Of Anthropologies and Ideologies, Enemies and Friends
“And Lincoln says to the woman, ‘Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?'”
The writer’s impulse, when an occasion comes to pass which begs for words, is to do what we do: write.
Since Friday’s devastation in Paris, I have white-knuckle-tamped it down.
I have tamped that impulse down, despite my heart aching, my amygdala firing, my fingers itching to type.
I forced myself to wait, to honor the horror, the panic, the unclarity.
I needed to grasp the magnitude of the recent terror.
So I read, and watched, and walked, and wept at all of the blood: France, Turkey, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia.
(Good God, there’s even a wiki page dedicated to listing terrorist attacks in just 2015! Just 2015!)
To learn and listen, I leaned my attention into political and religious and military perspectives.
This morning, though, I heard the voice that was missing in my store of reflective sources: the voice of an anthropologist.
It dawned on me, as I was listening to Dr. Scott Atran, an American and Frenchman, that in these inhumane times, it was right and good to sit at the feet of an anthropo-logist: anthropos is the Greek word for ‘human.’
Dr. Atran is no newbie or outlier to the study of terrorism: in fact, he just recently published a well-reviewed book entitled Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)making of Terrorists. He’s been on the University of Michigan faculty, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, France’s Center for Scientific Research, the Ford School of Public Policy, and a consultant to the UN Security Council.
You know what this anthropo-logist does?
He anthropologizes, he makes human, the terrorists.
He studies all that might compel someone to strap on a suicide vest, to bombard innocents with bullets, to strike contagious fear into the entire world.
Of all of Dr. Atran’s insights, here’s what grabbed me most: he maintains that these terroristic attacks are really, at root, not born out of religious fervor.
Not the point.
Dr. Atran (self-described as non-religious) says that the greatest predictor of terroristic action is–get this–whether someone has a close group of friends, or, say, plays team soccer.
Most terrorists, he says, are between 18-24, and have had little to no religious training.
When they are taken in by terroristic groups, these young men are, he says, born again, in a manner of speaking, into extremist views.
It’s not the religion that pulls them in though.
It’s about a desire for communal identity and glory. Connection. Friends. Being part of something of import, bigger than they are when they stand alone.
In fact, says Dr. Atran, it’s about familial identity.
I know of no political movement or territorial movement or even transnational movement — that is, no large grouping of human beings that don’t consider themselves in terms of brotherhoods or sisterhoods or fatherlands or homelands or motherlands.
Powerful movements band together, around genetics to be sure, but also around concepts that bind people together as if they were family. Think sorority, fraternity, fraternal organizations (Elks, Masons, Eagles, and so forth): even former incarnations of insurance companies for my denomination (Lutheran Brotherhood)!
When you combine a powerful narrative of family under the notion of monotheism (the idea that there is only one God–a belief held dear by Jews, and Christians, and Muslims), then there can be, Dr. Atran says, a danger of creating powerful and all-inclusive notions of the Evil Other, in order to protect the Good Family tribal identity.
However, make no mistake: he is not bashing monotheistic religions here.
Dr. Atran says that secular groups have the same thing going on in their traditions.
But if you think about it, these secular ideologies, all modern secular ideologies, all the isms: fascism, communism, socialism, anarchism, colonialism, democratic liberalism, are all variants on this monotheistic theme, however secular they are in appearance. They’re salvational Messianic ideologies which believes the world must be saved and should be saved whether they like it or not, and that’s what drives us. (Emphasis mine)
Janine di Giovanni, Newsweek’s Middle East editor, says the same sort of thing, but directly in light of Paris’ decision to lob bombs in Syria as answer for the violence of 11-13.
I think that it’s very complicated, launching airstrikes like this as a retribution, but also as a way of wiping out ISIS…[b]ecause, the other thing is, that you can’t wipe out an ideology. You might be able to suppress them militarily, or you might be able to cut off some of their lines, but you can’t suppress the key message they’re spreading. (Emphasis mine)
Here in the States we are in the throes of election fervor.
Ideologies are palpable these days.
Every candidate, every party, every activist is doing their best to ‘convert’ others to their ideology, their ways of thought, their principles, their policies-in-action. Our way is right, the other way is bad, wrong, misguided, dangerous, and must be disparaged and beaten (note even the etymology of the word ‘beaten’ here, which ties the root to actual violence).
Fact is, we don’t know what to do with tranquility. Nobody, for example, goes to movies where there is no strife, no contest, no conflict. Here’s Dr. Atran again:
In addition to dealing with fear and revenge, there’s something which I like to call sort of the principle of enmity. Human beings are most mobilized when we have enemies. Just look at novels. Look at the news. No one’s interested in happy, good-feeling cooperative things. I mean, people — when they’re tired of war and they’re tired of conflict and competition, then they’ll go back on it. But what really drives interest and passion is competition and conflict.
We’re conflict junkies.
So what are our options, when plain old peace isn’t satisfying, disturbing though that might be?
Dr. Atran asks it this way:
So the question is, can we actually lessen conflict without having enemies?….
Or we can change it to a sort of abstract enemy like poverty or killing or something like that.
And that sort of reminds me of how I actually ended the book. You know, Abraham Lincoln is making a speech during the latter stages of the Civil War where he’s describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.
And a woman, an elderly woman, a staunch Unionist, abrades him for speaking kindly of his enemies when he should only be thinking of destroying them. And Lincoln says to the woman, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
Read that phrase again: “…he’s describing the Southern rebels as human beings like anyone else.”
Just look at what anthropo-logists do, when left to their own devices.
They up and humanize people, even the Southern Rebels.
Make no mistake: I understand the desire to return violence with violence.
My children and I have been wrapped in more monkey-pile snuggles than usual, this weekend. They didn’t realize it, but I held each one in my arms with extra closeness, extra protectiveness, extra love, imagining my horror and despair and rage if either of them were to be victim of a terrorist attack, a casualty due to the perverse need to satisfy and feed warped notions of vainglory.
But as for me and my house, though I might on occasion have to white-knuckle-tamp my fear down, we will chose not a religion, not a people, as our enemies.
Instead, our enemy will be xenophobia, namely fear of a different people.
Our enemy will be ignorance.
Our enemy will be fear.
Our enemy will be inequity.
Our enemy will be loneliness.
Our enemy will be desperation.
Our hope will be transformation.
As I was finishing (I thought) this blog this afternoon, my news feed was suddenly ablaze with the announcement of several US Governors who wish to refuse Syrian refugees. Some politicians–including Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, candidates for President–have tempered that a bit: some Syrian refugees ought to be allowed…the Christian ones.
Harleen Gambir, counter-terrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote a column for the Washington Post yesterday. In it, she makes the same sort of case as Dr. Atran. Her article is called “The Islamic State’s Trap for Europe,” though it could surely be extended to include the US.
She writes that the Islamic State “hopes frequent, devastating attacks in its name will provoke overreactions by European governments against innocent Muslims, thereby alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities throughout the continent.”
Prohibiting desperate and persecuted and innocent Syrian Muslim refugees counts in her mind, I imagine, as fodder for “alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities throughout the continent.”
If we want to talk about inhumane behavior, inhumane, it seems to me, is to deny the principle of the saying engraved on our most treasured gift from France, of all places: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Inhumane, it seems to me, is to ignore that the Christian Savior (and his family) were, according to Matthew, themselves refugees fleeing persecution–and were not Christian.
Inhumane, it seems to me, is to ignore the warnings and the wisdom of people like Dr. Atran and Ms. Gambir, warnings and wisdom such as she penned here:
But backlashes against Muslims who have no part in the Islamic State’s ideologies or actions make the situation much worse. Europe must avoid the trap that the Islamic State is setting by focusing its responses to the Paris attacks and other outrages against the perpetrators and their supporters. (Emphasis mine)
And we are surprised when the trap of which she speaks snaps.
These US politicians–most, if not all, who claim to be Christian!–who want to ban Muslim refugees (refugees fleeing the very terrorists we fear!), give context and credibility for a cartoon tweeted from a cartoonist of Charlie Hebdo (a French satirical magazine which was itself the victim of a terrible terrorist attack) which states, “friends from the whole world, thank you for #prayforParis, but we don’t need more religion! our faith goes to music! kisses! life! champagne and joy! #parisisaboutlife
I so respect the sentiment. I get it. It’s well-earned.
But Dr. Atran speaks to this distaste and distrust and disillusion of religion as well. He writes:
Everything good you can think of has been religiously inspired from creativity in art and music to intellectual endeavors. And everything bad from war and genocide and murder to torture. But that’s also been the case with secular governments as well.
I don’t deny that religion is an element of this terribleness.
But to focus only on religion–Christian or Muslim–misses the other issues at hand: fear, racism, poverty, distrust, inequity, ignorance, xenophobia, violence.
Or, to put it conversely, focusing only on religion misses that those who join terrorist organizations have a desire to belong to something bigger than themselves, to join an inclusive group, to be treated with respect.
But those of us who are religious, pay heed: our faith makes claims on our interactions with the stranger, with the homeless, with the hungry.
We have the possibility of not only making an enemy into a friend, but preventing the creation of enemies in the first place.
I do believe that God, not to mention those who are a-religious and those who are on the cusp of joining a militant group (instead of, say, a peace-loving, welcoming, justice-seeking, healing group), are paying close attention to how we engage those who are different than we.
As a result of listening to Dr. Atran today, my family is making plans to invite a Muslim immigrant family to our table for Thanksgiving.
We hope that our offer can find a taker!
We’d like to not just tokenize that meal, but rather begin to establish a relationship (limited though it might be before our move to Omaha).
Once we are settled in Omaha, we hope to establish a new relationship with a new Muslim immigrant family: again, not to tokenize, but to do what we can to make friends, and to live out our faith commitments.
I invite you to do the same, not only on Thanksgiving, but as a habit, as an extension of your faith, as a manifestation of your commitment to the Least of These, no matter from where they come or in which God they trust.
Intentionally and flagrantly defy the fear, defy the terrorist, and defy the xenophobes in our own country.
Destroy an enemy.
Make a friend.
Doch the terror.
Here is a link to Dr. Atran’s article about the violence in Paris.
Anna, I don’t always agree with your point of view but I respect your thoughts, arguments, and causes. You always give me pause to consider and at times you have even convinced me that I should reconsider…this is one of those times. When France started bombing I thought “good!” However, something didn’t add up. ISIS wants this. You just enlightened me as to why this didn’t feel right. Thank you for this blog and I will look to build a relationship with a Muslim. You cannot ever have enough friends!
Paul, on so many levels this made me grin. Thank you for your comment, for slogging through the blog, and for bothering to comment. Grateful for that, and grateful for your extension of hospitality to those who need just that!
Anna- Thanks again for another wise, timely and considered piece of writing on a difficult issue. Interestingly I recalled Lincoln’s quote being not about Confederates at the end of the Civil war but about his political enemies who he appointed to his own cabinet during the war as described in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. I also appreciate the links to the work of Dr. Atran & Ms. Gambir.
I hope you won’t mind me sharing your piece on Facebook and on my new blog you helped to inspire goodandnew.wordpress.com. I appreciate your suggestion to shareThanksgiving with a Muslim family. A few years back our Thanksgiving was enriched by sharing it with an Iraqi Christian family our church was helping to resettle. They are now part of the growing diaspora in Detroit. Blessings on you & yours at Thanksgiving. B+
Thank you, Bruce, for these kind words! Yes, please do share it–humbly appreciated. And I will look forward to reading your blog!
And now I will have to check that Lincoln reference. I should have done that to be sure that the quote was correct. Arg.
Peace be with you, your family, and those whom you serve. Anna
Actually, everybody seems to be a bit wrong. Lincoln does seem to have said such a thing (and it surely mirrors his sentiments) but where he did say it is difficult to identify (in my relatively brief review tonight).
However, it does seem that perhaps he was riffing off Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, who said the same thing (more or less). Not clear when or in which context, but the words were attributed to him in 1784 and 1846.
And now we know. Sort of.
Our family has become friends with a Muslim family from Pakistan. They came to America to seek new opportunities and to make a better life for themselves. Their daughter and our daughter are best friends from school and have exchanged questions about faith, Jesus, and religious traditions. They go to each other’s birthday parties and playdates. What I find interesting is that we never gave it much thought that it could be such a novelty that we might be friends with Muslims. Quite the contrary. This has all taken place quite naturally. Are there differences? Certainly. But they are not patronized by our family because of the novelty of their faith, origin, or culture. It just is what it is and that ‘s fine. We do not interpret our friends through the lens of our own cultural or theological understandings. We honor who they are and delight in the common experiences we share. To do otherwise is what a true anthropologist would call “ethnocentrism.”
I do take issue with the suggestion that we must seek out someone who is Muslim because of recent events, xenophobia or because they might “need” to experience life as we understand or define it. i.e. The holiday we call Thanksgiving for example is a uniquely American cultural tradition. Personally, I would not choose to patronize our Muslim friends in such a way. Perhaps simply being open to the natural opportunities for multicultural conversation and companionship will win the day.
Thank you for this comment, and your story of the friendship between your daughter and you.
I’m grateful that there was a natural way for you to meet another Muslim family, namely by way of your daughter and her school. It is so often true that it is the children who build the bridges and not the adults–who tend more often to build the walls!
By no means was I intending to be patronizing, although by using the word ‘tokenizing’ I acknowledged that my hope to host Muslims at Thanksgiving could be perceived as such.
I certainly apologize that my words and intents have appeared patronizing to you.
It’s rather that many of us don’t have those natural segues for connection with people of different faiths as you and your family have experienced, nor do we have normal occasions at which they can naturally bloom.
They have to be intentionally created.
It is but coincidence that this year’s Thanksgiving falls during this intensified air of hostility expressed by some toward many.
It seemed to me, then, that the occasion of Thanksgiving (a day that, to be sure, is rooted in problematic history) can be appropriately transformed on many levels to be an intentional Feast Day of welcome, shared abundance, metanoia, and new beginnings. I have no ‘need’ to culturalize Muslims to “life as we understand or define it.” I confess that I’m not quite sure where that impression was gathered. I’m very open to recrafting my words if I have misled or misspoke.
And, to be clear, there was no “must” exhortation to others attached to my words, as you indicate above. Rather, my words were intended to be an invitation to consider the meal of Thanksgiving to be an event that could create more meals, more events, by way of new friendships.
As it is, in my family, we are gladdened to be welcoming one to three Muslim students to our home. We have invited them to bring both stories and items to share with us about their homelands and traditions, have told them that we are mortified at the way their faith has been vilified by many here, that we are not of that ilk, and that we hope that this meal will be the first of many more where shared learning and experiences and points of view can be exchanged.
Again, I’m grateful that you can benefit from a transformative friendship by way of your daughter. Were that to be the case for more of us!
I wish you and yours peace.
There is no need to apologize. I’m not so easily offended by an internet blog. However, I do think we need to be very careful and discerning in our approach to embrace the pluralities in our midst for the sake of living out our baptismal calling. And since I was “invited” to do so, I do question who’s “need” it serves to invite a Muslim family to my home for a Thanksgiving meal. Would it be mine or the family’s? That’s the central question. I simply disagree with the premise and urgency of your idea as you posit, “Intentionally and flagrantly defy the fear, defy the terrorist, and defy the xenophobes in our own country.”
As a point of reference, I do believe the ELCA model of accompaniment ministry to develop authentic relationships in our global ministry is both sound theology and pragmatic for the discussion. As a point of interest, you might look into the Tri-Faith Initiative if you come to Omaha. You might also want to become aware of the Global Faith Initiative and the counter points it posits to the current refugee crisis. Good folks in the pews reside on both sides of the issue. Good Luck.
Christopher, the “need” to invite is not either/or, both both/and and beyond.
Precisely as a result of this blog, I have had several exchanges with Muslims who have been even hiding their identity, for fear of being stereotyped, profiled, and worse. They have expressed thankfulness for evidence of Christian welcome at the personal level. Not all Muslims feel so afraid, but this link and this link and this link (for starters) show that I’m not making their fear and isolation up.
Precisely as a result of this blog, several Christians have been inspired to learn more about Muslims and the refugee crisis, and to be more actively involved in political and social responses to the political barriers and harmful rhetoric recently rampant in the public discourse.
These comments are not to laud either me or the blog, but rather to point to the fact that both Muslims and non-Muslims, both refugees and citizens, are, for different “needs,” in need of relationship these days…which, in point of fact, is all that my invitation was hoping to encourage: Relationship, which can be built only on mutual knowledge and respect and hospitality.
My name is Anna, not Pollyanna. I am under no illusions that inviting people of a different tradition will solve the world’s problems–certainly not this one.
But in addition to marches, to letters to the editor, to public responses to politicians who fan the flames of distrust and racism and xenophobia, it seems like a good thing to encourage personal relationship rather than only objection and dismay at a distance to the misconceptions of Muslims and refugees.
That you continue to find my invitation to Muslims, and encouragement of others to do the same, as patronizing, I find somewhat stunning. It is rather, in a way, an act of repentance.
I could, I suppose and as you seem to suggest, have asked a Muslim family to ask my family to their table instead. But that would seem to replace your accusation of patronization with presumption.
To boot, with a boy in a wheelchair, it would be in my case impossible.
I am fully aware of the ELCA model of accompaniment. I can’t detect where my suggestion (as but one part of my overall hope and intentions as also expressed in the blog) to welcome people to our table as the first act of moving toward friendship and greater understanding on our part, conflicts with those principles: Mutuality, Inclusivity, Vulnerability, Empowerment, and Sustainability are all either components of my invitation or expressed hopes thereof.
As I will, as you know, be coming to Omaha, I will be glad to learn more in a local sense of the Tri-Faith Initiative. I am aware of that expression of faith as well, and have been for some time.
If by the Global Faith Initiative you mean instead the Global Faith Institute, I will learn more. I have begun some research on the group already.
I’m not sure to what you refer when you speak of “the issue” on which “good folks in the pews reside.”
I’m speaking about several issues: an issue of welcome instead of unwelcome; an issue of humble attempts to forge new friendships in surely insufficient ways; an issue of, despite your dismissal of the urgency of the matter, indeed given the inflammatory and disgracefully false rhetoric of many of the Republican candidates and the refusal of several Governors to welcome the refugee, yes the urgency of publicly welcoming the stigmatized Other, the outcast Other, the smeared Other.
Just as I am aware of the ELCA model of accompaniment, I am sure that you are aware of Bishop Eaton’s Letter regarding the Syrian Refugees.
This small extension of welcome is but one way that I hope my family and I will live out the integrity of her message, which is indeed the integrity of Christ’s message: welcome.
And, given that we are people who are invited to the Table, the Eucharistic Table at that, namely the Thanksgiving Table, I hope that our welcome to our Thanksgiving Table is also anything but coercive, anything but patronizing, anything but pompous, but is rather, to echo the tradition of the Lord’s welcome to us, a welcome to others that is infused with grace, with humility, with incompleteness, with sincerity, and with profuse hope for reconciliation.