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Occluded Histories, Civil Religion and Vengeance in the Wake of Bin Laden’s Death
   
 
 
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Occluded Histories, Civil Religion and Vengeance in the Wake of Bin Laden’s Death

 
Thursday, 12 May 2011 09:23
 
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by Jeremy F. Walton
EPOS Insights

Political theorist Mahmood Mamdani’s provocative, cautionary reflections on terrorism and its relationship to recent political history echoed in my mind as my fellow passengers stirred from their sleep in response to an announcement from the cockpit:  “Some good political news:  We’ve just learned that Osama bin Laden has been killed.  It’s a proud day to be an American.”  

Cheers and applause erupted immediately, as they simultaneously did in dormitories, pubs, police precincts, and private homes throughout the United States.

Although the intervening days since Bin Laden’s assassination under the cover of night by a team of elite Navy Seals have witnessed some hesitant criticism of American disregard for Pakistani sovereignty and rules of warfare governing conduct toward combatants, the national mood in the United States remains celebratory.

In the echo chamber of congratulations to President Obama and vengeful joy over Bin Laden’s death, the fraught, specific political history that formed the crucible of Al Qaeda and continues to animate its ideology, rooted in the late Cold War, has been all but ignored.  Far from cause for revelry, this occlusion of history is a tragedy, albeit a politically expedient one.

I do not mean to denigrate the persistent grief of the families of 9/11 victims, or, for that matter, the pain that countless individuals continue to experience when they recall or witness the indelible images of that infamous Tuesday morning.

Nor should we assume that all celebrations of Bin Laden’s death stem from the same causes.  While it is unsurprising that the flag-waving youth at Ground Zero and on Pennsylvania Avenue greeted the news as a spur to festivity—most of them have, after all, come to maturity in a context defined by Manichean ideologies of good and evil, freedom and oppression, McWorld and Jihad—more sober minds have also saluted Bin Laden’s assassination as an unambiguous good.  Nor have I shed a tear for Al-Qaeda’s charismatic leader.  But I also worry deeply that jubilation over his death obscures comprehension of the pervasive political violence in many Muslim societies and post-colonial frustration over increasing global inequalities—to gesture to but a few factors—that made Bin Laden and his network possible in the first place.

Predictably, European media have been much more measured and critical in their response to Bin Laden’s killing as a demonstration of American power.  In contrast to the near-unanimous euphoria of American pundits, European commentators worry that the extralegal assassination of Bin Laden cements the United States’ status as a de facto empire that is not bound by the principles of territorial sovereignty or legal procedure.  These are undoubtedly worthy concerns.

Beyond a diagnosis of the troubling, global reach of American power, however, I contend that the general American reaction to Bin Laden’s death exemplifies the disturbing relationship between the politics and public ignorance about Islam in the United States today, a dynamic that I have written about at greater length elsewhere (http://therevealer.org/archives/3950).

To his credit, President Obama has vigorously denied that the United States is at war with Islam.  But should we take him at his word?  Clearly on any legal or logical basis, the notion of a war between a nation-state and a religion is incoherent, (although nation-states and their militaries evidently can declare war on non-state entities, as the “War on Terror” has demonstrated).  However, on a more abstract, discursive level, most non-Muslim Americans remain either incapable of or uninterested in distinguishing clearly and consistently between marginal terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda and Islam as a whole.

The responsibility for this blurring rests squarely on both media organs and politicians who have perpetuated and exploited the slippage between terrorism and Islam for their own, frequently cynical ends.  And because of this pervasive slippage, the assertion that the United States is not at war with Islam lacks a certain force—for many Americans, alas, it rings true.

In the context of a very different war in Southeast Asia, the sociologist Robert Bellah famously argued that American political culture depends upon a “civil religion”, both rooted in and distinct from Christianity, which constitutes an indispensable bulwark for the material processes of governance.  American civil religion articulates a conception of the United States as an exceptional city on the hill, the vanguard of divine unfolding on earth.

The sway of civil religion is especially potent during state rituals such as presidential inaugurations and national holidays.  As a holiday-like mood swept the United States as an immediate response to Bin Laden’s death, I recalled Bellah’s argument—while 9/11 has become the solemn high holiday of American civil religion, 5/2 erupted as its exuberant Carnivale.  But this Carnivale-like celebration was deeply troubling to me, for two distinct reasons.  Not only do the festivities that greeted news of Bin Laden’s death succeed in erasing the history and politics responsible for Bin Laden himself, they also legitimize a public culture of vengeance.

And a civil religion rooted in an ethics and theology of vengeance should undoubtedly disturb us all.

 



Jeremy F. Walton, Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow, Religious Studies Program - New York University

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 July 2012 13:47
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