodies through possession crucially depended upon the reality of their corporeal interactions with human beings. Determining the boundaries of demonic agency within the physical world thus became essential to adjudicating the trials of men and women accused of invoking the power of demons. It is not coincidental that the most influential of Catholic demonologies of the period, the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum [The Hammer of Witches], was penned by a Dominican inquisitor, Heinrich Kramer, in the course of a career spent persecuting witches in the Holy Roman Empire.

If the period between 1450-1700 marked the “golden age” of the demoniac, Almond notes, it also produced the first currents of open skepticism about the reality of Satanic intervention. Paradoxically, the juridical criteria developed to try accused witches and sorcerers were eventually turned against the edifice of demonological thought itself. Physicians, increasingly called upon to investigate such cases during the 16th and 17th centuries, played an important role in developing secular, naturalistic explanations for apparent cases of demonic possession. While few medical men in the 16th and 17th centuries denied the possibility of demonic possession outright, a firm distinction was drawn between symptoms produced by illness and by satanic intervention. Physicians thus developed a secular etiology of demonic possession that unwittingly opened the door for the “medicalisation of demonic possession” (150).

Yet the most decisive challenge to the idea of a corporeal devil, Almond argues, came from new forms of Christianity that appeared in the early modern period. His account thus provides more weight to the now-familiar claim that the origins of secularization are to be found principally within Christianity itself, rather than in currents of skepticism, materialism, and atheism. Protestant theologians in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries increasingly denounced exorcisms and cases of demonic possession as Popish superstitions in their promotion of rational forms of Christianity that emphasized individual faith over divine revelation. The Protestant interiorization of spirituality, arising out of the doctrine of sola scriptura, eventually relocated the devil from the natural world to the minds of men. Yet if Protestantism provided the escape from a world besieged by demons, one wonders why Puritans in New England and Calvinist Scots continued to persecute witches so vigorously into the late seventeenth century. Almond would likely argue that these forms of Christianity were already being marginalized by the liberalizing impulse of natural theology, which relegated the idea of a corporeal devil to the “distant corners of the educated European mind” (196). There would be no place for the demonic in the disenchanted world of Enlightened natural theologians, deists, and liberal Protestants who grounded their faith in the rational contemplation of a predictable, orderly universe.

By attributing the “death of the devil” to changing theological and spiritual sensibilities, Almond casts further doubt on the once-canonical narrative of the Enlightenment as a period of secularization spurred on by declining faith and atheism. Nevertheless, much like the standard secularization narratives that he jettisons, Almond insists too strongly on the monolithic, metaphysical unity of Enlightenment religion and thought. As a result, Almond is at pains to explain the purportedly anomalous persistence of belief in the demonic from the likes of the Newtonian mathematician and natural theologian William Whiston (1667-1752). Almond rather unconvincingly attempts to explain away Whiston’s belief in the immanence of the Antichrist’s reign on earth, by claiming that he was “something of a scholarly anachronism” (168). Yet one wonders, given the plurality of metaphysical positions in Enlightenment philosophy and theology, and the popularity of supposedly irrational forms of thought like hermeticism and mysticism, to what extent such beliefs were indeed anachronistic anomalies. We get no indication from Almond’s book, for his account abruptly ends with a discussion of the Dutch Calvinist Balthasar Bekker’s (1634-1698) The World Bewitched, a controversial text that, he claims, definitively expelled the demonic, and spiritual entities more generally, from the domain of the secular natural world. Given how embedded Satan and his demons were within the Christian tradition, one would expect this expulsion to have been fraught with far more difficulties and contestations than Almond allows.

The road to the disenchanted world of modern liberal Protestantism and Catholicism seems unusually smooth in Almond’s account. It is perhaps slightly churlish to criticize this book for failing to engage with the complex field of Enlightenment theology and natural philosophy, given the breathtaking chronological sweep of the rest of the book, yet one cannot help but feel that Almond has “killed off” the Devil in all too unceremonious of a fashion. The Vatican’s recent pronouncements on the threat posed to Catholics by the Devil and the occult and its formal recognition of the International Association of Exorcists, not to mention the persistence of belief in an interventionist devil by millions of Catholics and Protestants around the world, should force us to consider such pronouncements with a degree of skepticism.

November 18th, 2014

Political backlash and the rise of “nones”

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In an article that appears in the open access online journal Sociological Science, sociologists Michael Hout and Claude Fisher take a look at the relationship between religious disaffiliation and backlash against right-wing religio-political movements. Like David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam in American Grace, the authors find that the rise of “nones” can partially be explained by changing political preferences. They update the argument with additional data and analysis:

Twenty percent of American adults claimed no religious preference in 2012, compared to 7 percent twenty-five years earlier. Previous research identified a political backlash against the religious right and generational change as major factors in explaining the trend. That research found that religious beliefs had not changed, ruling out secularization as a cause. In this paper we employ new data and more powerful analytical tools to: (1) update the time series, (2) present further evidence of correlations between political backlash, generational succession, and religious identification, (3) show how valuing personal autonomy generally and autonomy in the sphere of sex and drugs specifically explain generational differences, and (4) use GSS panel data to show that the causal direction in the rise of the “Nones” likely runs from political identity as a liberal or conservative to religious identity, reversing a long-standing convention in social science research. Our new analysis joins the threads of earlier explanations into a general account of how political conflict over cultural issues spurred an increase in non-affiliation.

Read the full article here.

November 7th, 2014

David Gushee shifts on homosexuality

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On November 8, David P. Gushee, Distinguished University Professor at Mercer University, leading evangelical ethicist, and TIF contributor, will give the keynote speech at The Reformation Project Conference (which “seeks to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity”) and affirm his support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues. Over at Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt notes that given his role in the evangelical movement, it “is difficult to overstate the potential impact of Gushee’s defection.” In a draft obtained by RNS, Gushee’s prepared remarks state:

I do join your crusade tonight. I will henceforth oppose any form of discrimination against you. I will seek to stand in solidarity with you who have suffered the lash of countless Christian rejections. I will be your ally in every way I know how to be… Traditionalist Christian teaching produces despair in just about every gay or lesbian person who must endure it…It took me two decades of service as a married, straight evangelical Christian minister and ethicist to finally get here. I am truly sorry that it took me so long to come into full solidarity with the Church’s own most oppressed group.

Gushee’s transformation is not a particular surprise given his changing views over the last few years. Over at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner elaborates further on what this means, including Gushee’s new book that makes a biblical and philosophical case for LGBT affirmation, as well as the evangelical response to his shift on homosexuality:

Reaction, Gushee says, has ranged from “predictable invectives from people who are fixated on the sexual question” to “extraordinary outpourings of gratitude.”

Indeed Gushee has been the target of harsh, dismissive criticisms from fellow evangelicals. Robert Gagnon, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, writing in the Christian Post, called Merritt’s article “a tendentious puff piece” and contested Merritt’s description of Gushee’s “intellectual heft” with the accusation that “Dr. Gushee has ignored nearly all the major arguments against his embarrassingly bad exegesis.” Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, charged Gushee with “adopting the rhetoric of Christianity’s fiercest critics who routinely accuse us of being bigoted and hateful simply for believing what the Bible says about sexuality,” saying that he could not “understand why Gushee would stake-out such an uncharitable and intolerant stance against Christians who hold the very same views that he once held.”

Read the full articles here and here.

November 6th, 2014

Faith as an Option

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Hans Joas’s Faith as an Option is concerned with debunking two myths: first, the idea that modernization—advances in technology and the sciences—renders religious belief obsolete; second, the argument that secularization leads to moral decay. Joas, a leading European social theorist, is more than aware that criticisms of these claims are hardly new—contemporary scholars no longer prove keen to establish a law or rule connecting modernization and secularization, and there seems to be little or no correlation between societies with higher rates of atheism and moral decline. Joas’s study aims to provide a series of illuminating explanations for why these views captured the imaginations of so many for so long.

Yet Faith as an Option is much more than a descriptive attempt to explain a longstanding scholarly misnomer. Joas also provides an alternative conceptual framework for how modernity and faith can now facilitate and enrich one another. On this reading, the modern secular world does not signify religion’s demise, but rather speaks to the emergence of new challenges and ever-changing conditions that push faith traditions to adapt or evolve. This does not at all mean, suggests Joas, that modernity is hostile to faith; in fact, they can benefit one another. Ultimately, Joas’s exhortation for greater ecumenism is inseparable from his desire to secure and revitalize transcendent and universal sources of meaning. This is where Faith as an Option enters controversial territory: Joas does not believe secular reason alone is capable of providing adequate solutions for today’s biggest political challenges.

Who invented the thesis that modernization inevitably leads to secularization? The answer, according to Hans Joas, remains unclear. At the end of the eighteenth century the idea that Christianity would eventually die out had only scattered supporters throughout Europe. Just a century later, argues Joas, “everybody who was anybody in philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences supported the thesis of secularization.” The luminaries of the age—Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc.—all expected modernization to weaken religion. In believing so, Joas argues, they—and their twentieth century ilk—made an assumption that history has now proven wrong.

This does not mean the idea of secularism should be rejected. Joas seeks to provide an understanding that is less ideologically driven and more empirically based. The old model of secularization, he maintains, has failed to provide compelling answers for why religious belief persists in the United States—the most modernized country in the world. Moreover, religious faith seems to be increasing alongside so called “modernizing processes” in South America and Africa.

Joas even argues that if Europe remains the world’s “secular exception,” it is simply because proponents of the secularization thesis have failed to recognize that Europe was only “superficially and imperfectly Christianized in the first place.” The ultimate shortcoming of the secularization thesis, suggests Joas, is that it overlooks a crucial consideration: that secularization can occur without modernization.

But before putting forward his alternative model of secularization, Joas aims to shoot down another myth: the longstanding belief that secularization wrecks incentives for behaving morally. Nineteenth century advocates of this view did not live to see actual secularism, but examples of secularized societies today—Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, etc.,—show little sign of moral decline. In fact, Joas, cites the comparative study conducted by the paleontologist, Gregory S. Paul, who suggests that nations which boast  higher percentages of belief in God also have higher rates of “homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection, teen pregnancy, and abortion than nations in which belief in God is relatively low.”

Joas provides two responses for why sources of morality are not weakened by secularization. First, he claims that social reciprocity is a non-religious source of morality that can be learned—by children, for example—through the observation of games and shared play. Second, and more substantially, Joas suggests that secular societies, specifically Europe, are living on borrowed capital by affirming that “even under conditions of secularization an older imagination may continue to guide morality.” Clearly, the “imaginary” that Joas is most interested in is Christianity. He believes that Christianity possesses a certain feature that its rivals—whether religious or philosophical—cannot match: “the strongest imagination of universalism ever bestowed upon humanity.”

What Europe needs to secure itself from moral decline is not Christianity per se, but universal imaginaries, which by default makes Christianity, according to Joas, vitally important for the well-being of Europe. Clearly Europe’s dark history of nationalism hangs over Joas’s analysis—alongside his silent dialogue with Jürgen Habermas’s idea of post-secular societies. Yet Joas’s position also appears difficult to square with his previous argument that Europe has only ever been superficially Christian, which undermines, to some degree, the ghostly role that Joas sees Christianity still playing in secular Europe. But, as we will see, there are clear reasons for why Joas makes this move.

Joas’s constructive task is to articulate a model of secularism that reflects reality and is empirically plausible. Therefore, a critical understanding of secularism will reject the teleological underpinnings that the secularization thesis presumes without sufficient evidence. What history does demonstrate about secularization and modernization, suggests Joas, are their “highly conflictual, heterogeneous, contingent” histories. For this reason Joas sees secularization as occurring in historical waves—such as the French Revolution, the Revolutions of 1848, and the student protest movements of the 1960s—and for entirely different reasons. In turn Joas, who is very much influenced by Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, stresses that these secular waves were followed by religious rip currents that often revitalized religious traditions or facilitated new religious options.

Joas’s rather brief historical snapshot of secularism acts as subterfuge for his main thesis: that there is no uniform process of modernization. This “Age of Contingency,” as Joas calls it, is marked by an increase in “individual action options and the growing number of experiences that result from this massive increase.” These increased action options give rise to new forms of social life, which are anything but clear and distinct. Our “secular age,” then, is really an amalgam of impulses derived from religious and non-religious sources that constantly take on novel shapes and forms.

In this reading, religion will never die out, because increased action options facilitate novel conditions that allow religion to constantly evolve in creative ways. But this is exactly where Joas’s Taylorian inspirations take a back seat to his Habermasian anxieties. Increased action options, Joas observes, allow for decisions that run the gamut between universal and anti-universal discourses. Having multiple options thus seems to weaken universalist commitments, since they can so easily be fused with anti-universal sentiments and ideas.

This is problematic, Joas observes, since the foundation for human rights and the liberal democratic state is moral and legal universalism. Hence Joas’s observation that the “most important front running through moral and political disputes today is not that between believers and non-believers but that between universalists and anti-universalists, and both of these groups include both religious and nonreligious people.” What, then, asks Joas, can provide a bulwark against anti-universalism, which is once again rearing its head via the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic platforms of emerging European nationalist parties?

Joas borrows a line from Habermas but takes it in a different direction. Like Habermas, he calls for greater dialogue between religious and secular adherents of moral and legal universalism in their mutual fight against racism and other forms of anti-universalism. But this conversation must not—contra Habermas—reduce religious dialogue simply to a means for benefiting public discourse.

As far as Europe is concerned, Joas is clear that Christianity should have pride of place in this dialogue. This is because he agrees with Habermas that secular universalisms are limited by their tendency to be too rational, individualistic or utilitarian. What Joas calls “the essence of the superiority of the Christian ethos of love” can help check egocentric and utilitarian limitations of secular thought. More importantly, suggests Joas, Christian love enriches notions of justice—the key concept of moral and legal universalism. Of course, Joas is quick to acknowledge that the superiority of Christian universalism is not cause for boasting.

Joas recognizes that some “dogmatic secularists” will view his argument as a religious apologia. In rejecting this idea, Joas states that he has no desire to defend religion and is only interested in opening a space for a conversation. A few sections of Faith as an Option make it clear that part of this dialogue is aimed at Joas’s fellow Christians. In one revealing section, Joas exhorts them to remember that Christianity failed to issue an adequate response to National Socialism and Fascism because its message of love and peace has been weakened by secularism.

This and many other examples reveal a tendency throughout Faith as an Option to separate the supreme message of Christian universality from the secular, tribal and nationalist influences that potentially corrupt or weaken it. Doing so allows Joas to make a distinction between his idealized Christian universalism and the injustices of Christianity as it actually existed, which dovetails nicely with Joas’ insistence that Europe has never really been Christian. Hence the ease by which theology’s political baggage can be downplayed for the purposes of inventing a political theology made safe for democracy and human rights; two concepts whose Christian reception is long and complicated. One need not be a dogmatic secularist to see in such analytic maneuvering a religious apologia of sorts.

October 30th, 2014

Pope Francis reaffirms belief in evolution

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Addressing the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on October 27, Pope Francis stated that the Big Bang and evolution are not only consistent with God and creation, but in fact require a divine presence. Over at The Independent, Adam Withnall reports:

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so,” Francis said.

He added: “He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment.

“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it.

“Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

Writing at Religion News Service, Josephine McKenna notes:

Unlike much of evangelical Protestantism in the U.S., Catholic teaching traditionally has not been at odds with evolution. In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed there was no opposition between evolution and Catholic doctrine. In 1996, St. John Paul II endorsed Pius’ statement.

Some wondered if Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wanted to change that when he and some acolytes seemed to endorse the theory of intelligent design, the idea that the world is too complex to have evolved according to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, a close associate of Benedict, penned a widely noticed 2005 op-ed in The New York Times that said “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process … is not.”

Francis’ speech is in line with Catholic doctrine, established since Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani generis, and extended further by John Paul II’s 1996 speech, also before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in which he noted that “new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis.” Even Benedict XVI, who has been characterized as less accommodating towards evolution, said in 2007 that the debate between creation and evolution was an “absurdity” since the two can coexist.

Read the full reports on Francis’ speech here and here.

October 24th, 2014

CFP: Religion, Gender and Body Politics

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The “Interdisciplinary Innovations in the Study of Religion and Gender: Postcolonial, Post-secular and Queer Perspectives” project has announced its final conference, initiated and coordinated by Anne-Marie Korte (Utrecht University) and Adriaan van Klinken (University of Leeds). This conference on “Religion, Gender and Body Politics” will take place February 12-14, 2015 at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. Keynote speakers will include Minoo Moallem, Yvonne Sherwood, Ulrike Auga, Scott Kugle, and Sarojini Nadar.

From the call for papers:

In this conference we want to explore why and how the gendered body has become a highly contested and constitutive site of dynamic secular and religious (identity) politics, ideologies and practices in contemporary societies worldwide. In this we suggest to regard the body as simultaneously an empirical entity (e.g., the human or animal body), a discursive practice (e.g., the body politics or the body of Christ), and a focus of technologies of the self (e.g., ecstatic or ascetic bodies). The body as a contested site in contemporary societies is often the body of a gendered, sexual, religious or ethnic other (e.g., women, LGBT’s, migrants, or colonial others). These discursive practices of “othering” presuppose a clearly defined “we” superior to the “other”, thereby reinforcing related dichotomies (e.g., West-East, male-female, religious-secular, straight-gay) and their power relations. The disciplining of bodily practices appears to take place mainly at the level of institutionalised religion and secularism where ideologies and politics of gender, sexuality and ethnicity are imposed. However, when we look at how people live their bodies, creative and non-normative body practices can be identified that question, resist or inform these ideologies and politics. The deconstruction of the normative regulation and representation of the body should therefore not be investigated along the lines of the public-private divide, but in a manner that questions this divide and that is attentive to the ways in which lived religion and lived secularism permeate the until recently virtually uncontested boundaries between the visible, public and institutional on the one hand and the invisible, private and personal on the other. We aim to question the ways in which intersecting ideologies of religion, secularism and gender materialise through individual and collective body-politics drawing from a range of contemporary critical perspectives in the humanities and qualitative social sciences, such as postcolonial criticism, post- secularism and queer theories. With these critical perspectives, we want to challenge persisting dichotomies in the study of religion and gender, like the public/private and religious/secular binaries, and Western and heteronormative dominant models of knowledge.

Click here for the full CFP and information on how to submit paper titles and abstracts.

October 22nd, 2014

Futures of the American Religious Past

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On January 3, 2015, as part of the winter meeting of American Society for Church History, four interlocutors will speak on TIF contributor John Lardas Modern‘s book Secularism in Antebellum America, and Mark Noll’s book America’s God, with comments from both authors.

Why now? In her 2013 ASCH presidential address, Maffly-Kipp described the field of church history in the midst of a “transitional moment.” Tensions are mounting between more traditional ecclesiastical paradigms and the theoretical developments of religious studies. Readers of this blog know that American religionists feel these tensions especially strongly. New works like Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, among others, put pressure on many of the commitments and conventions of our discipline.

Yet though American religionists may greet the arrival of Secularism with caution, they cannot easily ignore it. Modern responds directly—if not always affectionately—to church historians and to Mark Noll in particular. The book is deliberately provocative, posing all sorts of challenges to the central paradigms of our field.

The event will be held at the New York Hilton from 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM. Read more about the panel here.

October 21st, 2014

Conference: Toward a Critique of Secular Reason?

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LeuvenOn December 10-11, 2014, the Institute of Philosophy (KU Leuven) will host the international conference Towards a Critique of Secular Reason? in Leuven, Belgium. The conference aims to explore the meaning of the concept of secularization in 20th and 21st century thought.

The notion of secularization has often been used to define or characterize the nature of modern culture. Today, however, the validity of this concept is questioned ever more radically. The conference wants to take a step back from these recent discussions by examining the history and philosophical scope of the concept of secularization itself: What does secularization actually mean? More specifically, what does it mean for societies, theories, ideas or concepts to be secularized? Although secularization is often reduced to a political or sociological concept – designating the separation between church and state or the decline of religious belief – this conference aims to explore its meaning from a much broader and decidedly interdisciplinary perspective. In this regard, secularization appears as a theoretical concept with important implications for the study of intellectual history, metaphysics, religion, literature and politics alike.

Participation is free, but registration is required. For the program and further details on the conference read more here.

October 20th, 2014

Millennial storytelling

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The Immanent Frame editor-at-large Nathan Schneider recently talked to radio host Krista Tippett for her Peabody Award-winning show “On Being.” In the interview, the fourth in a series on “The American Consciousness,” Tippett and Schneider discussed Schneider’s writing; the intersections of technology and religion; the Occupy movement’s legacy; and the growing influence of “nones”—Americans who don’t identify with any religious group.

“Could the growing number of non-religious young people be a force for the renewal of spiritual traditions?” Tippett asks. “How might the Internet of the future look utterly different from the Internet of now? And what did the Occupy movement really tap into—and what has it become below the radar?”

Listen to the podcast or read a transcript, and check out the rest of Schneider’s work for TIF here.

October 17th, 2014

A “pastoral earthquake” in Rome?

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On October 13th, the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, an assembly convened by Pope Francis, released a relatio post disceptationem—a snapshot of the discussion thus far—that has triggered much coverage and debate across the media landscape. As church leaders try to determine what exactly makes a Catholic family, the document seems to signal a softening stance on, among others things, divorce, homosexuality, and unmarried cohabitation. While reasserting Catholic doctrine that proclaims the “irregular” nature of such relationships and families, the document also acknowledges their “positive elements,” and frames the pastoral challenge as follows:

It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church, also on the part of those who have experienced failure or find themselves in the most diverse situations. This requires that the doctrine of the faith, the basic content of which should be made increasingly better known, be proposed alongside with mercy.

Longtime Vatican journalist John Thaviswho called the document’s release a “pastoral earthquakehas an excellent breakdown and summary of the relatio on his blog. He notes in particular the document’s emphasis on the gradualness which advocates patience and understanding for individuals to walk their own paths towards salvation.

In particular, the section of the relatio initially titled “Welcoming homosexual persons” has caused a stir. It originally reads:

Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?

Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners. Furthermore, the Church pays special attention to the children who live with couples of the same sex, emphasizing that the needs and rights of the little ones must always be given priority.

The shift in tone on homosexuality (though not in doctrine or teaching) has been greeted with enthusiasm by some observers, such as GLAAD and the Reverend James Martin, who called the document “a stunning change in the way that the Catholic church speaks about gay people.” But not all responses have been positive. Critics have described the language of the document as confusing—how can Catholicism avoid “any language or behavior which might be construed as discrimination” (section 46) if biblical and doctrinal teachings are very clear on some of these issues? R. R. Reno, the editor of religion journal First Things, describes such framing as a “route to the dictatorship of relativism,” while other commentators have stated that the document “[dilutes] Church teaching.”

The unofficial English translation of the document from the Vatican has added another complication. The synod, which was conducted in Italian instead of Latin, first created controversy by translating the word valutando as “valuing,” as opposed to “considering” or “weighing.” Then just yesterday, the translation underwent new edits, changing “Welcoming homosexual persons” to “Providing for homosexual persons,” and replacing “fraternal space” with “fellowship” and “precious support” with “valuable support.” It should be noted that the original Italian remains unaltered.

Many media outlets have highlighted the document’s section on homosexuals, including The New York Times (“At the Vatican, a Shift in Tone Toward Gays and Divorce”) and BBC (“Catholic synod: Vatican family review signals shift on homosexuality”). Given that the document is not so much a formal statement on theology as the minutes of a meeting, writers such as George Weigel at The National Review and Tim Stanley at The Daily Telegraph have criticized the coverage of the relatio as overstating its significance.

Meanwhile, church leaders themselves, including those at the synod, disagree about the document’s content. Some clergy have pressed for clarification on specific sections. Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, has said that the relatio was “[lacking] a solid foundation in the Sacred Scriptures and the Magisterium,” while Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, emphasized that it is a “draft document,” one that would need “major reworking.” Indeed, on October 14th, the Vatican released a statement emphasizing the relatio‘s status as a “working document,” saying that it does not want to create “the impression of a positive evaluation” of same-sex relationships or cohabiting couples.

Pope Francis looms large in discussions over the relatio, as he convened the synod and picked many of the committee members. Perhaps not surprisingly, the document largely calls for dialogue, listening, and understanding, in keeping with Francis’ policy of more discussing pastoral care and less affirming doctrinal puritysee his “who am I to judge” or “shepherds living with the smell of sheep” comments. Popes can choose what teachings to emphasis and what issues to downplay, and Francis’ papacy has been different in image and tone from his predecessor. But without any meaningful changes to catechism on these sensitive topics, it remains to be seen whether Francis will actually usher in a “Vatican Spring.”

October 16th, 2014

A response to Borja Vilallonga

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Over at his Academia.edu page, Thomas Pfau responds to Borja Vilallonga’s review of his book Minding the Modern:

In the 1,745 words that comprise his “response” to Minding the Modern, Vilallonga does not once engage or contest my various accounts of any of these figures. Neither does he pay attention to (or, perhaps, summon the requisite intellectual generosity and acumen) to identify my book’s conceptual architecture. He thus fails the most elementary standards of what it means to offer a critical and considered response to intellectual work done by someone else. For to do so one must begin by restating the book’s objectives, identifying and appraising its methodological procedures, its organization, and its various claims. Only when these steps have been taken in clear and dispassionate form may one proceed to articulate whether the book succeeds or, if not, how it may be said to fail on its own terms, rather than those that the reviewer happens to have espoused.
Read the full response here.
October 15th, 2014

Mapping “American values”

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PRRI-logoThe Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS) have recently teamed up for a foray into “digital religion,” in the form of an ambitious mapping project called the “American Values Atlas” (AVA). The PRRI and SSRS conducted 50,000 telephone interviews in 2013, and built their results into an interactive map that they promise will “deliver an unprecedented level of detail about the United States’ cultural and religious landscape.”

The map is designed to show the connections between three “topics”—religious affiliation, demographics, and politics. Users can compare:

Religious affiliation, by religious tradition or Christian denominations

Demographic information, by traits such as race and ethnicity, age, gender, marital status, educational attainment, household income, and health insurance status,

Political information, by party identification, political ideology, and voter registration status

Searching by the religious tradition category (under the topic religious affiliation)  in Ohio, for example, reveals that while the largest single religious group is “White evangelical Protestant” (21%), an equal percentage of respondents described themselves as religiously “unaffiliated.”

The AVA also offers a “Highlights” section, with summaries of particularly interesting or noteworthy survey findings. We learn, for example, that a full third of American Muslims live in the South:

Thirty-four percent of American Muslims reside in the South, mostly in just two cities: Atlanta (4 percent) and Washington, DC (6 percent). In contrast, fewer than 1-in-5 Muslims live in the Midwest (17 percent) and the West (18 percent). Nearly one-third (32 percent) of Muslims live in the Northeast, predominantly in New York City (23 percent).

We also learn that marriage rates vary widely among religious groups:

If you’re single, you may want to try visiting your local Buddhist center; more than half (54 percent) of Buddhists are single. This may be because Buddhists are, on average, much younger than other Americans. At the other end of the spectrum are Mormons. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Mormons are currently married, 16 points higher than the national average (48 percent).

The AVA is particularly noteworthy for its wealth of data on minority religious groups in the United States—Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, for example—which the team contends are often excluded from broad narratives about religious change in America. In addition, data collection for the project is ongoing: PRRI and SSRS expect to conduct 50,000 new interviews each year, in order to provide an up-to-date portrait of changing American values.

October 2nd, 2014

In whose name? ISIS, Islam, and social media

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Commentators routinely remark on the sophisticated use of media by the organization that calls itself the Islamic State, but in the past few weeks many Muslims have been using the Twitter hashtag #NotInMyName to offer a counter-narrative about Islam. The campaign began earlier this month with a video released by the London-based Active Change Foundation, featuring British Muslims speaking out against the organization (variously known as ISIS and ISIL), which, they say, does “not represent Islam or any Muslim.” A recent tweet using the hashtag stated that, “ISIS is not a representation of Islam. My religion is based upon principles of respect, love and harmony.”

Response to the #NotInMyName campaign has generally been positive, but some Twitter users have expressed reservations. A few suggested that the social media response to ISIS atrocities was too muted: “A mild rebuke, all things considered,” tweeted New Yorker staff writer Jon Lee Anderson, who went on to compare the campaign to the “Ice Bucket Challenge.”

Others objected to what they perceived as background presumptions of collective guilt that oblige Muslims—but not, for example, non-Muslim U.S. or British citizens—to repeatedly publicly disavow violence: “I do & don’t like the #NotInMyName campaign. It’s right to speak out but it sends out the message we are to be held accountable every time.” The latter sentiment has since spawned a rival Twitter meme of Muslims satirically “apologizing” for such cultural achievements as algebra using the hashtag #MuslimApologies: “I’m sorry that we gave to the world Algorithms through which PCs, FB, Twitter etc are built on!”

Still others used the phrase “Not In My Name”—popularized among objectors to the last Iraq war—to denounce another military intervention in the Middle East: “Sickened that we’re going to war again. Actually, am furious.” Nevertheless, the campaign won plaudits from President Barack Obama, who referred to it in a speech before the U.N. last week: “Look at the young British Muslims who responded to terrorist propaganda by starting the Not in My Name campaign, declaring, ‘ISIL is hiding behind a false Islam.’”

Reactions were ambivalent, though, when, on September 10, the White House tweeted the following remarks from the president’s speech promising military action: “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents.” “Psst. . . I think that’s what the ‘I’ stands for!” one user replied. Another wrote, “Always amusing to watch non-Muslims lecturing Muslims on what Islam is and isn’t.” Why was the message better received when delivered by young British Muslims than when echoed by the president of the United States?

Presumably part of the answer is that the #NotInMyName campaign appears to represent a grassroots intervention by self-identified Muslims in the normative debate over what constitutes true Islam, whereas the President’s message came across as a strategic political maneuver by an outsider. By denying that the Islamic State is Islamic (or, for that matter, a state), Obama sought to fend off the potentially damaging perception that the U.S. is engaged in a war against Islam, or that Muslims as such are the enemy—perceptions that would not only have played into ISIS’s propaganda campaign but also put Muslim Americans at risk of hate crimes. The claim that no religion condones the killing of innocents is no doubt tendentious—who is truly innocent is often in dispute—but the rhetoric allowed the president to position the United States as religiously tolerant, and ISIS as “a terrorist organization, pure and simple.”

But on what authority—in whose “name”—does Obama, the president of a country whose constitution has long been interpreted to prohibit government from interfering in religion, speak when he enters into the debate over what constitutes Islam or religion? Is he not only the country’s “commander in chief” but also its “theologian in chief”? Though a minor footnote in the history of American civil religion, the affair serves to remind us that terms like religion are invested with political significance, and that states, even (or perhaps especially) when they claim to be religiously neutral, have an interest in how such language is deployed. The struggle against ISIS is, among other things, a struggle over definitions, which is to say that it is a struggle over the authority to control meanings. Moreover, the comparatively open space of social media is increasingly a site of conflict in that struggle. Is ISIS Islamic? What is at stake is not a factual question but a normative one with global political implications.

A German-language version of this article will appear in the Fall 2014 issue of the Bulletin des Zentrums für Religion, Wirtschaft und Politik.

September 30th, 2014

Religious exemption in the National Football League

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During last night’s victory over the New England Patriots, Kansas City safety Husain Abdullah, a practicing Muslim who once missed the entire 2012 season for the pilgrimage to Mecca, intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and returned it for a touchdown. After scoring, he was penalized for unsportsmanlike conductspecifically excessive celebration in the form of “going to the groundfor sliding to his knees and praying. Or in GIF form:

The National Football League has been disparagingly called the “No Fun League” for its policing of celebrations over the years, such as the recent ban on dunking over the goal posts. However, the “going to the ground” rule actually has a religious exemptionnamely for “praising the Lord.” One such example came during Super Bowl XLV, where Green Bay Packers receiver Greg Jennings knelt down in prayer after a touchdown and was not penalized.

Multiple commentators from across the web have highlighted the inconsistency in penalizing Abdullah, noting in particular former quarterback Tim Tebow’s outspoken Christianity and his practice of genuflecting. But while the treatment of Islam (and other faiths) compared to Christianity certainly deserves an extended discussion, bringing up Tebow’s actions (and his lack of punishment) perhaps misses the point. His prayers always occurred on the sidelines when he was not on the playing field, meaning that they were not covered by the excessive celebrations rules. Abdullah, for one, believed that his penalty was for his slide and not his prayer.

Instead of a statement about different religious beliefs, the penalty was more likely the result of the NFL’s complex rule book as the league attempts to regulate everything about the game and its players, from celebrations to player conduct. At a time when the NFL is already under heavy scrutiny, the league reacted quickly, as NFL Vice President of Football Communications, Michael Signora, released a statement on Twitter, saying that Abdullah should not have been penalized, and reaffirmed the religious exemption: “Officiating mechanic is not to flag player who goes to ground for religious reasons.”

September 26th, 2014

Egypt’s uncertain future

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Since the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has experienced significant turmoil, from temporary rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the military coup that led to the election of current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Mounting chaos in the region —including unrest in Egypt and fighting in Gaza-Israel, Iraq, Libya, and Syria—has forced Egypt to the forefront of the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as US Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized during a recent visit to Cairo. As a report in Al-Monitor attempts to explain, the “Islamic Caliphate” model touted by ISIS poses problems for Sisi’s plans for a hypernationalist, secular state. As he attempts to consolidate power at home, President Sisi also finds himself playing a key role as mediator of the resurgent conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. A Foreign Policy analysis described the “Sisi Doctrine” as “based on repression and stability,” an “outgrowth of [Egypt’s] own domestic concerns about Islamism, militancy, terrorism, and instability.”

In the recent series on “The future of Egyptian democracy,” contributors to The Immanent Frame have tackled the various complexities of this situation. Many of our authors argued against the simplistic framing of Egyptian political forces as “Islamist vs. secularist.” Others highlighted the role of divine intervention and religious legitimacy in Egyptian politics, analyzed and critiqued democracy as a form of government, and reported on disturbing events in the aftermath of Sisi’s election, including the rise of the “deep state” and attempts to control mosques and pulpits. As part of a joint project with Religion Dispatches, contributing editor Austin Dacey has raised additional issues, including the exact role of secularism in the ongoing unrest and the Egyptian government’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations.

September 10th, 2014

CFP: Religious and Political Values

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On November 26-28, 2014, Adyan and the Lebanese American University will host a conference on “Religious and Political Values” in Byblos, Lebanon. The conference builds on Adyan’s last international conference on “Religion and Democracy in Europe and the Arab World,” where participants emphasized the need for a paradigm shift in the role of religions in the public domain.

Adyan’s International Conference for 2014 attempts to respond to this intuition by providing a forum for different sectors of society to reflect on how to actualize definitions of political values and norms in Muslim and Christian discourse on the one hand, and to explore and promote dialogue about these values based on different worldviews on the other hand. This exploration is meant not only from an interfaith perspective but also from a public and scholarly perspective, where religions are invited to operate a shift from a normative discourse, and to endorse a dialogical role as part of the diverse society.

In doing so, the Conference seeks to put recent scholarship in social and political philosophy in more direct conversation with social and political theology, in Christianity and Islam specifically, and to confront both with questions and recommendations from leaders and policy makers active in the public domain.

A 300-word abstract and a 200-word bio should be sent to conference@adyanvillage.net by September 14th, 2014. For further details on the conference, and on the submission of proposals, read more here.

August 23rd, 2014

White House announces new women’s healthcare rules

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In the wake of this summer’s Hobby Lobby decision and Wheaton College order, the White House has announced a new regulation designed to reconcile recent accommodations for nonprofits and closely-held for-profits with the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

Today, the Administration took several steps to help ensure women, whose coverage is threatened, receive coverage for recommended contraceptive services at no additional cost, as they should be entitled to under the Affordable Care Act.  The rules, which are in response to recent court decisions, balance our commitment to helping ensure women have continued access to coverage for preventive services important to their health, with the Administration’s goal of respecting religious beliefs.

—US Department of Health and Human Services

Read the full press release at HHS.gov.

Read more at MSNBC.

August 15th, 2014

On Religious-Secular Alliances

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In the most recent issue of The Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study (NDIAS) Quarterly, TIF contributor Slavica Jakelić, in an excerpt from her book manuscript The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms, argues that in order to understand the moral foundation and democratic potential of religious-secular alliances, it is important to move beyond the discourse of power.

Although religious-secular alliances transformed the political and social landscapes of the contemporary world, they are still mostly shrouded in a veil of silence. What are the reasons for that silence? Why don’t we talk more and know more about the collaboration between socialist and Catholic labor union leaders, between [Martin Luther] King and Asa Philip Randolph, between Father Józef Tischner and Adam Michnik in Poland, between Bishop Desmond Tutu and Chris Hani in South Africa?

One of the important reasons for the lack of discussions about such collaborations is the focus on conflict that has long defined our thinking about religions and secularisms. The emphasis on conflict, it is important to underline, is not without foundation. Historically, it highlights the real events in which religions and secularisms confronted each other—from various religious rejections of the secularizing aspects of modernity (liberalism and revolutions, religious freedom, and even democracy) to the anti-religious policies of the Soviet communist states (ranging from direct religious persecutions to more sophisticated modes of religious oppression and control). Sociologically, the view of religious-secular relations as defined by confrontation mirrors growing doubts about the secular states’ ability to address the challenges of pluralism. This view also stems from the persisting suspicions that some secularists and some believers have toward religious organizations and communities that demand a place and voice in public life.

Read the full essay here.