The Violence We Live By
by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
"I Think I’m Ready to Fly Away" (photo: DiaTM/Flickr, by-nc-nd 2.0)
"However much we try to distinguish between morally good and morally evils ways of killing, our attempts are beset with contradictions, and these contradictions remain a fragile part of our modern subjectivity."
—Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing
You can often detect it when a politician or journalist uses a word like "barbaric" to describe the actions of any suicide bomber before, on, or after 9/11: the assumption that “Islamic terrorism” represents an uncontainable hostility toward modernity.
The extremists, on this view, are primitive; we are civilized. They are irrational; we are people of prudence and reason. This is the “clash of civilizations” narrative that has held sway in the West for generations, but with a special power in the last decade.
Yet as anthropologist Talal Asad points out, the histories of Europe and Islam are not so neatly separated and thus the clash of civilizations rhetoric ignores a rich legacy of mutual borrowings and continuous interactions among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. More than that, though, the very selective heritage that shapes a people (that strange, unknown hybrid called Judeo-Christianity, for instance) often bears no relation to the hard facts on the ground — to the way people self-identify, to what they do, how they negotiate the world, and so on.
The concept of jihad is a case in point. Asad notes that the term is not central to Islam, but Western histories of the religion have made it integral to an Islamic civilization rooted in religion. In fact, jihad has been a subject of centuries-long debate among Muslim scholars of different historical and social contexts. It is simply not part of a transhistorical Muslim worldview but rather belongs to, as Asad writes, “an elaborate political-theological vocabulary in which jurists, men of religious learning, and modernist reformers debated and polemicized in response to varying circumstances.”
All of which is to say that the West’s tidy narration of Islam vis-a-vis modern liberal social orders has posited a set of very persuasive yet fictive binaries: freedom vs. repression; savagery vs. the rule of law; legitimate warfare vs. terrorism. So much so that in the deeply partisan, brutally contentious world of American politics, both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, routinely employ a model in which, Asad says, “rational democrats in the West react defensively to destructive terrorists from the East.”
The point here — mine and most certainly Asad’s — is not to condone or justify atrocities committed by extremists. Osama bin Laden was a bad guy and the violence he was responsible for indefensible. Period. The point, instead, is to question the moral high ground America regularly claims in response to criminals like bin Laden and to ask the difficult questions that arise from inhabiting such a lofty perch.
The point also is to be willing to entertain unsettling answers to these questions — to name the contradictions that beset our attempts to rationalize, and celebrate, state-sponsored violence while we categorically condemn, and punish, rogue terrorism.
Can we begin to acknowledge that violence is embedded in the very concept of liberty that lies at the heart of liberal social orders like the United States of America? As Wendell Berry puts it in a poem, “When they want you to buy something they will call you. When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.”
Can we begin to acknowledge that there is no moral difference between the horror inflicted by state armies and the horror inflicted by insurgents? Shot-off limbs, dead babies, destroyed livelihoods — these are the on-the-ground realities whether the munitions come from teenage suicide bombers or the U.S. military.
Can we begin to acknowledge that Americans seem to take a de facto stance in which war is condemned only in excess but terrorism in its very essence?
Can we begin to acknowledge that terrorists often talk about what they do in the language of necessity and humanity (as do five-star generals and American presidents)? But, as Asad notes, the banal fact is that “powerful states are never held accountable to [war crimes tribunals], only the weak and the defeated can be convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Can we begin to acknowledge that, as Asad perceptively puts it, “human life has differential exchange value in the marketplace of death when it comes to ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ peoples” and that “this is necessary to a hierarchical global order.”
Can we begin to acknowledge that events in recent days ought to disturb us sufficiently to resist the prepackaging of acceptable responses by corporate-controlled media outlets?
To entertain the possibility that the violence wrought in the name of “liberty and justice for all” bears a moral equivalency to that waged by operatives of al-Qaeda is not to impute sinister motives to the American military or its leaders. Not at all. That’s the easy, cynical view born of occupying the moral high ground on another plane.
But the uneasy truth remains: Osama bin Laden is dead, and we have killed him. And the story of violence continues — his, ours, and the inextricable link between the two.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Osama Bin Laden is dead. God-willing the news is true. Yes, it is a moment to celebrate the death of an evil mastermind. But let us also remember that evil flows in the veins of all of us, as does goodness, and the struggle for goodness over evil is perennial.
The professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina and author of Memories of Muhammad has created an interesting comment thread after updating his Facebook status this morning. What do you think?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A Fundamental Rearranging of Societies, Hopes, and Dreams
by Krista Tippett, host
I first heard him on the BBC in the middle of the night a few months ago. I wrote down his name in a kind of fog. He was talking about his book Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.
He has spent the last decade listening and conversing across a range of Muslim cultures with people implicated in suicide bombing attacks as well as political leaders and extended circles of friends and family beyond the radicalized young. The perspective he has gained is not uncontroversial, and not comfortable. But it is challenging in the best way: mind-opening and eye-opening.
And that is the kind of insight we need right now. For if there is any universal reaction I’m hearing to events on the streets of Tunisia, Yemen, and especially Egypt, it is the surprise of them. Behind that surprise, we’re aware that little of the last decade’s profusion of facts, news, and analysis about “the Middle East” and “the Arab world” prepared us to expect this very human democratic eruption. Nor do we know how to respond to it, it seems, either at the highest political levels or as citizens.
Scott Atran offers deep context for this picture of social upheaval. He came to study anthropology under the late great Margaret Mead, and spent the first part of his career studying Mayan Indians and the Druze people of the Middle East. Then a decade ago he turned his attention to the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism from Indonesia to Europe to the Middle East.
He sought to understand why some young people become radicalized, asking: Why do some of them become terrorists and suicide bombers? What makes young people in the extended circles of family and friendship around these people susceptible or immune?
What he has learned is a fascinating backdrop for hearing and seeing the young who are at the heart of the movement in Cairo and elsewhere. For their energies, anger, and dreams — fueled by the same frustrations that political analyses have labeled as breeding grounds for terrorism — are now surfacing as breeding grounds for democratic reform. They are doing so with impressive courage and civility.
Scott Atran also offers some sweeping ideas that become food for thought as we rearrange our view of how our world might unfold. Without denying the danger and devastation of terrorism, he points out that American minds, in particular, became convinced of a magnitude of terrorist threat that hasn’t been borne out beyond the 9/11 attacks.
Al Qaeda, he says with certainty, is not what it once was. More importantly, as Atran would have us see, this focus on Al Qaeda blinded us to the human and democratic possibilities alive in other cultures just as they are alive in our own. The “clash of civilizations” that so many feared, he offers, may really be a crash and potential rebirth of territorial cultures — a fundamental rearranging of societies, hopes, and dreams.
And surely one of the most galvanizing qualities of the voices from Tahrir Square is how they are echoing quintessential themes of American history. As someone who also knows the Muslim Brotherhood well, Scott Atran would have us resist catastrophizing about the unlikely possibility that they might come to power. At the same time and just as fervently, he would have us attend to the range of Muslim people and organizations that will help weave the fabric of a new democracy, if indeed a democracy emerges in Egypt — just as a whole range of fervently Christian people and organizations were integral threads in the fabric of American civil society from the very first.
About the top image: Scott Atran in Damascus to do follow-up interviews with Middle East leaders on the role of sacred values in seemingly intractable conflicts. (photo: Scott Atran)
Lessons on Friendship from an Afghani Refugee Family
by Heidi Naylor, guest contributor
In 2001 my husband approached me about hosting an Afghan refugee family of four. I was hesitant. But my reservations — lice, tuberculosis, loss of solitude — seem petty and insulting now. In the end, they were outweighed by his enthusiasm.
So our family arrived one evening just before Memorial Day, exhausted from long travel. We stood outside nodding, smiling, shaking hands. Akbar wore a dark suit, Rahima a blouse and skirt and heels, the children ribbons and a bow tie and shined shoes. We had pizza and soda and very few words.
The next day we bought a Russian-English dictionary. We couldn’t find one in Dari, the family’s native tongue, but they’d spent years in Moscow so we found common words through a language belonging to none of us. Spasíba, pazhálusta, ímya, lagushka. The children laughed with our kids and our dog in the backyard. They needed no book, and before long were translating for their parents.
Over the weeks our English developed an accent, and we took to pantomime. One evening my son said he was going to take a shower. He mimicked the spray above his head and pretended to shampoo himself. I smiled. “Kid, I speak English!” Akbar watched with growing pleasure, finally erupting in laughter.
Rahima cooked succulent, beautiful meals with lamb and cumin, raisins and cilantro. We searched for her preferred rice and found a species of basmati I still buy for pennies per pound from an Asian grocer. Its burlap bag features an inked-on label: “Once taste eat for ever.”
Rahima made me tea four times a day, despite my discomfort at her servitude. She asked if I’d like one shovel of sugar or two. We laughed over the confusion of “kitchen” and “chicken.” She taught me to cook the okra I’d never liked in a way that was savory and “deshilous.”
One day we discovered our youngest sons were born within ten days of one another, on opposite sides of the Earth. Sistera, she said, pointing shyly at me, and she has introduced me in that way to her friends every since.
As our common words increased, we began to linger over dinner. We sprinkled our tea with cardamom, bit into Rahima’s crunchy lemon cookies, and listened as Akbar spoke of the Taliban and its terrible grip. “I want carpet,” he said, gesturing toward our Persian rug. “I want car, home for children. Television. Taliban no good,” he said, “no what you want…” He searched, settling on the Russian: svabódny. No liberty. Everyone was silent. I poured more tea. He looked around the table at his children, his sweet shy wife, our children. “Politic,” he said, like you or I might say “robotic.” He slapped his palm on his thigh. “I wery like.”
Our Christian religion requires fasting one Sunday each month, so I fixed breakfast for our guests and explained why we couldn’t join them to eat. Rahima asked, “One month?” — no doubt thinking of the Ramadan fast her religion requires. Well, no. But the practice, fasting in faith and devotion, was another thing we’d found in common.
After several weeks, their English improved to where they found jobs at a thrift shop and auto auction. They moved into an apartment nearby, the next step on the way to citizenship. And then, Nine-Eleven.
My husband was traveling, and I feared for his safety. I cried with the nation, watched in disbelief as footage revealed Muslims across the globe dancing in the streets. I phoned our friends and learned they’d also spent the day glued to the television. That evening the kids and I dropped by, and Rahima prepared a tray of tea and cookies. We chatted: work, new friends in the apartment complex, the start of school, the horrific attack. The talk was quiet. Their graciousness and loveliness were immediate, familiar, genuine. Our kids ran and shouted together in the grassy square outside the window.
Soon they moved to a larger city, seeking better employment, as any American is likely to do. We’ve visited them across the country; their children have grown and are pursuing further education, poised to better themselves and, as they do, make further contributions, again like so many Americans.
Before they moved away, I drove Akbar to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office to take care of some paperwork. Taped to the clerk’s window was a notice: “Warning!! If you have more than 180 days of unlawful presence in the United States it is our strong recommendation that you do not leave the United States for any reason.”
This was odd to me, but it was no more strange than the questions on Akbar’s application seemed, since I’d come to know him, though I understand their necessity: “Are you wanted for extradition for a crime you have or have not committed? Are you wanted for questioning or as a material witness? Are you or have you ever been engaged in espionage? Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or sedition?” (One woman thought a moment and answered, “force.”)
I did my best to explain each question. We smiled a bit. There was some patient, acquiescent laughter, and Akbar checked his answer in a box. In this way we tried to give the official behind the glass a clear picture of Akbar and his family. Some reliable notion of who they’d come to be.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
A Twitterscript with Terrorism Expert Scott Atran
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Krista first heard terrorism expert Scott Atran on the BBC and knew she wanted to book him as a guest. He interviews jihadis to understand what makes them want to live or die for a cause. Through the lens of psychology and culture, he also does extensive field work in both the Arab and Israeli Middle East. In fact, minutes before his interview with Krista, he had an extensive phone conversation with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and shared his thoughts with us about uncertainty and hope surrounding the uprising in Egypt.
Scott Atran is presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, a visiting professor of Psychology and Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and research director in Anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in France. He has briefed Congress and national and homeland security staff at the White House on his research into terrorist groups. His latest book is called Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.
We live-tweeted highlights of this 90-minute conversation, which we’re aggregating and reposting for those who weren’t able to follow along. Check out our Twitter stream next time at @BeingTweets.
- Krista is about to start conversing with Scott Atran - an expert on communicating with, and understanding, terrorists. http://bit.ly/hhb106 1:00 PM Feb 1st
- "I’m always interested in those people who are as different from me as possible." - Scott Atran on his interest in Jihadis 1:17 PM Feb 1st
- "If I can understand what moves these people, I can better understand what it means to be human." - Atran on his interest in terrorists 1:18 PM Feb 1st
- "The greatest predictor is if they belong to a soccer club or some other active group of friends." - Atran on who is a terrorist 1:19 PM Feb 1st
- "You too can cut off the head of Goliath with a papercutter." -Atran on the powerful message which attracts some to the Jihadi movement 1:25 PM Feb 1st
- "The young people…are trying to build a way forward that’s… idealistic, that talks to their hopes and dreams and is realizable." -Atran 1:36 PM Feb 1st
- "You really want to know who’s involved in a plot? Find one of the guys…Look at what he eats…and you’ll find the others." -Atran 1:49 PM Feb 1st
- "War…it is a violent attitude toward someone else because their thinking of the world is different than your own." -Scott Atran 2:03 PM Feb 1st
- "The principle of enmity: human beings are most mobilized when we have enemies. Can we lessen conflict without having enemies?" -S. Atran 2:20 PM Feb 1st
- "Wars are only won in two ways — you destroy your enemy or you make them your friends." -Scott Atran 2:22 PM Feb 1st
- "I recall Maximilien Robespierre, ‘No one loves armed missionaries.’" -Scott Atran 2:30 PM Feb 1st
About the image: Scott Atran stands in front of Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron (photo courtesy of Scott Atran).
Jitish Kallat’s Art Installation Reminds Viewers of an Earlier September 11th International Event
by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer
“‘Public Notice 3’ explores the possibility of revisiting the historical speech as a site of contemplation, symbolically refracting it with threat codes devised by a government to deal with this terror-infected era of religious factionalism and fanaticism.”
— from The Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition website
The grand staircase at The Art Institute of Chicago features the art installation “Public Notice 3” by Jitish Kallat. (photo: swimfinfan/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
Before September 11th became synonymous with terrorist attacks and religious intolerance, it was host to that event’s antithesis — the First World Parliament of Religions held in The Art Institute of Chicago’s Fullerton Hall on September 11, 1893. The parliament was an early attempt to create a global discussion of religious faiths, and Swami Vivekananda delivered an eloquent keynote address to an audience of over 7,000.
“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, of all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.”
Now, 118 years after his speech and nearly a decade after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Jitish Kallat reintroduces the public to Vivekananda’s words in “Public Notice 3,” an exhibition on display at The Art Institute of Chicago from September 11, 2010 through May 1, 2011.
The Indian artist, known for using historical speeches as the structure for his work, seeks to hold up these “blurred and sometimes forgotten” speeches as “apparatuses with which to grade our feats and follies as nations and as humankind.” “Public Notice 3” continues this approach from his previous exhibition in 2007, which he based on a momentous speech Mahatma Gandhi delivered on the eve of the historic 400-kilometer “Dandi March.”
In the current installation, Kallat displays the inspiring, inclusive words of Swami Vivekananda’s text in LED lights on the 118 stair risers of the historic Woman’s Board Grand Staircase, adjacent to the site of Vivekananda’s original address. Phrases from Vivekananda’s address are lit with the colors of the United States Department of Homeland Security’s alert system, creating color patterns that reach up the meandering flights of stairs to a skylight above the top flight. The effect of these patterns, coupled with the resonant sound of footsteps and voices in the cavernous staircase, is profound.
Phrases from Swami Vivekananda’s speech displayed in “Public Notice 3” on the Grand Staircase steps. (photo: swimfinfan/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)
The following video of a conversation between artist Jitish Kallat and curator Madhuvanti Ghose provides additional insight into the artist’s desire to highlight the chasm between these two very different events of September 11.
Public Notice 3 — a hopeful and poignant reframing of “the events of 9/11” — is an inspiring, redemptive “must-see” for anyone in or passing through Chicago.
Tax Protester? Terrorist.
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Current NewGround Fellow (check out our program on the organization) Ali H. Mir has written a challenging piece in USC’s The Scoop. By definition of the Patriot Act, he says, journalists should be identifying Joseph Andrew Stack III — the suicide bomber who flew his plane into a federal building in Austin, Texas in order to kill employees of the Internal Revenue Service — as a terrorist and not simply a tax protester:
"Law enforcement and the major media outlets in the United States need to be consistent in their definition of terrorism and to use the term objectively. Selective use of the term makes it clear that objectivity is simply a conceit and that certain racial, ethnic and religious groups are incapable of committing acts of terrorism (i.e. upper-middle-class white men who own airplanes and nurture a grievance against their own government)."
(h/t Diane Winston)
Can We Really Prevent a Viral Terrorist Mindset?
Krista Tippett, host
As I’ve listened to all the noise around intelligence- gathering and airport security in response to the attempted Christmas Day terrorist act, Ed Husain’s voice has been ringing in my ears. Not that we don’t need to think about intelligence and security — we do — but do we spend a corresponding amount of energy and planning on how to prevent a viral terrorist mindset that is a feature of our time?
That’s the world Ed Husain knows, and narrowly escaped from. Al Qaeda, he says, is not the real enemy the West and most Muslims in the world have in common. Here’s what he means by that:
"… It must be said that al-Qaeda is just a name. It’s really a mindset that we must be tackling — a literalist, rejectionist, Islamist worldview. And not necessarily al-Qaeda as an organization because that can become defunct, but those ideas still remain. So it’s not a war on terror as the American government has gone out of its way to suggest, but it’s actually a battle of ideas."
We’re putting Ed Husain’s introduction to that battle of ideas on the air again this week. His insights have never felt more relevant, illuminating, and prescient.