The Storm Blowing From Paradise

The twentieth century, the Age of Ideology, promised to bring heaven to earth, heralding a new age of infinite improvement. By the late 1990s, with the collapse of communism—symbolized in the razing of the Berlin Wall—the promise of a socialist utopian lay in ruins. In the face of this collapse and a growing disquiet regarding some of the products of our scientific age, global leadership appears to be floundering in an ethical vacuum. Like the angel in Paul Klee’s famous painting, “Angelus Novus,” we are turned in horror as we survey the wreckage of the past. It keeps piling up as the winds of progress sweep forward. The angel would stop to make whole that which has been smashed. But the storm blowing from Paradise has caught hold of the angel’s wings with such impulsion that the angel cannot close them (See Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History).

Contemporary humankind has inherited a tarnished version of the age of progress, launched so optimistically in the scientific revolution and the age of enlightenment. We are uneasy with absolutes, with finding the truth, because so many of those bearing the truth have terrorized the rest of us. We are reluctant to embrace newly fabricated utopias, big dreams bearing sweeping reform agendas. But this loss of metaphysical certainty and our awareness of increasing risk and uncertainty in our globally imbricated world have left us as human beings and citizens with serious and daunting problems of meaning, governance, leadership and citizen empowerment.

I would like to focus our attention on how we as global citizens might grapple with the new world disorder that has emerged chaotically and dangerously after 9/11. In particular, how do we name it—what are its salient features that provide orientation for the requisite learning processes to live together in this world peacefully and respectfully? And how do we find an ethical and moral compass to navigate our way through the new world unfolding (or disintegrating) before our eyes?

I would like to argue that post-secularism and pluralism are central components of our social and political condition in the second decade of the 21s century. From a different angle, if they are central components, then the threat we face is the unravelling of social solidarity. The post-secular condition, a central point of philosophical, theological, historical and social scientific discourse in our time, poses crucial learning challenges to our global society and its citizens (some inhabiting liberal democracies, others far removed). To identify our condition as “post-secular” means that the old enlightenment dream of the withering away of “religion” has not, and will not, occur any day soon (if at all).

Both religious and secular citizens (and the endless in-betweens) co-exist within the same nation-state (and international constellation). They will either learn to address and work with one another, or they will not with outcomes of further violence and mayhem. The consequences for social solidarity in local and international communities are considerable if we are unable to establish “complementary learning processes” (Habermas’ phrase) to bridge difference. Judith Butler says we need to be able to “cross over into each other’s world.” And we also need to knock out the material inequities enabling the demonization of the other.

The liberal democracies contain many different religious forms and expressions—within cultural and political formations shaped by Christian traditions, modes of worship and social engagement. Today these societies exist in a post-Christendom milieu; one can choose freely whether one believes in God or not; one can embrace non-Christian religions or none at all. The majority of the population in Europe, Canada and the United States are only nominally “Christian” (often “internally secularized” in remarkable ways). And, yes, it is true, as many scholars note, that Western Europe is quite different in religious complexion than the United States. Around twenty percent of Americans are in church on Sunday mornings; Western Europeans have exited their beautiful churches for their exquisite cafes. But
weltonjustmore than ever before these countries have hosted, sometimes unwillingly or hesitantly, peoples forced to move because of war, famine, excruciating poverty, political oppression. Many of the immigrants are religious people who hold beliefs and engage in practices that are not Christian. If they are Muslims entering nominally Christian nations, they will face potential disrespect and disparagement as nervous people can’t comprehend different forms of dress or religious practices. But we also must acknowledge the uneasiness many of us in the West feel in the light of the abounding evidence that political Islam is tangled in violence—illustrated in all of the Arab cultures, and breaking out in our own societies. At this very moment, Islamophobia flows through Europe’s veins.

Citizens of the western liberal democracies, knowing very little about Islam and Christian history and tradition, can easily link violent mayhem perpetrated by men and women claiming to be Islamist to the core belief structure of Islam itself. Conversely, it is not overly difficult to reverse this scenario, with some Muslims looking on aghast as their homelands are bombed and smashed up by a “Christian” nation led by people who pray to their God and appear to be on yet another crusade. Political theology is back on the scene with a vengeance. As difficult as this intellectual task may be, we must face the question that makes everyone nervous and fretful—do the sacred texts of the great world religions permit the use of violence to attain various ends? Is this a Gordian knot that needs magic to untie?

Our world is bent out of shape. It is all twisted and tangled like a bombed out bridge after an air raid. As we gaze out upon this mangled world, on a very bad day one can see apocalypse around every corner. This was the case in July, 2011, when Anders Breivik systematically massacred 76 children at a Labour party youth camp, situated on an idyllic island, in Norway of all places. When some of us in the West first heard this grizzly news, we immediately thought that this must be linked in some ghoulish way with Islamist terrorists. And that is just the problem, isn’t it? Since 9/11, we in the West can easily slip and slide into this quick judgment. Mention terrorism, think Muslim. But Breivik is not linked with Al-Qaeda. He is a Norwegian who actually mixes “Christian” language in his perverse rambling manifesto of 1500 pages. Breivik’s own description of his attack provides some examples. “I’m pretty sure I will pray as I’m rushing through the city blazing, with 100 armed system protectors pursuing me with the intention to stop me and/or kill….It is likely that I will pray to God for strength at one point during the operation, as I think most people in that situation would…If praying will act as an additional mental boost/soothing it is the pragmatical [sic] thing to do. I guess I will find out….If there is a God I will be allowed to enter heaven as all other martyrs for the church in the past.”

This is surely disturbing (and evil), but it is strangely rational. He has a worked out framework. He is crazy, but a twisted logic courses through his words. He and his Knights of the Templar (sounds like a video game) want to purify the “Christian” (white?) world of its impure virus. He wants to defend “Christendom” against its Muslim enemies. This mentality is not unknown in the history of the troubled relationship of Islam and Christianity. In fact, using violence to cleanse and erase the other, who threatens a homogenous identity, is well known everywhere in the world, past and present. It has both religious and non-religious roots.

The bombings during the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013 were perpetrated by young men claiming allegiance to Islam who were foreign-born but apparently assimilated into American culture. Only two weeks earlier, three Canadian young men were linked with the jihadist bombing of an Algerian refinery. Their photographs speak of nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever. Were they hockey fans? The CBC (and other media) tracked their movements into the darkest corners of the desolate Mauritanian desert. These events trigger our memory of the violence perpetrated by British young men in July, 2005 who, seemingly, loved soccer and beer, but chose out of misunderstood depths to bomb certain subways. On May 22, 2013 our dinners were visited by horrendous television images of a Black man with a bloody cleaver who had just hacked a British soldier to death shouting: “We swear by Almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. We must fight then as they fought us.” The exploding bomb and bloodied body are the dominant symbols of our age, the “war on terror” its dishonourable moniker. Actions directed against the innocent citizen arise from inexplicable murky places.

In his sensational essay, “Faith and knowledge” (published in The Frankfurt School on Religion [2005], Jurgen Habermas contrasts the speechlessness of violence with communicative action. He states: “if we want to avoid a clash of civilizations, we must keep in mind that the dialectic of our own occidental process of secularization has not come to a close. The ‘war against terror’ is no war, and what comes to be expressed in terrorism is also the fatally speechless clash of worlds, which have to work out a common language beyond the mute violence of terrorists or missiles. Faced with a globalization imposing itself via deregulated markets, many of us hoped for a return of the political in a different form—not in the original Hobbesian form of the globalized security state, that is, in its dimensions of police activity, secret service, and the military, but as world-wide civilizing force. What we are left with, for the moment, is little more than the bleak hope for a cunning of reason—and for some self-reflection. The rift of speechlessness strikes home, too. Only if we realize what secularization means in our post-secular societies can we be far-sighted to the risks involved in a secularization of instrumental reason and destructive secularization”. The “fatally speechless clash of worlds” is already present malevolently in the world. It awaits us at the extreme end of mute acts of violence that speak for themselves. The negation of speech, or communicative action, shreds the world into little tattered pieces. But mumbled speech or unwillingness to try very hard to be conversible also part of the problem we face in our world.

All the major religions have experienced fundamentalist movements and tendencies. Violent speechlessness inhabits Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. In Muslim countries, minority religions such as the Copts of Egypt have experienced repression, imprisonment, death and oppression from their state. On January 1, 2011 in Alexandria, the Two Saints Coptic Church was bombed killing 20 Copts. On Tuesday, March 8th, 2011, thirteen people were killed and 140 injured in an attack on St. Mina and St. George Church in the village of Sol. The church was burnt to the ground and Copt homes attacked. The attack against Christian Copts in Sol was precipitated, it seems, by a relationship between Ashraf Iskander, a 40-year old married Christian and a married Muslim women. This tense situation exploded into heated fights within the Muslim family, leading to two deaths. In the southern Sudan and Northern Nigeria, Christians have been attacked and massacred. In turn, Nigerian Christians have sought revenge and killed Muslims. And twenty years ago, Rwandan Christians killed each other, with ethnic superiority trumping dogmatic commonality. Religion and violence is like a tangled fishing net that requires stamina to sort out.

Dictatorships such as Egypt and Libya long relied on the West to keep the lid on “Muslim extremists” (in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood primarily). With the fall of Ben Ali, Gadhafi and Mubarek, the Arab Spring erupted with its agonized cry and action for human dignity. Now in the disenchanted aftermath, the idea of putting a constitutional democratic and pluralistic secular state in place is very much in question. Elsewhere, in India and Pakistan, Muslims and Hindus battle each other; in Sri Lanka, it’s the Buddhists and the Hindus. Ethnic suffering and threatened identity—all coalesce to create speechlessness before the other. In Europe and North America, incidents of aggressive and hostile reactions to Muslims—in particular—have flared up in troubling ways

In Philosophy in a Time of Terror (2003), Habermas argues that fundamentalism is itself a product of modernity; modernity (or the failure of modernization) is perceived as a threat to religious identity (or, the unsettling of one’s lifeworld and meaning structures). With the onset of modernity, those adhering to the teachings of the world religions, which make universal claims, have been challenged to let go of the universally binding character and political acceptance of their doctrine to co-habit with others in a pluralistic world. But in many countries, particularly Islamic ones, there has been deep resistance to co-existing with the religiously other. However, considerable segments of the American “Christian right” are profoundly and disturbingly resistant to Islam and secular humanism. One can always count on some small Protestant sect to throw up some self-proclaimed parson to burn the Qur’an. What might seem like “reasonable accommodation” in Canada is not at all reasonable elsewhere. Globalization has intensified the “defensive reaction” to modernity—with its “violent uprooting of traditional ways of life.” Globalization produces winners, beneficiaries and losers. Thus, within the Arab world (but not there alone), the “West” becomes a scapegoat for the Arab’s perceived (and real) losses. This creates a “psychologically favourable situation” for the acceptance of polarized world-views.

Religious sources are drawn upon in order to resist the secularizing force of western influence, and even re-assert ethnic or national identity. Once world-views (which include self-understanding) are polarized, communication is distorted. Within Habermas’ world-understanding, the “spiral of violence begins as a spiral of distorted communication that leads through the spiral of uncontrolled reciprocal mistrust, to the breakdown of communication.” Terrorism becomes a communicative pathology. The world is ripped apart. The act of stopping speaking lies mainly in the abysmal life-situations of the mute. But not there only. We must try with delicacy and humility to examine the malady of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in our world today (the sickness that can creep into the centre of monotheistic religions).

In inter-cultural forms of communication, those who refuse to speak to the other do not recognize “each other as participating members of a community.” The act of taking the gag out of the mouth is one step toward mutual trust. But building a culture of trust cannot take place while oppression and fear dominate. Improvement of material conditions and a political culture where each can engage in mutual perspective-taking underpins a culture of trust. Fundamentalism, then, is not about the holding of dogmatic or orthodox viewpoints. All the world religions have dogma. But orthodoxy veers toward fundamentalism when “representatives of the true faith ignore the epistemic situation of a pluralistic society and insist—even to the point of violence—on the universally binding character and political acceptance of their doctrine.” This statement from Habermas characterizes Islamist, Jewish and Christian forms of fundamentalism.

Habermas wonders if the whole conception of communicative action has been brought into disrepute in our shattered and deaf world. He thinks that the West has gotten used to structural violence—the “unconscionable social inequality, degrading discrimination, pauperization, and marginalization” (both within its own countries in in the global community). However, he adds this caveat: “But our social relations are not totally governed by violence, strategic action and manipulation. The praxis of our daily living rests on a solid base of common background convictions, self-evident cultural truths, and reciprocal expectations. If violence thus begins with a distortion in communication, after it has disrupted it is possible to know what has gone wrong and what needs to be repaired.” This is the foundation, if you like, of Habermasian cultural vision and pedagogical hope in despairing times. Martha Nussbaum, writing in The New Religious Intolerance (2012), speaks of the “cultivation of the ‘inner eyes,’ the capacity to see the world from the perspective of minority experience” (p. 59). This cultivating process is at the heart of the pedagogics of mutual tolerance and respect.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at Athabasca University. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.



Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.