What does ISIS want? Rethinking difficult questions

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Graham Wood recently published a widely-read article entitled “What ISIS really wants and how to stop it” and has received much praise for his insights. His article is not without its problems, however, and I highlighted some critiques in a short posting on my personal blog.

I want to engage a little more with some of the questions that are being asked by Wood and others, starting with a key pattern of discourse that I see repeatedly. A recent interview by Sky News’ Kay Burley with Cerie Bullivant of Cage UK exemplifies this:

Burley is not known for her nuanced and sensitive reporting. However, asking Bullivant whether he condemned the beheadings ascribed to Londoner Mohammed Emwazi in the way she did is simply a more boorish form of a demand to take responsibility for others’ crimes that is often made of Muslims but not others, as numerous commentators have repeatedly pointed out ever since the 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, and indeed before that. This cartoon from The Muslim Show, referring to the killing of Americans Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Muhammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, outlines this in simple terms:

The Muslim Show

The Muslim Show

The thinking behind this kind of demand for condemnation implies that ‘Islam is somehow to blame’ and that ‘Muslims must condemn’ atrocities committed by other Muslims in order to justify their place in society to non-Muslims. It is a classic case of the No True Scotsman fallacy, as I described last year – ‘true’ Muslims would not do such things, so to prove one is a ‘true’ Muslim one must condemn such acts.

Burley was engaging in classic Islamophobia, as Bullivant noted, but he was trying to point to something more – that there are social and political factors that create particular responses. The post-Westphalian nation-states we have in Europe rest upon  offering security and stability to those who live in them in exchange for allowing a Weberian monopoly of force. But what happens when the monopoly of force is misused and the promised stability and order becomes uncertainty and threat?

Islamophobia is a long-standing problem in the UK (cf. the original 1997 Runnymede Trust report), and harassment of Muslims by government authorities and others is widespread, whether it be attempts to recruit Muslims to work for the security services (e.g. 2009 and 2013), the targeting of Muslim charities (2014), the impact of counter-terrorism measures on all areas of life (2011), or everyday street harassment (e.g. 2014 and follow-up); that is before I even begin to point to systemic hate speech from the Daily Mail and other elements of the right-wing and gutter press. All this is happening all the time in the UK, before we even begin looking further afield at the continued attacks on Muslim innocents by the UK and its close allies, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine or elsewhere.

Although Burley did not want to hear it, all this frames the lives of many Muslims in the UK. It can hardly come as a surprise that resentment against the nation-state – that supposedly promises stability and security – then grows.

“The Koran for Dummies”

Whilst growing up with state harassment might be the norm for those of our fellow citizens going to fight for ISIS, it seems a fair number have very little in-depth knowledge of the Islam that Burley and her ilk seem to assume is their motivation. That two British men wanting to fight in Syria had in part prepared themselves by buying The Koran for Dummies and similar titles highlights their ignorance of Islam, rather than their inspiration from it.

It is not, then, some diffuse conception of ‘religion’ that provides the motivation for jihad, but an understanding of profound injustice inflicted upon the individual and their family, friends and their ‘imagined community’ (pace Benedict Anderson) that leads to a disillusionment with the ideal of a nation-state governed by the monopoly of force guaranteeing stability and security. It is not a surprise that such injustice elicits a response – in fact, I would go so far as to say that wanting to respond to injustice is a natural reaction.

Of course, what that response might be is still a decision for the individual – murder is not a pre-determined outcome of outrage at injustice; I would hope for a different response. However, once the decision to go down that route has been made, self-justification becomes necessary, and that is where (mis-)understandings of a tradition can arise. None of this is new. For example, Prussian (predominantly Protestant) soldiers on the German side in World War I wore belt buckles that had “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”) stamped onto them, whilst British Anglican bishops spoke of a Christian “crusade” to kill Germans – both sides using the breakdown of political and social order to pursue war, and both sides then claiming (the same Protestant!) God to be on their side. The war was not a Christian war in any meaningful sense, but the (mis-)interpretation of Christian belief was used to motivate the poor soldiers who had to fight in it.

From the very beginning Wood’s article falls for the fallacy that ISIS is about ‘Islam': ‘It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs…’ or ‘The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.’  But such statements do not help understanding – do we measure ‘Islamicness’ on a scale of 1 to 10? Whilst certain aspects of his article offer pointers to appropriate geopolitical responses to ISIS (e.g. parts of section IV – always presuming ISIS is as predictable as he is suggesting), describing ISIS as ‘very’ Islamic is not very helpful.

Of course, doing something about the manifold injustices in our societies and the ways in which our governments lead and encourage the attacks on marginalised communities is much more difficult than claiming ‘their Islam’ needs to change – but in the longer-term the former is undoubtedly more effective. Instead of asking Muslims to condemn certain crimes, or arguing about ‘how Islamic’ a movement is, changing the way our society relates to Muslims who are an integral part of it, as well as those abroad, can create the spaces for responses that are more positive (and dare I say it, more hopeful) than the responses of the tiny minority joining ISIS just now. Deconstructing understandings of ‘religion’ in society is a part of that – but deconstructing our society’s self-understanding in order to address systemic injustices is a far more wide-reaching issue that emphasises our collective responsibilities in creating a more just world.

Pasolini: the happiness of Marxism and Christianity

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Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italian writer, film director and philosopher, was killed in Rome in 1975. He had been run over with his own car, driven by 17-year-old male gigolo, Giuseppe Pelosi. It is for his religious purity and candour in portraying the alien and the excluded from our society, that he rightly deserves his reputation as one of the most enigmatic masters of contemporary European culture. In his whole oeuvre, Christian faith leads inevitably to a praxis that opposes unjust social and political structures. Pasolini’s Christianity can be described as an interpretation of Christian faith through the proletarians and their struggles, their hopes and dreams, and a socio-political critique of society, the Catholic faith and Christianity through their eyes.

It is in this antagonistic encounter, between a desire to expose bourgeois outrage through his art and the need to recover the heart of the Christian experience, that Pasolini showed his subversive religiosity Already in his early collection of poems, L’Usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica (The Nightingale of the Catholic Church, 1958), death originated in the struggle with the senses and with sex, but the endless love of God, through forgiveness, brings humans into the sphere of ”a motionless God’’. According to Pasolini, the passion of Jesus Christ would indeed be in vain if the Divine was not devoted to humans, their sins and mistakes “an eternal day of compassion”.

In his poem ‘’A un Papa’’ (“To a Pope”, 1958), taken from his collection of poems La Religione del Mio Tempo (Religion of My Time), he vehemently attacked the Pope for having done nothing to improve the economic and social conditions of the lower classes in Rome, who were still living in slums, where they had been transferred by Benito Mussolini before the war in an effort to create the new Imperial Rome.

Although the poem talks expressly about Marxism, its inspiration is Christian, even if archaic and unconventional. Here Pasolini becomes the new Girolamo Savonarola challenging the Pope’s authority and challenging him about the Vatican’s corruption and the immense misery which still surrounded the Palace. In addition, in the last few lines of this work, Pasolini portrays the Pope as a greater and corrupted sinner forgetting to help the underclass and therefore failing to perform religious and Christian good actions.

Needless to say, Pasolini was harshly criticised for his heretical attitude and continuous critique of the Pope, but it was not just from the religious authorities that he would come under severe attack, but also from the court authorities and from far right organisations.

On September 22, 1962 during the Roman premiere of his movie Mamma Roma, the story of an ex-prostitute trying to start a new life, Pasolini was verbally and physically attacked by a group of members of far right organisations. Apart from these continued violent attacks by the Fascists, he was also put on trial for ‘contempt of religion of the state’ following the release of the film Rogopag. The film’s title contains the names of the four authors who contributed to it: Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini and Gregoretti. Pasolini directed an episode: ‘La Ricotta’ (Goat Cheese) and it was for this episode that he was put on trial. Pasolini filmed ‘La Ricotta’ in the autumn of 1962; the episode discussed the Crucifixion by using profound political references: the proletarians were finally part of the Christian history.

‘Get those crucified characters out of there’; ‘bring up the crosses’, the actress Magdalen who dances the cha-cha-cha, shouts in front of the crosses; and Stracci (which means “rags” in English), the proletarian extra playing one of the crucified thieves, who eats so much goat cheese during the break that he gets severe indigestion and eventually dies, tied to the cross under the torrid sun. The movie is a complex metaphor (a postmodern parable) of the parasitic links existing between capitalism and religion. ‘Ricotta’ is a work in which Pasolini’s cultural, religious and political thoughtfulness achieves a stunning power of expression. However, in 1964 the Marxist Pasolini expressed himself on Christianity again, and this time in the most astonishing and unexpected fashion in his Gospel According to Matthew.

Filming of the Gospel began in spring of 1964. The choice of one character was highly suggestive: that of Pier Paolo’s mother Susanna to play the Madonna, exhausted by grief on Golgotha under the cross bearing her much-loved son. A remarkable prophetic picture of his own final sacrifice and death in 1975.

The film was cited by the OCIC, the International Catholic Cinema Office and warmly accepted by the Vatican. The citation explained: ‘The author… has given proof in his choice of texts … of respect and delicacy. He has made a fine film, a Christian film that produces a profound impression’. Yet his representation of Jesus in The Gospel According to Matthew is of an exemplary revolutionary leader: Jesus appears inflexible with a complete intolerance of any compromise.

Although later works by Pasolini would also contain clear references to religion, such as in ‘Teorema’, it was in The Gospel that Pasolini‘s heretic Marxism and Christian subversive passion reached their apex in their simplicity and precision.

The Marxist Pasolini expressed himself on religion in an effort to go back to the roots of Christianity, to the first Christian communities in Palestine. In doing this, Pasolini hoped he would destroy–through his works–the parasitic link that had been made between capitalism and religion, and thus help in recovering the critical potentialities of Christianity. What is a stake in Pasolini’s oeuvre is not a question of believing or not-believing in a pre-figured deity; rather, Christianity becomes a limitless poetic possibility of confrontation, for individual and collective existence, with the difficult and challenging truths that only the sacred figures and the sacred texts can show us and express, as they can subvert the power of the day.

Mystification and A Critical Reading of Mythologies

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It is not uncommon in public discourse to refer to mythologies as pertaining to the divine and the ‘supernatural’, and hence categorise them within the problematically constructed ‘religious’ sphere. Within the public sphere and academia in the West in general, these questions are dealt with as a certain kind of mystification. Such mystification takes two different courses: a) it is used as a talking point for the ‘secularists’ and ‘atheists’ to argue against the ‘evils of religion’ by seeing the supposed lack of rationality in these mythologies; b) it is used as a justification by many faith-based conservative groups to argue for an unquestioning mystified construction of understanding of various faiths. In fact, Richard King has, rather eloquently, argued that the latter has led to the construction of the ‘mystic East’ by Orientalists.

Whilst these two courses of narratives can possibly be seen as polar opposites, as many have argued on this website, the ideology that underpins these is the same: the reification of ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ binaries. What is needed, then, is a more nuanced understanding of mythologies that does not fall into either trap, for which we need more than just a deconstruction of the ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ categories, but rather a ‘middle ground’ to negotiate two primary issues pertaining to mythologies: a) that they are often a part of oral traditions as a result of which embellishment of the stories is common, thereby questioning the meaning of what is ‘original’; b) how can they be presented and understood in the current milieu of ever increasing importance to empirical evidence and quantification.

I recently acquired a copy of Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik (Penguin India, 2011), which is a relevant example here. To interpret or retell Mahabharata, a collection of many stories that forms a central narrative and one of the two major Sanskrit epic poems (the other being Ramayana) is not new. In addition to regional interpretations of these epics within India, there are varied retelling available from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. In addition, whilst these epics are generally seen as ‘Hindu’ epics, different interpretations are available within Jainism. Many of these retellings have adhered to the original story of the Bharatha Dynasty. There are slight variations to the stories but the core is retained. For instance, whilst according to the Indian telling of a character, Karna, as being born to Kunti and Surya (the Sun-God), Indonesian telling retains this narrative whilst adding that Karna was born out of Kunti’s ear and hence the name (Karna: lit. ear in Sanskrit) (p. 70).

What is interesting about Pattanaik’s retelling is how he points to alternative understandings of particular details of the stories to emphasise the crucial aspect: that these are ‘re-tellings’ of stories passed on through centuries. For instance, pertaining to the role of women in these contexts, using specific stories, Pattanaik points to the ‘gradual deterioration in the status of women in Vedic [sic] society’ (p. 38). He approaches the characters as embodied beings thereby not glossing over the questions of eroticism, sexuality, etc. He also points to an important historical development surrounding constructions and understandings of ‘Hinduism’ as a modern category: stories in Mahabharata referred more commonly to the Vedic deities of elements of nature – water, earth, air, fire and space. That Vedic rituals focussed entirely on the divine representation of these elements is well highlighted in this book, whilst the modern focus on deities such as Shiva or Vishnu were later developments during the first two decades of the first millennium, which saw a rise in Vedanta philosophy. Both Nicholas Dirks and Richard King have made similar arguments in their respective texts. Pattanaik also astutely observes that whilst all the stories within Mahabharata surround rituals (within the context of war between different groups and communities), they also point to a time when ‘State’ and ‘Religion’ were not separate (p 89). Of course, there are problems in Pattanaik’s retelling too: some of the categories he uses, for instance moral/immoral, masculinity/femininity, are not deconstructed or problematised.

However, this is a refreshingly new interpretation of the epic poem and points to the need for critical study of mythologies behind Mahabharata and Ramayana, which are so easily mystified and categorised as ‘religious’ texts. By critical study I do not mean the ‘de-mystification’ of these stories. The question here is not whether or not these mythologies ‘really took place’ or whether we can prove that Karna was really born out of Kunti’s ear. Equally, the alternative is also not to leave them untouched because of their constructed ‘sacrality’. Instead what we need are more texts like Pattanaik’s that deal with mythologies for what they are: stories embellished through centuries that point to the complexity of the contexts within which they were and are being told or re-told.

Mythologies thus must be understood not as accurate accounts of history or ‘objective’ retelling of past events, but as contextualised understandings of our pasts. Works that point to alternative re-tellings of mythologies must not be stifled, an issue that has risen often in India with the Hindutva groups as the main actors—Wendy Doniger’s work being a good example. In doing so, we might be able to subvert the dominant narratives of ‘rationalists’/‘secularists’ and groups such as the Hindutva and establish a more nuanced understandings.

The slippery and solipsistic nature of categories

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In mid-December a friend and I took a brief trip to London. During various activities we took in two very different events at two museums. On 11.12.14 we went to the Annual Science Lecture at the Natural History Museum. This was delivered by Sir Paul Nurse and was entitled “Science as Revolution”. In the hour or so that he spoke, he outlined various scientific advances that revolutionised how we understand the world – the discovery of a heliocentric world, the theory of evolution, the application of atomic energy, and others. Following his lecture there was a 45 minute question and answer section in which topics ranged from science specific issues on GM crops (his current research) to the existence of alien life, to the frustrations of science education in the UK.

However throughout he repeatedly used a taxonomy that was frustrating, uncritical and increasingly asinine. This was in regards to his use of categories, as though science, religion, politics and economy were singular, definable entities that exist a priori. Furthermore, science was to be protected – indeed, in responding to one of the questions he all but argued that it should be protected and not questioned or critiqued – from the interferences of the others as they were unmoveable bulwarks to progress, scientific discovery and revolution.

Throughout his lecture (and answers) religion was only every described as “religion” and when pushed for details he focused on those groups whom the media would describe as “fundamentalists”. There was no awareness, it seemed, that some scientists could have an agenda – and not necessarily a benign one at that, or even that some scientists are not exclusively non-religious or atheist. Politics was limited to the personal agendas of politicians or the militarisation of weapons. Science was equally poorly nuanced but was, unsurprisingly, seen as the only way forward, the only means of progress and revolution.

Yet the entirety of the lecture proved otherwise, as the scientific revolutions he lauded were abstracted from their context and thus stripped of their revolutionary potentiality. Revolutions are a confluence of events, never a singular happening (see for example Lenin’s four conditions for revolution in his The State and Revolution, London: Penguin, 2009 edition). Within any revolution there are scientific, religious, cultural, political, economic upheavals and advances (consider, for example, the importance of the French Revolution on science through the work of Jean-Baptise Lamarck and Georges Cuvier). There was no acknowledgement of other factors as leading motivators and flash points spurring a revolution in the lecture by Nurse, indeed if one was unfamiliar with European history one could get the impression that revolution depended upon science for cause, means and outcome.

Categories are slippery, hard to define and impossible to separate out. This is for a simple reason – they do not exist because they exist, they are not tangible coherent entities as Nurse wanted to present. Rather they are constructs that we create and use for various purposes. Like all constructs they are contingent upon their creators not for definition, but for existence. With their creators they share the qualities of being multi-faceted, duplicitous, and interdependent.

The second event we undertook was an exhibition entitled Disobedient Objects at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This was a visual display on how everyday objects have been used as objects of protest, civil disobedience and social change or revolution. There was quite a small array on display – most related to areas of extreme poverty or civil war. It was a fascinating exhibition (and one I highly recommend) and at times shocking. One particular object is being focused on here and this is the use of an art form known as arpilleras in Chile as a means for women to tell their own story. One caught my attention.

Deborah Stockdale, "Shannonwatch"

Deborah Stockdale, “Shannonwatch”

It was designed by Deborah Stockdale, an American textile artist living in Donegal in Ireland and was entitled “Shannonwatch”. It was accompanied by the following explanation:

“Donegal Ireland, 2011

The arpilleras made in Chile have inspired women around the world to use the technique to tell their own stories of survival and resistance. This recent arpilleras was made by an America textile artist living in Ireland. It depicts the activities of Shannonwatch, who are monitoring the use of Shannon Airport by the American military. The protestors wear white burkas in support of Afghani women caught up in the ‘War on Terror’. Deborah Stockdale”

Shannon Watch is a protest group, and their purpose is to stop or at least highlight the use of Shannon Airport by the US military (it is also worth noting that Shannon Airport – close to Limerick, is over 174 miles from Stockdale’s home in Donegal). However Stockdale has misused, in my opinion, their protest in her artwork. There is no record of any of the group having worn burqas of any colour or made any comment or protest about the oppression of women in Afghanistan. Their sole concern is the improper use of the airport by another military force. Therefore her artwork does not depict the actions of the protest group, instead she has hijacked them to make her own personal statement.

Shannon Watch are an important protest group and their cause a worthy one but they are not oppressed minorities – nor are they all, or even majority, women. Using this form of material and protest to highlight one’s own ideas demonstrates the solipsistic nature of categories. The protest at the airport is about the use of Irish airspace, not about the oppression of Afghani women. The presence of the burqa as the dominant image immediately brings it into the misinformed and heavily biased discussion of the burqa as a means of religious oppression of women (see, for example, here and here).

Furthermore, these forms of artwork are typically used by women in areas of oppression to express themselves when other means are not available to them. Stockdale can make no such claim, she is a citizen of one of the most powerful nations in the world today, she is able to make a living as an artist in the country she chooses to live in and her voice and ideas are heard in other countries. In other words, this relates to the question of ‘white privilege’ and indeed further feeds into that privilege because the voice of the dominant, normative, educated is being placed over the voices of those without said privilege. Stockdale is what Peggy McIntosh describes as “a participant, an unfairly advantaged person, in a damaged culture.” There are of course nuances needed within the ‘white privilege question’ as oppression is really more about intersectionality, as Gina Crosley-Corcoan notes. Often white privilege is gained, not through the colour of skin, but through education status, employment, economic stability, and familial circumstances. One form of oppression is no less important, or impacting, than the other

Choosing to have your work displayed alongside those who are oppressed and whose voice is not heard by the dominant, smothers or drowns what they are saying for the purposes of having someone else speak who already has a voice and a platform. These arpilleras, once a means for the subaltern to speak, have now become a means for them to be spoken over once again, and indeed to be spoken for. The subaltern has a voice, we need to stop speaking over them and instead listen.

Both Nurse and Stockdale have misused categories and have in different ways demonstrated the dominance of the religious – secular – political – Western categories still in existence and use. In so doing they have not only indicated how far we still have to travel but that oppression can still sink its teeth in when users refuse to acknowledge the slippery and solipsistic nature of these categories.

The “No true Scotsman” fallacy and the problem of identity

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The philosopher Antony Flew (1923-2010) famously described a fallacy that has become known as the ‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy.  It was even published in the (real!) Scotsman newspaper obituary:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing”. The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again and this time finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says, “No true Scotsman would do such a thing”.

This analogy is often used uncritically in thinking about the way in which identity informs understandings of religion. For example, after the 11.9.2001 attacks on New York and Washington many argued that although the aircraft used to crash into the buildings were being flown by Muslims, ‘True Islam is a peaceful religion’ and the perpetrators were therefore not true Muslims. True Muslims would not kill thousands of people in an attack like that – and, of course, the vast majority of Muslims around the world condemned these attacks.  Maybe, therefore, even though they described themselves as Muslims, the attackers were not true Muslims?

In a Christian context, we can see something similar happening. Most Christians would argue that, according to their Scriptures, killing others is prohibited. And yet there are plenty of instances in which Christians kill other people. We don’t even need to look into distant history for that: George Bush and Tony Blair both professed themselves to be Christians, and yet they presided over devastating attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in hundreds of thousands of people being killed.  But if true Christians do not kill, perhaps neither Bush nor Blair are true Christians?

This way of thinking, as Flew wanted to show, leads us nowhere.  Can we comment on whether someone is a true Scotsman (or Muslim/Christian etc.)?  Perhaps the problem here is the reification of a position into an identity marker.  Hamish McDonald might have a certain idea of what a true Scotsman is, but this idea centres around an abstract imaginary of the concept ‘Scotsman’ (and the Aberdeen sex offender clearly didn’t fit that image).  Using that kind of fixed notion, we will never find agreement on what a true Muslim/Christian (or even Scotsman!) might do.  We clearly need to find other tools.

Neil Smith and Cindi Katz, cited by Sara Ahmed (p12), discuss the difference between ‘location’ as a fixed point and ‘position’ as a relative concept, and perhaps this offers us a helpful way forward: ‘”In geographical terms, ‘location’ fixes a point in space, usually by reference to some abstract co-ordinate systems…” while “‘Position,’ by contrast, implies location vis-à-vis other locations and incorporates a sense of perspective on other places.”‘

If we understand self-descriptions of individuals in terms of positions, rather than fixed locations or identities, we might find it easier to comprehend the 11.9.2001 attackers or the Bush and Blair warriors.  After all, a statement such as ‘I am a Muslim/Christian’ (etc.) is usually made in relation to others: most obviously, perhaps, affirming commonality or marking difference.  It is, to use Smith and Katz, an implied location in relation to other locations, with a sense of perspective on other places.  This kind of positioning changes all the time, relative to our context.  We can perhaps understand this relative positioning better by thinking about Judith Butler’s ‘turning’ when a police officer calls out, ‘hey you!’  We change our position in response to the call: we turn to see if we are the one the police officer is addressing, and our position relative to everyone and everything else around us – not just the police officer – therefore changes as a result of that address, even if the call is not really meant for us.  Our location might not have changed, but our position has.

This kind of imagery can help us in thinking through some of the language used to describe positions.  We can understand the Muslim or Christian attackers and their statements of belief as positions taken in relation to others, rather than as fixed locators or identities.  This does away with the need to understand the true Scotsman problem in contexts such as those described above: we don’t then need to explain that true Muslims or true Christians would never kill others even if these particular Muslims or Christians did so.  Rather, we can look at how others who position themselves as Muslims or Christians (etc.) understand these contexts, and construct an understanding on the totality of these representations, intelligently assessed.

This also helps us to understand the adoption of certain kinds of language in contexts that at first appear to be misplaced; in this sense it is very easy to see how some of the ideas underpinning Critical Religion could lend themselves to a simplistic racism and Orientalism.  For example, it is important to think about how we understand an imam in Timbuktu who says that ‘Since the beginning of time Timbuktu has been secular.  Timbuktu’s scholars have always accepted the other monotheistic religions.  After all, we all believe in the one God, each in our own way.’*  The CR scholar might protest: aren’t terms like ‘secular’ and ‘religions‘ (as opposed to ‘religion’, maybe) concepts that originate in a Western context, with little meaning in Islam?  And yet: essentialising Islam in such a way, as if Islam in Timbuktu were the same as in Mecca, Beirut, Paris, Kuala Lumpur, Detroit, is a failure to understand the positionality of the imam.

We need to take his statement seriously: he knows what he means with this language, and whilst we might understand the interview with the Western journalist as framing his comments, we also need to understand the Butlerian turn here: he is not (just, or even at all) necessarily moulding his language to suit her, the journalist, but is seeking to articulate a position, and in the articulation itself there is also a movement.  Seeking to pursue a constructivist position as far as we can possibly take it enables us to hear the imam and understand his reworking of the terms that we thought we understood – he is repositioning these terms and this language in adopting it and making it his own.  Whilst it might be of historical interest that terms like ‘secular’ and ‘religions‘ originate in the West, understanding the re-positioning and re-use of these terms should enable us to begin to better understand those who might appear to be the Other, leaving the No true Scotsman fallacy and our essentialist historical notions behind.

* “Seit Anbeginn der Zeit war Timbuktu säkular. Die Gelehrten von Timbuktu haben die übrigen monotheistischen Religionen immer schon akzeptiert. Wir glauben schließlich alle an den einen Gott, jeder auf seine Weise.”

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2006.

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: The Politics of the Performative Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Hegel’s Return

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Stubbornly, Hegel keeps returning. Just when we think this notorious philosopher, or any of the numerous Hegelianisms spawned in his name, have had their day, Hegel keeps coming back. And today he is back with a renaissance as considerable as any. Why is this case?

One might argue it is because Marx keeps coming back. And every time Marx returns, Hegel is always lurking in the shadow, or lurking precisely as the shadow, the negative inverse of what Marx had championed in the name of a dialectical materialism, that is, a direct challenge to capitalism’s political economy by means of a confrontational critique of its ideology and a revolutionary reaction on the ground. Certainly, one need not go far to find a Marxist resurgence somewhere in motion. But Hegel is not Marx. Nor is Hegel always an inverted Marx, or perhaps we should better say, nor is Marx always an inverted Hegel. If Marx keeps returning as some form of a critique, directed against a hegemonic power or against the injustices of an economic system, Hegel is far less outspoken, far less confrontational. In fact, he is still often perceived, politically, as Marx’s very antithesis, a champion of the right and the conservative, or at least of an ideal form of political thinking that favours the establishment.

And yet despite this gross misreading, Hegel keeps returning. One way to think about this insistence of Hegel, before or beyond Marx, is to think about the very driving force behind Hegel’s thought. For many, this has been called the “dialectic”, a kind of triadic movement by which two opposing forces collide with each other to produce a third force, one that keeps elements of the original two oppositions, but raises them to a higher and more productive level, thereby preserving and negating them at the same time, in a new reality that is wholly unique, but also one that fully comprehends what it has just accomplished.

Yet recent thinkers, especially from Continental Europe, have begun, over the last decades, to ask a more fundamental question: what drives this process itself, the process of the dialectic? And here they alight upon something that was previously considered as only one side of the dialectic, or just one of the original oppositions: negation. But how could negation be seen as the driving force of the process in which it is one of the elements? How could it stand both within and without that process simultaneously? Is not this a bit like saying that what makes chess work as a game are the black pieces? They are necessary, to be sure, but not, as the philosophers say, sufficient. Or perhaps less crudely, is it not like contending that the process of pollination for certain plants is driven by bees? The bees are certainly crucial for the process to work, but they hardly impel and determine by themselves the overall process. That role, we say, is taken by “mother nature”, working to unite both sides.

This problem of contradiction (both within and without) gets to the very nub of why Hegel remains such a potent figure for the modernity in which we presently live. If Hegel really taught that negation was a prime motivating force, and that nothing moves or has life without this force – and this is what he is really saying, with all its paradoxical implications – then what does this say about the modernity we have inherited not only from Hegel but from his modern forebears?

The problem is inherent to modernity itself. If we characterise this modernity as a fundamental shift in our understanding about the nature of origin, and origination, then we might better grasp our dilemma. Now why has modernity has been so obsessed with rethinking origin – everyone from Darwin to those working on the Hadron Collider? The pre-modern understanding of origination was grounded upon a Creator God, who brings all things into being, at their origin, and who is thus Origin itself, as eternal origination. This meant that we looked back for the ground and authority of our being. But the origins of modernity are based upon a break from this way of thinking, in an attempt – religiously by the Lutheran reforms and philosophically by Descartes’ revolution – to free us from the abuse or uncertainty such authority was deemed to have institutionalised. This break called us to look forward to the ever new, rather than to the established. (Hence the term “modern”, based on the Latin “modo” – “just now”.)

But in order to free our being to the ever new, a new ground was needed – a ground of freedom. This modernity found in consciousness, and more specifically, in self-consciousness. And here we need to see consciousness not merely as matter of awareness (as it is most generally understood), but also as a matter of origination, originating the very individuality of our selves through the freedom of self-determination.

But in making this move, we instigate an internal split. For self-consciousness requires that we be both subject and object to ourselves at the same time. What I am conscious of, as a subject, is myself, now as an object. If in this process consciousness brings the self into existence through its own internal freedom – no other higher Origin necessitates my being; it is my own freedom that allows me to be who I am, even if I later choose to embrace that higher Origin – then at the heart of this consciousness is a contradiction: I am who I am (subjectively) only by negating myself (turning myself into subject’s opposite – an object). We can see this very phenomenon in a common experience of romance: “I didn’t realise I loved her until she left me!” The realisation is predicated upon its very absence.

Now Hegel, I contend, was the first philosopher to properly seize upon, not this internal contradiction per se, but its most potent solution. Negation must not be seen as a force that, first and foremost, eradicates or takes away (one side of a dialectic). Negation must be seen as a primordial force that brings into existence. And what it brings into existence (just like the new modern self) is, first and foremost, itself!

As long, therefore, as modernity is beholden to a notion of consciousness as freedom and of freedom as consciousness – and this continues to be confirmed to us in virtually every sphere of our contemporary experience, whether political, aesthetic, judicial, relational, etc. – then Hegel will keep returning, because Hegel challenges us to embrace a negation at the very core of our modern self-understanding and self-identity, and, in effect, to negate it, by turning it into something productive. But we can only do that, ironically, through negation.

Negativity is everywhere in our globalised world today. We don’t have to work hard to find it, nor to justify its existence. Modern media incessantly shows us the rampant ills of our present state. But if we want to convert that negativity into something positive, or, dare I say, into something positively negative, then we need to appeal to Hegel. And this is why Hegel returns. But such an appeal is not to invent a new Hegelianism. On the contrary, it is actually to outstrip Hegel, and any system that might be built in his name, by being most consistent to his thought. Paradoxically, we are truest to Hegel when we go beyond him in his own name. This is what keeps Hegel original – and I mean this in the most original sense of the term “original”. The origins of Hegel and his thought are in his own negation, which, Hegel taught, we must now make our own.

Religious education or indoctrination: an evening of lively discussion

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[Picking up on the debate at Stirling University on 23.10.14, the introductory blog to this topic by Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, the contribution by Sarah Clark, and the first comment piece by Russell Hunter, Tim Fitzgerald here offers our final piece on this specific event.  We hope you have found all of these contributions helpful in thinking about the wider debate on RE in schools, and not just in the Scottish context. – Michael Marten, Editor]

The organisers should be thanked and praised as far as the idea of the forum is concerned. Clearly it was a legitimate forum for local teachers, parents, theology professors and Liberal Christian ministers to express their feelings and ideas about the goods and the bads of RE in school. The forum rightly included a representative of secular humanism. The problem for me is that secular humanists talk the binary reverse of what the religionists talk, and thus challenge nothing, because the circularity of the discourse is maintained. This binary discourse centred around ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ ensures the circular rehashing of the same persistent, un-deconstructed discourse whose deadening ubiquity stops us all thinking new thoughts.

Our very own Sarah Clark had something powerful and original to say, but the chair and the other speakers failed to pick it up. Sarah referred to the ‘cognitive dissonance’ she experienced between teaching RE in school and studying critical religion at Stirling University. This led her to make a career change. This significant content seemed to be of no interest to the chairperson or to any of the other speakers, despite the lavish praise and the mutual love-in and prize-winning ceremony at the end.

True, I am more on the academic side of the topic of ‘religion’, but, as a result of the urging of others, I imagined that this might be a forum where I could learn something and perhaps also make some useful connections between what we do in critical religion at Stirling and ideas about how RE in schools might be rethought to give it critical relevance.  However I cannot in all honesty say that anything at all was advanced by this event – from my own perspective at least – and indeed it may have done some damage. I feel disappointed at the way this debate was staged and conducted.

Sarah received loud applause when she went to the podium to speak, yet none of the organisers or other speakers seemed alerted by this that a sizeable number of undergraduates, and several postgraduates and lecturers were present, or that we might have anything worthy to contribute. Two lecturers in particular – Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, have published interesting contributions to the topic of RE, but these do not seem to have been mentioned.

You cannot have everyone on a panel, and the organisers have the right to choose who they want to be there. Yet neither Alison nor John were acknowledged from the platform and nor were the rest of us from the Stirling religion subject area. The many religion students and lecturers in the audience seemed to be invisible and inaudible to those up on the platform and to those of the organisers who were sitting in the front row. I felt that I was intruding into someone else’s private assembly, and I began to wonder why my wife and I were there, and why I had urged my students and postgraduates to attend – some coming from as far away as St Andrews and Edinburgh.

Some people may now want to organise a counter-debate, preferable led by a combination of current RE teachers in schools and critical religion students at Stirling, especially those who, like Sarah, intend – or intended – to teach RE in school. Yes, we need all the constituencies to participate. It seems potentially more creative to try to bring the academic subject area and the school curriculum into some kind of direct, creative tension. After all, that is exactly what Sarah Clark was talking about: the dissonance between the two.

I believe and hope that what we do successfully in the religion subject area at Stirling is to deconstruct the empty and confused rhetoric around religion and secularity, and show how it serves wider power agendas that tend to remain half-hidden in the background.  But I recognise the need for caution. I suspect that many teachers and parents, whose legitimate concerns are with the actualities of the school curriculum, will be puzzled by how we proceed, and slow to recognise the relevance of deconstructing discourses on religion. It would be unhelpful if the ‘lively discussion’ split into a false assumed dichotomy of realists and idealists – the idealists being those supposedly privileged academics like myself who live and teach abstractions that have no bearing on the supposed realities, and the realists being the teachers who do the immensely difficult job working within the externally imposed realities of the curriculum.  This is, I believe, yet another of those either-or binaries that keep us stupefied and ensure that nothing new can be thought. I would not go cold into that forum. It needs to be prepared. A space could be made for what we do at Stirling, even if it is only trying to clear the conceptual rubble so evident that evening.

What is education and what is indoctrination? Reflections on the RE debate

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[Picking up on the debate at Stirling University on 23.10.14, the introductory blog to this topic by Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, and the contribution by Sarah Clark, Russell Hunter, a Masters student at Stirling University, here offers his thoughts on the debate.  There will be one more comment piece next week. – Michael Marten, Editor]

After discussing with Dr. Fitzgerald the terms and use of education/indoctrination programs, I was excited to attend this panel discussion. I listened intently to the four panelists and came away from each of their presentations wanting to hear a bold statement. Was the current system about education or was it about indoctrination? They tiptoed around this issue.

Professor James Conroy came the closest to addressing it, but what did he mean when he said, “You cannot educate if a culture is not willing to learn, and if indoctrination was the goal, it failed”? He further argued that “there is no link to theological questions” in the Scottish school curriculum. He used statistics from his survey findings to show that religious affiliations are decreasing among schoolchildren today, which is why there is no indoctrination. To conclude that indoctrination does not exist because religious affiliations among schoolchildren are decreasing is questionable. I would be interested to see the survey questions. The teachers surveyed may not have fully supported the presence of Religious Education (RE) in the school curriculum and were so politically correct in their delivery of it that their RE instruction had a counter-effect. Would that not amount to indoctrination?

Reverend Sally Foster-Fulton was passionate but failed to convince me of RE’s future role in Scottish schools or even clarify its future role. “Time for reflection” is a nice catch phrase that she coined. I take it to mean coalescing support for RE by drawing attention to the fact that all religions have the commonality of reflection. Be it prayer, meditation, or just quite time, time for reflection creates a common bond between each faith. She quoted the Scottish government’s policy on RE in the Scottish school curriculum. It would have been more powerful if she had clarified how schools interpret and apply this legislation and what role the church plays in all of this. That was the most confusing issue: what role does the church play? Is the government lobbying for time for reflection? If so, is that indoctrination?

Mr. Douglas McLellan of the Humanist Society of Scotland focused on the 1918 Educational Act and the Catholic schools. He was all about secular education and believed RE has no place in schools. Yet, when pushed, he said yes, we need to learn about religions and have discussions about them. He failed to lay out how this is to be accomplished. He railed against the denominational school system but not against the nondenominational system. From my perspective, his presentation was one-dimensional and unfair. If a parent wants to put a child into a denominational school because of religious beliefs, why should Mr. McLellan object? It is possible I am not sufficiently familiar with the Scottish system, but I must also ask why Mr. McLellan did not talk about the 1980 Educational Act or the 2011 guidelines on RE implementation in the school curriculum? Why was he not challenged on that issue?

Mrs. Sarah Clark spoke from personal experience. Her presentation was based on personal experiences working within the school system and critical religion at the University of Stirling. She provided a different perspective. She took an experiential approach to the subject and discussed values and beliefs that are transmitted through socialization. She talked about what she termed a “dissonance” or conflict in the way the school system addressed RE, brought about by the fact that teachers and the school system take a politically correct approach while students wanted openness. She claimed that religion is interwoven across all educational disciplines, a circumstance that schools must address. Her plan for how this could be done included classroom discussions on the impact of religion on the development of various disciplines. Her realist approach allowed her to offer a framework for the implementation of RE in the school curriculum. At least she had a plan. She was the only panelist who suggested a clear plan for implementing RE in the school curriculum.

I watched the faces and reactions of the panelists as each of them got up to speak. It was immediately obvious that the divide of opinions was wide. When Mr. McLellan was speaking, Reverend Foster-Fulton and Professor Conroy made comments to each other and mouthed words such as “not correct,” or something similar, or they shook their heads in disagreement. This behavior from someone who, just a few minutes earlier, had asked that we should all have a time for reflection seemed very disingenuous. The hard question for everyone on this panel and in the audience is the first question that should have been asked: what is the difference between education and indoctrination? If “education” as a mandated curriculum comes from a hierarchy of power, is that not a form of indoctrination? Is a secular mandate on RE in contention with itself? Or does that even matter to those who can only see from their own point of view? How ironic that the panel all agreed the exchange of ideas and customs, religions and values, is the only way to move forward and yet they were closed-minded during the debate.

Those who advocate inclusiveness don’t always show it. Surveys are only as good as the questions asked. Education and indoctrination are intertwined much as someone’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. When a secular government issues a curriculum mandate, is it not indoctrination? The panel discussion has made me aware of the complications and pitfalls of a discourse that is interwoven across various disciplines, as RE is.  More importantly it has made me question the words education and indoctrination. These words may be more alike than the panel is willing to concede.

Education or indoctrination: the future role of religion in Scotland’s schools – a student view

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[Picking up on the debate at Stirling University on 23.10.14, and the introductory blog to this topic by Alison Jasper and John I’Anson, we’re delighted that Sarah Clark, who presented a student view at the debate, has kindly agreed to provide us with her contribution.  We will also be offering two comment pieces on the debate.  Comments are turned off on this posting, but we look forward to comments on the later postings. – Michael Marten, Editor]

I approach the question of Religion, Education and Indoctrination from the multi faceted perspective of someone who has encountered the process of religion and education from simultaneous and varying viewpoints: as a school student, as a university student, as a teacher (of sorts) and as a mother of two children currently attending a Scottish and supposedly non-denominational school.

I arrived at Stirling University in 2010 with a preconceived notion of religion and religious education that was based on my school experiences. I attended Scottish non-denominational schools throughout my education and while I do not recall encountering religion at primary school I can clearly remember it at secondary school, in particular I recall my first year, when I earned full marks for a class test on world religions. I was met at the gates the following day by a baying crowd of bullies shouting ‘Bible basher’ at me – because in the 1980s there was a common misconception that to study religion equated to ‘being’ religious. Thankfully, from a school perspective, this understanding has diminished. However, and many other students of Critical Religion may identify with this point, I do still meet peers and elders who on hearing I am studying ‘Religion’ at university say things like – ‘oh I didn’t know you were religious’ and ‘what religion are you?’.

I decided after the school incident it would be safer to avoid Religious Education altogether. What I hadn’t recognized at the time was how the school continued to provide me with a Religious Education of sorts. As per the government’s education directive and in recognition of Scotland’s Christian heritage, a particular set of norms values and beliefs were being transmitted to me in the classroom and through the schools social environment. As those of you studying Education will be aware, research has shown that through its socializing function, education inserts individuals into existing ways of doing and being. I don’t like the word indoctrinated or the term ‘hidden curriculum’ as to most of us it represents something pernicious, so I have used the word socialized here instead. However, my point is that I left school all packed up with a knowledge base built around existing ways of doing and being, a knowledge base carefully constructed by the Scottish Education system that had me believe my cultural practices (to which the word ‘Religion’ was never attached) were the status quo and that Religion was something that the others had, and that to know others is possible through knowing their Religion.

I do not suggest that this was the experience of everyone who came through the Scottish Education system but I do believe it was for the majority. How do I know this?   Firstly through the shared experiences I have had with fellow students who, on arriving at Stirling University had their carefully constructed knowledge base examined and unpacked by the department of Critical Religion. A valuable process is that it enables one to study ‘objectively’. Secondly, I know this due to the resistance I feel when attempting to share my new understandings with friends and family enquiring about my studies or passing comment about recent news events and foreign affairs.

I started my degree with the intention of becoming an RE teacher but this intention changed after my practice experience in schools. Having worked in various Government institutions (incl. social work, prison service, nursing), I was fully prepared for the disparity between the Governments directive about what will be done, the nice glossy brochure or user friendly website outlining how things will be done, and the harsh reality of what actually happens. What I was not prepared for was the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I realised how badly this disparity impacts on the subject of Religion.

The Scottish Government has issued two papers in relation to Religion in schools – one on provisions for religious observance, the other on religious education. In terms of religious observance the Directorate encourages schools to draw upon the rich resources of Scottish Christianity when planning and to recognise the students of other faiths or with no faith commitment. A challenge indeed. What my experience in my teaching placements and as a mother of two young children attending a Scottish non-denominational school shows is that a kind of P.C. approach is used that involves a complete avoidance of the word Religion, but that includes teaching and singing hymns at assembly (whilst switching the word God for joy).

Alongside but almost in opposition to this, the Directorate states that in relation to religion and class room learning, ‘through an understanding and appreciation of the world’s major religions and views, children and young people can develop responsible attitudes to other people which will assist in counteracting prejudice and intolerance’.

Between the two papers, what is essentially being said is this: ensure pupils are socialised within a Christian context (‘us’) and learn about other people through their religion (‘others’). Creating such a binary division is the backbone of ethnocentrism, in this instance parcelling up knowledge about ‘others’ under the category of Religion whilst reinforcing a ‘Christian identity’ that hasn’t been afforded the same categorisation? The very aims of the Directorate are being undermined by the incompatibility of what I consider to be a dishonest and out-dated approach. How can we acknowledge our Scottish Christian heritage without being honest about what it is we are practicing – religion – whilst categorising others and claiming to know them by applying the term to their practices? Rather than being an antidote to prejudice and racism this practice is adding fuel to the fire!

Thankfully, the glossy brochure, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, (CfE) offers an opportunity to address this issue through its ‘curriculum areas‘. There are 8 curriculum areas including expressive arts, sciences, languages, one of which is religious and moral education. These are different from subject areas: they are broad umbrella terms, and are not structures for timetabling: the intention is that each curriculum area contributes to student development through its own disciplinary context and through connections with other areas of learning. There is a strong emphasis at Stirling University for student teachers to embrace this feature of the curriculum, to work with other subject areas and find the connections between disciplines, which is wonderful. The sad reality is that many students set sail from University ready for challenges and opportunities of interdisciplinary learning, only to be washed away and drowned in the sea of ‘do as your told’. The relentless drive for improved school performance, statistics and league tables, which, unfortunately is still measured by subject,-driven exam results, means that subject area still outranks curriculum area. So  what this translates to is shoe-horned and token-gesture interdisciplinary learning. And for Religious and Moral Education (RME), the shoe-horning focuses more on issues of sex, relationships, and citizenship than it does on issues of religion and faith.

So. Is there a future for Religion in Scottish non-denominational schools? Is it still relevant?

Yes. And Yes!

Recently the former First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell spoke at Stirling University reminding students of the importance of Arts and Humanities in what he described as an increasingly diverse and deeply complicated world. Speaking just prior to the vote on Scotland’s independence and as tensions were rising in Syria, he noted the importance of having people that can communicate in a global context and share events with others (English, languages and media), who can unravel our past (history), and shape our political future (politics). I was initially frustrated and disappointed that he had not acknowledged the importance of Religion, but then I reminded myself that the subject of Religion need not be separate. Religion is, at its nexus, an ideology, a belief system that is intertwined with and reverberates through literature, through history, through economics, social studies, politics, science and language.

The Bible, as just one example, has been a major influence on artistic themes, scientific inspiration, conflict, intertexuality, economics and political discourse throughout the last few centuries. A lack of knowledge and understanding about the text and its historical context can make teaching what on the surface might be considered an unrelated subject, far more difficult. How should schools successfully approach a subject that is so interwoven into everything we do?

What I suggest is, that to deal with a subject that is so interwoven into everything we do – we interweave the topic teachers! (I don’t mean physically sew them together of course!)

I envisage our specialist teachers working peripatetically from first to third year, moving around the school and integrating into other subject classrooms to help students identify, engage with and contextualise religion and faith issues as they encounter them. Explore the diversity and hybridity of Hinduism whilst engaging with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in English. Discuss what the Shinto tradition has to say about organ donation in Biology. Debate the international basketball association’s ban on religious attire at PE. Pupils will be allowed to focus on the subject more specifically in 4th year and even more critically in 5th and 6th year thereby safeguarding the subject qualification element and ensuring its future. But all pupils will be encouraged to engage with Critical Religion and critical thinking that takes them beyond their own belief system in all subject areas… bearing in mind that we first have to be honest about what our belief system is, instead of blurring the edges so as not to offend others.

I would encourage all RE teachers currently practicing in Scottish schools to take the amazing opportunity that the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence has presented us with before it passes us by: take advantage of the flexibility it allows, take ownership of the curriculum area and the subject of Religion in Scottish Schools and move it forward.

Is RE perhaps a terrorist activity?

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Thursday evening’s discussion at Stirling University ‘Education or Indoctrination:  The future role of religion in Scottish Schools,’ predictably fell, to these writers’ and minds, a little flat. But why?

Debates about RE in UK – and Scottish – schools are frequently characterised by ambivalence– in Scotland skirting around unacknowledged or unmentionable aspects of its social and economic history that come with sectarian and religious labels – and  sometimes what is reflected in them is further retrenchment rather than trenchant thinking. Arguably what emerged here were various familiar themes: the desire of hard-working committed RE teachers to encourage their students to engage with forms of wisdom (not limited to Christianity); the importance of developing  attitudes of respect and tolerance partly at least as a kind of defence against the dark arts of terrorism and fundamentalism; a lament for a lost form of theological and biblical literacy; the claim that  theological and biblical literacy enriches the appreciation of history and literature (a somewhat backhanded legitimation of RE as handmaiden to a range of more acceptable humanities?); a view that the only kind of knowledge relevant within Schools ought to be based on ‘secular’ reason and empirical science; and various attempts to define ‘religion’ as a concern with transcendence, as historical tradition as the commodification of  ‘otherness’.

In respect of this last point, the discussion was enlivened with an elegant critique of the ‘world religions’ paradigm that parcels up knowledge of ‘the other’ whilst schools continue to maintain a ‘hidden curriculum’ – actions and expectations developing a form of ‘our’ subjective, Christianised identity that acts ironically to reinforce a sense of the otherness of what we study ‘objectively’. Sarah Clark addressed the question of a possible future for the subject creatively and optimistically with suggestions for an interdisciplinarity that  would not be subordinated to the demands of a ‘policy assessment culture’ fostering rigid disciplinary boundaries. Based on her enthusiasm for the possibilities of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (2010) she began to flesh this out in terms of an idea that refreshingly, wasn’t constrained by current orderings or assumptions – proposing a more nomadic and less territorialised approach.   However, thinking on this creative level is hard to sustain and gave way for the most part to a more diffuse discussion, for example in terms of parental rights – clearly an important issue, but one with  polarising  effects that closed down rather than opened up possibilities for the exchange of ideas about the future.

What then, by way of post script to this event, do we have to contribute to this discussion?  We have previously identified the Official Account of Religious Studies  (OARS, see I’Anson & Jasper, 2006) in British Schools and Universities as one that is built on a late modernist ethos of rationality, objectivity and neutrality reflecting a substantive ontology and a rhetorics (within RE and society more broadly) characterised  by openness to multiculturalism as a social good. It seemed to us that this OARS was very much in evidence in yesterday’s discussion. (By ‘substantive ontology’ we mean the kind of normative, western and masculinist discourse which is still widely believed to be neutral whereas it is arguably a highly privileged construction.) Scholars like Smart and the organisation of RE teachers with which he was closely involved in the 1970s (the SHAP working party) took advantage of a move observable at that time, away from older confessional or narrowly moral certainties that had characterised ‘Religious Instruction’ or ‘Scripture’ before the 1980s. The approach (at secondary and higher levels) they developed was in tune with this rhetorics and substantive approach. Yet what was key here, was that this dominant approach – still detectable today – remained, at the same time as it appeared rhetorically open to difference/s, intellectually aligned within the quite rigid categorisations of what we’ve referred to here as substantive ontologies – for example in relation to the familiar western notion of ‘beliefs’.

In the academy, things have changed. There has been movement – mediated through a diffusion of broadly post structuralist approaches – towards the recognition of much more relational ontologies (Irigaray, 2004; Wildman, 2010) and this has shifted understanding from a basis in essentialised towards contextualised knowledge. Yet as a number of the speakers noted in the course of yesterday’s discussion, at the same time schools, universities and educational research more generally has  been required increasingly to conform to  structures whereby education is seen as a means to achieve measurable economic or socio-economic benefits with students and stakeholders configured as customers. At the same time there has also been a clear cooling of popular enthusiasm for differences/multiculturalism that could be associated with pressures from economic migration and the fear of international terrorism (after 9/11) in a time of austerity (after 2008). (A recent document produced in England even suggested that teachers should be wary of  students who betray too great an interest in issues of cultural difference (Coppock, 2014).) In the light of these changes, it was entirely appropriate to be having yesterday’s discussion and to be pointing to the need for new creative ideas for the future although it was clear that the framing of the event largely assumed all participants would be more or less aligned with a certain common vocabulary and disappointingly, made little allowance for the kinds of ‘interruptions’ from different perspectives that might have opened the discussion up.

The contradictions between these forces – substantive and relational ontologies – has clearly now led to a crisis of plausibility in relation to the language of RE – a fundamental failure on the part of policy makers particularly but perhaps also on the part of academics to think through the implications of the newer relational ontologies as they have revolutionised thinking about identity and difference/s in relation to lived experience as this exceeds the limited categories and essentialised knowledges produced by the substantive ontologies of the past. And this, arguably, is to some extent exemplified in  the evident disconnections between RE at primary and secondary level and many forms of theology and critical religion at higher education levels.

We do need some new thinking – perhaps an AAR (Alternative Account of Religion?) – that proposes more robustly educational rather than ideological or neoliberal justifications for maintaining space for Religion in the curriculum – perhaps as a space for critical  attentiveness to genuine and challenging difference/s and a response to ‘learnification’ (Biesta, 2008). In other words, we need to acknowledge the ways in which engaging with cultural differences will inevitably lead to, and call forth, changes to our characteristic ways of carrying on.  This will interrupt the prevailing discourse that assumes we can encounter knowledge in general and knowledge of religion in particular in purely ‘neutral’ terms.

As we envision it, we could perhaps say that the implication for yesterday evening’s discussants (and listeners), is the need for all of us to acknowledge the imbrication of religion, cultural difference/s and education and to recognise that at present the current framing at policy level remains in/different; difference/s is/are continually resolved/translated into familiar polarities that are fundamentally impoverishing.  We argue that we need then to engage urgently with the question of what is educationally desirable – to broaden the understanding of socialisation and genuinely to consider the implications for present day cultural horizons.

Alison Jasper & John I’Anson

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