The annual and 26th conference of the Colloquium on Violence & Religion (COV&R) coincided with the 6th annual conference of the Australian Girard Seminar. It was the first meeting of its kind after the passing of René Girard (December 25, 1923 – November 4, 2015), whose groundbreaking interdisciplinary work and eventually developed mimetic theory is further explored by an ever growing number of scholars on these occasions. Certainly and sadly in this day and age, the theme of the conference couldn’t have been more appropriate: Violence in the Name of Religion. The academic yet also cordial gathering was held at the campus of ACU (Australian Catholic University) from Wednesday 13 July until Sunday 17 July 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
As is always the case, also at this COV&R the participants gave each other lots of inspiration. In the coming months I will probably share some explorations I felt invited to on this blog. For now I’d like to highlight some of the ideas I thought were quite inspiring (at least to me).
WEDNESDAY, 13 JULY
Prof. William T. Cavanaugh started off the event by giving the Raymund Schwager Memorial Lecture. AS PEOPLE USED TO BELIEVE IN THE GODS – Girard and the Myth of Religious Violence was the provocative title of his contribution, which essentially stated that violence is not a religious problem but a universally human reality (as Dr. Petra Steinmair-Pösel succinctly pointed out in her response to the lecture).
Cavanaugh summarized the myth many people believe in nowadays as follows:
- There is a trans-historical and transcultural essence of religion that distinguishes it from essentially secular phenomena like reason, or politics and economics: religions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism [Cavanaugh was aware that some people might not call Buddhism a religion] are essentially different from secular phenomena like nationalism, consumerism, and Marxism.
- Religion has more of a tendency to promote violence than secular phenomena.
- Therefore, religion should be marginalized from public power and secularism should be encouraged.
He then went on to debunk this myth by pointing out how the religious/secular dichotomy originated as a typically western phenomenon. In the words of Cavanaugh:
The religious/secular distinction is not trans-historical and transcultural: it is a contingent product of the modern West. What counts as religious and what counts as secular in any given circumstance depends on the political purposes of the one making the distinction. The distinction is commonly used to endorse as rational and peacemaking certain beliefs and practices, labeled secular, and to condemn others, labeled religious, as essentially irrational and prone to violence. The distinction does not simply describe the way the world is, but rather tells us about how the West distributes power.
The creation of the sovereign state meant that the ambit of ecclesiastical authorities would gradually be confined to religion – the realm of belief – while the civil authorities would take charge of the political. The religious/secular and religion/politics distinctions helped eventually to create the expectation that the natural place of the church was the private sphere.
Some more explanation might be in place here for some readers. Following René Girard, the possibility itself of a dichotomy between the religious and the secular can be considered as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian unveiling of the lie at the heart of archaic religious systems, namely the scapegoat mechanism. As such the Judeo-Christian tradition is, in principle, responsible for the gradual loss of belief in the effectiveness of ancient ritual sacrifices (even if these were sometimes revived in so-called Christian societies; criticism of these practices comes from the Gospel itself, for instance by Erasmus, “Prince of the Humanists”). Ritual sacrifices contained violence in a twofold sense (see also Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy): they were themselves of course a form of bloody violence, but they were also believed to control the possibility of greater violent (natural and/or social) disasters understood as “the wrath of the gods” (= violence transferred to a sacred or transcendent realm).
While secularism no longer endorses the belief that potentially violent gods should be appeased by bloody sacrifices to establish an eventually peaceful world order, it does try to locate potential sources of violence or disorder that should be eliminated (“sacrificed” in a sense). It is no accident that Dr. Steinmair-Pösel, in her response to the lecture, spoke of secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” in that it “scapegoats the scapegoaters”. In this sense it goes against the heart of Christianity as a call for forgiveness (from the part of the victim) and conversion (to neighborly love that is, from the part of the perpetrator). The imitation of the “kenotic movement of Christ” should result in attitudes refraining from revenge. Nevertheless, in today’s globalized human community, people often rival each other’s claim to be “victims” and as such feel entitled to sometimes violently prosecute others who are considered “perpetrators”. While we’re at it, Prof. Wolfgang Palaver would later on, in his own lecture, rightly point to the fact that many of today’s terrorists legitimize themselves as victims or defenders of victims (from groups like ISIS to Aum Shinrikyo and people like Anders Breivik). Secularism thus is, in certain circumstances, but one of several contemporary ideological systems that can legitimize marginalization and even (violent) discrimination of certain groups in the name of victims. Mosques have been set to fire after ISIS attacks, for instance. As a means of victimizing others in turn, however, secularism tragically adds to the problem of violent extremism: it makes it more easy for organizations like ISIS to claim that “their people” are indeed “victims” or that they are being “marginalized”. And so the vicious circle goes on and on. In short, by labeling religion in general and its believers as “often dangerously irrational”, “potentially violent” and therefore “better if gone, eliminated or destroyed”, secularism ironically becomes a religious system itself. A religious system is understood then as a social order arising out of so-called necessary sacrifices to prevent potentially violent mayhem. All of this, again, in the words of Prof. Cavanaugh:
The point is not only that people are just as likely to kill for secular things like Marxism and capitalism [remember the Gulag or the Cold War] as they are for religious things like Islam and Hinduism. The point is that the religious/secular distinction is itself an act of power that labels certain things “religious” and therefore essentially irrational and potentially dangerous, while authorizing as “secular” other belief systems and practices whose violence is accepted as rational and peacemaking.
[Cavanaugh eventually quotes Girard on religion and religion in the secular, and provides further explanation (I took the picture on the right from the core of the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney):]
Girard: “Any phenomenon associated with the acts of remembering, commemorating, and perpetuating a unanimity that springs from the murder of a surrogate victim can be termed ‘religious’.”
Religion, in this sense, is not a sui generis phenomenon that can be separated out from culture, reason, politics, economics, or society.
Girard uses religion in a narrow sense to refer to the archaic (mis)representation of sacrificial violence, and in a broader sense to refer to the ways that all societies – even modern secular ones – employ the same mechanisms to legitimate and control violence. In good Durkheimian fashion, Girard uses the term “religion” to name the way that any society – including any “secular” society – represents itself to itself. As Girard writes “There is no society without religion because without religion society cannot exist.”
[From Girard’s anthropological perspective on secularism and anti-religion, the religious/secular dichotomy indeed becomes part of one of today’s most important myths (the discourse that establishes a distinction between illegitimate and legitimate violence). Cavanaugh continues and concludes:]
The religious/secular dichotomy is itself part of the apparatus whereby violence is concealed. Girard’s goal is to reveal it, and thereby undermine the religious/secular dichotomy.
As Girard says, the Christian “Revelation deprives people of religion, and it is this deprivation that can increasingly be seen around us, in the naïve illusion that we are finished with it… Today’s anti-religion combines so much error and nonsense about religion that it can barely be satirized. It serves the cause that it would undermine, and secretly defends the mistakes that it believes it is correcting.”
During the remainder of my time in Australia, about a week after the conference, I discovered that the myth of secularism is alive and well on Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, Sydney:
Secularism “as a mutilated version of Judeo-Christian tradition” (see higher, Dr. Steinmair-Pösel) thus contains a warning for Christians themselves (and for all who try to develop a spiritual attitude that goes beyond the convenient and comfortable dualism of “good versus evil”, be it for instance “good secularism versus evil religion”): Jesus never attempted to completely abolish the existing cultural (religious) traditions and social systems, he merely tried to transform his own Jewish religion, whenever and wherever needed, in light of neighborly love. In their covert and overt attempts to completely remove religion from the public sphere, certain secularists attain the exact opposite of what they’re trying to accomplish: they continue an essentially sacrificial (“religious”) system. As Dr. Steinmair-Pösel concluded in her response to the first plenary session, the difference between so-called archaic religion and Judeo-Christian tradition (or religion and “secularism” for that matter) therefore can never result in a complete “separation” with one destroying the other, but should be thought of as a distinction. In other words and as I understand it, the ultimate human possibility of a humanitarian ethos, materializing in whatever cultural form, ceases to exist whenever one culture establishes itself at the expense of another (for sure, the colonial history of certain so-called Christians implied the disappearance of humanitarianism).
Well, one thing became clear on the first evening of the conference. The organizers not only provided the participants with a great reception and dinner, they indeed also promised copious food for thought.
THURSDAY, 14 JULY
The high expectations for the rest of the conference were already met on the second day. Religion and Violence in Girard’s Mimetic Theory, the second plenary session, saw Prof. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Dr. Sarah Bachelard and Dr. Chris Fleming engage in a discussion with Girard’s thought to approach modern politics and contemporary social phenomena.
From the lectures of Prof. Dupuy and Dr. Bachelard I became more aware of the difference between the terror of today’s violent extremism on the one hand, and the terror of “the fear of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction)” by a nuclear war during the Cold War on the other. During the Cold War, the threat of total annihilation served as a third party, a non-human entity (an exteriorization of violence) to which both the US and the USSR bowed. A “cold war” thus resulted in a “hot peace” (a nuclear peace). Today’s suicidal terrorists, however, don’t fear annihilation in any way. So the threat of annihilation as a means to establish an ever precarious peace doesn’t work. This means that we are challenged to look for other attempts to create peace which don’t alienate us from “the best of ourselves”.
Prof. Dupuy also made an intriguing remark on the relationship between “victim” and “crowd”. While the old sacred is based on the gathering of an undifferentiated crowd around a sacrificial victim (or a series of victims), today’s violent extremism basically consists of one or more murderous suicidal subjects who attack and disperse an undifferentiated crowd. Dupuy therefore considers modern terrorism as a sham or simulacrum of the foundational event (of the old sacred). The UNANIMITY of the crowd is swapped for the ANONIMITY of the crowd. Instead of containing violence, the self-sacrifice of the suicide terrorist implies not contained violence. In one of the concurrent sessions I attended, The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions, Prof. Thomas Ryba pointed to the difference between the dynamic of Christ and its “satanic” reversal, which joins the thought of Dupuy from a Christian perspective. Jesus is one who is willing to die for all (because he refuses the sacrifice of others to save himself), while a suicide terrorist wants all to die for one (for the purpose of his self-aggrandizement).
Dr. Fleming concluded the second plenary session by pointing to an interesting (mimetically opposing) parallel between the political left and right when it comes to interpreting violent extremism. Depending on the external features of the violent extremists in question, both the political left and right easily replace structural theories with theories of agency in explaining human behavior. For instance, the right tends to explain the violence of a Muslim shooter from the ideological structure that is Islam, while the left in this case generally claims that the problem lies in the individual and not in Islam. The reverse will happen in the case of a white (Christian) shooter, for instance.
In any case, it seems that violent extremists try to escape the limits of human existence by committing “non-negotiable” acts which make them feel like gods. In the words of Fleming, “gods don’t need politics.” Which made me suddenly think about the saying, “All’s fair in love and war…” A reflection that is to be continued, for sure.
The third plenary session, on the evening of the second day, was a lecture by Prof. Asma Afsaruddin, Islam and Violence: Debunking Myths. She gave a challenging assessment of the relationship between Islam and violence, stressing the point that poor religious education and a very limited understanding of Islam facilitate the connection between Islam and violence. Once again, removing a religion like Islam from serious public and academic debate and leaving it to the hands of self-declared imams on the worldwide web seems like a very bad idea. I can only highly recommend the work of Prof. Afsaruddin to clear some important misconceptions.
FRIDAY, 15 JULY
The first plenary session on Friday morning started with some turmoil. Prof. Wolfgang Palaver, Prof. Greg Barton and Dr. Julian Droogan eventually talked about Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Islam. Their session, sadly enough, was all the more topical since news of a terrorist attack in Nice, France, on Bastille Day had just arrived. Prof. Greg Barton came in a bit late because he was asked, being a counter-terrorist expert, about his first thoughts on the attack for Australian TV.
Dr. Droogan began his lecture by describing the main conceptual problems with “radicalization” as an explanatory tool for violent extremism. Again, also in this lecture, some common assumptions were challenged:
- The assumption that violent extremism is caused by radical beliefs is not born out by research that suggests that violent extremism is more often supported by social dynamics and perceptions of identity.
- By assuming that it is radical ideas that primarily lead people to violent extremism, an easy assumption is made linking religious or political concepts as the primary drivers of violence.
- De-radicalization? It is a difficult and sensitive task to convince an individual to make changes to cognitive beliefs especially when these are tied to a person’s identity / reinforced through social networks.
So de-radicalization programs which merely focus on “ideas” won’t work, since violent extremism has more to do with building an identity than with ideology as such.
No wonder then that violent extremists like ISIS find their most ardent supporters in youth groups, traditionally groups in the midst of developing their identity. As Droogan pointed out, a 2014 ICM poll revealed that more than 25 % of French youth (of all religions and backgrounds between the ages of 18 and 24) had a favorable attitude towards ISIS.
The man who killed 84 people in Nice by driving a lorry through a crowd, 31 year old Tunisian delivery man Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, clearly had identity and social issues as well. Dr. Droogan presented the profile of an ISIS fighter in the western diaspora, containing characteristics that would prove to be true for this terrorist too (inserted information about the Nice killer comes from BBC News, in italics):
Young – grew up in the post 9/11 world of counter terrorism and “clash of civilizations” rhetoric.
75 % joined Al Qaeda or ISIS through friends – social networks.
Almost 25 % joined through family or acquaintances.
Speak of the importance of finding meaning in their lives – a search for meaning and identity.
Very rare that parents were at all aware of their children’s desire; international affairs, foreign policy or terrorism not discussed at home.
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel last visited Tunisia four years ago, people in his hometown Msaken told the BBC’s Rana Jawad. They said many people knew his family and were shocked by his actions. “We remember him as a normal person from a wealthy family,” a town resident told her.
Mostly youth in transitional stages of their lives:
Police say Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was married with three children, although he no longer lived with his wife. She was detained for questioning by police on 15 July but has since been released. A woman who knows the family told the BBC Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been thrown out of their home in the Le Ray area of Nice more than a year ago after allegedly beating his wife.
Left or about to leave their family
Looking for new family or friends or community of like-minded passionate idealists
Mostly youth who are deeply concerned with finding meaning, value and significance in their lives, and have a commitment to action
Examinations of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s browsing history showed he had carried out research for his attack. On 1 July he searched for details of the Bastille Day celebrations in Nice as well as videos showing “terrible” fatal traffic accidents. He had also read about recent attacks in Orlando, where a man proclaiming allegiance to IS shot 49 people in a gay nightclub, Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers, and Magnanville near Paris, where a French jihadist stabbed two police officials to death. In the days before the attack, he twice drove to the Promenade des Anglais in his rented lorry, sold his van and attempted to withdraw money, Mr Molins said. This showed that his act was “premeditated and deliberate”, he said. He reserved the 19-tonne refrigeration lorry on 4 July and collected it on 11 July in Saint-Laurent-du-Var, just west of Nice. During his reconnaissance trips, he sent a selfie photo from the driver’s cabin. Just minutes before launching his attack, he sent text messages asking accomplices to give him more weapons and boasting about having obtained a pistol. He fired that pistol at police during his rampage, before police shot him dead. “Bring more weapons, bring five to C,” one of the messages said. Police are trying to identify who the message was sent to.
No traditional religious education
The Nice killer lived a life “far from religion”, eating pork, taking drugs and indulging in a “wild” sex life, French prosecutor François Molins said.
Some “born again” or “conversion” experience
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the Nice killer had apparently been radicalized very quickly. From 1 July, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel made more or less daily internet searches for verses of the Koran and “nasheeds” – jihadist propaganda chants. He also researched the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr. Investigators found photos of dead bodies and images linked to radical Islamism on his computer, including the flag of so-called Islamic State, the cover of an issue of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo – attacked by gunmen in January 2015 – and photos of Osama bin Laden and Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In the eight days leading up to the attack, he grew a beard and told friends this was for “religious reasons”. He also told them he did not understand why IS could not hold territory and showed them a video of a beheading on his mobile phone. In response to their shock, he said he was “used to it”. However, there was no evidence that he had pledged allegiance to any radical groups or had contact with known Islamists.
Those who do practice religious ritual may have been expelled from the mosque for expressing radical political beliefs
As is also clear from the research conducted by Prof. Barton, many of the recent terrorists have a history of violence and petty crime.
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been in trouble with police between 2010 and 2016 for threatening behaviour, violence and petty theft. In March, a court in Nice convicted him of assaulting a motorist with an improvised weapon – a wooden pallet – during an altercation. He was given a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered to contact police once a week, which he did. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was “never flagged for signs of radicalization”, officials say, and he was not on France’s “Fiche S” high-security watch list. The majority of attacks carried out in the country since January 2015 have been staged by men designated “Fiche S”, and also linked to IS. In 2014, IS spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani told supporters in an audio message: “If you can’t detonate a bomb or fire a shot, manage by yourself… run them over with your car.” Many of France’s jihadist killers, starting with Mohammed Merah in Toulouse in 2012, also began their journey towards militant Islam as petty criminals.
Dr. Droogan concluded that groups like ISIS capitalize on youth rebelliousness and the search for significance and glory. It should be stressed that the Nice killer, for instance, not only searched the web for “jihadist” terror attacks, but also looked at shootings like the one in Dallas, where a black army veteran shot five police officers. He was apparently interested in violent acts that would put him in the spotlight and give him a sense of significance, no matter under what flag. The Nice killer thus showed signs of the “copycat effect” (a mimetic phenomenon, indeed): sensational media exposure about violent suicides and murders results in more of the same through imitation. Moreover, the Nice killer apparently had mental issues as well. Add this to the equation and you might get a very explosive, dangerous mindset.
A psychiatrist, Chamseddine Hamouda, carried out a mental assessment of the killer a few years ago after his father became concerned about his “troubling behaviour of a psychotic nature”. “He was a stranger to himself,” Mr Hamouda said. “I advised his parents that he needed treatment. At the time he exhibited violent behaviour towards his family… I’m sure that in the past 12 years something else happened that perhaps influenced how he thought.”
In short, ISIS is one of possible organizations, and a popular one at that, which provide an outlet for people who became extremely violent. These violent tendencies mainly have other causes than some twisted ideology. The allegiance with a twisted ideology should be understood more as a consequence of the obsession to achieve significance, attention or recognition through a highly publicized act of violence.
Prof. Wolfgang Palaver’s contribution for this plenary session was all the more challenging as it highlighted the inspiration Islamic tradition itself could provide to create a more peaceful world. Prof. Palaver situated Islam within the Abrahamic tradition’s potential to criticize “sacred” phenomena born from bloody sacrifices. In the words of René Girard, “The peoples of the world do not invent their gods, they deify their victims.” This could be said of the way ISIS glorifies its suicide terrorists as well. In this context Palaver distinguished between the sacred and the holy, the first basically being the false transcendence of idolatry (as in ISIS claimed suicide attacks), while the latter points to the mysterious transcendence of a “God” who is other than the human projections of power. Seems like a grace needed in this ever broken world…
SATURDAY, 16 JULY
The final plenary session again was packed with impulses for further explorations. Prof. Frank Brennan SJ, Assoc. Prof. Kathleen Butler, Archbishop Philip Freier & Ms Naomi Wolfe formed the panel for Religion and Violence in Australian-Indigenous History.
One realization in particular struck me. When white people first came to Australia, they asked themselves whether aboriginals were actually “real human beings”, and tried to think of aboriginals as somewhat being in an animal stage instead. Similarly, however, aboriginals too asked themselves whether white people were actually “real human beings”, thinking of white people as ghosts instead.
I guess there is no greater challenge in human relationships than to think of the other as “other” without, however, situating that “otherness” in “something less” or “something more” than oneself. Idolatry of one’s self-image as “better than others” or of others as “better than myself” only leads to alienation, narcissistic illusions, hypodermic frustrations, self-loathing, hatred of others and eventually violence.
We are limited human beings, and as such we’re always called to the never-ending exploration and acceptance of the mystery we are to ourselves and to each other. Us is a life sizzling with creativity.
This COV&R has only been the third I went to (the first two I attended were in the US – Cedar Falls, 2013 & Saint Louis, 2015), but I must say that I always feel charged with energy when coming back. For this I’m very grateful. I’d like to end this report by explicitly thanking the organizers of all COV&R conferences, on this occasion the organizers of the 2016 COV&R.
So thank you:
ACU (Australian Catholic University)
Centre for Public and Contextual Theology (Charles Sturt University)
THE RAVEN FOUNDATION (Suzanne & Keith Ross)
THE AUSTRALIAN GIRARD SEMINAR (especially Prof. Scott Cowdell, Dr. Chris Fleming, Dr. Joel Hodge, Dr. Carly Osborn, Wojtek Kaftanski)
I’d also like to congratulate Yevgen Galona, Lukasz Mudrak and Elizabeth Culhane for winning the Raymund Schwager Memorial Essay Prize (place one to three, respectively).
I’d like to thank the lecturers of the concurrent sessions I went to (they were all delightful): Jonathan Cole (The Jihadist Current and the West: The Clash of Conceptuality), Susan Wright (Rekindling a Sacrificial Crisis in the Eucharist: John’s Midrashic Reversal of the ‘Manna’ Metaphors), Chloé Collier (American Presidents and Apocalyptic Discourse: Justifying Violent Foreign Policies in Times of Crisis), Suzanne Ross (Acquisitive Desire in Early Childhood: Rethinking Rivalry in the Playroom), Mathias Moosbrugger (Ignatius of Loyola and Mimetic Theory: Is it a Thing?), Wojtek Kaftanski (Mimesis as the Problem and the Cure: Kierkegaard and Girard on Human Autonomy and Authenticity), Scott Cowdell (A Five-Act Girardian Theo-Drama), David Gore (The Call to Follow Jesus), Thomas Ryba (The Sham Incarnation of the Antichrist: Some Girardian Dimensions), Jeremiah Alberg (Forbidding What We Desire; Desiring What We Are Forbidden – Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue *), Diego Bubbio (The Self in Crisis: A Mimetic Theory of Mad Men), Paul Dumouchel (About Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing).
* In his presentation on Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, Prof. Jeremiah Alberg mentioned that the co-scenarist for these groundbreaking movies, Krzysztof Piesiewicz, declared that his ideas are based on the books of René Girard. Something to look at more thoroughly in the future. For more on this, click here: Krzysztof Kieslowski – Jeux interdits – Essai sur le Décalogue de Kieslowski (extrait), Yves Vaillancourt (pdf).
Finally, I’d like to thank every single participant for making this a warm, loving gathering as well, with an ever present spirit of kindness and friendship. I’m already looking forward to the COV&R of 2017, in Madrid.