The Study of Religion and Responses to Terrorism: Paris, Beirut and Beyond, Part 1


by Stephanie Frank

Deeply concerned by events unfolding immediately before the American Academy of Religion’s (AAR) 2015 annual meeting in Atlanta, Todd Green and I put together a panel addressing the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Mali. Despite the necessarily last-minute nature of the session, the panel discussion (in the plenary ballroom of the conference on the afternoon of 21 November) was well-attended. The first part of our conversation focused on deficiencies of popular narratives in understanding these attacks; the second (to be recounted in a post later this week) focused on the role of scholars of religion in responding to such incidents.

Green began our conversation by asking the panelists to highlight what they thought had been left out of dominant narratives of the terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris. Jerusha Lamptey gave perhaps the most encompassing answer, lamenting the lack of not just nuance but also religious literacy among journalists and, in particular, their impoverished understanding of religion as a lived phenomenon.

Sarah Rollens highlighted the media’s failure to understand ISIS’ rejection of the distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘politics.’ Expanding this point, Joshua Ralston made a plea that the oppositions the media typically understands as ‘either-or’ (religion/politics, secular/Muslim, etc.) oppositions should instead be understood as ‘both-and’ differentiations. He also noted terrorist discourse’s contradictory depictions of, for instance, Paris: on the one hand, it is the capital of vice and secularism; on the other, it is a center of ‘Christendom’ and its Crusades.

Rollens also wished that more attention were paid to why the terrorists acted in these ways: what exactly is motivating about violence, to them? What compels (some) onlookers to support these actions? She suggested that the socio-economic conditions of the terrorists were not getting adequate attention. Edward Curtis, noting that many of the perpetrators were from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds, instead drew attention to racism in France, toward understanding what ultimately pushes people to violence. “The real puzzle is not why there are so many Muslim terrorists, but why there are so few,” he remarked. Echoing this point, Jerusha Lamptey spoke to microaggressions against religious and racial minorities—even here in the U.S.—and criticized the media’s impoverished understandings of the interaction of religious identity with other aspects of identity, including race and class.

Stephanie Frank suggested that it was no accident that the bombings in Beirut and Mali had bookended the Paris attack: both places were linked to the former French empire. The juxtaposition of post-colonial France with the centuries-old postulate of laicité is, at a minimum, problematic. Even before this fall’s attacks, France’s burgeoning Muslim population challenged the idea that religion should be confined to the ‘private’ sphere. More generally, it has put pressure on the much-vaunted ‘universality’ of the French identity—and in so doing has generated a backlash.

Asked whether the November attacks represented a “new chapter” in terrorist violence, as has been alleged in the media, Joshua Ralston framed the attacks as the geographical extension of people’s lived reality in Syria and Iraq over the last several years. Though the West has for years managed to keep its “war on terror” off of its own territory, this is increasingly difficult, owing to both international refugee migration and the expansion of terrorist networks.

Edward Curtis considered that there were more continuities than discontinuities between this month’s attacks and earlier attacks: all, he noted, were “rational acts of asymmetrical warfare.” Framing the performative aspect of attacks, Rollens suggested a difference between the targeted Charlie Hebdo attacks and the random violence of the more recent Paris and Beirut attacks. Frank asked what work the distinction between “random” and “targeted” violence has done, in media coverage of this month’s attacks.

In light of the states of emergency declared in France and Mali—recalling the ballooning of the security state in the U.S. after 11 September–the panel also discussed the political aftermath of the terrorist attacks. Curtis evoked the history of the figure of the “Muslim fighter” as a threat against which the state consolidated its power; Frank suggested that media portrayals of the Belgian neighborhood of Molenbeek—a dominantly Moroccan neighborhood where it has been alleged that the police fear to tread—constitute a new chapter in this history, as they implicitly suggest that the “terrorist hotbed” might be redeemed through state surveillance.

Panelists: Edward Curtis (IUPUI), Stephanie Frank (Columbia College Chicago), Jerusha Lamptey (Union Theological Seminary), Joshua Ralston (University of Edinburgh), Sarah Rollens (Rhodes College).

Moderator: Todd Green (Luther College)

Stephanie Frank works on the transformations that are confusedly lumped together in the term ‘secularization.’ She teaches at Columbia College Chicago, where she has designed the institution’s first curriculum in the study of religion.

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