Terrorism in Paris: Religious Violence and the Role of the Scholar of Religion

By Philip L. Tite

This past weekend was marked by a horrific act of violence in Paris, leaving at least 129 people dead, hundreds more injured, and millions in shock and grief. Bombs and shootings throughout various parts of the city resulted in death, destruction, and, in response, military retaliation against the so-called Islamic State. We’ve seen public displays of support for France and the people of Paris in particular: not only the expected comments by politicians condemning the terrorist attacks, but widespread expressions by a multitude of people in various countries showing solidarity with the French. On Facebook, for instance, it is now common to see the French flag overlaid profile photos, with the rest of us being encouraged to do the same in order to show our support with and grief for the people of France.


As with any such act of terrorism, especially when identified as religious violence, we sit back in stunned silence or stand up with a strong moral condemnation of such murderous acts. Our knee jerk reaction is to want to hit back, to make someone pay, to clearly delineate righteousness and evil on the global level. Let’s bomb the hell out these bastards, is often what we desire deep down. The desire is to wipe out, as one American politician put it, the “scourge of evil”. Thus, a discourse of “evil” – i.e., the evil other – arises with ease in such moments and, to a degree, such a discourse offers comfort for those speaking and listening. In terms of grief therapy, this is perhaps the anger stage.

And perhaps anger is the natural, human response to such violence. But every time an act of religious violence occurs, regardless of the geographic location or the groups involved, I ask myself: What should – or can – the scholar of religion do in the face of such tragedy? This is a question we’ve been asking ourselves especially since September 11, 2001. This isn’t a matter of finding a trendy theme that will sell books or to help draw in blog readers. This is a question that gets at the very heart of our profession and especially our profession’s relevancy or lack of relevancy for public discourse.

It is a question that, within a different context, indirectly arose in the second Democratic Presidential Debate, a debate held in the wake of the Paris attack. Indeed, the debate opened with a discussion of the Paris attack, each of the candidates responding in turn to the still very raw wounds felt around the globe. Democratic front runner, Hillary Clinton, in responding to the Paris attacks during this debate, stated the following:

I think with this kind of barbarism and nihilism, it’s very hard to understand, other than the lust for power, the rejection of modernity, the total disregard for human rights, freedom, or values that we know and respect. Historically, it is important to try and understand your adversary in order to figure out how they are thinking, what they will be doing, how they will react. I plead that it’s very difficult when you deal with ISIS and organizations like that whose behavior is so barbaric and so vicious that it doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than lust for killing and power and that’s very difficult to put ourselves in the other shoes. (emphasis original)

These comments were prefaced by a quote from the moderator, displayed in the broadcast for emphasis, quoting an earlier comment by Clinton:

… respect even one’s enemies. Trying to understand and, insofar as psychologically possible, empathize with their perspective and point of view.

Clinton and her debate partners, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, come close to answering our question: What role do we as religious studies scholars play in the face of such violence as that witnessed in Paris? But I think that they fall short. Rather than throw our hands up and declare that such acts are the product of a “barbaric … lust for power” or a “lust for killing” (though power dynamics certainly do play a role in acts of religious terrorism), I think we can do more, at least on the analytical side of that question. Specifically, the events in Paris – like events in other parts of the world that we can place under the discursive label “religious violence” or “religious terrorism” – serve as data for the scholar to delve below the surface, to go beyond the physical acts and the social rhetoric (either by those committing/supporting such acts or by those denouncing/reacting to such acts), and to get at the social, political, ideological, and economic forces at play among such social actors. Even the comments by these three presidential hopefuls (as well as those Republican detractors tweeting throughout the debate on this very issue) are insightful data for us to analyze and to take a step toward what Clinton highlighted; i.e., “understand … their perspective and point of view.”

It is this very goal of theorizing below the surface of actions and rhetoric that was the pedagogical foundation for my Theorizing Religion and Violence course. In that course, my students and I explored a range of narrative scripts that commonly arise in, especially, media discourse over acts of violence. Three dominant scripts tend to arise in the American context. First is the pathological script – i.e., the violence is the result of a deranged or psychologically ill person. The violence becomes manageable because (ironically perhaps) it is aberrant (“not like us”), yet explainable (“we can make sense of this and thus control it”). “Normal” people, so the script goes, don’t walk into elementary schools or movie theaters and murder people. Our fears are thus allayed, because what happened is not normal or common. With a few tweaks to our social system, or so we are led to believe, such acts can be averted in the future. We can continue on with our normal lives.

The second and third scripts arise when the term “terrorism” is applied to the act. We have either the script of domestic terrorism or the script of foreign terrorism. The former is almost always attached to the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh. This type is the “home-grown terrorism” of white supremacists, bent on overthrowing their own government in the name of American nationalism and ethnic purity (and often grounded in Christian theologies/movements, such as Reconstructionist theology and Christian Identity). The latter type, foreign terrorism, is evoked when the terrorist act is done by some “other”; i.e., a person or group equally opposed to American pluralism but located outside American (or “Western”) borders. For this script, the Middle East, and Islam in particular, has become the “go to” focal point. Indeed, the very term “terrorism” for many immediately evokes images of Arab Muslims in “foreign garb” with oppressed women and children wearing bombs and throwing rocks living in the Middle East. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” geopolitical model (comprehensively put forth in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order [Simon & Schuster, 1996]) has added to such orientalist “othering” and, as in the second Republican debate, is often evoked though never directly cited.

There are times, however, when these three scripts don’t work. When I first taught my course on religious violence, the Boston marathon bombing occurred the day before a class session. As a group – and in part as a way of addressing the shock and grief caused by that attack – we followed media coverage of the Boston bombing over the next several weeks. We noticed that the event did not neatly fit any of the scripts, even though the media continually struggled to make the “facts” fit into the appropriate “script”. Such a disruption to the expected scripts raised the important question: why are narrative scripts important?

From what we could tell, it seems that such scripts serve at least two purposes: (1) they give order to chaos and thus reinforce a sense of stability and security for those threatened by such acts; and (2) they shift centers of power back from those doing such acts to those responding to those acts (and, as I’ve said on many occasions to my students, classification is never benign; to create a “center” is to create a “fringe” – to empower one set of social actors necessarily disempowers other social actors, and to highlight one set of social aspects or relations is to obscure other social aspects or relations). As we follow the media coverage, the social media exchanges, and the political commentary in the face of what has happened in Paris, we should be looking for the construction and implementation of narrative scripts. These may serve as explanatory keys to how religious violence serves various social actors, ideological agendas, and psychological needs.

Beyond noting the narrative scripts that are played out, we can draw upon other scholarly research on acts of religious violence. There has been a great deal of scholarship, especially over the past fifteen years, on this very topic. Arguably, the most prominent and influential voice has been Mark Juergensmeyer. In his now classic treatment, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (3rd edition; University of California Press, 2003), Juergensmeyer explicates for us the importance of performative violence and symbolic capital. Religious violence – such as 9/11, the London bombing, the Tokyo gas bombing, the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and (we could now add) the Paris attacks – is designed to say something symbolic through theatrical performance. Such acts do not serve practical or strategic ends (such as in most military missions), but rather tap into symbolic capital by the selection of, for example, time and target. Juergensmeyer notes that there is a primary and secondary impact in such theaters of violence; the primary being those initially affected by the attack, whereas the secondary (and more important) impact is the impact upon those who hear about the attack through media channels; i.e., the disruptive force of such an act shifts social capital (“power”) away from those attacked and toward those doing the attacking. A key goal of performative violence, especially when located within a worldview of cosmic war, is that of empowering those who feel disempowered due to economic, military, or cultural domination by what is seen as the “evil” other. Those who could never hope to win such a war in the real world and in real time are assured of victory in the long term, because the conflict is not just against political and economic systems (“human” agents); rather, it is a war between Good and Evil cast into apocalyptic and eschatological terms (“metaphysical” agents). To participate in such a conflict is to participate in a cosmic drama. Significance and value are inevitable prizes for those engaged in such a violent struggle.

In addition to Juergensmeyer’s work, Bruce Lincoln has also given us an excellent glimpse into conflicting religious worldviews and values in his provocative book, Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11 (University of Chicago Press, 2003). One of the best insights Lincoln offers, in my opinion, is the distinction between minimalist and maximalist worldviews; i.e., should “religion” fit the post-Enlightenment secular ideal of being a privatized and compartmentalized aspect of life separated from broader political and economic dynamics (and thus only serve moral development while offering postmortem or metaphysical hope) or should “religion”, in order to be truly “authentic”, permeate every aspect of one’s life, thereby calling on the adherent to be religiously political, religious social, religiously economical, etc.?

Like Juergensmeyer, Lincoln attempts to understand and explain the motivations, worldviews, and value systems attached to acts of violence (as well as responses to such violence). Added to their work is William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2009), where he analyzes processes of identity affirmation of the religiously secular (and “civilized”) West and the fanatically religious (and thus “barbaric”) East, especially in how the West uses such discourse to justify acts of violence done against, primarily, the Middle East and Muslims while delegitimizing such acts done by the East against the West. Similarly, we could look at Robert Jewett’s The Captain America Complex: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (Bear & Company, 1984) as a Cold War parallel.

But what does any of this have to do with the horrific attack in Paris? And, more importantly, what does any of this have to do with the role of the religious studies scholar when such events occur? A great deal, I suggest. As I said to a colleague over lunch two days after the attack, my gut reaction is to bomb those bastards all to hell. I shared that gut feeling while also recognizing the endless cycle of violence that will continue for as long as human beings exist on the planet, that we live in a perpetual dystopia of violence, hatred, and decay all shrouded within discourses of progress, civilization, moral superiority, and optimism that “good will always overcome evil.” And I also recognize that similar social authorizing rhetorics are undoubtedly at play on “the other side” of this conflict. But my reaction is not the only one we can have, nor, would I suggest, is it the most constructive or helpful one. But it is very human.

As scholars, however, we need to offer something more than moral disgust or fatalistic nihilism. We can switch from pathos to logos. We can offer insights into the power dynamics at play in acts of violence, to explain human processes of conflict, especially conflict grounded (in part at least) within those ideological discourses that many would call “religious” (and I do recognize the problems of a reified and essentialized category such as “religion”; but, given that social actors – i.e., “people” – use such terms as “objects” in “their reality” and social engagements, it is necessarily that scholars treat such terms as objects of study in need of theorization). Above I’ve already highlight in this post a few approaches taken in explaining religious violence, and such analysis could easily be applied to what occurred in Paris. These are just a few analytical insights at our disposal, of course.

I do think we need to be careful, however. Our goal as scholars, to counter Clinton’s claim above, is not to advise political decision makers in how best to conquer their enemies. Nor, in my opinion, is it our task to affirm or protect those groups engaged in such violence. Nor, again, is it our task to protect an “authentic core” of a religious tradition (be that Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, or Judaism) from “radical” and “fringe” groups (again, note the use of categorization to create centers and fringes of power in such “caretaking” of religious traditions). Rather, it is our task to understand our data and to explain or theorize that data. Our explanatory models, furthermore, are to serve in “making sense” of not only those classified as terrorists – it was fascinating to see the debate between the presidential candidates over whether America is at war with “radical Islamic terrorists” or, to use Clinton’s terminology, “radical jihadist ideology” – but also those responding to those acts in their political discourse, military and economic actions, and even their ritualized performative behavior (e.g., the widespread overlaying of the French flag on Facebook profile images, mentioned above). These are all human acts that play a role within the broader “event” that social actors have marked out. Indeed, we can bring our analytical talents to bear upon the very creation of “events” (and of “non-events” such as acts of violence done outside of “the West”) out of the chaos of “happenings” that occur all the time (i.e., what counts as history or an event and what doesn’t?).

By suggesting that scholars of religion have such a role to play, I am not trying to be insensitive to the grief and pain caused by the attacks in Paris. Like others, I am horrified by these acts. Nor am I suggesting that scholarship has no practical role to play in the world around us, as if determining “how many terrorists can dance on the head of a pin?” is our objective. I do think that there is an “application” of religious studies scholarship that can be made – and should be made (to evoke my own moral view) – but that application needs to follow and not precede our analytical investigations. Our goal as scholars, as far as I can see, is to make sense of the world around us both past and present. We are tasked qua scholars to explain human cultures, interactions, ideologies, power dynamics, and social authorizing processes. Our job is not to determine an “authentic Islam” or “a core to Judaism” or a “moral center for humanity” let alone to guide the world into some envisioned utopia. That is the task of theologians, ideologues, and visionaries (and that work is important, but it’s not scholarship). Our goal is to delve into the horrors and beauty of humanity, setting aside our very repulsion and attraction so that we can clearly explain what processes may have been at work, for example, in the Paris attack, the reactions to that attack, and even the histories that will be written from that attack.

This is a hard task. It is one where our own humanity needs to be put in check, so that our hearts do not disrupt our minds, so that our minds are not directed by our ideologies and beliefs. It is a task that demands an existential crisis for those of us willing to embark on such analytical work. It is also a task where we risk being misunderstood as callous, heartless, or perhaps even as “sympathizers” with “the enemy”. But it is also a task that I think is desperately needed. It means wearing a pair of shoes that don’t fit, that are worn by those we may despise or oppose, to then discover that our own shoes no longer feel as comfortable as we once thought. What others do with our findings is a separate matter. Application is a post-scholarly endeavor. Our goal should not be to strive toward application, but rather to focus on explication and elucidation. Rather than moral certainty, the task is one of embracing uncertainty. This is the cold, hard, perhaps even heartless task of scholarship when it comes to religion and violence. And it is perhaps the greatest contribution we as scholars can make in the wake of the tragedy that has struck not only Paris but also other acts of violence that have occurred and, alas, will occur in the future.


Philip L. Tite (Ph.D. McGill University, 2005) is the editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and (with James Crossley) of Postscripts. He is a specialist in early Christian studies with strong interests in method & theory in the academic study of religion, and is an affiliate lecturer in the Comparative Religion Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He also serves on the AAR Comparative Approaches to Religion and Violence steering committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Religion and Violence. He is the author of several books, most recently The Apocryphal Epistle to the Laodiceans: An Epistolary and Rhetorical Analysis (TENT, 7; Leiden: Brill, 2012).

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