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Sam Harris: You Are My Data

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by Matt Sheedy

* This post originally appeared on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog.

As a scholar of religions, I find your arguments about religion both frustrating and wrongheaded, which is a sentiment that is shared by most of my colleagues, though often for different reasons. Your recent post, “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” is but one example in a litany of arguments where you reify (I know you don’t use this term so I’ve provided a link) the concept “religion” in such a way that it functions like some contagion infecting all those who come into contact with it, unable to escape the grasp of its most virulent strains (read: literal interpretations of scripture).

Having read most of your books along-side the other so-called “New Atheists,” it became apparent to me as early as The End of Faith (2004) that you were the most reactionary among them, endorsing torture and writing the following remarkable lines in Letter to a Christian Nation, (2008) which I was recently humoured to see annotated in my personal copy with the letters, WTF?

If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself. … So let us be honest with ourselves: in the fullness of time, one side is really going to win this argument, and the other side is really going to lose. (5)

Since this time, to your credit, you have put your money where your mouth is, earning a PhD. in cognitive neuroscience in 2009, which you drew upon in your argument for a scientific morality in The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2011). More recently, you have doubled-down on this proposition with the release of Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. (2014)

I would imagine that most scholars of religions do not object to your quest to find a scientific basis for morality per se, since theories of mind and cognition are but one of many tools in the collective toolbox of the study of religions. Notwithstanding some of your arguments on topics such as neuroscience and free will, however, you do not provide any sort of theory that we can take seriously. For a brief overview of the kind of work that we do, I’d suggest starting with this concise taxonomy of scholars of religion by Travis Cooper. But I digress.

In “Why I Don’t Criticize Israel?” you raise a variety of points in defense of this question, including qualifying notes that you place in brackets in an attempt to nuance your previous statements on this topic, such as the following:

[Note: Again, I realize that not all Palestinians support Hamas. Nor am I discounting the degree to which the occupation, along with collateral damage suffered in war, has fueled Palestinian rage. But Palestinian terrorism (and Muslim anti-Semitism) is what has made peaceful coexistence thus far impossible.]

It is not my aim to engage you here on your arguments relating to the conflict at hand, but rather to offer my thoughts on how they bear upon the ways that we talk about religion. While the claims that you make about Israelis and Jews, Palestinians and Muslims are selective and limited (as I’m sure you’d acknowledge, after all it is a blog post), they nonetheless constitute claims that can be reflected on and challenged with alternative facts and additional evidence, which can then be re-interpreted, re-evaluated and revised if found to be compelling. As with any conflict, I endorse the ideal of taking up as many critical perspectives as possible in order to better grasp the messy world of politics and I encourage any honest efforts to do so.

When it comes to the question of religion, however, your reasoning comes up against a wall, which muddies your ability to clarify what is at stake in this and many other situations that involve groups that identify as religious (note the displacement of “religion” here, as we are still debating whether it is best understood as a first- or a second-order category). Curiously, you seem to make one exception to your general rule, which is worth quoting in full:

There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims. I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.

You suggest that those who identify as Jewish are, on the whole, capable of aligning their beliefs in such a way that is compatible with modern, liberal ideas and that “Judaism” permits its members to hold a dual-membership in “atheism.” Putting aside the rather sticky question of Jewish identity and where “its” authority comes from, it is certainly true that there are many more people who identify as Muslim than those who identify as Jewish and that the inflation of such identities can have negative consequences, not least of which is the reliance on certain political theologies as a primary lens for interpreting events in the social world, which sometimes aligns with anti-Semitic sentiments (anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments also abound, I might add, though I’d wager that you’d disagree that holding the second of these positions is problematic). This no doubt plays into the existential insecurity of Israel, which is surrounded by countries where such theologies and sentiments regrettably persist (and again, the reverse persists in many other countries too, including the US and Israel).

While you argue that Jews are able, on the whole, to take a self-critical stance on “God” so that the (scriptural) claims about “Him” don’t have much of an effect upon human behavior, you also suggest that the Hebrew Bible is the worst among equals:

Let me remind you that parts of Hebrew Bible—books like Leviticus and Exodus and Deuteronomy—are the most repellent, the most sickeningly unethical documents to be found in any religion. They’re worse than the Koran. They’re worse than any part of the New Testament. But the truth is, most Jews recognize this and don’t take these texts seriously. It’s simply a fact that most Jews and most Israelis are not guided by scripture—and that’s a very good thing.

Let’s assume for a moment that both of your claims are correct—that parts of the Hebrew Bible are highly unethical and that the majority of those who identify as Jewish are not guided by them. Why might this be the case? What historical, political and socio-cultural reasons might account for such a shift? What variations do we find within distinct sub-cultures within, say, Israeli society or in diaspora communities in different parts of the world that might help to explain these variations in the outward performance of Jewish identities as it relates to scriptural beliefs and practices?

While I know that many of my colleagues in the study of religions, especially those who conduct fieldwork, would object to the claim that similar “atheist” and “secular” beliefs and practices (though there’s some magic in those concepts too, no?) don’t also occur in many communities that identify as, say, Christian or Muslim, that is somewhat beside the point. I wonder though, if “Jews” can adopt such a position despite their “sickeningly unethical documents” then why not “Muslims” too? There appears to be a logical inconsistency here.

What you don’t seem to understand is that “religion” is not a material object like a table or a chair that can be classified in a generic sort of way, nor is it a condition, like the Ebola virus, that can be diagnosed and cured (or not cured) of its symptoms. It is, rather, a discursive concept with multiple variations. Most in my field, in fact, have been talking about it in the plural for some time now (e.g., Judaisms, Christianities, Islams), while others have done a fair bit of leg work identifying its linguistic and cultural roots in the Euro-West (with a healthy dose of Protestant theological influence, I might add) and in showing the ways in which dominant classifications of “religion” have been applied to a wide variety of cultural practices, which, of course, are constantly changing. Frankly, we have a tough time keeping up with it and are not at all clear on how to square the circle.

Because of the political nature of any field of study that reports its findings and engages with the general public, many scholars of religions get sucked into debates on the ideas and representations that go by the name “religion” (myself included), which sometimes distracts us from examining its unstable meaning and compels us to engage directly with its practical uses. What tends to get the most attention and carry the day in the popular public sphere (and this won’t surprise you, Sam) are those loud, dominant voices that claim to offer a definitive representation of this or that (or all) “religion,” for or against as the case may be. As many scholars have pointed out, this field of representations constitutes the discourse about religion, which, as I noted above, varies widely across time and space.

Becoming aware of this discourse, charting its themes and variations, is what some of us (though not all) in the study of religion are trying to do, which we hope will add more theoretical clarity to the field and, perhaps, may even have some positive social effects.

Once you take this bitter pill, Sam, you’ll quickly realize that there is no stable object, across cultures and across centuries, that can be placed into the tidy little box that you call religion, but only groups and individuals who identify what this or that tradition—your Buddhisms, your Hinduisms, your Islams—that we have come to call religions, who take up beliefs and practices in literally countless variations, though often with certain commonalities, to be sure. It is this problem that many of us are trying to get a handle on and until you realize this “fact,” you are my data.

* Photo credit from Wikimedia Commons.

Idle No More is about more than Chief Spence

* This article was originally posted in wagingnonviolence.org.

The Idle No More movement began quietly back in early October, when four aboriginal women held a teach-in in Saskatoon about the destructive effects of the Harper government’s omnibus budget Bill C-45. It was not until mid-December, however, that the movement gained widespread attention with the high-profile hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence of Attawapiskat First Nation, who set up a tipi just beneath Parliament Hill in Ottawa and demanded a meeting with the prime minister and the governor general as the main condition for ending her strike. Since then, rallies and solidarity actions have been held around the world.

In a manner analogous to the rise of the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011, when the arrest of 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge and the pepper spraying of peaceful protesters helped to galvanize widespread attention and increase public support, Chief Spence’s hunger strike has been a focal point for the national media in Canada. On the one hand, this has helped to open space for national (and, increasingly, international) attention on the plight of First Nations people, forcing even the most reactionary defenders of the status quo toadmit that there is a serious problem. On the other hand, however, the media’s penchant for fixating on symbolic figureheads like Chief Spence has presented a significant barrier to connecting the dots between this movement and the ongoing legacy of colonialism and racism, along with the broader issue of neoliberal capitalism.

It is of course historically significant that Chief Spence was able to force a meeting with the prime minister on January 11 — which she turned down due to the absence of the governor general, vowing to continue her strike. But the disproportionate focus on this confrontation between Canada’s First Nations chiefs and the federal government has had the effect of placing undue emphasis on the traditional channels of power, when in fact the true source of the movement’s vitality is in the thousands of ordinary citizens who are being mobilized and energized, both online and in the streets.

Moreover, the focus on the chiefs and the politicians has enabled critics to raise distracting accusations that the chiefs’ alleged greed and incompetence is the main source of ongoing problems for aboriginal people. Discussion of tax-exemption and “special treatment” has been common, which in turn leads to proposals for selling off First Nations land and calls for assimilation. While there are no doubt problems to be dealt with regarding the role of First Nations leaders and their governance practices, the near-singular focus on these matters has been a convenient scapegoat, and it has often aligned with stereotyping and even racist characterizations — from accounts of Chief Spence’s hunger strike as a “diet” to the age-old trope of the “angry Indian.” These and other such depictions serve not only to distract from the larger issues, but also highlight how much remains to be done in changing the dominant narratives.

Equating Idle No More with Chief Spence and her hunger strike means missing a great deal about what makes the movement so important. It means overlooking the concrete plight of so many First Nations people, as well as that of other indigenous peoples around the world who have been inspired by the movement. Getting overly caught up in the twists and turns of her interactions with the government runs the risk of failing to identify the Harper regime as, fundamentally, the bearer of a radical neoliberal agenda.

Changing the narrative does not, of course, mean dismissing Chief Spence’s hunger strike altogether, but rather seeing it as a conduit for the voices of those who have been long suppressed. Chief Spence has helped to galvanize tens of thousands of First Nations people and their supporters to take to the streets like never before, performing round dances and drum circles, marching on government offices and businesses, hosting teach-ins, building communities’ ties and engaging in slowdowns and road blockades. With the aid of social media, new “networks of outrage and hope” have been created — to borrow the title from Manuel Castells’ new book on social movements in the Internet age — which allow for more advanced coordination, for the sharing of videos and stories, and for undercutting the dominant assumptions about what is politically possible.

One of the most promising tactics that has emerged in recent weeks has been the#Ottawapiskat hashtag, a clever reversal of Attawapiskat, the home of Chief Spence. The idea is to reverse the media narrative of irresponsible spending among First Nations toward one of the current government’s lack of accountability. For example:

#Ottawapiskat chief appoints 53 unelected pals to senate with a base salary of $132,000 each. parl.gc.ca/ParlInfo/Lists…

#Ottawapiskat has only itself to blame. It’s the only developed, Western nation without a national housing strategy‪http://www.vancouverobserver.com/politics/canadas-lack-national-housing-strategy-targeted-ontario-court-case …

Another takes a jab at Ezra Levant, Canada’s own Bill O’Reilly:

Everytime someone says #Ottawapiskat, Ezra Levant mutters something racist and pees in his pants a little.

Such viral messages, in combination with ongoing rallies, teach-ins, and deepening ties between already existing organizations and the grassroots will be crucial in the fight ahead.

Chief Spence’s hunger strike came to an end this past Thursday, January 24, along with the strike of Manitoba elder Raymond Robinson. The decision seems to have been provoked by a combination of pressure from Spence’s own band council, from opposition parties in the Canadian government and from the apparently waning public opinion regarding her strike. The 13-point declarationreleased as she ended the strike once again demands a sit-down meeting with the prime minister and the governor general — a meeting, it would appear, thatChief Spence will not get. It is not clear at this point what to expect next. The Harper government has played its hand carefully, offering little more than an agreement to engage in further talks.

As actions ramp up, from the spate of blockades on January 16 to the global day of action that has been called for this Monday, January 28, it is more important than ever to have creative alternatives to combat the mainstream status quo and the counter-narratives that the state and its allies are likely to use in the coming weeks and months. While the focus on Chief Spence often distracted from the truly grassroots nature of this emerging movement, it created a groundswell that has opened up space for voices that don’t often get heard. In a social movement’s lifespan, this early phase of spectacle is a chance to help change the narrative, to organize alternatives and to turn away from past mistakes. But after the spectacle dies down, the real work begins.

From Occupy to Idle No More

* This post originally appeared in wagingnonviolence.org.

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My first experience with the Idle No More phenomenon came on Dec. 21, 2012, at Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square. The sight of round dances and the sound of drum circles offered a stark contrast to the flashing lights and billboards that surround the city’s commercial epicenter. (Think Times Square.) While the action that day — marking the end of the ancient Mayan calendar — was one of the more publicized INM events to date, it represents only one of literally hundreds of mobilizations by this growing movement, which has produced rallies, teach-ins, sacred fires, blockades, hunger strikes and occupations since its humble beginning among four aboriginal women from Saskatoon early in October of last year. From there, it has grown to become the largest and longest peaceful aboriginal uprising in Canadian history, with events being held in solidarity around the world.

Since December 21, I have attended several INM events after returning to my home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, including a sacred fire in front of the provincial legislature and a large gathering on New Year’s Eve, where upwards of 1,000 people converged on the city’s main intersection.

As a member of Occupy Winnipeg, and a long-time activist and academic with an interest in social movements, what is most striking to me about INM is how it has been able to galvanize people from across the nation in a way that was lacking during the many Canadian occupations during the latter half of 2011. At Occupy Winnipeg, for example, where upwards of 60 tents held their ground in Memorial Park across from the provincial legislature between October 15 and December 21, one of the biggest challenges was building ties with the city’s large aboriginal population. While First Nations people were active participants in the movement, the two months of this novel experiment in direct democracy and horizontal decision-making were hardly enough to bridge the gaps caused by centuries of abuse, mistrust and segregation. When the eviction of Occupy Winnipeg finally came, some saw it as a sign of failure, while others took the lessons they had learned to strengthen their ties with like-minded communities around the city, the country and the world.

In the months that followed, Canada bore witness to at least two national movements that carried on the Occupy movement’s spirit. The first was the Quebec student mobilization, which, at its peak on May 22, 2012, saw as many as 500,000 people march through the streets of Montreal in the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. After nearly seven months of protest, the movement won a victory when the Liberal Premier Jean Charest lost to Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois, who promised to scrap a proposed 75 percent tuition hike as part of her election campaign. While attention was largely focused on this electoral victory, more important was the rejuvenation of the political left in Canada through a clear example of how a popular movement can change things for the better, or at least prevent the worst from happening. More than this, however, was how the Quebec students were able to reignite the province’s long history of grassroots organizing and horizontal decision-making.

A lesser-known movement also emerged in the spring of 2012, calling itself theNational Stop Harper Campaign. The name came from a widely reported event in Canada in June of 2011, when a young woman named Brigette DePape held up a homemade stop sign reading “Stop Harper” during session in the Senate in Ottawa. Her message spread on T-shirts and stickers, which helped to spur a growing meme around the country against the Conservative prime minister. While the group held two national events, including rallies in 17 cities on Sept. 17, 2012, perhaps its greatest contribution was in helping to give Canadians a more relevant symbol of national resistance than Wall Street ever could. After all, Canada had not suffered a housing crisis nor a massive bank bailout like that in the United States. But the prime minister represented many of the same forces of corporate rule and the erosion of democracy.

Beginning quietly in early October, four aboriginal women held rallies and teach-ins in Saskatoon to spread awareness about new legislation regarding the violation of treaty rights and environmental protections in the Harper government’s massive omnibus budget, Bill C-45. The bill, which later became law, makes it easier for companies to exploit the natural resources in tribal areas and facilitates the construction of a planned tar sands pipeline. The movement gained national momentum on December 10, and it has since become a phenomenon like no other in the country’s history.

Unlike Occupy Canada or the Quebec student movement, Idle No More has been able to combine both nationwide appeal and mass participation, while at the same time pointing toward a concrete symbol of resistance in the figure of Stephen Harper. It has been made all the more powerful by the high-profile hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, who since December 11 has occupied Victoria Island, a tiny land mass just beneath parliament in Ottawa, demanding a meeting with the prime minister as the main condition for ending the fast.

While INM began as and remains a First Nations-led and First Nations-focused movement, it has the potential to represent more than an awakening of Canada’s most oppressed and maligned peoples. First, as INM spokesperson Pamela Palmater pointed out in a recent interview on Al Jazeera,“First Nations, aboriginal and treaty rights, which are constitutionally protected, is the last best defense that all Canadians have to protect these lands and resources.”

Here she is referring to how the Harper government, in its quest to kick open the door to private oil, gas and mining interests, recognizes that existing treaty rights represent a significant impediment to achieving their goals. In perhaps the most shocking example of this, recent legislation saw the number of federally protected lakes, rivers and streams go from over six million to just over one hundred.

Second, whereas the Occupy movement sought to create a politics of mutual aid and solidarity in the face of a divided, apathetic and individualistic consumer culture, it had neither the time nor the opportunity to fully address the deep fissures created by class domination and racial discrimination. Where Occupy fell short, Idle No More has succeeded in bringing those most marginalized both into the fold and into roles of significant leadership.

While it is not at all certain where Idle No More will lead, nor what will happen after Chief Spence meets with Prime Minister Harper as planned on January 11, INM marks an important and powerful stand against the domination of corporate and government elites that is literally poisoning our wells. Canadians, and indeed all people, should recognize this struggle as their own and as a crucial opportunity to organize and build relationships to sustain the long fight ahead.

Cartoons, Violence and Matters of Class

* This post originally appeared in the Bulletin for the Study of Religion

The discourse surrounding media events like the “Danish Cartoons” and Innocence of Muslims has largely focused on the issue of freedom of expression–at least in the “West,” where such putative categories prevail. For example, with the recent publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the paper’s editor sought to defend these actions as “free expression” and pointed out that when they had satirized conservative elements within the Catholic Church, the Church responded by filing a lawsuit (14 to date), while noting that “every time we deal with radical Islam, we have a problem and we get indignant or violent reactions.” While the editor included the qualifier “radical,” the implication is all too familiar: “Islam” is more violent and less rational than “Christianity.”

This got me thinking about a point made by J.Z. Smith in his essay “A Matter of Class,” where he argues that “Islamic fundamentalism” is perhaps better read as a “nativistic movement” inasmuch as this calls for a different set of comparisons than the generic term “fundamentalism.” Smith’s argument is meant to highlight the dual-tasks of comparison and criticism as complementary enterprises whenever we go about theorizing religion. For Smith, our focus should be on specific “populations”–borrowing a term from biology–as hybrid formations of specific genera (i.e., different “religions”), rather than assuming that there is some unified “species.” Among other things, this avoids the fallacy that there is something called “radical Islam” (or “Islam,” for that matter) that exists as a first-order category, and shifts the burden toward local manifestations of a particular ideological formation (e.g., conservative Salafi groups in Cairo) that draw upon “religious” discourses (e.g., blasphemy) in a specific context (e.g., post-Mubarak Egypt).

The question I am asking here is as follows: how useful is it to re-describe religion by starting with local populations in order to show how they relate to the discourses of a specific genera (e.g., Islam)? What problems might this avoid and what does it accomplish?

What Have the Mayans got to do with it? Some Reflections on the Apocalypse

* This post originally appear in the Bulletin for the Study of Religion

by Matt Sheedy

According to the Mesoamerican long count calendar, which has been closely associated with the Maya civilization, the end of the fourth world or conclusion of a b’ak’tun(roughly 5,125 years) will take place today, on December 21, 2012. Among the most popular contemporary interpretations of this phenomenon is that it marks either a period of renewal or apocalyptic disaster. That I have chosen to include the word “apocalypse” in the title of this post no doubt indicates which of these two options that I find most interesting.

While I am not a scholar of the Maya civilization nor an authority on the Popol Vuh, one does not need to be an expert to generalize about the social interests involved in the cosmology of this or any other group. As Burton Mack observes in his book Myth and the Christian Nation, whether we are talking about the Aranda, the Amerindians or the Japanese, such stories are not really “creation myths,” (or myths of renewal) as if these were the best these groups “could do to explain how the universe came into being.”

They are stories that create an imaginary beginning of a world in which the people, their activities, their predecessors, and their land can all come together in a set of relations appropriate for their place on earth… The events recounted are imagined far enough in the distant past so as not to get in the way of the work at hand, but enveloping enough to count on being understood when used as metaphors or reminders when talking about their projects among themselves and telling others who they are… (57)

In short, such cosmologies were created in the interests of those involved. More interesting than this, however, is how the persistence of such myths often reflect the interests of other groups and individuals that, while not necessarily a part of or even supportive of the tradition in question, will nonetheless draw upon it as a discourse in the construction of society. This recalls a further point by Mack, when he writes,

Myths and rituals are not only generated by social interests, they are the ways in which social interests continue to be shaped, criticized, thought about, and argued over in the ongoing maintenance of a society. (81)

To consider one such example, the opening lines to an article in the LA Times from September 17, 2011, reads as follows:

The ancient Maya calendar ends Dec. 21, 2012, and Hollywood has wasted no time portraying the coming date as the trigger of a worldwide cataclysm.

But in Mexico, where drug violence has hobbled the nation’s $70-billion tourism industry, government leaders hope to counter Tinseltown’s doomsday scenario by promoting 2012 as the year of the tourist.

Here we find an instance of how the same myth is drawn upon differently and, not surprisingly, in the interests of those concerned. In the case of Hollywood, sensation is a box-office virtue, as seen, for example, with the 2009 film 2012, which grossed $770 million worldwide, making it one of the biggest hits of the year. As an interesting side-note, the release of the film was preceded by a “viral marketing” campaign where the fictional “Institute for Human Continuity” offered advice on preparing for the end of the world, prompting thousands of people to contact NASA in concern.

In the case of Mexico, Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, chief official with the Mexican tourism board, noted that, “Our interpretation of the Mayan calendar is reverse to what many people speculate,” while adding that, “Our focus will be on growth and prosperity instead of the end of the world.” In an article appearing in the Hindustan Times on December 21, 2011, another Mexican tourism spokesperson, Yeanet Zaldo, also drew upon this narrative of prosperity and renewal when she stated, “The world will not end. It is an era,” while noting that, “For us, it is a message of hope.” Here we find, not surprisingly, that tourist revenues and a desire to counter the pervasive effects of drug violence, guide some of the ways in which the 2012 phenomenon is taken-up within Mexican society.

What I find most interesting about the myriad stories surrounding the 2012 phenomenon is how little most of them have to do with the Maya themselves, but instead serve as a symbolic discourse for a variety of social interests, including political and religious groups, as well as a more latent and diffuse sign of the many uncertainties–environmental, financial, existential, etc.–that are pervasive within the social world.

In the case of NASA, for example, their “Ask an Astrobiologist” website has received over 5000 questions since 2007, with some people even asking if they should end their own lives and those of their children prior to 21/12/12. And while NASA’s response to these fears has been painfully obvious to some and occasionally annoying to others, it is worth considering how their social interests include not only maintaining their legitimacy as a scientific institution, but also in serving to respond to genuine public concerns and allay fears given their own field expertise in relation to the phenomenon in question.

Similarly, in Russia the Minister of Emergency Situations had to declare that their would be no apocalypse on 21/12/12 in light of an upsurge of unrest in relation to the phenomenon, while the state of Michigan closed 33 schools starting December 20, in fear that potential hysteria surrounding the event might trigger a desperate response similar to the tragedy in Newtwon, CT, from the previous week.

While “New Age,” “esoteric,” and “mystic” interest in the phenomenon has also garnered a fair bit of press, perhaps most notably at the Pic de Burgarach, a uniquely shaped mountain in the French village of Burgarach, which has served as a focal point for such groups, one important task for scholars of religion, in contrast to the fear-allaying efforts of various institutions, is to expand the conversation surrounding the 2012 phenomenon toward questions of how symbolic events such as this can tell us much about the social interests of the various groups that take up this discourse and, perhaps more importantly, about our own fragile human condition.

It is a curious fact indeed that a group such as the Maya, who otherwise hold little power or credibility within the broader social imagination, could capture so much interest–however complex and contradictory–around the world for so long. It is no coincidence, despite protests to the contrary from Mayan scholars and Mayan people themselves, that the narrative of apocalypse seems to have trumped that of renewal within the popular imagination. Beyond what I take to be the typical public response to the 2012 phenomenon of either irrational fear or, more commonly in my experience, sarcasm or playful humour, the bigger question that we should be asking is why this non-event that most “rational” people did not take seriously, has nevertheless captured our attention? The reasons are no doubt many and complex, though one that sticks out to my mind is how such a grand non-event, unlike more real and socially divisive phenomenon such as climate change, can serve as a conduit to express our fears and uncertainties in a very unstable world. Much like zombies and vampires, which are linked to such apocalyptic narratives as the 2012 phenomenon, the realm of fantasy provides us just enough safe space to revel in the idea without having to confront the spectre of the underlying reality that it reveals.

Less Love, More Theory: On Combating Islamophobia

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* This post originally appear in Bulletin for the Study of Religion

by Matt Sheedy

A popular video on Youtube has been doing the rounds lately, featuring a man singing the Beatles song “All you need is Love” in the face of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who was in Times Square giving a staged speech denouncing Islam. As the crowd joins the man in a sing-along the viewer is left with a clear and simple message—all you need is love to conquer hate. While there is do doubt a collective pleasure here in creatively showing-up a bigot, which can also have the effect of delegitimizing hate speech, if we take the message literally or consider how it is tied to notions of tolerating people who are “other” than ourselves, what exactly, we might ask, can a vague concept such as “love” accomplish in combating Islamophobia?

The murder of Indian-American Sunando Sen on December 27, 2012, who was pushed in the path of an on-coming subway train in New York City, has drawn particular attention for the shockingly candid confession of the culprit Erika Menendez, who told detectives,

I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims… Ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers, I’ve been beating them up.

In a commentary appearing in Salon, writer Wajahat Ali notes the irony that Sen was not even a Muslim, a sentiment aptly captured in the title of his piece “Death by brown skin.” Ali also perceptively notes,

An unbalanced, paranoid mind marinated in our oversaturated Islamophobic environment is numb to such cultural specifics and susceptible to conflate anyone appearing “Muslimy” as the “enemy.”

Ali’s article goes on to cite instances of this “oversaturated Islamophobic environment,” focusing his attention on the group Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), whose anti-Muslim ads appear in the same New York subway station where Sen was pushed to his death. He also notes, among other things, how SIOA, along with co-founder Robert Spencer’s blog “Jihad Watch” was mentioned repeatedly in Anders Behring Breivik’s anti-Muslim manifesto and how the group’s other co-founder Pamela Geller orchestrated the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” debate.

While I agree with Ali’s injunction that we must marginalize these voices much like the disempowering of the KKK, he never really addresses what I took to be his most important point–namely, the issue of how the “cultural specifics” of people’s identities are routinely erased and where people of the AMEMSA (Arab Middle Eastern Muslim South Asian) communities are often lumped together in the Western imagination.

However well intentioned those singing in the face of pastor Jones may have been and however important it is to marginalize such groups as the SIOA, combatting Islamophobia will remain an uphill battle, with instances of hate crimes against “Muslims” continuing to rise in the US and around the world, in the absence of critical reflection on the complex interplay between such things as religion, culture, gender and ethnicity.

As Steven Ramey puts it in his post on the August 2012 mass shooting at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin,

Assumptions of homogeneity fuel both respect and hate, as those who attack an other because of the other’s religious, ethnic, racial, sexual, or national identification (among others types of identity labels) assume that the members maintain the same attitudes and actions…

The main problem for Ramey is that such homogenizations, whether positive or negative, allow us to emphasize those things that we want to highlight (e.g., most Muslims are peaceful) while downplaying the complexity of how religious identities are always taken-up differently and selectively by groups and individuals, and are variously drawn-upon, modified and blended with elements found in the social world (e.g., ethnic conflicts, social class, gender, etc.).

While grappling with these distinctions remains an important task for scholars of religion, which is one way that we can contribute to debates beyond the walls of the academy, we don’t really (to my knowledge) have a clear and digestible way of relating these complex interrelations to others, especially when it comes to addressing dominant narratives in the public sphere.

As long as Islam is presented as homogenous, it will remain susceptible to crass characterizations and racist associations that help to lend cover and legitimacy to things like “the war on terror” and, in this context of fear and reprisals, to the continued conflation of all things that appear “Muslimy.” With such a tall order at hand what we need is more than love, we need theory.

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