9/11 and the Question of Religion

Essays, Justice, The Politics of Scripture

The attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon threw the debates over the definition of “religion” into a stir. Though religion was obviously a central factor in the events of 9/11, overly phenomenological and essentialist construals of religion were suddenly and starkly at a loss in making sense of how and why.

This is the second article in the series, ‘Ten Years After 9/11,’ which is also the theme of Political Theology 12.5.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon threw the debates over the definition of “religion” into a stir.  Though religion was obviously a central factor in the events of 9/11, overly phenomenological and essentialist construals of religion were suddenly and starkly at a loss in making sense of how and why. The image of the planes crashing into the towers, with its rhetorical power gone visually viral on the internet and the cascade of global consequences, is inexplicable through the category “religion” if that theoretical lens is ground by Rudolf Otto. Religion understood as a private, sui generis experience of the numinous leaves the investigator of contemporary religion-related violence stumped. If theoretically pre-shrunk and “reduced” to a subjective experience of the Sacred, the depth and breadth of domain called “religion” is simply too narrow and shallow for the onlooker to even begin to address this event in its religious contexts; and surely, this event requires analysis of how and why religion plays a central role. Simply, 9/11 outstrips the categories and theoretical tools and has served as a catalyst for an ongoing paradigm shift in the way many people, scholars and non-scholars, go about thinking about religion as it instantiated in the world. A result of the events September 11, the field of religious studies has seen a complexification of analyses of what constitutes religion in relation to politics, culture, economics, and power. Simultaneously, in the academy and in public discourse, essentialist definitions of religion as a realm pure and unpolluted by the messiness of the world have staying power. Why is this so? In particular, what explains the tenacity of positive essentialist definitions of religion in regards to 9/11, namely, that “al-Qaeda does not represent true Islam” or “9/11 was more about politics than real religion?”

Naturalistic and functionalist definitions of religion have long populated the world of religious studies, but the decade before 9/11 saw an increased attention to critiques of definitions of religion as interior, privately spiritual, and unrelated to the social and political realms. Talal Asad’s 1993 text Geneaologies of Religion (pp. 27-54) was influential in opening a metadiscourse on how phenomenonlogical definitions assumed a trans-historical and trans-cultural essence of religion, founded on a sui generis subjective experience, reduced to belief, impervious to the slings and arrows history and politics. Asad argued that the putative universality of this essence looked identical to the religiosity of the Protestant scholars describing it, and that as a comparative litmus test of what qualifies religion and what does not, it had long served the ends of Western and colonial interests. Along the lines of Asad’s analysis of the ideological agenda of phenomenological language, Russell McCutcheon has argued for strictly naturalistic approach that discounts essentialist definitions and insider descriptions as valid objects of study, seeking rather to historicize and contextualize religion as ostensible and strictly of this world (Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion, 2001). In order to open multiple theoretical vistas on 9/11, scholars such as Ivan Strenski (Why Politics Can’t Be Freed From Religion, 2010) and Bruce Lincoln (Holy Terrors, 2003) start with complex and fluid definitions of religion and have produced nuanced studies of the relationship between religious discourse and the 9/11 terror attacks and the American response of the “war on terror,” and the religious self-perception of the suicide bombers as martyrs and sacrifices.  The events of 9/11 have encouraged multi-disciplinary thinking in religious studies, rather than reductionism, in large measure out of desperation to keep pace with the very real and messy phenomena of religion lived. The thinking is: religion is complex; render religion its due.

Yet one of the ironies of this post-9/11 world is the remaining appeal of essentialist arguments within religious and popular discourses and within academic discourses. We are still faced with the ubiquity of claims that al-Qaeda does not represent true Islam or inversely, that it does, and that what happened on 9/11 was political and not religious. One explanation for this response, well-examined over the last decade, is the rhetorical reversion to dualism that is the first line of battle of apocalyptically minded religious adherents. Bruce Lincoln and Mark Juergensmeyer (Terror in the Mind of God, 2003) among others have offered excellent studies in the propensities for demonizing discourse that is firmly grounded in religious essentialism. Rhetorically, essentialist definitions and arguments always pack a punch; they take an ungrounded assertion and present it as a known inner essence of an object, person or group: Jews are vermin, Islam is a satanic religion, etc.

But not everyone who makes an essentialist argument about 9/11 and religion is attempting to demonize. If we leave the ideologues, fundamentalists, and those choleric of religious temperament out of the picture, the positive essentialist arguments we hear swirling around discussions about 9/11 have a different origin and function. These sound like simplistic claims but to write them off as a matter of people just wanting simple answers is to risk an under-theorized oversimplification. Underlying all such claims, often put forth as given facts, is an assumption regarding the essence of what is holy and what is not. The resistance to complexified definitions of religion, in the academy and public discourse, and the resilience of essentialism perhaps may be explained by Durkheim’s suggestion that the religious imagination seeks to sanctify realms, to separate domains of sacred and profane (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, pp 36-40). According to Durkheim, these domains are ambiguous and objects that constitute them are transient between them. But if the pattern Durkheim noted that we see reflected in the dual meaning of the Latin sanctus (to sanctify, to set apart) and the Hebrew qadash (to separate, to make holy) is as ubiquitous as it appears (what we will say to avoid using the other “u” word), then the essentialist reaction that al-Qaeda is not true Islam or that 9/11 is more about politics than real religion may be explained by the religious desire to retain the purity of the holy object. There is little doubt that essentialist claims about religion can and do serve ideological functions and that they offer the quickest route to evade uncomfortable questions regarding the relationship of politics, power, and religion. Yet if Durkheim is correct, the outright refusal of many to admit the obvious, that al-Qaeda represents a version of Islam and that religion was a central factor in the events of 9/11, is motivated by a powerful revulsion at seeing or imagining that which is sacred defiled by contact with that which is unholy.  For many the category “religion” has taken on the status and function of the Durkheimian churinga, the collectively emblematic holy object that is sanctified through separation from the profane. The visibility and scale of the violence of 9/11 and its evident political context render it squarely, or perhaps viscerally, in the domain of the unholy. When the discussion of 9/11 and religion elicits more than evasion, when it elicits abhorrence, it may be reflecting a religious impulse to maintain an uncluttered and non-complex realm of purity reserved for that designated as holy.  The positive essentialist definition regarding true Islam or real religion demarcates the boundaries in which resides the sacred “object,” keeping it unpolluted and safe from bombardment by terrorists in planes and the unholy mess of the world.

This is the second article in the series, ‘Ten Years After 9/11,’ which is also the theme of Political Theology 12.5.

Tam Parker is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She teaches in the area of social ethics, Jewish and Holocaust Studies. Her current project analyses the relation of genocidal discourses and the building and dismantling of cultures of atrocity.

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