Religion, Security and Violence in Global ContextsSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Religion, security and violence may be the keywords of a new cultural formation emerging from recent terrorist attacks in America. These keywords work together to produce new certainties and convictions, but they also generate some profound and unsettling questions about the university's place in the world and about the definition of America. For the university to assure its place in the world, it must help assure an America that finds freedom indispensable to responsibility. Open and reasoned discussion of religion, security and violence in global contexts is central to that mission.
Grief and Solidarity
The sudden and deliberate attacks on September 11 shook Americans like nothing else since that day of infamy in 1941. The count of 2001's victims numbs our minds; their obituaries, steadily published for weeks afterward, make us grieve many times over. The variety of their life stories makes the violence seem even more horrific, for these stories show us that this was not only an attack on America. It was also an assault on humanity, leaving families and friends, communities, and nations around the world in extraordinary pain. There are no easy words to convey our collective distress, but there are many acts of individual solidarity that help the victims, the heroes and their kin—the donations of blood, the flow of money, the benefit concerts, the memorial observances. Within the University of Michigan, there have been exceptional efforts undertaken to support grieving students, staff and faculty, and to extend that compassion virtually. Around what, however, do these individual acts stand united?
The most obvious solidarity to emerge from the crisis is based on the nation and its values. The American flag flies more visibly than before, and its colors adorn jerseys and picture windows. There is much to celebrate in this affirmation, but it can also entail hurtful oversights. For example, on September 13 President Bush called Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani to offer condolences for the citizens of New York. The United Nations' memorial service on November 11 helped to remind us that this was not only a loss for America. New York has been one of the world's leading global cities, and the World Trade Center symbolized its open embrace of that role. In the wake of September 11, however, we risk having to count that very openness among the victims of terror. But that loss depends on the kind of collective solidarity we invoke.
Many would find America's national solidarity, American patriotism, to be a more than adequate response to the attack. In comparison to other nations, America's identity is relatively open. It has international roots because it is a nation of immigrants from around the world. Its citizenship is not based on a particular people's bloodline or religious conviction but on a certain sense of rights and duties, including knowledge of and reverence for a constitution that secures life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the "unalienable rights" declared with American independence. This nation's solidarity might even be seen as synonymous with freedom's general defense. But the conditions, mentalities and anxieties of war issue three particular challenges to these simple associations. Their address through open and respectful discussion may be one of the most critical contributions universities can make to the defense of freedom.
1) America's defense of freedom depends on how it assures rights within America.
In the first days after the attacks, many recalled America's past violations of its commitment to freedom, notably in the detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II. By contrast, the vigorous affirmation of the nation's diversity, most dramatically in the noontime ceremony at the National Cathedral on September 14, suggests an explicit embrace of the nation's many cultures, races and faiths. Threats to the citizenry's civil rights come either in more subtle forms—extended state powers of surveillance, for example—and in threats mobilized within civil society itself: in racist violence against Muslims and others visually associated with terrorism's perceived homeland. Assuring civil rights for American citizens is even more precious in times of national stress and is an indication of America's first defense of freedom. But what of the rights of those who are not American citizens, but who are America's guests in work and study?
In an era of globalization, is it enough to construe the defense of freedom in terms of civil or citizens' rights? At the end of October, it was reported that over 1,000 visitors were being held in custody while their putative links to terrorism were investigated. Some questioned whether the detainees' rights were being respected, while others argued that these detentions were a small price to pay for increased security. Concerns for security have also prompted discussions on the issuance of visas and their oversight. Many of those concerns are reasonable, but some fail to recognize the value of inviting the world to America.
Our universities are made better to the extent that the world's brightest students identify our campuses as the best site for their learning. America benefits, too, for students from abroad can return to their homelands with a better understanding of American values and learning and help build those bridges that tie the fates of America and the world together.
2) America's defense of freedom is difficult to reconcile with some of its international alliances.
Some makers of foreign policy are quick to assert that one must work pragmatically and that principles are a luxury of those without responsibility for national security. It is not always clear, however, what is pragmatic and what is principled, and what is shortsighted and what is visionary. For example, the foreign policy of the Clinton administration after the Cold War was demonstrably connected to the cultivation of civil society abroad. By contrast, the Bush administration found little initial value in such an approach to foreign policy, deriding "nation building" as a project unfit for America. As the Bush administration anticipates a postwar Afghanistan, however, the value of a more multidimensional approach to foreign policy becomes apparent. This becomes especially important given the character of international alliances.
States once held at arm's length for their violations of human rights are now America's allies in the war against terrorism. Of course, America has not always picked its allies on the basis of their commitments to freedom. World War II certainly illustrates why some wars demand compromise around principles. But during World War II, principles may have been less strategically important. The Allies were united against a clearly defined Axis whose command and control, and whose territorial ambitions, were apparent. The parameters in this war against terrorism are not so clear.
Madeleine Albright has suggested that one could call this conflict a war of the civilized against the brutes , but there may be too many brutes around to secure a stable alliance in the good war. The very multiplicity of terrorisms threatens the coherence of even the most single-minded foreign policy. Can America turn a blind eye to terrorism in Kashmir or Sri Lanka when the struggle against Al Qaida and the Taliban is defined by a multilateral quest for global security against terrorism? Ultimately, will America's quiet acceptance of some violations of human rights and terrorisms for the sake of combating other violations of world order undermine its capacity to be associated with the defense of freedom worldwide?
Under these circumstances, America's association with freedom depends on having its tradeoffs in foreign policy openly and critically engaged. America's universities are one of the best sites for assuring rigorous and reasonable discussion of very complicated issues, especially when their interrogation demands examination across global contexts.
3) America's defense of freedom is deeply challenged by ignorance of Islam.
The declared religious identification of the terrorists of September 11 has generated a much broader interest about Islam in America. There have been relatively extensive discussions of Islamic theology and practices, in all their varieties across a broad geographical range and numerous national affinities. Too many Americans have been surprised to learn that not all Arabs are Muslim and that not all Muslims are Arab. Islam's broad appeal across Asia, Africa and Europe, and its dynamic presence within the U.S.A., makes the depth of American ignorance even more disturbing.
That, in turn, points to America's generally poor preparation for engaging the challenge of religious diversity per se. In the engagement of gender, ethnic and racial diversity, one can presume America's civil religion  as a reasonably common ground. One can rely on the rituals and sanctities of secular institutions within a nation state to provide a meaningful framework for most concerns while allowing those who choose to lead a less secular life the space to do it. When diversity's challenge is embedded in ignorance of a world religion that lies beyond familiar reach, the presumptions and problems of American civil religion cannot be overlooked.
Universities can fulfill their public responsibilities by bringing their intellectual resources to bear on difficult questions, most notably on how Islam in particular, and religion in general, can be understood better within the framework of American civil society.
The University of Michigan has squarely acknowledged many of these challenges, and it has supported events designed to help address them and others. But as both a global and public university, we must do more.
Meeting the Challenge within the University
Universities in general, and the University of Michigan in particular, are homes to a great diversity of students, staff and faculty committed to open inquiry and exchange. Ideally, if not always perfectly, the cultures of universities foster the commitment to freedom around which we might stand united. To the extent that we provide security on campus for reasoned discussion to take place, especially discussion of difficult subjects like terrorism and its aftermath, we not only fulfill our educational mission, but also contribute enormously to America's defense of freedom.
Freedom must also be linked to responsibility, especially in such difficult times. To be sure, we must cherish academic freedom and the right to choose a course of study and research. At the same time, we are obliged to provide a setting in which academic freedom can resonate with the critical issues the nation, and the world, must engage.
Of course universities are not first and foremost policy think tanks for authorities of various political persuasions, nor incubators of social movements aiming to mobilize people to disrupt routines in order to stage alternative agendas. Universities are places for reasoned engagements of deep and enduring questions in an atmosphere of freedom and security. Policies must be understood, and social movements are part of our campus life. But they come second to the assurance of free discussion, especially in an atmosphere of impassioned differences of view. Assuring the conditions for freedom of discussion is fundamental to the university's mission, all the more so when we discuss issues that are being aired in other spaces less committed to open inquiry and more disposed to mobilize convictions unhampered by doubt.
In keeping with this mission, the International Institute is sponsoring an initiative on Religion, Security and Violence in Global Contexts. We invite our colleagues across the university to collaborate with the International Institute in this effort, and we offer herewith some thoughts about possible directions.
Islam in Public Culture
American scholarship is conflicted over how to study identities. On the one hand, we have increasingly privileged inquiries initiated by those identified with communities of study, e.g. in African American studies, Jewish studies, or women's studies. On the other hand, studies of distant regions have relied more on outsiders. A growing number of intellectuals in diaspora study their old worlds, but area studies has from the start also been associated with those whose upbringing is beyond the given region's common sense. By combining scholars who are both diaspora and stranger in a common language with colleagues who remain within the region, area studies has served as a critical interlocutor among variously imagined communities. But it also makes the political responsibility of intellectuals more difficult to articulate. To what political community is this scholarship allied? What identity privileges the articulation of political responsibility, especially when intellectual freedom is constrained in some places more than others?
Islamic studies operate somewhere in between these gross caricatures of scholarship organized around "insiders" and "outsiders" given the growing number of Muslim Americans and the growing interest in Islamic practice abroad, as a necessary factor in understanding the Middle East, North Africa, and Central, South and Southeast Asia. Even more than a region or an identity, it is also fatally easy to portray Islam (or any world religion) in terms that serve more as prologue to action than as a space for reflection. As my colleague Alexander Knysh cautioned me recently,
Is Islam a doctrine, personal faith, a way of life, a source of allegiance, a political theory, an instrument of mass mobilization, an artistic tradition, a civilization, or an institution? Is it all this and much more? I think that one way to get a handle on this definition problem is to see Islam as a rich and vibrant discursive formation that is constantly being re-interpreted, re-imagined, re-appropriated, and re-adjusted by its followers in response to various real or perceived challenges they face as human beings and members of their societies…. Islam is the sum total of interpretations offered by its followers in a given epoch.
I would only add that those beyond Islam are also helping to define it. At the very least those outside Islam (and here we might think of the American government which includes no Muslims in prominent political positions) shape the conditions under which Muslims define their religion. American
Universities can help constitute a public culture in which broader and better-informed discussions of Islam, involving different degrees of insider and outsider, are cultivated. There is growing debate today about the political responsibility of intellectuals in and around Islam , but the gap between broader public sensibilities and debates among specialists is considerable. An atmosphere motivated by wartime anxieties makes mobilization, more than reasoned discussion, paramount in the public sphere. Most profoundly, America's civil religion shapes discussion in ways that might limit, more than open, paths to understanding Islam. With their commitment to freedom and open discussion, universities can help enhance this reasoned engagement by educating a wider audience about Islam and by providing a space to explore Islam's association with public culture within the United States and beyond.
Through this initiative, therefore, we shall develop a series of courses, public presentations and focused workshops that reconsider Islam in public life. We shall also invite a variety of prominent Islamic scholars and public figures to help us rethink violence and security within America and across the world in the wake of September 11.
More attentive consideration of Islam cannot meet our need to examine directly issues of security from terror, however. And we certainly cannot begin to understand the present terrorism without putting it into broader comparative and historical perspective and into a deeper consideration of violence.
One of the greatest limitations on our capacity to understand what has happened is our extremely selective engagement of the world's public spheres. We may depend on the New York Times, CNN or National Public Radio for our news, but most of the world relies on very different media for their understanding of the attacks and their aftermath. Fortunately, we have a wide array of faculty and students who are regularly reading, and contributing to, the global discussion. We shall organize sessions in which these scholars, variously engaged across the world, characterize different national public discussions, and how they resemble and diverge from American discussions. We shall post these commentaries on the web, with links to alternative world media.
Second, in order that we have a broader sense of how security from terrorism has been variously reconciled with the defense of freedom, we shall invite scholars from the University of Michigan and beyond to consider how other states have addressed their own terrorist threats. By considering these particular cases alongside the attacks of September 11 and their aftermath, we seek to put the latter into a broader, more nearly global perspective. And with these empirical cases at hand, we might also be better prepared to address violence more critically.
After the lessons on Islam and geographies of military alliance in Central Asia, it appears that violence is on the agenda. Hate crimes within America, from the misdemeanor to the felony, and sanctions' effects on Iraq's children are part of the cultural repertoire for those who find the first struggle for freedom to be within America. By contrast, the September 11 attacks give weight to those who wish to skewer "moral relativism" as a sign of intellectual and political sophistry. In both cases, however, violence functions more as an anchor with which to demonstrate conviction than as an object of critical reflection itself.
This is readily apparent for those who have understood violence as the exception to the global order rather than its rule. Focus on institutional design, organizational rationality, and the regulation of flows and exchange has been the principal concern of those who would remake the world in the stream of globalization. Terrorists are understood as evil, as a thing apart, something foreign to the healthy body. Conviction, not doubt, needs to rule. For those who animate terrorism as well as for those who see little moral distinction between the innocents killed by terrorists and the innocents killed by internationally sanctioned states, violence is not exceptional at all. It is embedded in the organization of states and the inequalities that rule. It may be apparent in the sacrilege of crusaders in the holy lands, or in more secular states, in hate crimes against women who cover. But this omnipresence of violence also limits our critical engagement of September 11. To diminish its distinction is to miss its power in redefining the world.
In order for global security to be realized more effectively, the qualities of violence need to be addressed more critically. Whether as a sign of evil or as a symptom of systemic injustice, the violence of September 11 needs to be understood not only analytically, but also normatively. It needs to be understood within the system of legitimacies accorded states and through the various intellectual and political movements animating them. But it also needs to be understood in religious terms. This is true for theocratic polities and for those secular states whose civil religions shape ethical insight and action, and the design of globalization itself. Globalization has moved ahead with markets and freedom as its watchwords, but its root theologies and understandings of violence have not always been so apparent in its teleology or design. Now it cannot be overlooked, for globalization's articulation with Islam, security and violence may come to define the world, and the principal challenge for universities in their exercise of freedom and responsibility.
We are far from fully understanding terrorism's effects, be they noble solidarities, unstable associations or dangerous insecurities. However, we can recognize what we need to preserve and to extend.
Solidarity in and around America is potentially both a great accomplishment and a considerable danger. To the extent that America's solidarity is organized around the defense of freedom, not only for its citizens but also for its guests and for other peoples around the world, such mobilization can become a great thing. To the extent that American solidarity diminishes the values for which it stands united, and provokes a single-minded pursuit of enemies wherever they are perceived, the resonance of America with freedom will ring hollow both at home and abroad. In the long term, freedom and security reinforce one another. The challenge is to address that balance in the short term without losing sight of freedom's value in the quest for security's immediate assurance.
University communities must therefore stand united in the defense of freedom and security combined, in the assurance of open learning and scholarship. Universities must also use that freedom to pose the most difficult questions a nation and a world in pain must consider and to assemble the resources needed to address them. As a start, I have proposed a threefold focus for the International Institute—on Islam in public culture, on the various ways in which authorities across the world and over time have addressed terrorism, and on the ways in which violence might be centered in our research and scholarship. By drawing on the international diversity of our University, we can simultaneously demonstrate the incredible value of bringing the world to a home that prizes freedom. By exploring these critical issues in a way that extends both learning on campus and learning across global publics, the University can demonstrate the power of reasoned discussion to foster both freedom and security. And by supporting the University's openness to ideas and to people from across the world, America can demonstrate its association with freedom not only for its citizens, but also the principles for which they stand.
November 12, 2001
This text follows many discussions within the International Institute, and I am grateful to all my colleagues who have contributed to its making. They are, of course, not responsible for its limitations. This essay is not intended as a final word. It is designed to stimulate further reflections and discussion. I certainly anticipate learning a great deal from the activities to be conducted under this initiative.
For example, see website http://www.bus.umich.edu/leading/index.html for essays by U-M business and psychology faculty that provide guidance on how to assure compassion and continuity in organizations.
Consider, for instance, the recent contributions of Salman Rushdie, "Yes this is about Islam," New York Times, 2 Nov. 2001; Akbar Ahmed and Lawrence Rosen, "Islam, Academe, and Freedom of the Mind," Chronicle of Higher Education, 2 Nov. 2001; and the debates around Martin Kramer's book, Ivory Towers on Sand (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001).