Charlie Hebdo — Politics & (The Study of) Religion


(Image by Adriana Varejão)

To read much of the analysis generated almost instantly by the two recent massacres in Paris, at Charlie Hebdo and the kosher market Hyper Cacher, one would have to conclude that what really matters in terms of an “explanation” are the historical and political contexts that frame the violent act itself and the sense of outrage it has provoked. What is said to matter is the social marginalization and political rage on the part of young Muslim men of North African and African heritage who live in the suburbs of cities like Paris or Tolouse cut off from the mainstream of French society. What is said to matter are formations of citizenship vis-à-vis the state in regard to historical contexts defined by colonialism or to the current state of warfare by the west in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Syria, or Yemen. Solve these problems, and we’ve solved the problem of belief –be that Islamic religious beliefs or secular faith in the French Republican values.

What gets counted as “superficial,” what doesn’t really “matter” in these conversations is the actual text or scripts that motivate the actors themselves. These would be the beliefs to which radical Islam and western liberalism commits a person; and not just belief regarding piety and freedom, but affective impressions, the sense of blasphemy and outrage provoked either by the offensive cartoons of the Prophet and/or by the vicious acting out of bloody murder on the part of religious zealots.

You encounter this line of thinking not just on the part of political scientists and political philosophers, but also from some scholars of religion, typically those inclined towards more political types of analytic framing, in which not just belief, but consciousness has been pushed to the margins if not outside the margins of critical inquiry.

What I would argue is that no less than the historical, political, and social framing contexts, the actual text of the act as it gets framed is just as important if you want to understand the phenomenon at hand. It matters deeply that these brutal acts of murder were carried out under the name of Islam, that God’s name was invoked, and that the killers killed their victim either to defend the honor of the prophet against the blasphemy of the cartoonists or because they made a conscious decision to kill Jews in a kosher supermarket. Whether or not they understood the fine points of Islamic theology and jurisprudence is completely beside the point. What matters is that they acted on these things as they understood them, and that they did so in a social milieu saturated by religion and violence.

To talk exclusively about the historical, political, and social is the way in which academics make it sound like they are talking about something concrete, especially when they talk about fuzzy things like religion and belief. In fact, these historical, political, and social drivers are themselves very vague in that they are almost impossible to pin down with any degree of certainty or to determine their precise causal relation to this or that act of religious-political violence. When the communists overthrew the Tzar they did so for political and ideological reasons that one could identify in their discourse. When members of al-Queda or ISIS seek to overthrow the established order, they do so for ideological reasons that are as religious as they are political. These are just as easy as secular-communist ones to trace out as concrete expressions of discourse.

That political scientists and political philosophers don’t read or don’t know how to read belief doesn’t mean that belief is only superficial or epiphenomenal to some material structuring base. It just means that academics don’t want to talk about it, that they want to talk about problems that they think are easier to isolate, frame, and perhaps resolve. But if any given act is as much about belief, than the discourse about it should reflect that character, and that solutions, if indeed solutions are called for, need to address that dimension.

The belief dimension concerns not just religious belief. It also includes secular belief, such as the beliefs and values held by supporters of liberal ideals and free expression. In this case, it might be the better part of wisdom to stick to the surface phenomenon, the so-called superficial phenomenon, and to take what people actually believe, think, and say with a modicum of seriousness. Academics tend not to do this, at least when it comes to non-academics. As a penetrative logic, academic analysis tends to go “deep” and “deeper” under the surface to discover the core structure. To get at what’s latent, they miss what’s manifest.

Anthropologists, for example, are infamous for their disregard for the first person point of view of “native informants.” The same colonial logic is at work here when political scientists and political philosophers leave to the side expressions relating to belief, blasphemy, and holy war that attend this kind of modern religious violence. In the process, individuals whose action should have demanded interpretation lose their status as an agent or as a social actor. They are viewed as simply acted upon by social forces. What matters to the first person “native informants” matters not a wit to the analyst who wants to frame their discourse qua “discourse.”

I don’t mean to argue that historical, political, and social and framing contexts don’t matter intensely. But they are myriad. They are so myriad that in them the analysis begins to get lost, losing sight of the act itself and the values that motivate any given act. At a certain point, we academics miss the point, losing sight of the text embedded into the contexts. “Things” like God, piety, freedom, equality and solidarity “matter” to people. They have their own material effects. So too do hatred and anti-Semitism. Not to talk about these things, the ones that touch upon value and affect, is only to avoid the topic, which has to do with the often bitter tension between competing systems of value across cultures and internal to them.

In the Jewish exegetical tradition the term “peshat” refers to the simple meaning of a word, as opposed to the “derash,” its deeper homiletical aspect. It has long been a hermeneutical principle that “a text cannot be taken from the meaning of its peshat” (Shabbat 63a; Yevamot 11b, 24a). I think the same point holds here. The interpretation of an act in relation to religion in relation to larger historical, political, and social contexts are essential to understand any given act of violence. But so is the peshat, the religious-ideological motivations given voice by an agent. The political derash that does not take into account the ideological peshat is probably not worth its weight in words.

It’s not my point to argue that belief and agency represent stable, object-like, autonomous, sui generic essences that provide a clear explanatory framework to any given act or point of view. If anything, it’s worth deconstructing the difference between belief and social context, to get away from old idealist or materialist notions that one determines the other apriori. Rather than represent something stable, fixed, and self-interpreting, belief (i.e. the things people believe and act upon) would turn out to be just as varied and mobile, just as contingent as any (other) material force –and that’s why they require us to look at them and to take the things people say about themselves seriously. That’s what it would be to say that religion matters, that belief matters.

I don’t see why the analysis has to be so duck-rabbit. You see either the one figure or the other, “the religious” or “the political.” I wrote earlier, but it bears repeating. About recent events in Paris, religion in general and the religion of Islam in particular have something to do with it –not everything, not nothing, but something. It’s up to all of us together, to figure out the nature of that something that defines the dangerous intersections between religion and politics broad cross-sections of the contemporary Middle East implodes, and to do so with circumspection that comes by combining a hermeneutic of suspicion with a hermeneutic of charity.

For what it’s worth (it’s worth a lot), I’m posting this bit of analysis, which you can read here, by Hisham Melham by way of counterpoint. Looking at the violent surge of religion in the Muslim world, he links it up with the disintegration of the state system in the Middle East. What I appreciate about the analysis is the broader context that looks beyond the narrow borders of Europe to explain events in Paris, while keeping his attention fixed and focused on the danger of radical religion and religious violence.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Charlie Hebdo — Politics & (The Study of) Religion

  1. dmf says:

    literally speaking I don’t think that beliefs are things that we can have or some kind of code/virus that have us, all I think we have to work with are artifacts/materials and what we do with them, what are the affordances and resistances at hand? As to how far out does one go to ‘map’ the actor-object-networks from the epicenter of event in question I think that will have to be decided by the players/interests in the mix of those doing the particular work/research and can’t be settled before hand and in general.

  2. Michael says:

    What – no word about “settlements” or “occupation”? Can’t believe they are not somehow to blame!

    Beyound the (obvious) sarcasm there, what is the essence? I think it is rather simple – modern religious violence is almost exclusivly the domain of the Islam. The Islam is not the problem – but the Islam and the Muslims have a problem. There is deeply rooted intolerance and violence in the Muslim communities, that explodes quite literally in the faces of all of us.

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