theory proposes that all action is fundamentally rational
in character and that individuals and groups calculate the likely
costs and benefits of any action before deciding what to do.
Nonetheless, given the manner in which the topic of terrorism has dominated the news in recent years, and especially since September 11, scholarship on religion and terrorism, by comparison with public rhetoric about terrorism, is still quite thin. Take yourself back up to HV6431, and you will find virtually no works on religion. That is because the Library of Congress HV classification is, as we move from the general to the particular of this call number: social science to social pathology to crimes and offenses. Religion has not stood alongside class, ethnicity, nationalism, colonialism, and other such topics of social analysis as a factor in violence and terrorism, except by a small number of scholars and only recently.
Let me briefly distinguish what I mean by terrorism versus violence. Violence, David Rapoport has written, is a part of the human condition, arising from a sense of frustration and the anger that produces it. We normally justify violence by arguing that the people we want to hurt deserve punishment for misdeeds, or they deserve to be hurt because they can hurt us and intend to do so. Just war theories, both in the West and in Islam, are sophisticated elaborations of these premises for violence.
Terror, on the other hand, is justified by a different kind of logic, Rapoport suggests. The actual victims do not pose a direct threat to the agents of terror. The victims are often innocent by normal moral standards or by the evidence of our senses. Terrorists often do not speak of their victims as persons but rather as symbols, tools, animals, or corrupt beings.
Against the tendency of most modern scholars to see terrorism as a product of modern revolutions, the Russian and the French revolutions in particular, David Rapoport has argued that there are examples of religious terrorism in pre-modern times. In several of his papers he has singled out the Sicarii and Zealots who induced a massive revolt against the Romans in 66-70 CE. He also points to the Muslims of the Isma`ili Shi`a, known as the assassins during the Middle Ages, who practiced elaborate rituals of murder directed against Sunni Muslim leaders and authorities as well as against Christian Crusaders. Rapoport also analyzes the discourses and practices of Christian radical reform movements, such as the one led by Thomas Muentzer, using violent scriptural language and interpretation to marshal German peasants against Martin Luther and the German princes. Lastly, he analyzes the South Asian renegades during the time of the British Raj, known as Thuggies (or Thugs), who were worshippers of the dark goddess of destruction, Kali.
What is interesting about these examples, these case studies of religious terrorism and violence by Rapoport and others, is that all of them have been contested as to their authenticity. More recent scholarship has questioned the extent to which the Sicarii and Assassins have been mythologized by later generations, and in the case of the Thuggies, postcolonial criticism has dismissed their independent religious origins, preferring to see them rather as a colonial response to foreign British rule. The problem with the notion of religious terrorism, of using religious as a value-added concept for terrorism, is briefly as follows. The label "religious terrorism," ironically, generally excludes from consideration those Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other religious movements that become proponents of violence and terrorism as expressions of religion within the political economies that produce them. That is to say, the very idea of religious terrorism tends to be dismissed from consideration because it is seen as an aberration of orthodoxy. So when we study religious terrorism, are we dealing with abnormal behavior or with religious behavior, or both? As one rabbi who was interviewed on National Public Radio a few weeks ago said, if we dismiss religious perpetrators of violence as demonic, irrational, or insane, then we deny our ability to understand them. In this he was in agreement with rational choice theory and other academic approaches to terrorism.
The case in point before us at the present time is Usama bin Laden, the network known as al-Qa`ida or sometimes as the International Islamic Front for the Struggle against Jews and Crusaders, sometimes more broadly as the Wahhabis (a strict orthodox sect of Sunni Islam) or the Salafis (those who seek answers to the problems posed by modernity in the generations of the elders of Islam). He and his growing influence in many parts of the Muslim world cannot be obliterated with cruise missiles or coalitions with unstable or even stable governments in the Muslim world. But bin Laden and other sympathetic extremists have written and argued their interpretations of Islam using traditional forms of discourse still vital in Islamic scholarship and intellectual life. Such interpretations call for the use of deadly violence against Islams presumed enemies. These violent interpretations have indeed been disputed and rejected by the majority of Muslim intellectuals of various schools of thought. That is, the language of the dispute within Islam with Usama bin Laden is moral, religious, and theological. There is an argument going on about an issuewho is ones enemy and what means may one use to combat ones enemiesthat has a history in Islamic thought, even though the rise of colonialism and nationalism and the impact of modernity have changed the rhetorical context of that legal and theological debate for most Muslims.
So I will close with this thought: Rather than listening to endless talking heads on CNN or FOX, inter alia, our task at the university is to engage in deep readings of those texts and disciplined analyses of the social conditions that produced them. Of course, working to understand why violence and terrorism take place in human societies does not require us to approve of such acts. Theorizing about morally wrong and humanly despicable acts does not make them right. We do not study such things in order to make them more acceptable or make them seem historically inevitable, thus requiring us to do nothing about them. But if we are to do something about violence and terrorism other than bomb impoverished nations and seek to dismantle governments, we in the academy must include the study of social and political violence in our curriculum and research agendas, in the humanities as well as in the social sciences. In short, we must take violence and terrorism seriously, as a problem to be solved rationally, not rhetorically.
October 29, 2001
An interview with James Curran
Dean of the School of Public Health
Academic Exchange [AE]: In this Academic Exchange series on September 11th, faculty look at the terrorist attacks through the lens of their discipline. As dean of the school of public health and specialist in infectious disease, what's uppermost in your mind now?
James Curran [JC]: Of course, the immediate impact from a public health point of view is the horrible amount of death and disability from the attacks of September 11. But that's coupled with two levels of mental and community health issues.
The first level involves the much larger group of people, the family members, friends, and colleagues of the people who died or suffered serious injury from the events of September 11. And that's a fairly broad group, into thousands of people, maybe more. Beyond that, there's also a sense of national malaise that causes fear about the future in many of us. This has been described largely in economic terms in the press, whether it is a downturn in the stock market or depression in the airline industry, but it reflects an underlying fear about the future. This is not something that we recover from quickly, and it's not something often recognized as a health issue. But, in fact, it is. When you see reports of millions of people having trouble sleeping, people noticing dietary changes, treating each other differently because of personality changes, then you see these things as more widespread problems.
The second level of public health impact lies in our response to this. There's a greater awareness that we really are in a small, interdependent world--a world where we have to be prepared for global threats. Certainly the AIDS epidemic and the Ebola virus have taught us that there are global threats, but this makes us more aware of public health threats due to bio-terrorism--either chemical or biologic agents. It also makes us aware that there are violent threats to our health, so there will be huge concern and a rapid step-up in a lot of our local, state, and federal capacities to deal with terrorism. Global interdependence is key to this. We live in quite a global world that is not only economically interdependent but even interdependent from the point of view of security. When we think about how people around the world are sharing our terror, grief, and rage, we realize we really don't live in a small world. We realize we can't isolate ourselves by religion or by state or by city. We realize we have to think of ourselves more globally.
AE: A Government Accounting Office report issued in late September said the nation must develop new vaccines and treatments, but it must also fortify its public health infrastructure since that is the first line of defense in detecting and containing biological threats. How do you respond to that?
JC: That GAO report on bioterrorism pointed out that our ability to deal with terrorism doesn't just involve having a good spy network in countries throughout the world. It also involves closer attention to immigration and migration at all points within the US. It also involves closer attention to surveillance on airplanes and buses. And it really does depend upon having strength at the local level as well as the federally organized strength. For bioterrorism, it's important to have trained doctors, nurses, and public health professionals who are alert to the potential of biological or chemical attacks and capable of responding effectively. That has to be put in conjunction with increased regional and federal capacityfor example, the use of specific antibiotics or vaccines that might be stockpiled to help combat the use of these weapons. The state of Georgia and Dekalb and Fulton Counties have done more than some other areas have in this thing.
AE: Since the CDC may be a target for terrorist attacks, how do you assess the threat to Emory because of its proximity to the CDC?
JC: I don't think the CDC is a threat from the point of view of concern about biologic agents that they have there being released on the campus of Emory. But since the CDC represents the technical capacity to respond to bioterrorism, it could be seen as a target. Emotionally, if you're going to strike terror into people's hearts, you aim at things that are most significant. The CDC would be a more terrifying targetwhether or not there was actually any risk to the local communitythan the Food and Drug Administration, for example, just as hitting the Pentagon was a symbol of aiming at our military might. But, I don't think it is necessarily more of a target than anything else. Who knows?
In the wake of the more recent anthrax infections sent through the nation's mails, we are witnessing a true test of our public health system and its ability to respond to real threats. What makes this unique is that it is occurring in the immediate context of a declared war, albeit a conflict with an elusive and uncertain enemy. This context of a declared war places the Government response to anthrax within the broader context of the terrorist threat that was amplified by the events of September 11th. We can be proud of how rapidly that CDC, the State of Georgia, DeKalb County Health Department, and Emory has responded and continues to respond to this crisis as well.
Anthrax Reality Check
"If you think about it,
anthrax is not a really scary disease, in that it doesn't move
from person to person, and we can use antibiotics to prevent it.
But it has notoriety. The word "anthrax" is very scary.
Headlines, the media, have made it that way. . . . Anthrax is
known as the "wool-sorter's disease." People working
in woolen mills would comb goat hair or sheep hair and aeresolize
the spores--send them into the air. But anthrax is not very good
at infecting humans; it's much more efficient at infecting cows.
Studies in the 1960s showed that during one shift, workers inhaled
as many as 1500 to 2000 spores and didn't get sick."
--Dr. Michael Bell, bio-epidemiologist, National Center for Infectious Disease, CDC, speaking on October 17, 2001, during a session on bioterrorism as part of the Conference on Global Nursing Partnerships: Strategies for a Sustainable Nursing Workforce, co-sponsored by the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.
Foreign Policy and Dirty Work
By Abdullahi An-Naim, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law
It is amazing that the USA, renowned for perfecting a system for even the most trivial things people do, and for its ruthless economic efficiency, keeps re-inventing the wheel in its foreign policy. It ends up paying such an inflated last-minute price for what it cant buy anyway, which is genuine good will and respect. The Bible says, if you want peace, do justice. It doesnt say, pay for peace by bribing others or hiring thugs to do your dirty work for you.
October 2, 2001
The New Urgency of Understanding Rhetoric
By Jeffrey Walker, associate professor of English
Walker begins this Academic Exchange series of brief comments on the terrorist attack of September 11. Throughout the fall, faculty from religion, public health, sociology, nursing, and other fields will offer some thoughts on September 11 as seen through the lens of their discipline.
After the outrage of September
11, teachers everywhere began thinking about the possibility and
propriety of using it as a "teachable moment." As a
writing teacher, I see that reflection and writing on the eventseven
as they continue to unfoldcan give students the opportunity
to do the valuable work of articulating and developing their thought
in the context of open and honest discussion, and help them move
toward a matured, shareable judgment. This kind of discussion
can give both teacher and students an opportunity to examine critically
the public discourse that emerges in response to events. We can
apply the rhetorical lessons we typically teach in the examination
of anthology pieces and selected "literature" to matters
that are omnipresent in everyones thoughts. No "mere
rhetoric," the arguments about terrorism promise to have
real and possibly dramatic consequences for our students
lives as well as our own.
Here I mean "rhetoric" in the larger sense (as Aristotle defined it), as a "faculty of observing" and acting upon the processes of argument and persuasion that lead to practical judgment, in both the public sphere and private life. The term "rhetoric" of course includes the overt structure and tactics used to present an argument in various types of discourse (whether an opinion piece, a story, etc.). But perhaps more importantly, rhetoric also encompasses tacit reasoning systems and habits of feeling. These are the assumptions that endow arguments with greater or lesser degrees of reasonability and persuasive force. Such examination leads to critical reflection on both actual and possible arguments, and to judgment on which ones ought to earn the assent of thinking, morally responsible people.
Students sometimes all too easily regard rhetoric as "English class stuff" with only slight bearing on their "real" concerns. Now, however, the fundamental rhetorical lessons we teach in any writing course can be made present to them as utterly and pragmatically real indeed. Perhaps this gives us the opportunity to also make real the oft-cited justification of a liberal arts education: to help students come to terms with matters of profound importance in their lives.
you are interested in adding your thoughts to this series, contact
Amy Benson Brown at: email@example.com.