Monday, May 19, 2014

Islamophobia, Satanism, and freedom of religion

by Salman Hameed

I think Michael Muhammad Knight is one of the most interesting Muslim writers out there. He is prolific, insightful, and provocative. I was introduced to him through the film adaptation of his novel, The Taqwacores (see the trailer here). His novel also inspired the movement of Punk Islam, depicted in the documentary film The Taqwacore [it features a Pakistani punk band, The Kominas].

In any case, he has a fascinating article about on the fracas about Harvard canceling a planned Satanic mass by the Satanic Temple. Knight links this to the issue of freedom of religion and argues - successfully, I think - that Muslims should support Satanists in this instance. His key points are about the lopsided power relations regarding big religions versus small religions. I have sympathies with this as I teach about UFO religions (Raelians, Scientology, Unarians, etc) in one of the classes, and they face similar issues of ridicule from the press and from members of other religions. In any case, here is Knight:
Following Catholic uproar, a proposed Satanic mass at Harvard has been canceled. The mass was going to be put on by the Satanic Temple, the group who also has plans to plant a Baphomet figure on the front lawn of the Oklahoma Statehouse. Despite the fact that the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club dropped its sponsorship, the group still managed to have an unsanctioned "black mass" at Harvard Square's Hong Kong restaurant and lounge. What bothers me the most about the official quashing of the Satanic Temple's mass by Harvard is that it is being hailed as a victory for religious tolerance—it's not. Instead, it's a case of a small group getting bullied into submission because it offended a big religion. 
In an editorial for the Harvard Crimson, Francis X. Clooney, Harvard professor and director of its Center for the Study of World Religions, expresses concern for what he calls this proposed “disconcerting incident.” He presents the elements in satanic ritual that invert and “blaspheme” Catholic sacraments as a potential slippery slope, asking, “What’s next? The endeavor ‘to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices’ might in another year lead to historical reenactments of anti-Semitic or racist ceremonies… or parodies that trivialize Native American heritage or other revivals of cultural and religious insult.” 
Clooney’s nightmare scenario ignores one important question, that of institutional privilege: While racism is an oppressors’ power play that always moves from the top down, Satanism critiques a target immeasurably more powerful than itself. For Catholics at Harvard to complain about Satanists offending them is like white people complaining about Louis Farrakhan’s “reverse racism.” 
In addition to his positions at Harvard, Clooney is also a Cat holic priest. I know the history of Catholicism in America, and am sure that Clooney does as well. There was a time when Catholics were persecuted, reviled, and marked as the definitive “un-American” religion. Within the developing field of religious studies, the privileged position of liberal 19th-century Protestantism as “real” religion in its most evolved form also led to unfair anti-Catholic prejudice within the academy. Catholicism has struggled in the United States for recognition both as authentically Christian and authentically American.  
Michael is not the first one to draw parallels to treatment of US Catholics in the 19th and early 20th centuries to that of Muslims today, but he then does a fine job of connecting to the larger issue of religious pluralism:
Times have changed, so I’d like to tell Dr. Clooney how the American religious landscape looks in 2014. Dr. Clooney, I am a Muslim. As a Muslim in the cliché context of “post-9/11 America,” I encounter anti-Muslim discourses that use the same arguments that you have employed against Satanists. In more than one American city, Islamophobes have opposed the establishment of mosques by claiming that Muslims are intolerant and incapable of coexisting with other communities, or even that Islam is not a “real” religion and therefore cannot be entitled to the same defense of its freedoms. In the case of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” people argued against the presence of a Muslim community simply on the basis that it would hurt their feelings.  
As a Muslim, I have to support the Satanists. Public revulsion of Muslims in this country is so popular that I have no choice but to stand with religions that are marked as ugly, offensive, and intolerant. Rather than join the anti-Satanist outrage and try to convince Christians that Muslims deserve to be included as “children of Abraham” or whatever, I would suggest that Muslims take a radical stand on behalf of the religious freedoms that we claim for ourselves. The people who wish to insult Muslims are not members of ridiculed fringe groups. They are not just isolated Qur’an-burning pastors, but extraordinarily well-funded and networked activists. Islamophobia is so mainstream that as Muslims, we must support freedom for all marginalized religions, because too many people have marginalized us. 
I have no doubt that in his commitment to religious pluralism and interfaith understanding, Clooney supports the inclusion of Muslims as full participants in American life. His work in comparative theology, which focuses on dialogue between Catholicism and Hinduism, reveals great insight as to how we can be enriched by traditions that are not our own. Unfortunately, the projects of interfaith dialogue tend to privilege old religions over new ones, and big ones over small ones. Christian-Muslim dialogue, for example, isn’t typically going to invite Mormons or Ahmadiyya to the table.  
Ah. I think it is great that he brings in Mormons and the Ahmadiyya to the conversations as well. In fact, he goes onto to give specific example of how the Five Percenters have been denied their religious rights in prison (Knight, I think, was a Five Percenter himself for a while):
In his treatment of Satanic mass, Clooney’s playing an authenticity game in which privileged religions get to name the terms by which something counts as “religion,” and respect for the sacred thus means respecting what privileged religions mark as sacred. I have seen this game played with destructive consequences for the Five Percenter community. In US prisons, Five Percenters have been historically denied the freedoms of conscience and assembly that are routinely protected for adherents to other traditions. 
Warith Deen Mohammed, one of the most important Sunni leaders in American Muslim history, endorsed the prison industry’s characterization of Five Percenters as a “dangerous” and “corrupt” group. Incarcerated Five Percenters have been thrown into solitary confinement for no other reason than their personal conviction. Their right to assemble has been taken from them and the lessons that they study have been designated as contraband. Outside of the prison system, Five Percenters have been occasionally denied the right to change their legal names to Allah, with at least one judge stating that for a man to name himself Allah is inappropriate and even blasphemous. 
In prejudice against Five Percenters from both Muslims and non-Muslims, broader US Islamophobia, and Clooney’s attack on the Harvard black mass, we find the same mistake: A general failure to ask these people what their outrageous, offensive beliefs, and behaviors actually mean to them. Reducing the Satanic mass to a parody of the Catholic mass, he assumes that the Satanists involved must have no personal conviction that might endow the act with meaning, and discusses the act without any engagement of the human beings for whom it matters.  In his editorial, they remain faceless, nameless, and voiceless.…
What Clooney and Faust miss is that some of us find claims of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation from eternal torture to be incredibly offensive. Any tradition whose advocates promise to be exclusive possessors of the capital-T “Truth” is going to bother someone. Should all religious discourse that claims supreme truth-making power over other religions disappear from the public? I get that Harvard Divinity School’s preferred religiosity tends to go soft in this regard: At Div School, folks don’t go much for the hellfire talk or claims of superiority. Maybe there’s a Div School version of Satanism that Clooney could go for. Or not, but who cares—Clooney’s personal taste does not provide the measurement of Satanism’s legitimacy.  
It would be great if religions can always play nice. When they can’t, I am less concerned with Satanism’s alleged power to make Harvard unsafe for Catholics than the problem of big and powerful religions enforcing their privilege by stomping on small and powerless ones. This is where Clooney gets it wrong in a big way. There has never been—and I am guessing that there will never be—an openly self-identified Satanist with Clooney’s institutional power at Harvard. Because I care about religious freedom not only for the center, but also the margins, count this Muslim with the Satanists.  
I agree with Knight on this. Count me in as well!

Read the full article here. On a somewhat related topic, here is an earlier post Moral Outrage: Burning of the Quran versus Free Speech

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