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In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, it is tempting to regard their perpetrators as evil incarnate. But their motives, as Bruce Lincoln shows in this timely offering, were profoundly and intensely religious. What we need, then, after September 11 is greater clarity about what we take religion to be. With rigor and incisiveness, Holy Terrors examines the implications of September 11 for our understanding of religion and how it interrelates with politics and culture.
Lincoln begins with a gripping dissection of the instruction manual given to each of the hijackers. In their evocation of passages from the Quran, we learn how the terrorists justified acts of destruction and mass murder "in the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate." Lincoln then offers a provocative comparison of President Bush's October 7 speech announcing U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden's videotape released hours later. Each speech, he argues, betrays telling contradictions. Bin Laden, for instance, conceded implicitly that Islam is not unitary, as his religious rhetoric would have it, but is torn by deep political divisions. And Bush, steering clear of religious rhetoric for the sake of political unity, still reassured his constituents through coded allusions that American policy is firmly rooted in faith.
Lincoln ultimately broadens his discussion further to consider the role of religion since September 11 and how it came to be involved with such fervent acts of political revolt. In the postcolonial world, he argues, religion is widely considered the most viable and effective instrument of rebellion against economic and social injustices. It is the institution through which unified communities ensure the integrity and continuity of their culture in the wake of globalization. Brimming with insights such as these, Holy Terrors will become one of the essential books on September 11 and a classic study on the character of religion.
Before we can begin to think about the ways religion, culture, and politics interact, either in general or with direct reference to the September 11 attacks, it is useful to have some clarity about what we take "religion" to be. Attempts to define religion, however, are presently in serious disarray. In the not-too-distant past, Clifford Geertz's view of religion as a "cultural system" was more or less hegemonic. The classic paragraph, on which a generation of students was trained, posits that
a religion is (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. Within the last decade this formulation has fallen badly out of favor, largely as the result of Talal Asad's critique, which involves two telling points. The first proceeds from his observation that Geertz made interiority the locus of the religious (as indicated by his nouns: symbols, moods, motivations, conceptions). This works well for certain styles of religiosity: above all (and not coincidentally), Protestantism, which thus becomes the implicit model of religion per se. There are, however, things one intuitively wants to call "religion"-Catholicism and Islam, for instance-that are oriented less toward "belief" and the status of the individual believer, and more to embodied practice, discipline, and community. Under Geertz's definition, such concerns and traditions tend to be ignored, distorted, rendered aberrant, or relegated to the margins of the religious.
The conclusion that Geertz unwittingly normalized features of his own (necessarily parochial) cultural/religious background is the starting point for Asad's second, more radical critique. Geertz's error, he argues, was not simply the product of some individual failing, but a specific manifestation of problems inherent to the project. For insofar as the task of defining anything presumes a discrete object that can be identified in contradistinction to others, this implies a model of "religion" that emerged only with the Enlightenment. Prior to that time, even in western Europe religion cannot be analytically (or practically) disarticulated from virtually all other aspects of culture.
As Peter Gay and others in his wake remind us, the Enlightenment can be read as a long struggle against the regime of truth that was centered in and championed by the medieval church. Weakened by the Reformation and Wars of Religion, the church and the faith it represented retained their connection to-and considerable control over-all aspects of social, political, intellectual, and economic life. The goal of those who waged this struggle (from Bayle to Kant, by way of Hume, Diderot, and Voltaire) was to constrain and deprivilege this hegemon, opening space for secular arts and sciences, not to speak of political economy. Kant brought this struggle to an end with a compromise formulation, whereby "religion" was acknowledged as the only means to engage lofty metaphysical issues like the immortality of the soul, but inappropriate for all other matters. For everything save meta- physics, reason is both necessary and sufficient, and it is with this division of intellectual labor that Western modernity was founded. The view of religion as delimited, and therefore definable, is thus itself culturally bound, historically recent, and discursively loaded. "There cannot be a universal definition of religion," Asad concludes, "not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes." And since he wrote his Genealogies of Religion, most have heeded his counsel.
While the second part of Asad's sentence is wonderfully insightful, it is not clear to me why it entails the absolute prohibition of the first phrase. Is not all language "the historical product of discursive processes"? Granted, this makes language imperfect, elusive, and considerably more complex than common sense would have it. It hardly renders futile all efforts at definition, however, particularly when one understands these as provisional attempts to clarify one's thought, not to capture the innate essence of things. Returning to the specific question, one can begin to improve on past efforts by acknowledging, with Asad, that an atypical example-that is, the severely restricted religion advocated by Kant toward the end of the Enlightenment-got definitional efforts off the ground. Given this, the end result of our definitional labors ought to problematize, and not normalize, the model that prompted their inception. To this end, we need to stress two points. First, that which makes this delimited type of religion heuristically useful also makes it an extreme case: hardly the paradigm against which to measure all other examples. Second, when we take this as a starting point for discussion, we invert a line of historic development. Clearly delineated religions do not have this characteristic by "nature" but acquire it as the result of fierce historical struggles, in the course of which they suffer amputations and are forced to withdraw from their involvement in many other areas of culture (see further, chapter 4).
Differences in the extent to which the religious is imbricated with, or-to put it more strongly-penetrates and controls other aspects of culture, often become evident in moments of cultural contact. Consider, for example, a text written by Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an influential Islamist author and theoretician. Although he initially worked with the Free Officers who brought Gamal Abdul Nasser to power, Qutb later became disenchanted with Nasser's mix of nationalism and socialism, which he found secular and soul-less. Accordingly, he shifted his allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin), for which he was imprisoned from 1954 to 1964. Freed briefly, he took the opportunity to publish his most militant work, Milestones (Ma'alim fi al-tariq, also translated as Signposts Along the Way ), which led to his rearrest and execution by hanging (August 29, 1966), notwithstanding protests throughout the Muslim world.
Prior to his imprisonment, Qutb was employed as an inspector of public schools by the Egyptian Ministry of Education. In the wake of the Second World War, he became increasingly critical of Westernizing trends, against which Egyptians needed to protect their "spiritual capital and intellectual heritage." Between November 1948 and August 1950, a grant from the Ministry of Education let him study and travel in the United States, where his views deepened and became more critical. Distressed by many aspects of American culture-from the violence of football to homeowners' obsession with lawn care (in which he perceived a retreat from social interchange and civic spirit)-Qutb was most concerned with the state he came to call jahiliyyah in his later writings. Traditionally, this term designates the age of spiritual ignorance characterizing the pre-Islamic period of barbarism, and he extended its usage to describe the modern world's malaise, where jahiliyyah was not just a matter of ignorance, but a more active state of rebellion against God's sovereignty on earth.
Shortly after returning to Egypt, Qutb wrote about a church dance he observed in Greeley, Colorado, where he studied for a time at the Colorado State College of Education.
Every young man took the hand of a young woman. And these were the young men and women who had just been singing their hymns! Red and blue lights, with only a few white lamps, illuminated the dance floor. The room became a confusion of feet and legs; arms twisted around hips; lips met lips; chests pressed together.
Qutb was not disturbed simply by the eroticism he took to be indecorous and improper. More troubling, but analytically most revealing, was the enabling condition of this offensive spectacle: the disconnection between the preceding "religious" church service and the "social" event that followed, as is signaled by his gasp of horror: "These were the young men and women who had just been singing their hymns!" In a proper society, as Qutb saw it, people understood that God's law spoke decisively about relations between the sexes. In America such things seemed left to the whims of fashion and secular moral standards ("good taste"). Religion-such as it was-had been confined to a limited time, place, and role (Sunday mornings, bedtime prayers, Easter and Christmas), with little capacity to shape and stabilize other aspects of human activity or invest them with transcendent meaning. As he put it in the same essay, "No one builds as many churches as the Americans do.... Notwithstanding all this, there is no one as removed from feeling the spirituality, respect, and sacredness of religion than the Americans." One could unpack this incident at much greater length, but for the moment let me simply note that it is wrong to constitute Qutb as a representative of "Islam," which is no more a monolithic entity than is "American religion." One can find many Americans who sympathize with his view that religion ought to be the dominating force in society (cf. chapter 3), just as one can find many Muslims who feel religion need not control all aspects of life but can leave a certain space for relaxation and recreation. Qutb's activism, in fact, was prompted by his perception that jahiliyyah was sweeping through Egypt and was especially favored by elites of the secularizing postcolonial state (for a discussion of like situations elsewhere, see chapter 5).
The difference between Qutb and his Greeley hosts reveals two models of the religious that can probably be found in all religions, particularly those that encompass large numbers of people in diverse historic eras, geographic regions, and social strata. One style-that of Qutb-I would characterize as maximalist, rather than "fundamentalist," a term that has inflammatory connotations and fails to capture what is really crucial: that is, the conviction that religion ought to permeate all aspects of social, indeed of human existence. The other, by contrast, is minimalist. This is the position taken by Kant at the culmination of the Enlightenment, which restricts religion to an important set of (chiefly metaphysical) concerns, protects its privileges against state intrusion, but restricts its activity and influence to this specialized sphere. Definition can begin with the more recently emergent minimalist type of religion but needs to be capacious and flexible enough to cover maximalist types and the long spectrum of intermediate positions. That said, we still need to consider what the constitutive elements of an adequate definition might be.
Before taking the leap, let us recall Asad's narrower objection to Geertz. Any definition that privileges one aspect, dimension, or component of the religious necessarily fails, for in so doing it normalizes some specific traditions (or tendencies therein), while simultaneously dismissing or stigmatizing others. Asad calls specific attention to the need to include both practice and discourse. As he made clear, one also has to get beyond models that privilege interiority and understand that religious subjects are also bound in moral communities that enjoy their allegiance and serve as a base of their identity (thus, Durkheim). Further, communities are governed-sometimes more and sometimes less strictly-by institutional structures that direct the group and command their members' obedience (thus, Weber).
A proper definition must therefore be polythetic and flexible, allowing for wide variations and attending, at a minimum, to these four domains:
1. A discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent, and that claims for itself a similarly transcendent status. Discourse becomes religious not simply by virtue of its content, but also from its claims to authority and truth. Astrophysicists, for instance, do not engage in religious speech when they discuss cosmogony, so long as they frame their statements as hypotheses and provisional conclusions based on experimentation, calculation, and human reason. The same is true when morticians describe what happens after death. But should they ground their views in Scripture, revelation, or immutable ancestral traditions, in that moment their discourse becomes religious because of its claim to transcendent authority. Insofar as certain propositions or narratives successfully claim such status, they position themselves as truths to be interpreted, but never ignored or rejected. Contestation then takes place within the realm of hermeneutics. Religious discourse can recode virtually any content as sacred, ranging from the high-minded and progressive to the murderous, oppressive, and banal, for it is not any specific orientation that distinguishes religion, but rather its metadiscursive capacity to frame the way any content will be received and regarded.
2. A set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subjects, as defined by a religious discourse to which these practices are connected. Religious practices, which generally divide into the ritual and the ethical, render religious discourse operational, moving it from the realm of speech and consciousness to that of embodied material action. As such, they have a transitive character, being the way discourse acts on the world, including the people through whom this action occurs. At the same time, they are reflexive in nature, being the way human subjects act on themselves in sustained projects of religiously motivated and informed programs of self-perfection. No practices are inherently religious, and any may acquire a religious character when connected to a religious discourse that constitutes them as such. Thus, for instance, for a man to grow a beard becomes a religious action when he does so in emulation of Jesus or the prophet Muhammad, constituted as the ultimate examples of human perfection. Lacking an argument and motive of this sort, his beard reflects a strictly aesthetic preference.
3. A community whose members construct their identity with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices. Those who revere the same texts (whether written or oral), adhere to the same precepts (taken from those texts and their commentaries), and engage in the same sorts of practices (grounded in texts and precepts) have a great deal in common. Even when they disagree with one another, their disagreements are framed by reference points on which they can concur: How is this Scripture to be interpreted? When (and how) should that ritual be performed? What is the best response to a given behavior that shared values define as a moral failing? All of this creates the basis for strong sentiments of affinity that are also fostered by specific aspects of discourse and practice, like regular assemblies for worship, prohibitions on intermarriage with outsiders, or threats of excommunication for various infractions. Individual and collective identities come to be embedded in groups that are bound together in this fashion. Borders, simultaneously social and religious, hold members of one group separate from those whose beliefs and practices differ sufficiently that they can be marked as other. Even seemingly trivial differences-those of diet and dress, for example-can assume enormous import in the construction of alterity. But the fact is, these are hardly trivial, for practices understood to be governed by sacred injunctions constitute the observant as faithful and righteous, radically different from nonobservant outsiders, who are constituted as neither.
Excerpted from HOLY TERRORS by BRUCE LINCOLN Copyright © 2003 by The University Of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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1. The Study of Religion in the Current Political Moment
2. Symmetric Dualism: Bush and bin Laden on October 7
3. Jihads, Jeremiads, and the Enemy Within
4. On the Relation of Religion and Culture
5. Religious Conflict and the Postcolonial State
6. Religion, Rebellion, Revolution
Appendix A: Final Instructions to the Hijackers of September 11, Found in the Luggage of Mohamed Atta and Two Other Copies
Appendix B: George W. Bush, Address to the Nation, October 7, 2001
Appendix C: Osama bin Laden, Videotaped Address, October 7, 2001
Appendix D: Transcript of Pat Robertson's Interview with Jerry Falwell Broadcast on the 700 Club, September 13, 2001