(Ir)Religious Violence Talk Explores Modern Conflict and Culture

This Monday, Hussein Rashid, a professor of Islamic Studies at Hofstra University and the founder of islamicate, L3C, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy and cultural competency, came to give a lecture on reframing how we think of modern violence and religion, given the context of recent incidents at Ferguson, MO, Chapel Hill, NC, and Paris, France.

“To say that the world is violent and that people commit acts of violence seems obviously true. But the violence which we pay attention to is in fact socially conditioned,” Rashid said. He went on to explain how these boundaries between different types of violence were constructed by many forces, including the national security apparatus, our history textbooks, and the media we consume, from entertainment to the daily news.

He began by outlining how cultures have incorporated both violence and religion in history. He focused particular emphasis on the Enlightenment period and the ways in which we have been socially conditioned to think of violence as being either “civil,” as with the warring European nation-states, which fought on more equal footing, or “uncivil,” where violence was used as a tool for controlling a more “savage” peoples, as was the case with colonial purging in Australia, Africa, and South America.

He drew the audience’s attention to the modern usages of “reformation,” “enlightenment,” and “secularism,” and how we often use these terms with the implication that Muslims do not have these things; that Muslims have not had a reformation, are not enlightened, and have no concept of secularism in their culture. To use these terms in such a way, Rashid poses, is to ignore hundreds of years of history.

 This historical amnesia dates back to the Enlightenment, which was characterized in part by the separation of church and state, giving birth to the modern conception of secularism. This was seen as a good thing, coinciding with the rise of the modern nation-state. “This separation coincides with the rise of the modern nation-state and seeks to construct a different polity than that constructed by the dominance of different church groups and other religious organizations,” said Rashid. In using these enlightenment ideals of reformation, we accept the idea of what we know is the norm and imply that everyone else should be following that norm.

To give a modern-day example of the ways in which we view different types of violence, Rashid noted that while four people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, and it was rightly mourned as a national tragedy, 17 people were accidentally killed in accidents where a toddler got ahold of a gun in 2014. These accidents with toddlers do not give us nearly the same sense of fear and chaos that the targeted Boston Marathon killings did, putting these two types of violence in distinctly different categories.

Today, these dichotomous perceptions of violence manifest themselves in the violence of the “other,” against which we define ourselves. In America today, the “other” is the Muslim. “Today in the United States, we are concerned mostly about Islamic terrorism and violence. When America is attacked, Muslims are not considered part of that American landscape.” Rashid said. But to add statistics to the story, in 2010, there were almost 14,000 deaths worldwide from terrorism-related acts, and approximately 42,000 gun-related deaths, three times as many.

And yet, Rashid pointed out, to engage with these numbers would necessitate that we have a conversation about responsible gun ownership and individual rights. “To remove rights from individual Muslims is considered unremarkable and expected, as though Muslims have a different type of citizenship where their individual rights are different from others’,” Rashid said. Rashid then went on to talk about other ways in which Muslim violence and other forms of violence in America are held to different standards.

In terms of the media’s portrayal of Muslim violence, we too often allow the extremes to define Islam whereas we do not do the same for other religions. Rashid drew upon a recent article in The Atlantic called “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Woods, which was premised upon the notion that ISIS says they are Islam and therefore they, in part, define what it means to be a Muslim. Rashid took issue with the media allowing ISIS, a five-year-old organization, to be the defining platform for what is Islam and isn’t when a 40-year-old scholar like himself gets no such privilege. While he feels we cannot ignore ISIS by any means, we should not allow them to take over our perception of the entire Muslim culture.

In the entertainment media as well, other forms of violence are glorified, as in highly-rated movies like American Sniper, whereas Muslim violence is overwhelmingly portrayed as extremist and perpetuates Islamophobia. There are very few movies where Muslims are seen as the victims of violence, and one such case is the movie Timbuktu, which and portrays the toll taken on a local Muslim population by terrorism. Even this movie, which was nominated for an Academy Award, was banned by a French mayor Jacques-Alain Bénisti, though he never saw the film.

Towards the end of his talk, Rashid applied these differing conceptions of violence to the recent incidents we have witnessed in Ferguson, Paris, and Chapel Hill. Though Ferguson was not a religious issue, he draws attention to the role the state plays as a dispenser of violence, in which police violence is a more privileged form of violence that allows officers like Darren Wilson to evade indictment. However, Ferguson is a rupture in the usual narrative of control because the #blacklivesmatter tag, among other platforms, finally created a space where traditionally marginalized voices could organize.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there was a much stronger religious divide. Though France is more secular than the US, religion actually plays much more of a role in the development of the French state. Because of the stark religious divide, it is easier to demarcate who is and is not part of the state. For example, in 2010, France banned hijabs and burqas; when Muslim women spoke out against the ban, they were accused of claiming their communal Muslim identity over their French identity and could not therefore be French.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, though Rashid made sure to make clear he was not excusing the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and strongly denounces them, many Muslims felt they could not take up the rally of “je suis Charlie” in the aftermath of the attacks. The rally created a binary: “to be Charlie was to be good and French and to not be Charlie was to be bad and not French. And that meant that there was no alternative way to condemn the attacks, criticize the cartoons, and still be supportive of free speech. It is similar to when in America, Muslims are often asked to denounce terrorism. Denounce and prove that you are somehow responsible for the actions of the other followers of your religion or do not denounce and be judged suspect of sympathizing.”

The Chapel Hill incident forces us to confront the real-life results of Islamophobia. There was no doubt in Rashid’s mind that religion played a role, given what we know about the writings of Craig Hicks, the killer. “We can say that Islam as a signifier of something foreign played a significant part in Hick’s view. This view of Islam as the threatening ‘other’ was present in American culture since the founding of the country,” Rashid said. “Thomas Jefferson used Muslims as a test case to see if the ideals he strove for could be realized as a country, saying ‘I will know we have succeeded as a country when Muslims are no longer denied these rights.’ The legacy of European wars and empires was too engraved in the American psyche.”

Rashid ended the talk by asking the audience to reflect on the ways they view religion in modern-day society: “Religion is often the way we define the “Other.” We have to understand that religion is not a special case and ask ourselves how we are conditioned to understand what violence is acceptable and what violence is not and what purposes that serves for the state.”


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