Return of the Demonized: a Great Catastrophic Earthquake Has Erupted

Jurgen Habermas’ longing and yearning for Kant’s cosmopolitan world-order of perpetual peace seems far from even an intimation of fulfillment. It is as if a great catastrophic earthquake has erupted beneath the earth’s surface, setting free mighty, dark and malevolent forces that challenge any deep-seated commitment to communicative action and deliberative democracy in our postmetaphysical, multicultural and religiously pluralistic world.

9/11 cast its very dark shadow over the last decade and a half. The “war on terror” shaped its mood—morose and melancholic. In academic circles a veritable revolution occurred—suddenly the old secularization thesis of the 1980s and 1990s collapsed. Religion could hardly be understood as a private affair anymore. Stunned academics shook off the dust and began to rethink revered assumptions about the role that religion really was playing in the entire world—Muslim worlds, Africa, Latin America, the United States, and not just “exceptional Europe” with its beautiful and empty churches.

Those longing for a world committed to building cultures of peace and intercultural dialogue and respect—had their hoped dashed as religious intolerance intensified through the decade. Participative democracy is inconceivable without religious and secular persons accepting each other as equals in public debate and consideration. “A culture of peace” requires that this happen.

The malevolent forces breaking out from the depths refuse openness to the other. Rather, the other (be they Muslim or Russia) is demonized and the mass media bludgeons us to submit to the prevalent narrative of fear and the necessity of US hegemony. It is as if, as Gramsci once said, the old world does not want to leave and the new one is hesitant to come.

The US “empire of chaos” has become unhinged from disciplining its actions according to universal principles of morality, adherence to international law and diplomacy as means of resolving conflict. From the Muslim perspective, the US as self-proclaimed “Christian nation” appears to have become apocalyptic and nihilistic as its recent geo-political actions have ruined Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. For its part, ISIS re-signifies “Islam” as a fiery and violent force destroying all its enemies in the name of Allah.

But we dare not forget (as we are wont to do) that the US overthrew the government of Iran in 1953 and installed their own dictator; and has relentlessly sought to undermine any secular form of “pan-Arab” socialism present in the Middle East. Wherever Muslim leaders have resisted Western domination of the world, figures like Ahmet Sukarno, the Muslim leader of Indonesia, have been overthrown. From the 1980s until the present, the US has mischievously twisted Islamist Muslim forces to serve their imperial interests.

ISIS, most scholars of Islam and Middle Eastern politics agree, is the nefarious creation of the US. Millions of Muslims have been killed by the US and western allies (Indonesians, Algerians, Afghanis, Pakistanis, Iranians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, and Palestinians). Once proud peoples have been crushed by war; little Arab kids wander through the ruins in the desolate refugee camps or the Gaza strip.

Thus, the January 2015 march of the millions in the Paris streets—“Je suis Charlie”—ostensibly in defence of free speech is, in fact, grossly hypocritical because the causes of the generation of blowback are simply filtered out. The nasty little magazine, Charlie Hebdo, uses satire, but it has been accused of being hateful as it directs its spitefulness to malign Islam and the prophet (it also mocks Christianity).

The arrogance and self-righteousness of the West coursed through the Paris marches: war criminals like Netanyahu observed marching arm in arm with other tarnished world leaders turns history into grotesque carnival. No mention, either, of Boko Haram’s massacres (such as in Baga, North-east Nigeria on January 8, 2015).

Some westerners, it seems, find the “clash of civilizations” narrative convenient: the spiritual desolation of the West finds reason to live in the fight against Islam on behalf of a “Christian civilization” that only exists in the ruins of their imagination. “European lives have always mattered more than others” screams a headline from CounterPunch (Ajamu Baraka, January 15,2015).

This poignant headline captures the hierarchical, neo-colonial order of deaths that count manifest in the recent massacres in Paris. We weep for Westerners and declare unity with the very country that massacred Libyans and attacked the Assad government of Syria. The mass media narcotizes our thinking such that we can scarcely even connect the massacres in Beirut, Baghdad and the downing of the Russian airplane with the grievous attacks with Paris. Europeans dare not declare: “We are all Russians now.” Our moral vision is stunted, trapped in pitiful nationalism and a racist sense of white, European superiority.

In 2015 hatred and fear of Muslims has grown exponentially as the vision of a multicultural society veers off the rails. Islamophobia is virulently present in the West; ordinary Muslims are back on their heels as they are pressured to explain what’s wrong with Islam (now almost inextricably linked like Siamese twins with violence). In the aftermath of Paris murders on November 13, we shudder at the predicable ugly rallies on European streets. Muslims are humiliated, their mosques desecrated, and spattered with offensive graffiti.

Indeed, the Enlightenment project of progress, church and state separation and the developmental vision of unfolding and deepening rationality are now very much in question. The liberal world of John Rawls’ well-ordered society of fairly co-operating citizens who listen to one another behind a “veil of ignorance” pertaining to self-interests seems like an American fairy tale.

The role of scholars in this desperate situation, then, is normative, scientific and pedagogical. It is crucial that we try to construct a normative framework of how religious and secular citizens ought to converse in public spheres in our post-secular world. To this end, Habermas’ understanding of the role of religion in the public sphere will be extremely valuable for us (“Religion in the public sphere: cognitive presuppositions for the ‘public use of reason’ by religious and secular citizens,” in Between Naturalism and Religion: philosophical essays [2008]).

Admittedly, the rage of war and terror represses the need for attention to how Muslims and other faith-communities and secular citizens ought to co-inhabit. In Parting Ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism (2012) Judith Butler speaks of breaking free from being “ethically bound only to those who already speak as we do, in the language we already know” (p. 17). We need to be multi-lingual.

In order to flesh out what it means for Christians and Muslims to engage in the public sphere, we will need to examine a range of themes that faith-communities articulate in the common spaces available to citizens to speak seriously about living well in a pluralistic social order (Islamic ethics and medical science, culture and the arts, ecology and economy and society, education and power).

This is a formidable task: it is clear that we cannot speak of something like “the” Christian or “the” Muslim moral and ethical position on a wide variety of issues pertaining to how we ought to inhabit the world together. And we know that fundamentalist fury has stolen the irenic core of the great world religions.

There is a multiplicity of positions on offer, left to centre to right and way out there! This latter task presupposes that we need to dig more deeply into concrete instances and ways Christians and Muslims have and do enter (or refuse entry into) public spaces. Tariq Ramadan’s ideas about how Muslims in western countries can be fully engaged citizens and Rowan Williams’ considered views on faith in the public square are worthy texts to shift our global understanding of Islam and Christianity (see Tariq Ramadan, Radical reform: Islamic ethics and liberation [2009] and Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square [2012]).

It also presupposes that we need to elaborate the pedagogics and action strategies flowing from our normative and scientific understandings of our post-secular predicament. The pedagogical demand (and possible teaching program for formal schools, religious institutions and inter-faith gatherings) requires learning the “epistemic ability to consider one’s own religious convictions from the outside and to connect them with secular views” (Habermas [2008]). The right conditions of belief and life—in the post-metaphysical and religiously pluralistic world—may coax people of faith out from dogmatic harbours to sail on the rough waters of modernity with fellow and sister companions, secular or confused. We are all in the same boat and the seas are wild and rough.

History clearly indicates that Judaism, Christianity and Islam have had serious adherents who have chosen to use violence to achieve specific ends. Is this ghastly choice a radical deviation from the core texts and practices of faith-communities? It is urgent that our world finds out. Soon!

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.