The Study of Religion and Responses to Terrorism: Paris, Beirut and Beyond, Part 2


by Stephanie Frank

This is the second post summarizing a panel discussion entitled “The Study of Religion and Responses to Terrorism: Paris, Beirut and Beyond,” held at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Atlanta. For part 1, diagnosing shortcomings of media narratives about recent terrorist attacks, click here.

The second part of the discussion focused on the role of the study of religion in responding to terrorist attacks and the contribution that scholars of religion might make to combatting Islamophobia. Jerusha Lamptey suggested that current strategies countering Islamophobia, revolving around the figure of “the good Muslim,” are counterproductive: the politics of respectability is not only problematic but ineffective. She advocated for resistance to Islamophobia based on notions of human rights, by contrast, which might go some distance toward counteracting the dehumanization of Muslims that she identified earlier in the discussion. Several panel members echoed her call for a network of alliances between various minority communities.

All the members of the panel—and several members of the audience—expressed their concern with the failure of the study of religion (and the academy more generally) to engage with the public regarding matters of political import. This is presumably related to the fact that graduate school programs do not offer training for such engagement and the fact that the academy more generally does not place much value on it.

Returning to our theme of “religious literacy,” we discussed the role of scholars of religion in emphasizing to the public the internal diversity of all religious traditions—including Islam—as a counterbalance to media portrayals of Islam as a monolith. Ralston highlighted the ahistorical tendency of the “clash of civilizations” paradigm that underpins so much of the media coverage of Islam. He suggested that scholars can complicate this paradigm by pointing out various times Christians and Muslims have fought alongside each other in war, for instance. He also suggested that scholars could call attention to recent work highlighting the way in which anti-Muslim tropes are at the very foundation of classical liberalism. Generally, he suggested that emphasizing the way in which Islam has been so deeply implicated in the production of ‘the West’ might do some work to unseat Islamophobia.

Several panelists suggested that scholars could do more to draw attention to the politics of the language of media coverage of recent incidents: what violence is classified as “everyday” and thus unworthy of note? What the stakes are of describing terrorism as “Muslim” versus “Islamist”?

Sarah Rollens turned the discussion to the sort of public education that is done through the conduit of our students: as teachers, we can equip students to critique media narratives they encounter when watching television with their friends, for instance, or to engage over holiday dinner tables members of their families who might espouse Islamophobic positions, or to expose the assumptions underpinning Facebook debates. Lamptey and Curtis chimed in to suggest that faculty members also have a role to play in supporting our students’ efforts to organize against Islamophobia (and other forms of religious persecution) on our campuses.

For an audio recording of this panel, click here.

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

ModeratorTodd 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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