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Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11

by Bruce Lincoln

Buy the book: Bruce Lincoln. Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11

Release Date: November, 2003

Edition: Paperback


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Buy the book: Bruce Lincoln. Holy Terrors: Thinking About Religion After September 11

Osama and Dubya equivalent?

This weird little book is concerned with how the dogma, language, and practice of absolutist religions have been employed throughout history by competing social groups. Dominant groups employ religion to reinforce their own positions, while opposition and revolutionary groups employ religion to disrupt the existing social order. Lincoln claims "Following Marx ..., society should be seen as a field of tension in which a variety of factions compete for limited resources of wealth, power, and prestige." On this basis, one of the book's primary themes is how this-or-that social group employs the means of religion to compete along these economic and political power lines. Numerous historical examples are viewed from this perspective, including Robespierre's "The Cult of the Supreme Being" and the Assassin revolt against Sunni orthodoxy. In a endnote, Lincoln is bold enough to wonder if modern secular ideologies like Marxism might not be all that different.

The main analyses of this post-9-11 book take place in "current political moment" and concern the 3-way tensions between Western secularism and Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. One of the main themes is the tension between "maximalist Islam" and the secular Western world's "minimalist" approach to religion. Lincoln defines "maximalism" to mean "the desire for religion to colonize all aspects of a culture." Islamic militants are "maximalists" who employ violence. By contrast, the Western approach to religion is "minimalist," wherein religion is confined to the personal and metaphysical realms; all other public and governmental affairs take place in a secular arena. Citing the writings of Sayyid Qutb and others, Lincoln argues that this distinction lay at the heart of the Muslim resentment of the U.S.

As American power and cultural influence has grown, Muslim resentment has grown, too. America has become "the Great Satan, a monstrous entity responsible for a global flood of impiety and profanation, as witnessed in the blatant sexuality and random violence of the popular culture it ... exports." The United States has become the "contemporary incarnation of jahiliyyah: the barbarism and spiritual ignorance that preceded Islam..." Lincoln seems to contradict his own conclusion when he writes about "violent reactions to American policies many Muslims find offensive." In other words, Lincoln first shows that deep philosophical divisions that drive the conflict, and then later suggests that policy disagreements are the true motive force.

The book's primary proposition is that Bush and Christian fundamentalists are not unlike OBL and Islamic fundamentalists. Lincoln compares and contrasts - and ultimately, equates -Bush and the Christian right with OBL and his followers. Lincoln lumps together America's religious right (personified by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson) along with the Taliban, Hamas, and al Qaeda in the sense that they all want to bring about a comprehensive religious order.

Lincoln claims both groups seek to expand their religion into all spheres of public and private life, and in this way they are philosophically equivalent and equally dangerous to the secular ideals of the Enlightenment. Lincoln sees little intrinsic difference between these two groups in terms of their goals, belief systems, and rhetoric. Lincoln admits that Fawell's so-called "prayer warriors" are "less militant than al Qaeda", but he also points out that the televangelist's "religious ideal is equally maximalist."

Lincoln achieves this provocative conclusion, in part, by deconstructing speeches made by Bush and Osama to show that they employ similar rhetorical devices and underlying allusions. Both Bush and Osama see the world in terms of a "good versus evil" struggle, and both demonize their enemies. Bush and Osama each point out the moral failings of their opponents. Each portrays himself as a righteous protector of the weak, champion of a cause, and so on. Lincoln's technique is to break down a speech and scrutinize it line by line, looking for hidden meanings, subtext, allusions, and religious significance.

Lincoln reaches a paranoiac state while deconstructing Bush's Oct. 7, 2001 address to the nation (delivered at the onset of the Afghan war). Lincoln insists that phrases like "the terrorists may burrow deeper into their caves...," anyone who sides with bin Laden "will take that lonely path at their own peril" are richly laden with Biblical allusions that only Christian fundamentalists (and busily deconstructing divinity professors) have the scriptural background to fully grasp. Lincoln's technique is like this: Bush said X. X "conjures up" biblical passages like Y found in the book of Fubar 57:123. Thus, Bush is intentionally "double coding" and speaking in "sotto voce" to "those who have ears to hear," while hoodwinking all the rest of us.

Lincoln also makes the "it's all about oil" and the "Texas oilmen in the Whitehouse" arguments elsewhere in the book. Over 80% of the chapter titled "Jihad, Jeremiads, and the Enemy Within" is devoted to analyzing Falwell's infamous post-9-11 accusations. That incident plays a large role throughout the book.

I have ambivalent feelings about the book. I found myself agreeing with parts, but I could not accept the fallacious reasoning that led to over-the-top conclusions like the Bush double coding. More importantly, I feel as if Lincoln has missed the forest for the trees. He is so wrapped up in dialectics, meta-judgments, meta-language, symmetric dualisms, and so forth, that he's conflated the risk of militant Islamic fundamentalism with Jerry Falwell and the Christian coalition. Falwell's a jerk, but AFAIK, he is not behind a worldwide string of bombings that have killed thousands.

I was interested in the historical examples Lincoln gave, and I wish he would've spent more time developing those. The book has an extensive notes section which contains a lot of interesting and useful material. The book is burdened with opaque phrases like "metadiscursive capacity," "soteriological dimensions," "Weberian ideal types," and "a more latitudinarian position verging even upon antinomianism." This academic language is off-putting to the lay person, and it is ironic given Lincoln's emphasis on "definitional clarity" and his admission that language can be "... considerably more complex than common sense ought to have it."

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