Whenever a devastating act of terrorism occurs in Europe or America, many scholars of religion cringe, knowing that often it is only a matter of time before the media identify the perpetrator as a Muslim and seek to make this the most significant causal factor in the events. We know we will be called upon to “explain” what it is about Islam that leads these people to carry out such violence. The oft-repeated response, of course, is that “Islam” (or any other religion) is not an entity that “causes” anything. It is a multifaceted collection of ideas that people use, often selectively, for various purposes. As a few media outlets have fortunately begun to notice, complex political experiences and agendas influence how Islam is understood and interpreted, but most often, this response falls on deaf ears.
These points thus bear repeating: religious concepts and “sacred” scriptures are political resources that can be deployed in a number of ways. What ISIS does with the intellectual resources of Islam is dramatically different than, say, what the organization Muslims for Peace does with the very same resources. Moreover, to privilege either one of these expression as “correct” — that is, to claim that Islam is inherently violent or peaceful — misses the point. For scholars of religion, the point is not to rigidly define what Islam is, as if that were a static entity immune from particular historical, political, and cultural circumstances, but rather to analyze what it is made to be and do by people acting in different contexts.
In other words, in order to analyze religious ideas with a critical eye, they should be treated as the products of the practitioners. To understand them, we must focus on what the practitioners do and say, not on free-floating discursive “religion” that probably best exists in Plato’s realm of ideal forms.
We should also remember, in addition, that events that may be labeled as “terror” take place every day. As numerous people have observed, an equally horrific event occurred in Beirut, Lebanon, just the evening before the Paris events — probably also an ISIS attack. And earlier this year, at Garissa University in Kenya, another 148 were killed in an act of violence by al-Shabaab. These are only a few of the global events that we could label “terrorism.” The Paris tragedy, as some have noticed, has received far more extensive media coverage in North America and Europe. Even November 14’s episode of Saturday Night Live featured a statement of solidarity and support for Paris.
Why does this imbalanced representation exist? Part of the reason is that from the “Western” perspective, the events in Lebanon and Kenya are not perceived to be as shocking, and so are thus not worthy of sensationalized treatment by news outlets. Terrorism in the Middle East and Africa are often treated as ordinary, as if recurrent acts of political violence should be expected in these parts of the world. What makes Paris different, many assume, is that France is a peaceful, orderly, secular state that is only infrequently disrupted by such violence.
One can see the uncomfortable logic in this reasoning. If we only give attention to the “terrorism” in Europe and North America, then we simultaneously authorize a depiction of Africa and the Middle East as “naturally” violent, chaotic, and dangerous. “The West” emerges in this classification scheme as a realm that is inherently opposite — save for these occasional devastating tragedies in Paris, Boston, London, New York, and elsewhere. Even President Obama labeled the events in Paris as “an attack on the civilized world.” Thus, by our very media coverage and the choices of which violence to represent and upon which to comment, we help create the image of the Middle East and Africa as backward, unruly parts of the world. By largely ignoring the very real, acute situations of violence in those places, we render them literally unremarkable.
I am not suggesting that we should not care about the terrible events in Paris. We should absolutely care and seek to probe their causes so as to prevent similar acts in the future. But we should also care about equally tragic events elsewhere in the world, outside of our closest neighbors and allies. To privilege the artificial boundaries between these parts of the world not only reinforces the dehumanizing depictions mentioned above, but it also may play into the hands of groups such as ISIS and al-Shabaab, whose ideologies thrive on the basis of a perceived fundamental opposition between their groups and “the West.” They vehemently do not want to be embraced by “Western,” secular culture, and it is in their interest to continue to define themselves over against “the West.” They want to be the dangerous “Other” that sparks fear in Europeans and North Americans.
By the selective nature of our representations of violence, we reinforce this opposition. Perhaps the first step in breaking down this artificial boundary is to realize that these acts of violence are emerging within “the West,” by people who are embedded in and are participating in “Western” society. ISIS may want to pretend that its members are fundamentally opposed to European and North American societies, but we are not obliged to represent them as such. Many of these violent actors live in secular European cities and capitalize on modern media such as Twitter and Facebook. They are not “the Other”; if anything, they are eerily familiar. To accept the fundamental disjunction is, in fact, to reproduce their worldview.