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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 5 (Oct. 1993)

Mark Juergensmeyer, ed., Violence and the Sacred in the Modern World. London: Frank Cass and Co. Ltd, 1992. 155 pp. Hdb. $29.50.

The rise of religious violence and fundamentalism marks our age. Many books and articles have been published on this matter in recent years. But most of this literature has dealt quite superficially with these problems: Religious violence and fundamentalism are morally condemned, a convincing explanation, however, is very often lacking. This book is different. It is the result of a dialogue of social scientists and scholars of comparative religion who have studied incidents of religious violence with René Girard, who has developed a theory that helps do understand the relationship between religion and violence. The book avoids the usually superficial and hypocritical attitude and tries to understand the deeper causes of religious violence. A conference--convened by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation in 1989--started this dialogue. Essays--written after the conference--and Girard's written response are presented in this volume, which was first published as a special issue of The Journal of Terrorism and Political Violence in 1990 (Vol. 3, No. 3). The book is introduced by the editor Mark Juergensmeyer ("Editor's Introduction: Is Symbolic Violence Related to Real Violence?"), who gives a short overview of Girardian themes and summarizes the other essays.

Mark R. Anspach ("Violence Against Violence: Islam in Comparative Context"), a Girardian himself, deals with the paradox of many religious institutions that control violence through violence. He refers to vendettas, leadership battles, and the punishment of transgressors in pre-state societies, interprets these institutions from a Girardian perspective as extensions of sacrificial ritual and shows that many aspects of Islam are quite similar to these characteristics of tribal religions. Anspach's successful attempt to reconcile Raymond Verdier's insights into ritualized vengeance and Girardian theory is especially interesting.

Martin Kramer ("Sacrifice and Fratricide in Shiite Lebanon") focuses on acts of self-sacrifice by members of the Hizbollah and Amal terrorist groups in Lebanon. Young people sacrificed their lives in attacks against American and Israeli military. Kramer shows convincingly that there exists mimetic rivalry between Hizbollah and Amal and that those acts of self-sacrifice can be interpreted as sacrificial acts -- in the Girardian sense -- containing this internal fratricidal violence.

Ehud Sprinzak ("Violence and Catastrophe in the Theology of Rabbi Meir Kahane: The Ideologization of Mimetic Desire") uses Girardian theory to interpret Meir Kahane's theology of violence and revenge. According to Sprinzak, Kahane "is the epitome of the mimetic desire" (67). He wants "to out-violate the violators of the Jews". In his mimetic struggle Kahane goes beyond all traditional forms of religion that tried to control violence and produces violence on a massive scale. According to Sprinzak this is ultimately the result of an ideologization of mimetic desire.

Emmanuel Sivan ("The Mythologies of Religious Radicalism: Judaism and Islam") emphasizes cases of convergence between fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Jews. Although they are archenemies they show some sympathy towards their respective positions. Both, for instance, agree on the condemnation of Salman Rushdie. Sivan's explanation for this strange sympathy refers to the fact that in both cases the internal enemies play a much more important role than the Muslim-Jewish conflict.

Bruce B. Lawrence ("The Islamic Idiom of Violence: A View from Indonesia"), who deals especially with the case of Indonesia, claims that what might appear to be religious violence is in fact political violence. Using insights from the sociologist Anthony Giddens, Lawrence stresses the close connection between violence and the modern nation-state. Due to the modern nation-state with its implicit violence "truly Islamic violence has been rendered mute" (98).

Mark Juergensmeyer ("Sacrifice and Cosmic War") analyzes the rhetoric of religious activists in Israel, Iran, India, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka etc. and gives a somewhat different explanation of religious violence than René Girard. Although Juergensmeyer agrees in many aspects with Girard he questions both the conception of mimetic desire and the notion of sacrifice as the fundamental religious image. According to Juergensmeyer "images of religious warfare are prior to both sacrifice and martyrdom in the mechanism of symbolically displacing violence, and ... the motivation behind the creation of these images of spiritual war is a basic longing for order" (106). This review doesn't give enough place to discuss the differences between Juergensmeyer and Girard more deeply. What a theologian misses, however, in Juergensmeyer's article is a clearer distinction between religion in general and religion based on the non-sacrificial texts in the Judeo-Christian Bible. The latter is a very different kind of religion that focuses ultimately on non- violence.

By dealing especially with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam David C. Rapoport ("Some General Observations on Religion and Violence") gives some reasons why religious revivals are nearly always associated with violence. Leaning on Girard, he mentions the violent origin of religions as one of those reasons. He also shows that the return to Christian roots normally produces pacifist movements. At the same time, however, he does not forget that certain passages in the Gospels can easily be misinterpreted and helped to legitimize violence by Christians.

The book concludes with a response of René Girard and Mark R. Anspach ("A Response: Reflections form the Perspective of Mimetic Theory") to these different essays. Girard and Anspach stress again the value of mimetic theory as it helps to understand fundamentalist movements and the outbreak of religious violence. They see a deepening mimetic-sacrificial crisis in our culture as the real cause behind these phenomena. Their general position on fundamentalism seems to be right. They reject positions that regard fundamentalism as some kind of pathology and have a subtly differentiated view of our modern world. Without sharing a modernist belief in progress they don't hesitate to stress that "there are also immensely positive aspects" to our modern age.

The dialogue that is presented in this book is an important interdisciplinary contribution to understand current outbreaks of religious violence and the rise of fundamentalist movements. It is an interesting book that will be helpful for social science scholars, religious studies scholars, and Girardians who are interested in the dialogue with these academic fields.

Wolfgang Palaver