Policing Religion


by Tenzan Eaghll

Now that a month has passed since the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, it is useful to step back and consider the general treatment of religion and Islam in the media. Whenever one of these horrendous acts occurs there is an automatic reaction by journalists and philosophers that re-instantiates, rather than questions, the various strategies at play, and this is what I want to problematize. Succinctly, the claim I want to develop is as follows: all the coverage of Hebdo has been concerned with policing religion, not engaging it as a cultural and social discourse. Policing is a term I borrow from Jacques Rancière, who uses it to describe how bodies, groups, ideas, and images are assembled and distributed within culture.[1] Policing does not imply the physical presence of police officers, or even the machine apparatus of the State, but the way in which power is organized, classified, and legitimated within and beyond these very institutions; it is what governs the appearance of “things” in the first place. Hence, when I say that all the discourse and actions surrounding this horrible event have been about policing religion, not problematizing it as a cultural and social discourse, I mean that from the start religion has not even been at issue, but merely used as a smokescreen to justify who gets to define religion.

From the first moment when the bullets rang out to some of the latest articles written on the subject, the issue at hand has been who has the right to speak about religion, what they have a right to say about it, when they have a right to do so, where such conversations are permissible, and why speaking about it is right, or wrong, in the first place. However, almost no one has stopped to consider how the whole discussion already presupposes a particular arrangement and definition of who and what counts as a valid expression of religion in the first place. To use a favored expression of Rancière, no one has stopped to consider the “distribution of the sensible” [le partage du sensible].

One journalistic example of this error can be found in the January 15 edition of MacLean’s magazine, which was provocatively titled “How the Muslim World is Failing.” In an article in this edition by Scott Gilmore, he contrasts the “tribal savagery” of terrorists to the “scientific progress” of the West, and laments the “relative decline” of the Islamic nations from the glory days of the Middle Ages when they contributed to science, mathematics, and philosophy. Although Gilmore admits that drawing this historical comparison is a bit of a cliché, he nonetheless suggests that Islamic nations need to find ways to overcome their internal divisions and contribute to the positive advance of knowledge that marks modern nations.[2] Independent of whether or not this is a valid claim, what I would simply point out is that Gilmore is unreflexive about the organization, classification, and legitimization of value that structures his analysis, and presupposes the positivistic nature of progress and a liberal definition of religion, without any misgivings.

Surely, Hebdo should be condemned, but is the proper response to be found in portraying the tragedy as a conflict between the old vs. the new, or barbarity vs. progress? Ultimately, what he suggests is that religion is a private belief that is meant to serve the betterment of the state, and the extent to which it doesn’t live up to this role is the degree to which it is “failing.” Does this approach offer any critical reflection on the issue at hand, or does it just instantiate the very binaries Gilmore presupposes at the outset of his analysis?

A philosophical example of this error is found in one of my favorite contemporary thinkers, Slavoj Žižek. Though Žižek is always quite careful to point out that “religious conflicts” reflect the larger failings of the political and economic structure of society, and not any innate religious qualities, he largely just throws the entire Hebdo tragedy under the bus by psychologizing the terrorists as weak-minded religious adherents who lack the steely resolve of authentic revolutionaries. Lumping “Islamic radicals” together with “apathetic liberals,” he suggests that both are examples of Nietzsche’s “last man,” as they both embrace a nihilistic stance in relation to the modern world. Whereas the radicals pursue a heavenly justice through sublime acts of violent destruction, liberals engage capitalist inequality with complete resignation. What is needed, Žižek suggests, is a turn to the radical left to curtail this nihilistic binary altogether. His claim is that anyone who wants to critique Islamic radicals must also be willing to critique the unrestrained domination of capitalism.[3] Though I generally agree with Žižek’s critique of capitalist malaise, what I find lacking in his analysis of Hebdo is any consideration of how the various forces at play are using religion to justify their own political visions (an error, I might add, which he repeats). In my opinion, it does not contribute to our understanding of these tragedies to justify them in relation to some higher end, no matter how politically noble. Rather, what we need to pay attention to is how the very order that presents itself as religious already presupposes a set of roles, actions, truths, and texts that are appropriated to police what counts as a just presentation of the sensible.

Following Aaron Hughes remarks in the introduction to Situating Islam, I would suggest that what is needed is for us to think and write like “infidels,” not just in relation to Islam, but the broader cultural hypostatization of religion in the West.[4] The only way to challenge Bernard Lewis’ old trope that tragedies such as Hebdo result from a “clash of civilizations” that goes back hundreds of years, is to question how our ways of discussing these events completely obscure the real issues at hand. The demarcation of religion as distinct from the secular, and of Islam as an entity distinct from the West, is merely a means of policing religion, rather than discussing its function as a political and cultural tool in our modern globalized world. Attempting to use Hebdo to help us realize some higher historical goal—whether positivistic or communistic—misses a golden opportunity to consider how cultural categories are employed as a prophylactic against the very difference they claim to represent. When Islamic radicals are contrasted to the wonders of modern science, what is being attained other than an endorsement of all modern Western institutions? Moreover, when they are lumped together with liberal nihilists how does this help us appreciate the complexity of the political forces at play, from Baghdad to Paris?

[1] Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (1998)

[2] http://www.macleans.ca/politics/worldpolitics/why-muslim-world-decline/

[3] http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2015/01/slavoj-i-ek-charlie-hebdo-massacre-are-worst-really-full-passionate-intensity

[4] Aaron Hughes, Situating Islam (2007); See also Crone and Crook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1997).

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