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Pedagogy Jihad TN Light 1
March 2, 2023+Joe Nalven
+Teaching+Faith & Religion

From Blasphemy to Jihad: On the Importance of Centering Complexity

The issue of depicting religious figures is not black and white within the Islamic community — not in the past, not today. However, rather than acknowledging the diversity of views across and within different sociological contexts with respect to this issue, Hamline University took a decidedly narrow and ill-informed approach, terminating a professor for including an image of the prophet Muhammad in optional course materials — essentially allowing a small number of contemporary students at the university to declare the scope of what is acceptable not just for all Muslims in the university but for non-Muslims as well. In cases like these, it is important for people to be able to step in and out of contemporary ethnocentric understandings of the phenomena under analysis. It’s often tough to get stakeholders to take that step back. It’s also tough to get those who have yet to become stakeholders, or who poorly understand the biases in which they are stakeholders, to step back. I saw this firsthand in one of my classes.

Teaching About Political Jihad

As part of an introductory course in cultural anthropology, the text I used included chapters on human evolution, race and ethnicity, sex and gender, religion and magic, as well as political systems, making a living, and all those frameworks that foster historical and contemporary comparative cultural analysis — in effect, all of human history throughout the world in one semester. One would surmise correctly that learning could become superficial unless the instructor made the ethnographic and historical moment become real in a classroom context. I peppered each class with the unexpected to further illustrate how learning anthropology in situ often disrupted our own cultural expectations. Sometimes, I set up debates around concepts from the textbook that today would likely be seen as microaggressions: female genital modification, white supremacy, military researchers on the battlefield, and political jihad. The first years following the 9/11 attacks on the United States raised questions about the how and why of such attacks. The textbook that I used tread daintily on this event. Except for the Somali students in my class, few understood Islam and the several meanings of jihad, which included finding spiritual self-fulfillment, improving the Muslim community, or waging a holy war. The disciplinary silos of ethnicity, religion, and political systems needed to be integrated to help make sense of that tragic event. What better way to do that than to read and debate the fatwa proclaimed by Al-Qaeda’s leadership — Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri? The religious edict was aimed at the “crusader-Zionist alliance”:
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque [Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words of Almighty God, “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together,” and “fight them until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.”
I had asked for two groups to debate this fatwa — one in support, one in opposition. From a methodological relativism, students should be able to speak from the psychological perspective of members of that community, regardless of whether they find the moral relativism repugnant. However, the exercise did not receive a full-throated exposition from either group — neither the supporters nor the detractors. That surprised me. Upon reflection, my sense is that there was a common thread of “we deserved it” in the national discourse. “Why They Hate Us: The Roots of Islamic Rage — And What We Can Do About It” read one Newsweek cover (October 14, 2001). The question for me became one of how to teach an important event from a cultural anthropological perspective without either inserting my own bias or acknowledging the national uncertainty of how to cope with the claim and counterclaims about the moral rightness of terror warfare. It was not until I discovered a counter fatwa, one that had been issued by the Spanish Islamic Council a year after the Al-Qaeda terror attack in 2004 on a train station in Madrid. Here was the complement to Osama bin Laden’s fatwa:
“We declare ... that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation, responsible for the horrendous crimes against innocent people who were despicably murdered in the 11 March terrorist attack in Madrid, are outside the parameters of Islam,” the commission said. The fatwa said that according to the Koran “the terrorist acts of Osama bin Laden and his organization al-Qaeda … are totally banned and must be roundly condemned as against Islam.”
It added: “Inasmuch as Osama bin Laden and his organization defend terrorism as legal and try to base it on the Koran — they are committing the crime of ‘istihlal’ and thus become apostates that should not be considered Muslims or treated as such.” (The term “istihlal” refers to the act of making up one’s own laws.) I found that by using these complements, the students could better understand the rationale for political jihad as well as the problem of overreach. They could also understand how Muslims could condemn other Muslims on religious grounds as well as the moral question of killing innocent civilians. I was also able to remove myself as a partisan. I could step back from being the white, non-Muslim instructor and immerse the class into their intra-cultural debate. It was now possible to teach the psychological reality within the Muslim community about morality, religious terminology, the nature of justification of what is holy, and the reliance on a Quranic framework. Stepping back from our ethnocentrism is one aspect of anthropology’s skill set. By having people not just debate the rightness or wrongness of a single position, but instead engage with multiple conflicting perspectives within the same community, there is room to understand, for instance, that the claims of any particular stakeholder on an issue — for instance, on the depictions of the prophet Muhammad — cannot be taken as the Muslim position. It is a costly missed opportunity at Hamline that the administration decided there was essentially one inviolable position on this issue. However, in other schools and in other classrooms, we can help spur a deeper understanding of other cultures and worldviews, and help students break out of reading events exclusively through their own times and culture, by foregrounding multiple complementary and contradictory perspectives.

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