Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Some Thoughts on Religion and Violence

There is a strong prejudice in the social sciences (no doubt influenced by Marxian views on ideology and beliefs as motivations that are in fact expressions of false consciousness) against taking religion seriously, a bias that faced with the category of religion finds it removed from our social and intellectual existence in a post-Enlightenment age. Even critical theory suffers from such an assumption, being broadly suspicious of religion’s ontological and epistemological commitments and claims; yet, surely a properly critical approach would be dismissal of such absolutism and apply the metaphysical critique to its very claim about religion itself.

The ways in which we perceive of religion in our time is as constructed a social reality as the development of the notion of secularity as the anthropologist Talal Asad had extensively discussed in recent years. It is an expression of the narrative of the autonomous self that has emerged since at least the Enlightenment, postulating a particular anthropology of what it means to be human and to possess critical human faculties, and how that human self interacts within his cosmos and articulates his identity. In a post-Kantian world in which the immediacy of experience as the source of knowledge is denied and our world constructed through our language and conceptual schemes, religion, history and modernity are similarly constructed. Religion in such a world is seen as a private matter guided by a reason which is not critically interrogated in the public sphere, and yet is seen as a transhistorical essence expressing discourses and beliefs through practices and conventions that yield a vision of reality. The public sphere denuded of religious expression finds it all the more perplexing when political action is justified in terms of religious motivation. Critical to the personal reason of religion is the displacement of the scripture in favour of a symbolic universe of meaning, a natural and rational order of understanding reality. But as such this is a European genealogy and faced with the case of Islam, the shibboleth of the Qurʾan as central idol and referent of the faith signals a complete absence of reason, public or private. The scripturalist approach to reality is therefore an irrational one and unfavourably juxtaposed with both scientific notions and commonsense ones.

Furthermore, if we consider the category through its opposites to understand more clearly what we mean, what constitutes the opposite of religion? Reason? Science? Secularity? Surely all of these are categories that in themselves evince particular genealogies, mythologies and discourses of asserting their power within the marketplaces of disciplinary formations. And yet to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, in a point which I cite a bit later, religion in its purest form is secularity and secularity religion. In the face of such formations, the understanding of religious even by the religious seems to have shifts in disperse directions: new age spiritualities replace institutions, religion becomes a wider and even overarching category of adherence into which even philosophy and art are placed, and the metaphysical critique of the Heideggerian tradition leads to postulation of a God who may be. Such understandings, I would contend, are for good conventionalist reasons, if not others, divergent from the historical traditions of understanding faith in the past and lead to the hermeneutical problem of the increasing gap between the reader and the text.

At the same time as understanding and contextualising jihad as violence, we need to be self-reflective about violence. Consider three definitions of violence in relation to religion. First, violence, defined expansively, is considered to be part and parcel of the original sin of being human and is articulated in the insights of the significant monograph of Hent de Vries’ Religion and Violence. At the outset, he postulates that

Violence, in both the widest possible and the most elementary senses of the word, entails any cause, any justified or illegitimate force, that is exerted – physically or otherwise – by one thing (event or instance, group or person, and perhaps, word and object) upon another. Violence thus defined finds its prime model – its source, force and counterforce – in key elements of the tradition called the religious. It can be seen as the very element of religion.

While this alerts us to the possibilities in the use of the term, it is too overarching and too elastic a definition to be helpful. It also entails a rather gendered genealogy of religion and violence, one condemned by the late feminist theologian Grace Jantzen in her wonderful critique of the death and violence-centred theological metaphysics of the European tradition in favour of one preferring ‘natality’ and life-affirmation. An imbalanced view of violence in Western metaphysics might lead one to see violence beyond in a rather skewed manner. Nevertheless it considers violence to be a form of relationship between the self and other which is akin to religion and as such both the other and the self of religion. In a post-Kantian world, religion is neither relegated to the private sphere nor are religious categories including righteous, godly violence rendered obsolete. The major contribution of de Vries’ work is to alert us to the elasticity of the terms violence and religion and show how they may apply beyond the narrow confines of what we may have assumed.

The second definition focuses on the very human act of othering. Difference may entail either the recognition and the pursuit of an ethics of identity (such as envisioned by Ricoeur), or the onset of alterity and danger. As the literary historian Regina Schwartz defines it, violence is not

a consequence of defining identity as either particular or universal. Violence stems from any conception of identity forged negatively against the Other, an invention of identity parasitically depends upon the invention of some Other to be reviled.

As such, the process of othering deliberately distorts and forges the self as a positive mirror image of the other. Identity construction is not the sole concern of religious communities, even with the need to define the boundaries of the faith community and objectify heresy although violence is the means through which the formation is effected.

Third, Slavoj Žižek’s wonderful polemic on violence urges us to take the self-reflection a further step. He distinguishes between ‘subjective’ violence, an exertion of one upon the other that is considered to be a violation, a perturbation, of the normal state of affairs such as one man stabbing another, and objective violence which is inherent in normality. The exceptionalism of violence may dissolve into its routineness. The objective is constituted both by our language and our economic and political systems, and of particular concern is ideological violence. Žižek writes:

We live in a society where a kind of Hegelian speculative identity of opposites exists. Certain features, attitudes and norms of life are no longer perceived as ideologically marked. They appear to be neutral, non-ideological, natural, commonsense. We designate as ideology that which stands out from this background: extreme religious zeal or dedication to a particular political orientation. The Hegelian point here would be that it is precisely the neutralisation of some features into a spontaneously accepted background that marks out ideology at its purest and at its most effective. This is the dialectical ‘coincidence of opposites’: the actualisation of a notion or an ideology at its purest coincides with, or more precisely, appears as its opposite, as non-ideology. Mutatis mutandis, the same holds for violence. Social-symbolic violence at its purest appears as its opposite, as the spontaneity of the milieu in which we dwell, of the air we breathe.

Violence may therefore lie in our very conceptual frameworks, our assumptions about citizenship and mutuality, in tolerance and liberalism. Tolerant reason as articulated in liberal outrage against Muslim fundamentalists in Europe is one of his primary examples. However, we need not go that far. It merely suffices to recognise that violence is not just the illegitimate actions and words of the other but also embedded in the self.

The result of this quick assessment (there is after all a far too extensive literature on the relationship of religion and violence to consider in a single lecture – perhaps a good theme for a module?) is that arguments concerning the essential relationship between the two often end up negating themselves. The ‘commonsense’ feeling that one of the major factors that discredit institutionalised religion and indeed the faith imperial is the conduct of war, internecine sectarian fighting and the suppression of liberties, deduced from an interpretation of European history and from the image of an imperial and violent Islam spread by the sword.

It is therefore not surprising that such a polemic, extended by renowned pseudo-academic ex-Muslims such as Ibn Warraq lead to both nuanced questioning by anthropologists such as Asad and theologians such as Cavanaugh as well as Muslim apologetics. Even the very idea that violence is essential to humanity, and therefore to religion as a manifestation of homo religiosus may be conceptually neat and rhetorically persuasive but requires one to step back from one’s pre-understandings. The problem of religious violence becomes acute for the Muslim reformist seeking to understand his faith and reconcile it to his context, historical, political and intellectual, not least because the Muslim reformer tends to be as much a product of a liberal intellectual formation as a non-Muslim one and similarly afflicted by the contradiction inherent within liberalism between a desire to recognise and grant liberties of diversity and the exhortation to universalising the liberal way of life as the pinnacle of human intellectual achievement.

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