“Bad Religion” and Religion Scholars Gone A.W.O.L. (Part 3)

The first and second posts in this trilogy have examined the responses (and non-responses) of religion scholars, as well as the engagement (and non-engagement) of religion scholars with government and policy makers, through the analyses by Jonathan Z. Smith of the Jonestown massacre in 1978 and by Nancy T. Ammerman of the Branch Davidian siege in 1993. A key subtext and motivation of this inquiry has been the recent debate over the Islamic State and whether it is religious or political in nature. This third post addresses a more recent context that is more directly related to the issue of Islamic terrorism–namely, the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on September 11, 2001.

The University of Chicago‘s Bruce Lincoln has written an influential account of the 9/11 attackers and their motivations in Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (University of Chicago Press, 2003 with a second edition in 2006).  In the preface to the book, Lincoln writes, “As a historian of religions, the most pressing item to ponder was the extent to which the attacks of September 11 could rightly be considered religious.” (xi) The lead essays in the volume provide a textual and rhetorical analysis of the written instructions that lead 9/11 attacker Mohammed Atta supplied to the other member of his terrorist team, speeches given by George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden as the war in Afghanistan began, and remarks of evangelical Christian leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson shortly after the attacks.  In so doing, Lincoln observes, “Exploring the religious aspects of their rhetoric and consciousness, however, meant confronting a much more general and less tractable question: What do we mean by ‘religion’?” (xi)

Reflecting shades of Smith’s description of the reticence of religion scholars to respond to Jonestown and of Ammerman’s description of the obstacles to a more effective government response to Waco, Lincoln admits his own tentativeness in addressing these questions, but also the compelling reasons to engage them. He writes of the “religion question” raised by incidents of religious violence:

Over the years I ave usually ducked that question, while gradually edging closer to it. . . . This book represents by attempt to think through the nature of religion, to identify its core components (discourse, practice, community, institution), and to specify its historically changing relation to other aspects of culture (particularly the ethical, aesthetic, and political).  . . .These are extreme, and not typical data, for the study of religion, but precisely for that reason, I find them challenging, important, and analytically revealing. (xi)

Lincoln’s analysis of the text of the 9/11 attack is original, serious, and highly compelling in its detail.  I leave it to readers to discover outside the brief confines of this blog.  Of particular interest to this ethicist is Lincoln’s keen analysis of both the ritual and the ethical dimensions of practices (see p. 6, point 2) at a time in which some other scholars of religious rituals and practices tend to eschew the ethical dimensions of religion as vestiges of an outdated concern for morality and meaning in religious scholarship overall (see, e.g., Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them, Princeton University Press, 2005).  Indeed, Lincoln concludes of the 9/11 attacks:

It is tempting, in the face of such horrors to regard the authors of these deeds as evil incarnate: persons bereft of reason, decency, or human compassion. Their motives, however–as revealed by the instructions that guided their final days–were intensely and profoundly religious. We need to take this fact seriously, uncomfortable though it be, since it can tell us important things about the events of the 11th, the broader conflict of which those events are a part, and also the nature of religion. For if there is one thing they make abundantly clear, it is that religion and ethics are not indivisible. Rather than being a divine and unfailing ground of morality, religion begins with a human discourse that constructs itself as divine and unfailing, through which deeds–any deeds–can be defined as moral. It was their religion that persuaded Mohammed Atta and eighteen others that the carnage they perpetuated was not just an ethical act, but a sacred duty. (16)

In these remarks, Lincoln thus argues that religion and ethics are, in a key sense, divisible and not synonymous.  He sees religion as having a stabilizing effect on both aesthetics and ethics (54-55), but he neither reduces religion to ethics, nor hypostasizes morality into religion in his understanding of religion and culture. At the same time, he does not ignore the significance–at times, perhaps, a pragmatic and strategic significance–of morality and ethics for religious rhetoric and religious practice.

In fact, there are a few specific aspects of the beliefs and practices of 9/11 terrorists and their ilk that seem relevant for the current debate over the religious dimensions of the Islamic state. Journalist Graeme Wood set off this debate with his widely read article “What ISIS Really Wants.”  Will McCants of the Brookings Institution has written articles in several places on the apocalyptic dimensions of ISIS in his preparation of a forthcoming book on the topic.  More recently, writers have turned their attention to the religious psychological dimensions of ISIS. These writers lift up elements of ISIS rhetoric and practice that Smith, Ammerman, and Lincoln would almost certain see as testament to a bona fide religious dimension to the Islamic State.

Other analysts have been more critical of these religious takes on ISIS, along some of the lines that Lincoln suggests in his 9/11 analysis.  At one point, commenting on anti-US rhetoric in the Muslim world, Lincoln notes, “In that discourse, America becomes the Great Satan, a monstrous entity responsible for a global flood of impiety and profanation, as witnessed in the blatant sexuality and random violence of the popular culture it so happily (and profitably) exports.” (16) With respect to the violence of American popular culture, Malaysian political scientist, Farish A. Noor has recently written:

I am particularly concerned that movements like ISIS, which justify their actions on the basis of religion, should not be seen and understood simply through the lens of religion or theological discourse. . . . A simpler, though unpalatable, fact that has to be considered at this stage is that ISIS may well be a product of the modern age of televisual violence we live in. . . . Perhaps the hardest thing for us to accept is the possibility that the hoodlums and psychopaths who have joined ISIS are not individuals of real religious conviction after all, but the wayward children of the age of popular violence that now passes as entertainment.

The sexual and gendered dimension of the Islamic State, revealed in the attitudes of some of its adherents toward women and in its members’ wanton and callous rape of Yezidi women and girls, has also drawn analysis of the rigorous obsession of the Islamic State and other Salfist groups with sexual morality.  Of these positions in the more general context of religious groups that oppose sexual liberalization in post-Enlightenment modernity, Lincoln observes, “Most of these have been prompted by an acute sense of moral decline, particularly among those who feel that relaxed controls on sexual desire pose grave threats to marriage, the family, and what they are prone to call ‘everything that is decent’.” (59) Of course, the maintenance of these views becomes difficult to square with reports that the 9/11 attackers combined their preparation for purity with visits to strip clubs or the Islamic State’s orgy of sexual violence against women–or, for that matter, the apparent appeal of ISIS to to Western women.

Lincoln describes the success of resistant and revolutionary religious groups as a function of objectively deteriorating conditions, programs of political legitimacy, and active recruitment. (86) In its actions, the Islamic State seems to fit the profile of an aspiring revolution that is both political and religious in nature. Much recent coverage has focused on the political, and whether ISIS will ultimately be able to govern and deliver the goods as a political entity–a Caliphate. But this attention to the political dimensions of ISIS should not diminish its religious dimensions. When it comes to balancing the religious and the political in understanding ISIS, as with most complex phenomena, it seems that we are in the land of “both/and”, not “either/or”.