The Social Functions of Obligatory Denunciations

by Craig Martin

In preparation for a new course I’m teaching this fall, I’ve been reading a great deal on Islam. I’ve surveyed both scholarly and popular narratives on Islam, particularly as I hope to compare and contrast such narratives in my course. One thing that has struck me is the near-universal and apparently obligatory denunciations of “extremist Muslims,” “Islamic fundamentalists,” or “Islamic terrorism,” and of course Al-Qaeda in particular. In addition, the condemnations are presented as if obvious or common sense. It’s apparently “obvious” that the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. are “terrible” or “evil.” Interestingly, these denunciations appear even when—or perhaps because—the prose that follows goes on to historicize or contextualize the form of violence under consideration. Apparently, if one is going to offer reasons for which a group might perpetrate violence, one opens oneself to the charge that one is excusing that violence—hence the obligatory qualifications of the following sort: “before getting to the reasons behind 9/11, I want to make it clear that Al-Qaeda’s actions were evil and unforgivable.” Such denunciations, it is worth noting, appear in both scholarly and popular literature.

For all of the reasons outlined by Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, signifiers signify only in relation to their differences from other signifiers. As such, condemnations of “illegitimate” violence are meaningful only in relation to its other: “legitimate” violence. For words like “illegitimate violence” to be meaningful, there must be a contrast—implicitly or explicitly—with “legitimate violence.”

Consequently, I would argue that these obligatory denunciations of illegitimate violence have a dual social function (and here I play off of the double [and opposite] meanings given to the word “sanction”): such denunciations negatively sanction—by decrying—illegitimate violence, but simultaneously positively sanction—by implicitly condoning, absolving, or excusing—legitimate violence. Every such denunciation is simultaneously a signal of approval.

This is why the one-sided or unidirectional nature of these obligatory denunciations are so revealing: in all of the literature I’ve been reading, I’ve not seen a single obligatory and obvious denunciation of, e.g., the violences perpetrated by the United States. Even when criticized, the actions of the United States are, at worst, complicated, lamentable, unfortunate, but never obviously terrible or evil.

So, as I head back to the classroom this fall, I’m going to think before I qualify my lectures by delivering “obvious” and obligatory condemnations of the forms of violence we’ll necessarily cover. Such verbal sanctions—especially when unidirectional—function implicitly to legitimate other forms of violence.

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