Archive - June 2016

The danger of exporting a post-Orlando, counter-orientalist discourse to the Middle East
How Christians Respond to Persecution: View the Rome Conference
After Orlando: The Culture War Over Islam Continues

The danger of exporting a post-Orlando, counter-orientalist discourse to the Middle East

In The Culture War Over Islam Continues, Daniel Philpott suggests that the interpretive frameworks through which the Orlando tragedy has been read in the US represent a polarization between two reified positions: the “hawk position” which demonizes Muslims and the “dove position” which negates any association between Mateen’s professed religious affiliation and the underlying structural drivers of conflict at work. Scholars of the Middle East — who have long been committed to exposing and fighting orientalism as a feature of Western interpretive frameworks for Islam (religion), Islamism (as a political ideology), and Muslims (as followers) — have eloquently exposed reductionisms, essentialisms, and bias in the American discourses on the Orlando crisis. These discourses are critically important to counterbalance the hawks’ discourses, some of which have perpetuated discourses of xenophobia and fear mongering.

There are multiple dangers involved, however, if scholarly contestations by Middle East academics fighting orientalism spatially (in the West) and temporally (specific to the phase following Orlando) are exported to the Middle East. In many regions, while there are multiple struggles for political, economic, and social justice, there is also a struggle against deep structures that seek to circumscribe spaces for multivocality and inclusivity. Discourses that condemn all critiques of Islamist political forces as Islamophobic can lead to a muting of the voices of activists locally such as Islam el Behery who, as a Muslim scholar, sought to expose certain teachings by Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest institution of religious teaching, that encroach on freedoms. Al Azhar filed a blasphemy lawsuit against him, and he ended up with a five-year prison sentence. Other than responses by some secular Muslim scholars and activists in Egypt, Behery’s case generated very little solidarity from around the world.

Dove-like discourses in the US have repeatedly reminded audiences that those who affiliate themselves with ISIS are not Muslims. Fine, but caution is needed when this discourse travels to the Middle East, where there is a struggle by reformers to make institutions such as Al Azhar take a categorical stance against movements such as ISIS. So far, Al Azhar has refused to declare ISIS as apostates even though some of its scholars have no qualms defining the country’s non-Muslims in those terms. It won’t make much of a difference for ISIS whether it lies in the “in” or “out” box set by Al Azhar’s demarcation, but the significance of such a demarcation lies in the message it sends to Muslims worldwide. When ISIS is seen simply as part of an unruly crowd on the margins of the Muslim community (khawaraj), this is dramatically different than when they are seen as outside of Islam altogether. There has been a struggle to press Al Azhar to take a stance against those who kill in the name of Islam. In other words, whereas the struggle in a post-Orlando US is to challenge those that claim allegiance to ISIS as followers of Islam, the struggle in other parts of the world is for Muslim scholars to get Islamic political forces and institutions to represent radical movements as anathema to Islam. This points to the importance of not only recognizing locally situated discourses and interpretive frameworks, but also being aware of the potential dangers of exporting the language, framing, and standpoint used in one context (such as that of Orlando) to one radically different in the Middle East.

After Orlando: The Culture War Over Islam Continues

Before saying anything else about Orlando, my heart weeps and mourns, and I pray that all America would weep and mourn together, for the sufferers of this atrocity.

Now, an observation.  Over the past couple of days, a great deal has been said about Islam.  The debate follows almost exactly the pattern that it has followed at least as far back as the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  There is a culture war in the West over Islam.  It has played out again and again on cable news, talk radio, the internet, and in newspapers every time Islam appears in some way to be linked with violence.  The murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.  Al Qaeda’s bombings in Madrid and London.  Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed.  The Iraqi civil war following the invasion of the U.S.  The Regensburg Address of Pope Benedict XVI.  The building of an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan.  The Arab uprisings of 2011.  Shootings at Fort Hood and in San Bernardino.  The predations of Boko Haram and the Islamic State.  Charlie Hebdo.  And now Orlando.

There are hawks and doves.  Hawks hold that violence and intolerance are widespread in Islam; that Islam is hard wired for these pathologies through its texts and doctrines; that Islam is inhospitable to liberal democracy; and that the West must gird up for a long struggle against Islam’s threat.  Hawks have been excoriating President Obama for allegedly denying that Islam is behind violence like this as well as all those who have not recognized Islam for the violent religion that it is.  Donald Trump sings a hawkish tune.

Doves hold that Islam is pluralistic and diverse.  Like all religions, Islam has extremists, but they are few.  Where violence and intolerance do exist in Islam, it feeds off local and historically particular circumstances and are not hard-wired.  Islam is capable of democracy.  The west should acknowledge its own role in contributing to violence in Islam and engage in a dialogue that can increase the sphere of shared understanding.  They upbraid the hawks for being warmongers and point out that every religion has its peaceful and belligerent faces.

Which side is right?  Neither.  I will take a stab at explaining why in posts soon to come.  In the short run, here is a thoughtful statement by contemporary Muslim leaders mourning the Orlando shooting and affirming religious freedom.



© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.