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Robert Redeker: On Religions and Violence

The circumstances around the publication of Redeker’s article in Le Figaro of September 19 were discussed in a prior blog, as was the first half of the essay. In the second half Redeker addresses the question of violence in religion, particularly in Islam, but with reference to the status of violence—and their surpassing—in Judaism and Christianity as well. The argument proceeds through three levels: a characterization of the founding prophecy and the figure of the prophet in Islam; a discussion of the anthropological standing of a central ritual in Islam; and finally a comparative treatment of violence in the three Abrahamic traditions.

Redeker draws briefly on the work of Maxime Rodinson, a Marxist historian of Islam, known especially for his book on Mohammed (and additionally one of the initial sources for a theory of “Islamic fascism). The portrait Redeker paints is far from complimentary, including quotations from Rodinson that convey “some truths that are as important as they are tabooed in France.” These include the recounts of Mohammed’s early militarism, his reliance on a private army, the attacks on caravans, the destruction of Jewish communities in the Arabian peninsula, as well as his marital practices.

The critique of Mohammed is lodged primarily in quotations (as with Benedict’s Regensburg speech), although here the critique is considerably more extensive. Yet here—in contrast to the Regensburg text—an explicit discussion of violence on the part of the Catholic Church is also initiated:

“In fact, the Catholic church is not beyond reproach. Its history is full of dark pages, for which it has subsequently repented. The Inquisition, the witch hunts, the execution of philosophers Bruno and Vanini, these critical epicurians, or the execution—in the midst of the eighteenth century—of La Barre for impiety: these do not testify in its favor.”

So Redeker by no means whitewashes the history of Christianity: it too has its violent past. Yet the Church has in recent decades shown an ability to apologize for its failings, and Redeker continues:

“But what distinguishes Christianity from Islam appears clearly: it is always possible to turn the values of the Gospels and the sweet personality of Jesus against the outcomes of the Church. None of the failings of the Church have their roots in the Gospels. Jesus is non-violent. A return to Jesus is a strategy against the ecclesiastical institution. In contrast, the return to Mohammed reinforces hatred and violence.”

Thus Redeker not only suggests a considerable difference between the religious personalities at the foundation of the two religions; he also attributes to Christianity a dynamic relationship, an immanent dialectic between past and present, which he deems absent in Islam. Jesus establishes a tradition of love within Christianity, while, according to Redeker, the impact of Mohammed is quite the opposite, a distinction Redeker presents as a starkly binary opposition.

At this point, Redeker shifts away from the foundational texts and founding moment, the Qu’ran and the personality of Mohammed, in order to discussion religious ritual, in particular the stoning of the devil as part of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Not only—this is Redeker’s argument—does this rite involve a performance of collective violence, symbolically; it also regularly involves genuine violence, since every years some number of participants are crushed to death, trampled by the masses of pilgrims. This combination of symbolic violence and real death explains the prominent place of violence, according to Redeker:

“The stoning of Satan, every year at Mecca, is not only a superstitious phenomenon. It does not only involve a hysterical crowd flirting with barbarism. It has an anthropological dimension. In effect, here is a ritual, to which every Muslim is invited to submit, which inscribes violence like a sacred duty into the heart of the believer. This stoning, accompanied every year by the death by crushing of a few faithful, and sometimes by a few hundred, is a ritual that includes archaic violence.”

Redeker is, at a fundamental level, grappling with the same question Benedict posed, the relationship between violence and faith. For Benedict it is reason as philosophy that pervades faith and therefore separates it from violence; it is hard not to see the papal argument as involving a rewriting of faith as enlightenment. Redeker, in contrast, sees religion struggling with archaic violence. Judaism overcomes it through the prohibition against sacrifice played out in the drama of Abraham and Isaac (the Akedah); Christianity sublimates violence through the metamorphosis of sacrifice into eucharist. He cannot locate a similar accomplishment in Islam, neither in the texts nor in the rites, at least not in the central ones.

Redeker’s argument is a tightrope walk above the perilous border between Islam and “Islamicism” which is taking on greater urgency. He comes down on the side of subsuming Islam to its radical extreme and therefore rediscovers the grounds for Islamicist violence in the core of the faith. Alternative accounts would judge “Islamicism” or “jihadism” either as distortions or, at least, eccentric interpretations. Redeker’s leap from the relgionswissenschaftliche question of the standing of archaic violence within the ideal structures of faith to the politics of present is characteristic of his reading:

“Hate and violence inhabit the book with which every Muslim is educated. As in the days of the Cold War, violence and intimidation are the mechanisms utilized by an ideology with an aspiration to hegemony, Islam, in order to stifle discussion throughout the world. Benedict XVI suffered the consequences. As in those former times, one must call the West “the free world” in contrast to the Muslim world, and as in that past, the opponents of the “free world,” the zealous functionaries of the Qu’ran, multiply at its breast.”

With this conclusion, Redeker returns to his initial theme, the suppression of discussion and the parallel between the Cold War and the present. At this point, finally, it is analytically useful to distinguish between an argument that he makes about hypothetically archaic and violent contents in the structures of the religion—but is his account not too ahistorical? too inflexible? even fundamentalist?—and the argument regarding a parallel between Islamicism and Communism: the goal of (world) hegemony, the suppression of discussion through hate, violence, and intimidation, and the role of ideology. What then is the relationship between religion and ideology in the current context? Or the religious content of totalitarian belief structures? One argument might hold that a politicized movement pursuing power and destruction instrumentalizes religion in order to manipulate the masses. An alternative (Redeker’s) argument would hold that in this case religion draws on an unmastered potential for violence in civilizational history and therefore turns against civilization. The question is crucial for an understanding of “Islamic fascism” and the relationship between the two terms.

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