Charlie and Us: Religious Violence and the History of Religions

Picture 3The following guest post is an English translation of the editorial from the current issue of Asdiwal (vol. 9 [2014]), reproduced here with the kind permission of the journal.  It is currently among the very few systematic statements on this topic from within our field and therefore deserves to be read and discussed more widely in North America.

Learn more about this academic periodical in the study of religion, published in Geneva, Switzerland, here.

As we were preparing this edition of Asdiwal (9/2014), the Paris events of January 2015 took place. Journalists of Charlie Hebdo were assassinated by two masked individuals armed with assault rifles because they had insulted the prophet Muhammad, several police officers were killed, and finally, women and men were taken hostages and murdered, because they were Jews, in a Kosher super market near Paris. There is no doubt that these events will have consequences, but these are still difficult to anticipate clearly. For some, war has been declared. But a war against whom, and against what? Faced with violence, many citizens drew together, at first without political or religious aim, to reassert their right to freedom of speech. Soon, we heard other voices, opposing civilization and barbarity, and invoking the necessity to defend the legacy of the Enlightenment against the rise of “Islamo-fascism”; others, no less shocked by these events, emphasized Europe’s apparent incapacity to understand the suffering of the “Other,” and posed the question: “Can we laugh about everything?” Is there not, behind this laughter, a form of condescension, that of a Europe trapped in a vision of the world where she is the center laughing at savages, both within and without, who remain incapable of laughing with her?

What can be, what should be, the position of the Historian of Religions in the face of such events? Can we invoke a lack of critical distance in order to refuse any attempt at interpretation? Would we not be like antiquarians, seeking to understand religious acts and discourses once and for all frozen in history? Are we not also actors of our times?

The Historian of Religions does not have much to say regarding the events of January 7th, 2015 themselves, save to express compassion and sadness. On the other hand, he or she certainly has a duty to reflect, with the expertise that is his or her own, on the ideological and discursive contexts which encompass the events (we leave to economists and psychologists their own contexts). The ideological context appears at first view to be dominated by two discourses, standing in binary opposition, to the great pleasure of Samuel Huntington and his likes: On one hand, a religious ideology, founded upon a superhuman authority whose goal is the establishment of a particular social order, and on the other, another equally ideological discourse, claiming for itself the prestige of the Enlightenment, seeking just as much—notwithstanding the difference of its means—to affirm its own right to “enlighten” the world.

The problem with this binary representation is that it ignores the force field in which this dichotomy is inevitably placed. The journalists of Charlie Hebdo were not racists. Inheritors of an anarchist tradition, radically anticlerical, they attacked all religions, not only Islam. But, it is possible to imagine that this equal treatment, justified through reference to French laïcité (“secularism”), could appear unjust. Indeed, what is the meaning of the ban on bearing religious symbols, when everything from the calendar to the architecture, evokes (another) religion? French laïcité was constructed by and for a society with a very different religious landscape than today’s. This in no way should be taken to mean that Enlightenment principles must be abandoned, but to acknowledge instead that laïcité, both as discourse on religion and as applied in a multicultural society, should not escape our critical examination.

We must not forget that the very notion of laïcité is today instrumentalized by parties on the Far-Right, especially in France, but also over all of Europe. Parties which, driven by the winds of economic crisis and brandishing the threat of the “Islamization” of European societies, have constructed a hermeneutic model which on the surface defends laïcité the better to limit the rights of certain religious groups, especially Muslims, and thus legitimize unequal treatment. This type of narratives invites us to question the “secular” foundations of our societies and their political instrumentalization.

This raises other worthwhile points, especially how to give meaning to acts which some would like to reduce to irrational motives, or in the present case, to the supposedly intrinsically violent nature of a religion, Islam, to its alleged “essence,” fixed once and for all at the time of its origins (two alternatives which reflect the same refusal of interpretation)?

Religions, it must be remembered, all religions are shifting and complex realities, often heterogeneous, sometimes even contradictory, yet always inscribed in their particular historical and sociological contexts. A religion is not defined only by its sacred texts or its tradition of interpretation (even if it is contemporary), but by the actions and discourses of those who claim their affiliation. There is no “true” Islam (violent or tolerant), there are only Muslims. Islam cannot be reduced to a few passages of the Koran, nor can Christianity be reduced to a few passages from the Bible. A religion is only what people make of it, and Islam, as Christianity or Judaism, are primarily plural realities, with porous borders, established (an re-established) through negotiations, sometimes through conflicts between different currents, both internally and externally. It is the Historian of Religions’ task to highlight this complexity; to contextualize it, to analyze it, to interpret it.

In a world where political violence seems increasingly to redefine itself through the lexis of religious identity, the Historian of Religions must question the place religion has assumed in the way we understand the world and human diversity. We must reflect on the way religious narratives (or narratives on religion) are used in service of hatred, discrimination, and violence, whoever the perpetrators. Which discursive processes are used to justify their acts? Within what historical context are they situated? To what should they be compared? Here also, our role is to complicate, not to simplify. It is the Historian of Religions’ task to contextualize the vocabulary which we use when we speak of religion, precisely in order to overcome simplifications.

Freedom of speech and its limits obviously raises a problem which regularly confronts the Historian of Religions. How can we reconcile freedom of speech and respect for believers? Can we place a religion under critical examination without taking into account the sensibility or even the sensitivity of the believers? What is the relationship between the Historian of Religions and his or her object of study? We must undoubtedly position ourselves clearly: the Historian of Religions has no business defending or judging religious utterances. We must describe, compare, explain, criticize, interrogate, without compromise. As Bruce Lincoln wrote: “Deference is a religious virtue, not an academic one. When good manners and good conscience cannot be reconciled, the expectations of the second must prevail over those of the first.” The Historian of Religions does not take a position on the truth-value, or the quality of the statements which she or he critiques (whatever their genres or contents), but on their utilization in contexts, political, historical, and social. We must contextualize, understand power relations, and analyze the political stakes that hide behind a text, a claim, or a religious act. Within this process, the Historian of Religions must embody a critical voice, in the broad sense of the term.

And then there is anti-Semitism. The four victims of the “Hyper-Casher” super-market were not assassinated because they had insulted Islam, but because they were Jews. It is our duty to equally seek to situate this anti-Semitic act within a context, within a history. As Historians of Religions, we must analyze the political, social, and emotional processes through which inter-religious hatred is constructed. But we must also seek to penetrate the deep structures which undergird and perpetuate this sui generis reading of the world, which constructs the Jews in particular (or anyone perceived to be such) not as human beings, but as incarnations of an absolute evil.

It must be remembered, however, that all these questions have long been the object of academic debates, debates which have permitted the refinement of our understanding of these problems. In the aftermath of January 7th, it appears nevertheless that the transmission of these careful academic reflections into the public and political sphere is still far from satisfactory. Today more than ever, Historians of Religions must redouble their efforts at communicating to society at large in order to develop a discourse comprehensible for all yet at the same time without sacrificing complexity to over-simplification. Within this context, it would be dangerous to forego instruction on religions in schools in all European countries, or to limit it to lessons on our “civilization’s values” or on “secular morality”. Training teachers in fundamental concepts of the history of religions and critical reflection on the very concept of religion would increase the number of competent interlocutors in the domain, as well as improve the quality of political debate. Such training, while it exists in a few Swiss Cantons, deserves without a doubt to be further developed in France.

If these recent events have aroused in many of us such strong emotions, it is not because “we” have been struck in our values and our faith in the justice of an established social order, but because Charlie Hebdo has been, since the last decades of the 1960s, fighting on the front lines of a number of battles with which we identify, against social and sexual inequalities, against racism and anti-Semitism, against those who would wish to reduce the issue of immigration to a narrative of civilization, national identity, or religion. We must resist all attempts to associate the events of January 2015 with a binary discourse, “Them” against “Us,” to the detriment of their actual complexity, whether social, political, or historical, which it is our duty to comprehend.

The Editors

Obtain a PDF of the French original here.

(English translation by J. Sargent)