Responsibility in Crisis: Knowledge Politics and Global Publics

Communities of Faith

44-Cohen: Do we recognize that we are within an era in which the idea and the facility to speak about the faith of others have essentially been naturalized? While religious institutions and communities developed around a virtually entire self-referentiality, and while the frames of understanding and reproducing religious thought and practice rested largely on their internally derived diagrams, we now have access to, or are inundated by, frames of understanding that derive strongly from an externally constructed gaze.

44a-Kennedy: During the U-M symposium organized around this position paper and the commentaries on it, Donald Lopez offered a similar observation to David's, but with a more critical tone. First, he argued that the very notion of religion was itself constructed through the knowledge systems associated with modernity, which our text faithfully reproduces. The very emphasis on "faith" indicates its modern, and Western, roots, and its inadequacy as a vehicle for considering religion's historical formation. Religion has been deeply implicated in the recognition and development of other markers of distinction among peoples, in language, race, and nation, formed around European expansion, and thus is hardly a subject easily separated from larger histories, Lopez observed, to which he added the following point. FaithPage  99 is the "pivot" around which Christians tell their own story, and "belief" is the successor concept that many social scientists and comparative religionists invoke to develop its science, which in turn became the way in which non-Christians tell their own tale. It may not, however, be the best method with which to understand these religions; indeed, religion should not be explored, he argued, independently of race, language or world history itself. To do so, he suggested, is to "prolong a legacy of colonialism."

I find the way this paper weaves in and out of colonialism's embrace to be one of its most productive problems. To question the arrogance of the North American university's presumption to be a university of the world is perhaps the most familiar charge of recurrent imperialism. To raise the specter of religion's elevation in the public university would not have appeared to me, initially, as the reinstatement of that imperial presumption, but rather a means to make more explicit the hidden arrogance of a secular world power denying its religious particularity. In order to mark that distinction, we invoked a language of difference that is, itself, embedded in a modernity formed through empires. Embedded in publics as that language has become, it becomes important to consider how we might escape the tyranny of faith or belief in religion's definition, while at the same time refiguring its place in the explanation of how power and culture work across the world.

45-Cohen: There are significant asymmetries among the ways different religious communities enter the university's academic life. At the University of Michigan, one can see something of a continuum, from the situation of a well established, internally unfolding strength in Buddhist studies, to the externally supported growth of Sikh and Hindu studies as well as Jewish studies. Some of the increasing attention to religious studies as an academic field rests in the growing demand from students; some from specific developments within the disciplines: anthropology, history, literature, philosophy, and sociology. And perhaps some attention develops out of the momentary interest in Islam as a challenge to certain U.S. values and interests in the world as well as the U.S.'s design as an immigrant and multicultural society.

46-Cohen: One can ask how the present focus on Islamic fundamentalism will bring understanding of the simultaneity of the evident growth of fundamentalism within most of the world's religions.

47-Cohen: Michael M. J. Fischer and Mehdi Abedi have offered a framePage  100 of reference to the complexities of discourses on faith with reference to Iran. See their Debating Muslims:Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990).

48-Kennedy: It is difficult to imagine a responsible university address of the world that does not now seriously extend its engagement with the worlds of Islam, not only in terms of its theologies, cultures and histories, but also their articulation with politics, society, economy, and the professions, not only within the Middle East, but across Asia, Africa, Europe and America. But this is complicated for it involves not only the study of other religions but also questioning the secular or religious assumptions that make up the university and its environment. One university's approach to this challenge was debated vigorously in the U.S. public during our workshop.

There was certainly considerable good will behind the University of North Carolina's August 2002 requirement that 3500 freshmen read Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999) before they begin their studies in Chapel Hill. The book contained 35 suras from the Qur'an elaborated with commentary by the author. The Carolina Reading Program offered this explanation for the selection of its book:

Westerners for centuries have been alternately puzzled, attracted, concerned, and curious about the great religious traditions of Islam. These feelings have been especially intense since the tragic events of September 11. Approaching the Qur'án is not a political document in any sense, and its evocation of moral "reckoning" raises questions that will be timely for college students and reflective adults under any circumstances. The Carolina Summer Reading program is especially happy to offer a book of enduring interest this year that also offers the Carolina community an appropriate introduction to the literature and culture of a profound moral and spiritual tradition that many of us now wish to learn more about. [49]

Some Christian groups found this to be unfair to their young faithful. Three students and a couple organizations filed a lawsuit arguing that this violated the separation of church and state because it required students at aPage  101 state-run university to read a religious text. The character of the religion has something to do with it, however. Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network, said in a USA Today editorial that UNC fails to maintain "neutrality" toward religion, as required by another Supreme Court decision, Rosenberger vs. University of Virginia. By forcing students to read a single text about Islam that leaves out any mention of other passages of the Koran in which Muslim terrorists find justification for killing non-Muslims, the university establishes a particular mind-set for its students about the nature of Islam. This constitutes religious indoctrination forbidden by the Supreme Court. [50]

Even in thoughtful defense, however, the difficulty of Islam's place in secular/Christian America is evident. Defending their choice, the university's chancellor, James Moeser, emphasized that this reading assignment was not advocating Islam any more than teaching about the Iliad advocated ancient Greek religion. [51] To treat the Qur'an/Islam as equivalent to the Iliad/Greek mythology is hardly the respect the Muslim faithful would hope. But then the faith that mobilizes the movement to keep church and state separate, in this instance at least, is one that also finds Islam's claims to peace doubtful. Although the case against Carolina is now moot, the war of words against Islam by certain Christian conservatives continues. Jerry Falwell in the CBS news program 60 minutes, broadcast on October 6, 2002, says "I think Muhammed was a terrorist.... A man of violence, a man of war". [52]

September 11 and its aftermath have certainly made the religious pluralism Diana Eck sought to elaborate [53] more important than ever, but it has also provided more challenging barriers to its cultivation than one could have previously imagined.

49-Kennedy: During our workshop, David suggested that this new attention to Islam and comparative religions in the academy may be akin to other surges of interest in particular international topics, from the relatively enduring concern for communism's threat to the shorter but intense fascination with the Japanese economic miracle and the never preeminent but relatively significant investment in understanding the AIDS crisis across the world and especially in Africa. I disagreed vehemently, but I was later surprised by the intensity of my reaction.

Having been deeply involved in the first subject, and having watched from a distance the others, I resented the comparison. To be sure, communism,Page  102 like the fundamentalist Islam described by Daniel Pipes, [54] could fuel a new national security—inflected academic project. To be sure, money could flow into university coffers to study Islam much like the Japanese and the private sector fueled the study of Japan in the 1980s. To be sure, studying AIDS or human rights might be a matter of (inter)national security and the inherent dignity of humanity, much as Islam can be figured as the object of security's study and another form of sanctity. But this seems different for several reasons.

First, the challenge of different political projects is embedded in a common modernity; the challenge of different religiosities is embedded not only in modernity but a deeper history and sensibility that potentially denies even the world as a primary reference. In this sense, the challenge of difference, or even discovering commonality, requires a depth of understanding that the contest with communism did not.

Second, while money fuels academic projects, the engagement with religious difference will be motivated additionally by a resource that is not simply understood. For example, when one considers the "resources" typically studied in the study of social movements, one looks to people, money, and power. [55] Faith, even more than loyalty to the nation, is not, I would propose, easily embedded in a resource mobilization model for understanding social movements or university projects. It's especially challenging in this case because it is not only the faith of the devout, but of their opponents, which may also shape the priorities of university engagements.

Third, the sanctity involved with the study of AIDS or human rights can be based on universalisms associated with secular assumptions and modernity's project. It can, then, be appropriated into various knowledge projects, whether in the health sciences, law schools, and the social sciences associated with them. The challenge of religiosity cannot be so easily commandeered either by modernity or its knowledge systems. This ambiguity makes this particular challenge seem particularly hard to contain with analogies.

The challenge of religiosity may indeed have the same shelf life in the American academy as other major issues in international affairs. But to the extent that it does, it will only reflect the academy's incapacity to recognize the gravity of the challenge.

50-Gebert: For the believer any event can be religious, but for the non-believer none can, and 9/11 obviously has not changed that. For the believersPage  103 9/11 repeats the fundamental challenge to belief that radical evil always poses, strengthening the faith of some and undermining or destroying that of others; non-believers can but marvel at that. And yet we know that for some, 9/11 has opened the possibility of faith.

But the perpetrators of 9/11 were, by all accounts, religious people, their motivation one of faith. This poses a different, though also not new challenge to all believers, whether of the perpetrators' religion or not: how is it possible that radical evil can be committed in the name of good? Many will take the easy way out, stating that theirs was a perversion of religion, a denial of its true message. This might be true, but this denial has been nurtured in the womb of the faith. And it would be foolish to believe this is a problem for Islam alone.

The death of the victims of 9/11 will then, or not, be a religious event, depending on the religiosity, or lack of it, of the survivors another paradox well deserving investigation. But their murder remains a religious event, because of the religious motivation invoked by the perpetrators. And since even non-believers consider religious motivation "lofty," this poses a more general quandary for believer and non-believer alike. To wit: was their act vile and base, or—as Susan Sontag had had the courage to say—in fact an act of bravery, for they had sacrificed their lives for something they believe in?

Although religions vary in their attitudes toward pursuing martyrdom: from supportive (Catholicism) to mistrustful (Judaism), they all agree that life is a gift from God, belongs to Him, and can be taken back only by Him when He so chooses. It takes great trust in the necessity of the act to return His gift at one's own discretion. And it does not help if one posits that it is in fact God who acts, by giving would-be martyrs their courage. A world in which He abolishes free will at will is one in which no consistent faith or morality is possible. There are reasons to expect He has not gladly accepted their sacrifice.

Be that as it may, the sacrifice was not of their lives alone. The perpetrators had chosen to sacrifice three thousand people at the altar of their hubris. This murder voids their self-immolation of any moral or religious meaning. Murderers who vilely strike the unsuspecting and defenseless innocent are just that—vile. Their claims to moral or religious motivation are thus rendered void.

If 9/11 were a religious event, it was that only in the sense of reminding all of us that religion is neither a private affair, nor necessarily a force for the good only.