Laughing at Religion

One of the best segments on the old Daily Show was Stephen Colbert’s “This Week in God” – I wanted to have a clip here but WordPress and Comedy Central’s embedding system do not play well together.

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend of mine asked a question on his feed: Are his religious friends more offended that his atheism means he doesn’t believe in any religion or that it means he doesn’t believe in their religion? I felt I had something to offer to the discussion from a historical perspective. In both pre-modern Christianity and Islam an accusation of atheism was usually considered far worse than an accusation of heresy, false religion, or sometimes even witchcraft, although technically the sin would have been spreading atheism rather than the unbelief in itself. However, instead of just saying that, I decided to be a little cheeky, as one sometimes is on Facebook. I conjured up hyperbolic images of demonic infidels, burnings at the stake, and suffering Presbyterians.

Another friend decided to call me out, calling my comment snarky and unproductive. On reflection, I decided that he was correct. Rather than facilitating the discussion, it put more pious friends, the actual target of the original question, on the defensive, perhaps leading to more guarded answers. I apologized and tried to rephrase my idea in a less dismissive tone. But this raised another question for me: Why did I think that kind of humor could facilitate the discussion in the first place? I actually think it can, but as with any humor, context and timing is everything. We live in an era when much of our substantive social debates, including debates about religion, are conducted by comedians, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Sarah Silverman, and Bill Maher. But where I find Colbert hilarious when he talks about religion, I can’t stand Maher, whom I see as a mean-spirited bigot. Why?

Humor is so interconnected with individual taste that you can’t really deduce universal rules. But I think an exploration of examples from across the spectrum might tease out some of the potential relationships between humorist, audience, context, and social effect.

Sam is not amused.


In the classroom, I’ve deliberately used irreverent humor for a pedagogical purpose. Despite all the disrespectful things said about Islam and other religions in certain corners of American culture, I’ve found that on the whole American students are reluctant to ask critical questions of religions other than their own – perhaps even more than they would with their own religions – although my friends in Biblical Studies may beg to differ. In fact, this is what I see as the central flaw in the way religion is discussed in American public space: People who aren’t seeking understanding speak loudly and disrespectfully while people who are seeking understanding avoid speaking up for fear of causing offense. My own response is to de-sacralize the sacred with humor.

The “Sacred” is an important concept in comparative religious studies, although different thinkers use the term in slightly different ways. While some emphasize the sacred as a person, place, or thing experienced as originating from a numinous realm, others, like Jonathan Z. Smith, suggest the idea of the sacred arises not from some passive experience but rather from the active reverence directed toward a sacred object. This accounts for why one person’s sacred object may seem mundane to another. Furthermore, the nature of this reverence means that the sacred must not be subjected to the types of attention given to everyday people, places, or things. You cannot look at it, touch it, listen to it, walk upon it, enter it, talk to it or about it, depict it, question it, or say its name without either being a special person or making oneself special in some way, such as through initiation, purification, education, and so forth.

One of the functions of humor is to take its object down a peg. This is its value as well as its danger. Humor can be used to keep down people already low on the social totem pole, just as it can be used to corrode the prestige of the rich and powerful. As the late great Joan Rivers was fond of saying, laughter can be a way to cope with even the most serious or horrible things. The Onion’s finest moment was its first post 9/11 issue, poking its satirical finger directly into the fresh wound, and it was gloriously healing. In a more everyday setting, humor can “break the ice” by lowering the tenor of a situation, making it less formal or tense. But still, ethnic jokes, blond jokes, fat jokes, and others of that type too often function to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and concrete material inequalities. As I suggested earlier, the difference between the appropriate and the inappropriate humor boils down to taste and context. But in all these cases, humor functions in essentially the same way: it tears things down.

People who teach about Islam tend to get annoyed by the general public obsession with Islamic veiling practices. Titles of news segments about “looking under the veil of Arabia,” “unveiling Islam,” or “removing the veil of secrecy from al-Qa’ida” hint at both assumptions about sexual repression in Muslim cultures and the titillation that comes from wondering what’s underneath. It’s all incredibly creepy when you think about it. Still, we know that the students are going to be coming in with veils on the brain, but yet they won’t necessarily know how to go about asking about it. At the beginning of one segment on gender relations, I started by telling the story of how I once tried on a burqa and proceeded to bump into everything. Everyone chuckles (whether out of true amusement or mere politeness doesn’t matter), but the most profane question is now on the table: How do they even see in those things? From there, the discussion can open up and bring in all sorts of different perspectives. I’ve signaled that the goal is not getting them to like or dislike the veil – and that it’s perfectly OK not to like it – but rather to understand a range of perspectives on the practice. No question will be considered offensive as long as it’s in the service of learning.

When teaching about Muhammad, I like to pull out a hadith (traditional narrative about the Prophet passed down by his followers) in which Muhammad is the butt of a practical joke by his wives. According to the narrative, Muhammad had a sweet tooth and loved honey-flavored drinks, which led him to spend a little bit more time with one of his wives (which one varies in the different versions) who exploited this fact by plying him with honey drinks. A’isha and several other wives decided to nip this in the bud by scheming to convince their husband that the honey beverage gave him bad breath and made him less sexy. He fell for it hook, line, and sinker, swearing off honey until their ruse was later revealed. While perhaps not a rip-roarer, it nevertheless allows us a chuckle at Muhammad’s expense. One of the reasons I like sharing this particular story is that I think it is originally intended to cause exactly such a chuckle. It’s an insider joke as much as an outsider joke. The hadith that highlight the Prophet’s home life paint a portrait of a human, relatable man suffering the everyday travails of married life. A real tension in Islamic thought stems from trying to revere and emulate Muhammad without making an idol out of him. The transmitters of this hadith take him down a notch without actually maligning him (Hadith involving A’isha do this a lot – her acerbic wit comes through so strongly that it’s easy to believe some real trace of her personality has made it through the hagiographies). Likewise, students of Islam ought to feel comfortable talking about Muhammad as a human being and probing what made him tick (to the degree you can based on what sources we have) if they seek to understand him and his followers.

In the classroom, the overall purpose is not the same as in a comedy club. At the end of the day, we do want students to have a healthy respect for the traditions and people they’re studying. At the same time, too much respect, or rather the wrong type of respect, can actually hamper learning. Humor is not the only way to cut through the untouchability of the sacred, but it can be effective, albeit potentially risky. For the downside is that for many within a tradition such treatment is the very definition of blasphemy, even if you’re not taking it to Rushdie-esque levels. I like to think I usually pull off the right balance, but I also freely admit that plenty of attempts fall flat or go too far in one direction or the other.

Religious figures get more than their fair share of lampooning on South Park, but we (usually, sometimes) love them for it


Despite my prodigious comedic talents, my humor in the classroom or on Facebook feeds is incredibly tame compared what you can get away with on cable television these days. The work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone provides some great test cases for how humor can increase or fail to increase understanding of religions and religious sensibilities. South Park is a fascinating litmus test. I doubt there is anyone who has not actually been offended by something in the show sooner or later, but I also doubt if anyone who has seen the show has not been rewarded quite often with deep belly laughs. Religion is one of their favorite targets, and their perspective is certainly not that of believers, but nor is their depiction devoid of human empathy. The genius of Parker and Stone stems from their ability to invert their own inversions, flipping the mirror back at the audience, subverting the attitudes that made the comedy possible in the first place. It doesn’t always work – like all humor – but they’ve developed a very effective formula.

A great example can be seen in the infamous Muhammad episode (Episode 201, April 2010), which was censored by Comedy Central when it first aired and has not been aired at all since then (although leaked versions appear from time to time, I happened to watch it on its original night). Much like The Satanic Verses, the episode strangely explores the very type of controversy that came to engulf its fate in the real world. Stone and Parker received “credible” death threats from a fringe group based on the first part of their story in episode 200, leading the network to heavily edit 201, which in turn resulted in cries of censorship. The plot involves all of South Park’s past celebrity targets (Michael Jackson, Rob Reiner, Mel Gibson, Bono, Pope Benedict, robot Barbara Streisand, et al.) led by Tom Cruise suing the town in order to force them to arrange a meeting with the Prophet Muhammad. Cruise’s scheme is to subject the Prophet to a process that will extract the mysterious “goo” that renders Muhammad immune to ridicule and transfer it to the other celebrities (such a brilliant idea!). Throughout 200, Muhammad only appears hidden in a bear costume to disguise his identity. In 201, he always has a big black bar with “Censored” on it super-imposed on what was presumably the bear costume. There could almost be no better illustration of the concept of the Sacred that I discussed above, that what makes something sacred is not necessarily some inherent trait, but rather how people treat (or don’t treat) it. The South Park crew takes this idea a step further, at least in the uncensored version of the “final lesson” speech that was never aired.

KYLE: That’s because there is no goo, Mr. Cruise. You see, I learned something today. Throughout this whole ordeal, we’ve all wanted to show things that we weren’t allowed to show, but it wasn’t because of some magic goo. It was because of the magical power of threatening people with violence. That’s obviously the only true power. If there’s anything we’ve all learned, it’s that terrorizing people works.

JESUS: That’s right. Don’t you see, gingers, if you don’t want to be made fun of anymore, all you need are guns and bombs to get people to stop.

SANTA: That’s right, friends. All you need to do is instill fear and be willing to hurt people and you can get whatever you want. The only true power is violence.

The litigants in episode 200: I find it interesting that Mel Gibson is one of the few characters in South Park that, like Saddam Hussein, are animated with a photograph of their heads.

You don’t necessarily have to agree with the premise that respect for the Prophet needs to be predicated on violence (see my take on the Danish cartoons below). But it is true that the idea of the sacred frequently serves as a tool of power and social control. It’s important to note, though, that Muhammad is actually not the butt of the joke in this episode, although he’s certainly not an object of reverence either. Rather it is those who want to avoid ridicule to the point of threatening others. We’re looking at you, Mr. Cruise.

In an effort to combat the local belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS, Elder Cunningham *slightly* embellishes the Book of Mormon by suggesting that God told Joseph Smith that all he had to do to cure himself of AIDS was to *ahem* “have intercourse” with a frog.

Their double-edged sword really shines in the musical The Book of Mormon, a long form treatment of religion. It is as crude, profane, and irreverent as South Park (without the bleeps!), but it humanizes religious belief in a way the audience may not have been suspecting. The plot follows a pair of young Mormon missionaries who are sent to Uganda, where they encounter AIDS, poverty, female circumcision, and violent warlords. It pokes fun at all the idiosyncrasies of the Mormon Church, such as its attitudes toward sexuality, concept of divinity, and conflicted history with converts of African descent. But unexpectedly, it is religious belief that ends up empowering the characters to face and overcome their obstacles. In what I think is the best song of the show, the main female character Nabulungi speaks of the inspiration she feels after learning of the early Mormons’ trek to the promised land of Salt Lake City.  (Listen to it here.)

“Sal Tlay Ka Siti”

My mother once told me of a place
With waterfalls and unicorns flying
Where there was no suffering, no pain
Where there was laughter instead of dying

I always thought she’d made it up
To comfort me in times of pain
But now I know that place is real
Now I know its name

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
Not just a story Momma told
But a village in Oo-tah
Where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe
I know just where I’d be
Right on the next bus to Paradise
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

I can imagine what it must be like
This perfect, happy place
I’ll bet the goat meat there is plentiful
And they have vitamin injections by the case

The warlords there are friendly
They help you cross the street
And there’s a Red Cross on every corner
With all the flour you can eat

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
The most perfect place on Earth
The flies don’t bite your eyeballs
And human life has worth
It isn’t a place of fairytales
It’s as real as it can be
A land where evil doesn’t exist
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

And I’ll bet the people are open-minded
And don’t care who you’ve been
And all I hope is that when I find it
I’m able to fit in
Will I fit in?

Sal Tlay Ka Siti
A land of hope and joy
And if I want to get there
I just have to follow that white boy

You were right, Momma
You didn’t lie
The place is real
And I’m gonna fly

I’m on my way
Soon life won’t be so shitty
Now salvation has a name
Sal Tlay Ka Siti

Although the character seems naïve and unsophisticated, the song is nevertheless poignant and powerful. It hits the balance perfectly, in my opinion. It points squarely at the appeal and empowerment of apocalyptic narratives in which the crappy world we’re stuck in is replaced by a this-worldly utopia or other-worldly paradise. By imagining that things could be different and better, Nabulungi is no longer complacent in accepting the injustices around her, and she becomes a leader and agent of social change. Other numbers highlight the “Top 10” of religious themes, such as the origin of evil, the derivation of ethics from sacred stories, and the tension of differing scriptural interpretations. While it’s certainly not ground-breaking theology, the religious psychology of the characters is surprisingly multi-dimensional.

To my mind, what is most subversive about The Book of Mormon isn’t its skewering of religious faith. In fact, despite its irreverence, I wouldn’t consider it polemical against Mormonism or Christianity in general, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, it attempts to get the audience to come out on the other side of the experience with a certain amount of empathy for people and ideas they were simply expecting to be able to mock. This is why I think Bill Maher fails in his critiques of religion. His one-note shtick is basically to say, “Look how stupid those religious people are.” Parker and Stone might also say that, but they don’t stop there, opting instead to humanize and complicate the objects of their satire. Sure, they remain abject and ridiculous, but the audience is prevented from simply adopting an attitude of smug superiority. If they had a credo, I think it might be “Ridiculousness and stupidity are part of the universal human condition.” Interestingly, the Latter Day Saints leadership responded to the production with a good deal of equanimity, even to the point of advertising in the playbill that “You’ve seen the play, now read the book.”

LDS Advertisement: Taking it in stride and showing us how it’s done.


While Mormons have certainly experienced oppression and violence in their history, in 21st-century America there is no fear that riled-up audiences will leave a production of The Book of Mormon and start beating up random Mormons on the street or refusing to give them jobs because of their faith. While the show certainly laughs at Mormons more than with them, Mormons exist in a safe-enough social space that they can feel free to choose to laugh with those laughing at them, or not. Even though he didn’t win, the fact that Mitt Romney secured his party’s nomination for the presidency was historically significant, just as Kennedy’s election signaled to American Catholics that they were no longer a maligned minority (or at least, they no longer needed to care if they’re maligned in some quarters).

But I’d like to take a cue from Trey and Matt and invert the inversion. I had a very different reaction to the Muhammad cartoon controversy in 2005 than most everyone else. Doubtless that was in part because my interests create a certain sympathy for Muslim perspectives. But actually, the first thing that occurred to me was how similar some of the cartoons were to some of the anti-semitic cartoons from pre-WWII Europe I was familiar with. While the question of free speech and the place of blasphemy laws in a free, secular society is a valid and important one, what most struck me was how far right-wing groups throughout Europe gleefully piled on the “let’s ratchet up the offense against Muslims” bandwagon. To be honest, most of the original cartoons were pretty innocuous. The most potentially offensive ones to my eyes were the one with a bomb in Muhammad’s turban and the one in which the Prophet appears with a black censor-stripe across his eyes and wielding a sword barring access to two veiled women with an open stripe that leaves only their eyes visible. While the former struck me as simply mean-spirited, the latter at least had a clever visual hook. Unfortunately, when some Danish imams compiled their dossier of the cartoons to send to their colleagues in the Middle East, they included some very-amateurish images that were over the top-offensive, such as a photo-manipulation that shows a praying Muslim man being sexually mounted by a dog (considered an unclean animal by many Muslims, making it even worse) with the caption: “This is really why Muslims pray prostrate.”

It’s significant that the response of U.S. Muslims was far more muted than their counterparts in Europe. The crazy Islamophobic rants one sees on FOX and weird FBI entrapment schemes notwithstanding, Muslims in the U.S. are not in the same kind of embattled position as in Europe. This is due to numerous factors, including the smaller size of the American Muslim community with respect to the majority, their largely middle-class and educated status, and the fact that American legal institutions protecting freedom of worship are fairly robust (and indeed are more interested in protecting religion from the state than the state from religion, for better or worse. I’d say largely for better). A better, if still inadequate, American analogy for the status of European Muslims would be the case of American Latinos. All the right-wing rhetoric about the dangers of immigrants to “our” language, jobs, culture, and morality are directed at Muslim immigrants instead. Europeans have the additional hurdle that they are less accustomed to imagining themselves as multicultural societies. Laws curtailing Muslim religious expression and practice, such as banning Islamic dress in schools or limiting the construction of mosques are becoming commonplace, and were in fact reaching a fever pitch around the time the cartoons were published. The cartoons thus struck many European Muslims as yet another attack denigrating and marginalizing their place in European society.

Left is a 1934 cover of a French translation of the Anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"; Right is a depiction of Muhammad from right-wing French cartoonist Steph Bergol (not one of the Danish cartoons)

Left is a 1934 cover of a French translation of the Anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; Right is a depiction of the Muslim threat from right-wing French cartoonist Steph Bergol (not one of the Danish cartoons)

The cartoons, or rather the context and intent behind them, made me think uncomfortably of pre-World War II political cartoons depicting Jews, who were often mocked for trying and failing to assimilate into “mainstream” European society. Even the physicality of the caricatures, such as an exaggerated hook nose, bushy unkempt eyebrows, and lascivious leer were reminiscent of anti-Jewish imagery. In some of the popular political cartoons that appeared in the wake of the controversy that sought to ramp up the level of offensiveness to make a point, much of the imagery seems deliberately cribbed from a century ago. Muhammad menacing a globe, leering at unsuspecting European women, and pulling the strings behind government policies that dilute the power of traditional (white) dominance. In short, unlike the satire of The Book of Mormon, the goal of many such cartoons was to de-humanize Muhammad and Muslims as a clear and present threat.

There’s a limit to such a comparison, of course, and I don’t think we’re on the verge of another genocide, but I believe the storm around the Muhammad cartoons were just as much about racist animus as about critique of religious fanaticism. Censorship or asking for censorship isn’t the solution in such cases. Nor do I think the success of multiculturalism depends on a punitive system of political correctness (in fact, I think it ultimately undermines it). The best response is perhaps to turn the comedic tables, as one of the 12 original Danish cartoonists did by depicting Kåre Bluitgen, the children’s author who complained of his difficulty finding willing illustrators for his children’s book about Muhammad and who thus started the ball rolling, dressed in a turban with an orange with the words “PR-Stunt” written on it – visually similar to the more famous image of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban.


Getting Their Goat: Imagined Satanisms

Suffer the little children to come unto me. I’m hungry!

Look!  Up in the sky!  It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s Krampus!!  Wait . . .wait . . .  no it’s not.  It’s a recent design proposal for a Satanist monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol.  Hot on the forked tail of the successful bid to place a Festivus pole and a Flying Spaghetti Monster display next to a Nativity scene in the Florida State Capitol for the holidays, a group known as the Satanic Temple has put forward their proposal as a protest to the placement of a Ten Commandments memorial on state property in Oklahoma.  It’s certainly eye-catching and has prompted the usual conservative outrage and liberal mockery and goating (. . . excuse me, that’s gloating).  Indeed, this is likely just the latest quickly-forgotten salvo in the Culture Wars, an answer to the dog whistle (. . . excuse me, that’s duck whistle) of Phil Robertson.

I’m drawn to this story more than some others because Baphomet, the demon in the design, has such an interesting history, one that highlights so much of the wiring of the minds of contemporary, conspiracy-theorizing, American political evangelicals.  In addition to first amendment issues raised by the proposed monument, I’ve seen many posts around the blogosphere exploring “what Satanists believe.”  This is a valid enough question, but one that’s hard to answer.  “Satanism” isn’t a single cohesive movement and exists at the intersection of neo-paganism (searching for spiritualities historically suppressed by Christianity), occult mysticism, radical materialist individualism (represented by Ayn Rand’s (. . . excuse me, that’s Anton LaVey’s) Church of Satan), and self-conscious parody religions.  What all the philosophies and organizations under the Satanist umbrella seem to have in common is a deliberate adoption of what many Christians throughout history have imagined Satanism to be.

Rather than look at what actual modern Satanists do or don’t do, I’m hoping to highlight a few interesting moments in the history of the specter of Satanism.  Satanism is imagined as an inversion of Christianity, but symbolic inversion can have multiple effects, often simultaneously.  On the one hand, seeing your system rendered upside-down opens up the possibility that right-side up might not be as natural or self-evident as originally thought.  This corrosive effect attracts most of those who would consider themselves modern Satanists as well as eliciting sympathy from the Jon Stewarts of the world.  But on the other hand, feelings of disgust at the upside-down image can sometimes reinforce one’s investment in the right-side up version.  Whose side are you on?  Our side or that of the gay, Muslim, Communist (big-C), Baphomet-worshipping, baby-eating evil-doers?  Since inversion can have this reinforcing effect on the intended targets, this proposal will probably do little to move the trenches of the Culture Wars in either direction.



Most historians of the Baphomet image locate its origins not in the fear of Satanism, per se, but rather in Islamophobia version 1.0 during the early Crusades.  The name “Baphomet” itself is most likely a corruption of the name Muhammad in the medieval dialects of southern France.  It was very common, particularly in French writings of the era, to treat Muslims as idol worshipers.  Perhaps the most well-known example of this trope can be found in the Song of Roland, in which the Saracens are said to worship an unholy trinity consisting of Mahound (i.e. Muhammad), Apollo, and Termagant.  Ironically, although the Song of Roland (c. 1150) claims to recount an actual historical event, the original Battle of Roncevaux in 778 was far more complicated than the Christian-Muslim clash of civilizations it presents.  Charlemagne was actually entering Iberia in alliance with the caliph in Baghdad, who was hoping to displace the Umayyad emir in Cordoba, who in turn had an alliance with an army of Christian Basques.  It’s an excellent example of how later purveyors of Crusade-think reduced earlier complex Muslim-Christian relationships to a flat binary.

Interestingly, Christian polemicists who resided in or near Muslim lands, took a very different tack when attacking Islam.  Unable to depict Muslims as simple idolaters, something that would be self-evidently false to them, they turn instead to the image of the False Prophet from the biblical Book of Revelation.  They had to acknowledge that Muslims worshiped the same God as Jews and Christians, so they treated Islam more as a Christian heresy than a form of paganism, attempting to pinpoint ways that Muhammad and the Qur’an had perverted the Biblical scriptures (an interesting mirror image of a common Muslim polemical genre).  One of the most fascinating examples is Eulogius of Cordoba (d. 859), who used his talent for polemical writing to lend his support (and his life) to an unusual martyrdom movement.  Muslim rulers, and particularly Muslim rulers in Spain, were generally very tolerant of Jewish and Christian subjects as People of the Book.  While certainly not equal under the law, Christians and Jews who peacefully accepted Muslim rule and did not try to convert Muslims were left in peace and actually had a good degree of economic, social, and political mobility, short of becoming ruler themselves.  In the absence of persecution, yet yearning for the instant Paradise of martyrdom, the martyrs of Cordoba would voluntarily step forward before Muslim magistrates and insult Muhammad.  For those of you just joining us, this is not generally a good thing in Islamic Law, and, at the time, required execution.  Eulogius records 48 (including himself) in his martyrology of the movement.

For the visual appearance of the goat-headed Baphomet, we need to look elsewhere.  The supposed medieval Muhammad idols were usually not described as goat-headed, although the descriptions we have do seem to focus on the idol’s head with attributes such as three faces or encrusted gemstones.  The image’s origin appears to be more recent, most likely during the rise of popular occultism in the late 19th-century.   That being said, Baphomet’s resemblance to Krampus is likely more than coincidental.  It was fairly common as Christianity spread through Europe for pre-Christian beings, such as fauns, forest deities, and so forth to be re-purposed as demons, fairies, and things that go bump in the night.

One further moment is worth mentioning: the trial and dissolution of the Templars in 1307.  Many Europeans returned from the Crusades with more nuanced understandings of the Middle East than those just starting out on their adventures of Saracen-smiting.  For these and likely more political reasons, groups like the Templars became suspect.  Accused of being gay, Muslim, communist (small-c), Baphomet-worshipping, baby-eating evil-doers (I wish I were jesting, but, alas, I’m not), the leaders of the Templars were burned at the stake and the order dissolved.  As any reader of Umberto Eco (who then subsequently delves into less-fictionalized history) knows, this moment has been appropriated as a foundation myth for a majority of European secret societies and occultist movements from the Freemasons, to the Golden Dawn, to, yes, the Church of Satan.


Death Cookie



Ever since a hapless missionary dared knock on the door of my forsaken Catholic household to try and convert my young soul during the Saturday morning cartoons, I have been a collector of Chick tracts.  Most of you have probably encountered these diminutive comic books without even necessarily knowing just how ubiquitous they are or where they come from.  Fortunately for collectors and curious observers, Chick Publications makes most of their tracts free over the Internet.  While the worldview expressed in these tracts might not be generalizable to all American political evangelicals, they do hit on a number of widespread motifs shared in many of their theological conspiracy theories.  Since the 1960’s, hundreds of these tracts have been created and distributed widely among American churches and missionary groups abroad.  Each tract tackles a particular modern evil: homosexuality, witchcraft, Satanism, alcohol, Judaism, Islam, and scary Eastern religions. But the biggest bugaboo is the Whore of Babylon herself, the Roman Catholic Church.

In the text that follows, I’ll link some of the tracts that I think are most representative.  It’s easy to laugh, until you realize that they are a widespread mechanism of many people’s theological “education.”  If I may be so bold, I will attempt to render the predominant threads of Chick’s oeuvre into a coherent theory.  Satan has attempted to undermine Salvation History numerous times.  Beyond the obvious temptation in the garden, he has had his hand in many other significant turns in religion.  After the flood, he turned the inhabitants of Babylon to goddess worship even after they were dispersed for blasphemous architecture (Why Is Mary Crying?).  Meanwhile, he tried to supplement the real Bible with these horrible things known as Aprocrypha (The Attack) and later the Gnostic writings.  Eventually Satan created his most powerful servant, the Catholic Church, which forced these false texts into the Bible and revived the evils of ancient paganism, including sacrifice (Are Roman Catholics Christians?), sun worship (The Death Cookie), and the aforementioned goddess worship.   Later, in the 7th-century, a man named Muhammad had an encounter with Satan, which was almost thwarted if not for his Catholic (?!) wife, Khadija (Men of Peace?).  These evils have subsequently shown themselves in even newer manifestations, such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Masons (That’s Baphomet?), Evolutionism, and Climate-Change-ism (Global Warming).  

To be fair, Chick tracts make an easy target, and many Evangelicals have a far more sophisticated and historically-grounded set of justifications for their particular beliefs.  Nevertheless, most would share a worldview in which Satan represents a clear, present, and material danger, manipulating environmental and social forces to undermine the salvation of individual souls – not just the danger of temptation welling up from an individual psyche.  Opposing the imagined works of Satan thus becomes not a matter of interchangeable “beliefs” but a matter of one’s own salvation.  A “live and let live” pluralistic attitude in fact endangers one’s very soul.  To pluralistic liberal-types, a Baphomet statue is at most an indictment of political Evangelical hypocrisy on the first amendment and at least a harmless joke at the expense of Evangelicals.  But for those that see Satan manipulating contemporary events, the Church of Satan needs no real power for the statue proposal to be a sign of Satan’s influence, if only in the blasé treatment of the issue in the all-too-secular press.  The stakes are high, and liberal Christians or secular humanists fail to recognize that there are any stakes at all.




As an academic-type, I would usually try to avoid a polemical and belittling tone on matters of faith, but the social critic in me finds it too difficult to not point to the pernicious repercussions of finding Satanism around every corner.  All too recently, a couple was released from prison more than 20 years after their conviction for Satanic ritual abuse of children.  We seem to have these sorts of episodes in cycles, the culprits being anything from witches, to Dungeons and Dragons, to video games.  That’s not to say that there aren’t more than enough lunatics who commit horrible crimes in the name of Satan or Satanism, but a vast underground conspiracy of Satanists waiting to take over America just doesn’t exist (unless it does, and they’re paying me to deny it).  To be honest, a Venn diagram of traits exhibited by teenagers enamored of Ayn Randian objectivism and those of teenagers enamored of modern Satanism would probably have a good deal of overlap.  So if you’re looking for the Satanic conspiracy, go scrutinize Rand Paul and Paul Ryan a bit more closely.  (Just kidding, I don’t really think they’re Satanists, just unhinged loons).

One final, more banal, example, but one I found unnerving because of its proximity.  A few years ago, the Knights of Columbus at the Catholic church I grew up in began stationing knights along the path of worshipers after they had received communion.  When I inquired into this practice I was told that Satanists were known to sneak into churches, pocket the host, and take it home to use in ritual sacrifice.  This is unlike the traditional use of the paten to keep the host from falling to the ground and being profaned (See Are Roman Catholics Christian? above – true story: in grade school, I once dropped the Communion wafer, which landed on its side and rolled a good 20 feet down the aisle, with me chasing it thinking, “Why is Jesus running away from me?”  Read into that what you will.).  In fact, I found this notion disturbingly reminiscent of the medieval Blood Libel leveled against Jews, in which Jews were believed to abduct consecrated hosts or even Christian children to torture during Passover.  So while a Baphomet statue with an inviting and utilitarian chair in his lap can be a laughing matter, that fact that it’s not a laughing matter for many Evangelicals should perhaps not itself be a laughing matter for the rest of us.  

“But I’d Rather Just Sing!” Homoeroticism at Court

This may be a bit of a meandering post, but it does have a destination (I swear!) and manages to touch on nearly all of the themes of this blog:

I’ve been working my way through the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin and its attending Game of Thrones TV series (on DVD, since I’m resistant to subscribing to HBO for just one or two shows, but I don’t particularly like piracy either).  One of the characters, Renly Baratheon, is in a same-sex relationship, implied strongly in the novels (we never really see the narrative from Renly’s point of view) and made explicit in the adaptation.  Judging by the various fan forums, the fan reaction to this ranged from homophobic rage at the inclusion of gay characters to waxing poetic about Renly’s “manscaping” scene with his lover Loras.  Others like me have had more ambivalent reactions, uncertain of whether this is a perpetuation or a satire of an old trope (or both).  The camping of Renly can’t really be lain at Martin’s feet, whose writing is unusual in the forefronting of gender non-conformists.  I chalk it up more to HBO’s desire to add gratuitous and “boundary-pushing” (i.e. actually rather banal) sex scenes and nudity in all of its series to justify its “premium cable” status.  But while Renly’s likeable character is certainly not as egregious as the depiction of Edward II in Braveheart, the homosexual or effeminate noble is an easily recognizable trope in both imaginative literature and in historical literature.  It’s not a random trope, though, and delving into the history of it reveals some very interesting things about the intersection of perceptions of homosexuality, social class, and foreignness (and Muslim-ness in particular).  (See my definitions page for how I’m using the terms homosexuality, same-sex attraction, and gay).

Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony): a real man’s man with royal power, but doomed to die of excessive special effects in the second act.

Central to my discussion is the historical connection between adab (courtliness, belles lettres) culture of middle period Islamic courts and the courtly or chivalrous ideology of the European medieval period.  Until recently, the connection was denied, in part because of European (and particularly Franco-era Spanish) refusal to acknowledge Islamic influence on European culture.  But most European historians now acknowledge that the European tradition of courtly etiquette and courtly love (i.e. romance, in its original sense) owes a lot to Islamic court mores and practices (which itself had roots in Greco-Persian court practices).  European and Islamic court cultures were, of course, not identical, but the connection between the two is concrete and traceable, even to the point of European individuals who spent time at Spanish Islamic courts.  The era of the Crusades only increased this effect, as fanatic knights returned home with more nuanced conceptions of “civilized” behavior.  This is not to say that the European courtly traditions were adapted cookie-cutter style or exclusively from their Islamic equivalents, but the influence is now considered undeniable and not insignificant.

Interestingly, the attitudes toward same-sex desire and homosexual activities at court played out along similar lines in both Islamic and European cultures.  The reactions among the religious classes and sometimes the common classes associated the tolerance of homosexuality to either an upper class libertinism or to the influence of foreign or ancient (pre-monotheistic) indulgences.  Christian Europe came to connect same-sex desire with Islamic influence, in addition to ancient Greco-Roman hold-overs.  Obviously, medieval European attitudes toward same-sex desire are complex, and I’m only attempting to shed light on one dimension here.


Narratives set in real or fantastic medieval contexts often make an implicit link between social privilege, insufficiently martial masculinity, and libertinism (as well as implicitly defining homosexuality as an expression of libertinism), which derives in part from the construction of an isolated social circle by courtiers themselves.  From the medieval Islamic perspective, it is not uncommon to find a distinction between the elite (khass) and the common (‘amm) folk.  Sensually-oriented poets and intellectuals at court used the elite/common distinction to suggest that Islamic Law (shari’a) could be interpreted differently or more loosely for different social classes.  Wine-drinking was exceedingly common at Muslim rulers’ courts in the middle periods and was referred to in matter-of-fact terms even in the most proper of political etiquette texts.  Even the ascetic Sufis, only some of whom may have indulged in actual wine-drinking or same-sex love, made use of intoxication and homoerotic imagery as a metaphor for the overwhelming emotional power of God’s presence and love.

While the elite/common dichotomy may have justified religiously deviant behavior, the scimitar cut both ways.  The career of Abu Nuwas (a nickname meaning “Father of the Flowing Locks,” d. 814) is a prime example of the ambiguous status of courtly elites who experimented with the limits of sexuality.  His poetry is sharp, biting, blasphemous, and unapologetically raunchy:

Satanic Pride

I quarreled with my boy – my letters
Came back marked ‘Unknown at This Address – So Bugger Off’
In solitude & tears I damply prayed – to Satan:
‘Weeping & insomnia have got me down to 90 pounds –
Don’t you care that I’m suffering?
That I’m so depressed I’ve almost run out of lust?
This obsession’s getting in the way of my duty to thee;
My sinning’s half-hearted – I feel a fit of repentance coming on!
Yes!  Thou hadst better stoke up some love for me in that lad’s heart (you know how!)
Or I’ll retire from Sin: from Poetry, from Song, from pickling my veins in wine!
I’ll read the Koran!  I’ll start a Koranic Night School for Adults!
I’ll make the Pilgrimage to Mecca every year & accumulate so much virtue that I’ll . . . I’ll  . . .’
Well, three days hadn’t passed when suddenly my sweetheart came crawling back
Begging for reunion.  Was it good?  It was twice as good as before!
Ah, joy after sorrow!  Almost the heart splits with it!
Ah, overdose of joy! . . . And of course, since then I’ve been on the best of terms
With the Father of Lies.

– Trans. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam, cited in Night & Horses & The Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, ed. Robert Irwin (pg. 125)

Abu Nuwas was tolerated, even celebrated, at the court of caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Amin, but al-Rashid’s other son, al-Ma’mun, was rather more disapproving of Abu Nuwas, although it is unclear whether his sexual proclivities, his acid tongue, or his support of al-Amin during the civil war between the brothers was the chief cause of his imprisonment and death – his critics cited all of these.  That being said, his odes to the beauty of young cupbearers are considered the best of the genre.  The very existence of whole poetic genre revolving around erotic encounters with pages is telling in itself.

The 10th-century Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna and his slave and beloved Ayaz: Mahmud is celebrated in courtly and mystical poetry as the proverbial slave of a slave

For the sake of accuracy, it’s important to issue several caveats to avoid projecting our modern concept of “gayness” onto this material.  First, adabi homoeroticism was typically, but not exclusively, asymmetrical, like the predominant structure of Ancient Greek and Persian homosexual relationships.  The “active” partner was generally of a higher age and/or social class.  Young male servants not yet married were the “passive” partner.  Socially equal relationships were not unknown, but they would probably have been the minority and carried more of a stigma even at court, particularly if you were the “bottom.”  Second, these homosexual relationships were not expected to preclude heterosexual marriages and relationships.  It is likely that not all participants in these relationships preferred the same sex, and there was not an identity marker (like the modern term “gay”) to distinguish those who truly preferred the same sex from those who participated in homoerotic relationships or behaviors for the sake of pleasure alone.  In fact, homosexual liaisons were considered more similar to extra-marital liaisons with female servants or mistresses than to sex in the context of marriage – for those at court, sexuality and marriage were not coterminous.   And third, not all of these relationships would have been sexually consummated.  Many thinkers considered the erotic admiration of the male form praise-worthy in itself both aesthetically and morally, as long as it didn’t overstep the idealized form – not unlike the chivalric European knight taking on a female patron, to be adored but not touched (Lancelot crosses this line, bringing doom upon the kingdom).

In both the Christian and Islamic contexts, disapproval of same-sex relationships was often connected to a critique of class privilege and lax religiosity, and usually subordinated to it.  Such critiques usually came from religious leaders (even as other religious leaders participated in court culture).  The elite somehow escape the consequences of disobeying the religious law, it would be lamented.  Sexual deviancy came to be connected to other infractions of the law: drinking, adultery, inappropriate contact between the sexes, wearing silk, etc.  This is not to say that homosexual behavior among other classes didn’t happen – it certainly did – but this rarely attracted the attention of chroniclers more interested in the exploits of rulers and courtiers (such as themselves).


An interesting subtext to both the medieval Islamic and Christian critiques of homosexuality was the idea of its inherent foreignness.  Arab critics attributed the practice to pre-Islamic Persian courts.  Christian writers attributed the practice to Muslims and Jews.  From the perspective of the critics, homoeroticism at court was not just a function of coddled privilege; it was also a matter of “foreign influence,” a betrayal of native purity.  (It is an irony-drenched irony that Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a Persian Muslim, has denounced homosexuality as the export of European colonialism.)

In medieval Islam, figures like Abu Nuwas were embroiled in a cultural struggle to define the civilization.  On the one side were those who felt the spartan martial values of the Arab Bedouins had been diluted by centuries of effete city living among diverse peoples.  On the other were those who believed that the adoption of the urban lifestyles of the ancient empires (particularly the Persian) was the best thing to happen to Islamic society (guess where Abu Nuwas came down).  A late expression of this tension can be seen in the theory of the venerable ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who believed that the cycle of history was driven by waves of nomadic peoples with purer social values and stronger sense of tribal solidarity conquering decadent and diverse sedentary peoples, only to succumb themselves over time to the strength-sapping temptations of the conquered cultures.

Islamic courtly homoeroticism existed well into the 20th-century (and beyond, if certain rumors are true), but so did the discomfort with it among certain religious scholars.  The Egyptian traveler Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi, who visited Paris in 1826, reveals his ambivalence as he notes the absence of same-sex love in French society (He perhaps wasn’t looking hard enough):

“Amongst the laudable traits of their character, similar really to those of the Bedouin is their not being inclined toward loving male youths and eulogizing them in their poetry for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals.  One of the positive aspects of their language and poetry is that it does not permit the saying of love poetry of someone with the same sex.  Thus, in the French language a man cannot say: I loved a youth (ghulam), for that would be unacceptable and awkward wording.  Therefore if one of them translates one of our books he avoids this by saying the translation: I loved a young female (ghulamah) or a person (dhatan).”

– cited in Khaled el-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World (pg. 2)

While homosexual acts were condemned and punishable in Islamic Law (although the death penalty was rarely a punishment on the table – it was not considered adultery since it did not violate a husband’s exclusive sexual rights to his wife), there is little evidence for an institutionalized response to homosexual activity beyond the criticism and lamentations from the religious scholars.  The European response, however, was often brutal and systematic.  The Spanish Inquisition, designed to enforce the orthodoxy of Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity (as a condition for keeping their homes or sometimes their lives), often specifically targeted those suspected of engaging in homosexuality, seen as a mark of retaining the values of Islamic culture.  Among the crimes attributed to the heretic Cathars and Templars included homosexuality.  Even if such accusations were unfounded or exaggerated, the association between sexual activity and the dangerous other is clear.

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Serpent Charmer (1880): fatefully used as the cover art for Edward Said’s Orientalism

The popular association of Islamic culture and sexual permissiveness up into the 20th-century has been well-documented by historians of Western Orientalism.  The “Islamic culture” under discussion, however, is court and elite culture more specifically. It is interesting to note how the contemporary Western imagination has shifted its image of Islamic sexuality 180 degree in the last fifty years or so, which perhaps says more about the West than it says about Islam.


Spoiler: They’re really crab people from beneath the Earth plotting the overthrow of surface dwellers

While there are many dimensions to modern American attitudes toward homosexuality over the last century, the perception of it as an elite luxury and as a “foreign” practice persist, particularly in the popular association of gay culture with the performing arts and Hollywood.  Traditional American understandings of masculinity could be characterized as aggressively heterosexual.  Up until recently, gay characters in popular media were typically relegated to subordinate or support roles to the leading man – in effect, courtiers: hair stylists, costumers, interior designers (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy annoyed many gay rights advocates for this very reason, even as it contributed to a trend of positive and non-threatening media depictions of gay people).  Just as the association of homosexuality with court, the association of homosexuality with Hollywood is not a baseless connection.  Until recently, show business had the highest proportion of out constituents.

But it’s here that I would like to flip the narrative.  Is the “luxury” of being openly gay a function of elite cultures encouraging the abandonment of traditional morality or is it rather that social power grants “relative” immunity from the social and physical sanctions that attach to being gay among other social classes?  In other words, courtliness might not be the dividing line between gay/not gay but between visible/invisible.  Projecting the origins of homosexuality onto others – economic others, religious others, ethnic others – has allowed certain assumptions about “authenticity” to persist: real men, true Americans, right-thinking Christians.  Perhaps the true revolution in the past several years has been the disintegration of this trope and the undermining of the illusion that “there are no gays in these here parts.”

One of these things is not like the other! Or is it?

Argo between Scylla and Charibdis

I think I might be reading too much Daily Kos and Huffington Post because I went into seeing both Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, two A-list Oscar-nominated movies dealing with America’s relationship with the Islamic world, expecting to have my Islamophobia outrage meter go off the charts.  But it didn’t happen either time!  Is Hollywood learning?  Or maybe Hollywood just doesn’t want to wade into the strange right-wing politics of the Islamophobia Industry.

Since I wrote a response about Zero Dark Thirty, I thought I’d weigh in on Argo.  First of all, I enjoyed Argo immensely.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  “Enjoy” is probably not the word I’d use to describe my experience with Zero Dark Thirty.  “Disquieting” would be more appropriate.  Strange fellow that I am, though, I like it when my movies disquiet me, make me think and reflect on the world in a new way.  In short, Argo is a little more of a formulaic Hollywood thriller with its beats in all the right places.  It does this well, though.  So, while Zero Dark Thirty was a rough experience that earned my respect after reflection, Argo was a rollicking good time that gave me a little more pause on reflection.

Sahar under examination


Argo really isn’t Islamophobic.  Its depictions of post-revolutionary violence, by all accounts, are fairly accurate.  There were vengeance squads and a generous supply of the Angry Muslim MobTM shouting “Death to America.”  And the movie doesn’t forefront the religious dimension, so I want to give credit where it’s due.  But it does nothing to encourage the audience to reflect on its stereotypes about Iran and Iranians.  We are told, in an animated prologue and in a few opening snatches of dialogue, about the reasons the revolutionaries hated America, reduced mainly to the CIA-backed coup d’état against Mossadeq and (re-)installation of the Shah in 1953.  But we don’t see any of the cruelty of the Shah alluded to in the prologue reflected in the lives of the characters.

In fact, the movie’s main flaw is the lack of character development.  The only character we really learn much about is Ben Affleck’s Tony Mendez, who is working through his relationship with his estranged wife and son during the plot of the movie (a page from Spielberg, perhaps?)  We learn tidbits about the Houseguests (the six rescued embassy employees), but not really much to make them different from one another, except for the one couple that has doubts about the scheme.  Characters in a narrative are made known through their choices, but very few choices outside those of Mendez are ever shown to us.  Even the Canadian ambassador, who arguably makes the most fateful choice of the plot, does so off-screen.  Why not a scene depicting a discussion with his wife about the pro’s and con’s of harboring American fugitives?

One other choice comes to the fore, and that is the choice of the Canadian ambassador’s maid, Sahar.  When questioned by the Revolutionary Guard, she decides to stick to the story that the Houseguests are Canadians and have only been in the house a couple days, thereby throwing the villains off the track.  We see her again at the end of the movie crossing the border into Iraq, so at least we know she got out (on the eve of the devastating Iran-Iraq war).  What a missed opportunity!    She would have been the perfect vehicle for exploring the conflicted relationship Iranians have with their revolution.   We don’t know why she made the choice she did.  We know nothing about her family, her background, and how she has been affected by the Revolution, other that the fact that people getting shot makes her upset.   In fact, for most of the movie, we are led to suspect that she might betray the Houseguests.  Surely a dialogue between the ambassador’s wife and the maid would have fleshed out both characters (From what I’ve read, the ambassador’s wife did an awful lot herself to aid the mission, at great risk).

All other Iranian characters are amazingly flat.  The Revolutionary Guard are unambiguously villainous (OK, I’d concede they’re pretty yucky in reality, but universally so?)  And the everyday Iranian is depicted as a volatile fanatic, such as the scene in the bazaar with the enraged photographed man, which apparently did not actually occur.  On a side note, Iranian Shi’ite attitudes toward image making and photography are radically different from those of the Taliban, who only used photography when they felt it would aid their ideology.  Yeah, it adds drama, but it also adds to stereotypes.

Non-aligned hero?


Let’s face it.  The war drums are pounding for a confrontation with Iran, even though many analysts warn against it, even while the current Israeli regime tries to ramp it up.  I don’t think many people doubt that Iran does indeed want nuclear weaponry and that their threats against Israel are credible (although perhaps only in the pressure of desperation).  But while many Iranians are very dissatisfied with their government, violent revolution or foreign invasion is not something most want to go through again anytime soon.  Recent assessments have suggested that the average Iranian isn’t as anti-American as the state-sponsored anti-American chants after state-required Friday prayers would suggest.

The Iranian situation is far more complicated than either Iraq (dictator with small elite class) or Afghanistan (already in a state of civil war).  It’s a theocracy, but its nexus of power is not focused on one person or class, as the tensions between unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and elected populist President Ahmadinejad indicate.  Ahmadinejad’s term limit will end in 2013, when there will be a new elected president.  It’s not clear if the nuclear ambitions of Iran derive from the President’s or the Supreme Leader’s office, but the politics of Iran are complicated and factional.  There are multiple parties, within certain theocratic limits. Will new diplomatic options open up next year?

There have been few opportunities to educate the American public about the incredibly complex situation in Iran.  Argo, as a big-budget A-list actor production, had a real platform to fill this void, and it decided not to.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I’ll chalk this up to lack of vision rather than a deliberate attempt to obscure.  If you want a more nuanced view of revolutionary Iran, take a look at Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography Persepolis, also a film.  It represents the view from the Iranian left, a victim of both the Shah’s regime and the revolutionary regime.  I’d also recommend the writings of ‘Ali Shari’ati, a leftist-religious dissident who died before the Revolution, but is certainly one of the fathers of the Revolution.  He’ll make you understand the passion behind the revolution more than anyone else.  Rejecting Khomeini’s vision doesn’t mean we have to make the Shah look great.  Argo, while being a fun time, made the choice to not make us think about this complexity.  Perhaps that tells us something about Affleck’s character.

Half Past Midnight

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty: Who’s really the one in solitary confinement?

I had been reluctant to see Zero Dark Thirty. Despite having seen the glowing reviews, I had also read an awful lot about its severely problematic assessment of the role of torture in uncovering the key intelligence that, after years, eventually led to bin Laden’s courier. Of all the hideous things America has done to itself after 9/11, the rampant use of torture and indefinite detention in Guantanamo and other places has been the issue that upsets me most – on a daily basis, in fact. So, let’s just say I went into this with a pretty hefty bias, expecting it to be a piece of jingoistic, Islamophobic, triumphalist claptrap. However, I don’t like trashing movies without seeing them, and, boy, did I want to trash this one.

But I can’t. It does have exactly the problems the negative critics and historians say it does. But it’s also a complex, multivalent movie. I’m convinced that what I took away from the movie was profoundly different from what the frat boys and VMI cadets who were in the audience on a Saturday night took away. But I suspect all of us will be thinking about this movie for a long time.

The scene that had Obama’s interview condemning torture playing on the TV in the background was one of the few chuckles offered by this movie.

But let me be clear. The assertion that torture was instrumental in finding bin Laden is not just a false premise of the movie. It is the central premise of the movie, reiterated again and again and again, all the way up to one of the final scenes where a child is compelled to identify the dead body of her father, bin Laden. But oddly, this premise is what allows the movie to hold up a mirror to the American audience. For the most part, it doesn’t preach or force you toward a particular stance on torture. My views on torture have certainly not changed or even been challenged, and I suspect that some in the audience more tolerant of enhanced interrogation techniques feel the same way. I don’t even think that is the movie’s intent.

“Zero dark thirty” is a military designation for 12:30 AM, the time of the raid on the Abbottabad compound. But it also designates the amoral tone of the movie: half past midnight. The audience is plunged into an insular world of spooks without context. For the first half of the movie, the only things we see are interrogation scenes, the group of about half a dozen intelligence operatives strategizing interrogation, or terrorist attacks. After the first couple unexpected explosions, you become conditioned to realize that if the camera strays from the CIA universe, something’s about to blow up. Despite being set in Afghanistan and Pakistan, rarely do we see any of the characters engaging the locals, who are glimpsed from time to time in the background. Green zone to black site to green zone.

Interestingly, I think it’s this de-contextualization that allows the film to avoid the trap of Islamophobia. The only Muslim religious activity we are shown is a CIA administrator praying in his office. The Angry Muslim Mob just makes one brief cameo appearance. Religion doesn’t even come up in the interrogation scenes, as far as I recall. Other than assumptions brought in by the audience, there is barely anything to even suggest that the terrorists are Muslims. In an era where Hollywood uses a brief shot of a minaret as a cipher for “OMG, terrorists are nearby,” this film deserves a lot of credit for effectively removing Islam from the center of the discussion about terror.

While bin Laden’s followers are antagonists of a sort, the true antagonist in the second half of the film is the very context that had been avoided in the first half of the film. Political roadblocks, bureaucratic (and male) bravado, and the weakening will of the American public to condone torture continue to confound the heroine, albeit indirectly. I say antagonist, and not villain, because the movie permits us to wonder if perhaps applying the brakes might be warranted. Maya may be the heroine, but her obsessive monomania makes Inspector Javert look like a flighty dilettante.

Most reviews talk about the incredibly graphic and incredibly long torture scenes (although I imagine those scenes are barely half as graphic as the real thing), but the early scene that really stuck with me is when Maya, Jessica Chastain’s character, arrives at her desk in Pakistan for the first time. She notices the thick dust and grime on the desk, makes a half-hearted attempt to brush it off, sighs, and then sits down. She and the other characters can turn off any sense of ethics like a switch, and it is only the shutting out of context which permits this. The movie doesn’t tell us if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but it does show us that it has had a very steep price. It asks us if the price was worth it and allows us each to provide our own answer.

Cartoons, Lard, and YouTube: An Inquiry into Religious Rage

They’re after your babies!!!

In 1857, Muslim and Hindu soldiers under the employ of the East India Company heard a rumor, not without basis, that the Company planned to issue new rifle cartridges that would have to be bitten in order to release the gunpowder. These cartridges were to be lubricated using lard (pig-grease) or tallow (cow-grease), something offensive to Muslim and Hindu dietary laws, respectively. Several contingents rebelled against their British commanders, riots broke out throughout northern India, and before long there were calls from Hindu and Muslim rebels to restore the politically weakened Mughal Emperor, Bahadur II, to full sovereignty over India and to expel the British.

The British public was presented by the press with stories about the rape of innocent Christian women, the religious fanaticism of the Muslims, and the valiant struggle of superior British values in a harsh and barbaric land. Christian missionaries complained that they had not been given free enough rein to impart these values, and were now suffering atrocities at the hands of the heathen. And all because of some lard?

Well, not really. Historians looking back at the Indian Mutiny (and indeed more than a few more discerning contemporaries from Britain and India) readily see the bloody revolt as an expression of a whole whirlwind of social and political tensions. The top of the list, obviously, is the piece-meal annexation of the sub-continent over three centuries by a foreign economic power. But closer study of the rebellion reveals that it was not simply a native vs. British scenario. Hindu castes were pitted against one another, and Muslim statelets fought with one another over territory as often as they fought against the British. Competition for power and status was fierce in a rapidly changing political context.

At the end of the revolt, the last Mughal emperor was exiled, the British crown assumed direct control of the colony from the Company, and the British public called for harsh and merciless penalties against the Hindu and Muslim offenders. Indian constituencies that had sided with the British, such as the Sikhs, found themselves in a far more privileged position than they had been, while mutinying Muslims found themselves tied to the front of a cannon and burst asunder, to the cheers of proper Victorian ladies in parlors half a world away.

It was not, ultimately, about the lard, although that may have served as the trigger, nor was it really about British values.

We are once again faced with media images of a young angry Muslim mob™ and headlines like “Film Provokes Rage across Muslim World.” Echoes of the Danish Muhammad cartoon controversy of 2005 are clear. But in both cases, the failure of much of our media to give us sufficient context in each country in which the protests are going on allows most of the American audience to say, “There they go again, those angry, intolerant Muslims that don’t like free speech.” We collectively stick them in storm trooper helmets, allowing them to be faceless, villainous clones.

The still unfolding story has been both alarmingly deadly with the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador and three of his staff in Libya and one protester in Yemen and truly bizarre, as the identity and motives of the film-maker seem wrapped in an onion of deception. And, as expected in an election year (scratch that, in all years), our politicians try to find the best news-cycle spin for their agenda.

Everyone should know by now that offending the Prophet Muhammad is not going to go over well with a Muslim audience. But one has to have one’s eyes closed to not see that there are insults to Muhammad sprinkled all over the Internet. There are individuals whose whole career seems built around stoking fear and anger from and against Muslims. So why this video, why now, and why in the places these protests have turned violent?

I would submit that it is not, ultimately, about the film or religious offense, although that has served as the trigger, nor is it about Free Speech™. Instead, it is about power, and local power, as opposed to a global or anti-American agenda.

It is not a coincidence that the three first flashpoints were in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, three hotspots of the Arab Spring. And the balance of power in each of these countries is vastly different, though all three share a precarious security situation.

Egypt’s recent election has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to executive power after decades of being a vocal and often persecuted political opponent to the nationalistic regime. They have evolved quite a bit from their days as a violent revolutionary group against Nasser. They are the granddaddy of Islamist parties and advocate conservative religious values, but despite their election victory, they are aware that their position is precarious. Their status as long-time voice of the opposition may only get them so far when the revolution in Tahrir Square was made up of Egyptians from across the political spectrum. Despite years of rhetoric, they will be forced to build working relationships with both the U.S. and Israel. How far they can push for their conservative social views has yet to become clear.

Khaled ‘Abdullah, proposed roommate for Glenn Beck

It appears that an Egyptian Rush Limbaugh-esque shock jock Khaled ‘Abdullah drew attention to the film trailer dubbed into Arabic on his program, in which he regularly spouts anti-Copt and anti-Jewish rhetoric. Though it now turns out that filmmaker “Sam Bacile,” the Israeli ex-pat real estate mogul, does not exist, one can imagine the political resonance in Egypt of a supposedly Jewish and Coptic funded anti-Muslim film. President Mursi is in a tough spot. While the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood might be expected to protest an anti-Muhammad film, Mursi appealed to Coptic voters during his campaign, and it may certainly have helped his victory. The Copts, meanwhile, are widely perceived to have benefitted economically under Sadat and Mubarak and are eager to appear cooperative with a regime that has so far avoided much anti-Coptic rhetoric, despite rumbling resentment in some corners of Egypt. The Egyptian Coptic community’s rapid denunciation of the film is understandable. Mursi’s ambivalence – he has called for continued protests against the film on the condition they be peaceful and not held outside anyone’s embassy – is likewise comprehensible, albeit frustrating to the Obama administration. It does, however, call into question his control over security.

The Libyan situation is murkier at the moment. The Libyan and American governments are investigating the possibility that the film protests were used as a pretext for an already-planned attack on the consulate. Unlike in Egypt, Libya’s Islamists did not win their election, and many Libyans, particularly in Benghazi, one of the strongholds of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, are very pro-American (they have held counter-protests in recent days). However, the new government has had a hard time establishing its authority when many political factions have remained armed since the rebellion. Although initial suspicions pointed to local Islamist groups, it can’t be ruled out at this point that former Qaddafi loyalists or even al-Qa’ida in North Africa might have planned the attack.

What is devastatingly tragic is that Ambassador Stevens worked closely with the Libyan opposition and is part of the reason the Libyans have been so pro-American of late. He was a career diplomat who had learned to care about the countries where he represented the U.S. Libya’s perception of America has certainly changed, but this will certainly set back American perceptions of Libya.

Yemen, likewise, has a precarious security situation. Although ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh has stepped down as president, his vice president was elected as his successor, as the only candidate. Islamist opposition parties in Yemen are thus neither defanged by democratic rejection, as in Libya, nor empowered, as in Egypt.

Politics really is local. Even the tendency of the press to depict these protests as a global confrontation between the “Free West” and the “Islamic World” is a distortion that, once again, will mostly benefit local interests, whether those be the interests of the American Right, the Islamist parties of certain countries, or the Iranian regime, which can freely organize anti-American protests to shore up its legitimacy whenever the need arises. The movie is indeed offensive, but even such offense will not spontaneously give rise to violence unless someone has an interest in making it so and stirring the pot. And there have been plenty of pot-stirrers.

Silhouettes of Shari’a – Part 1: Herding Classical Cats

A herd of cats (and friends)!

The wave of political Islamophobia that many hoped had reached its crescendo in the 2010 election appears to be alive and thriving. Vitriolic bloggers like Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney and their political allies like Michelle Bachmann and Steve King continue to craft elaborate conspiracy theories about how Islam and American Muslims are undermining American security and social values.  (It’s not my purpose here to bother refuting these folks.  I recommend Loonwatch or Islamophobia Today for coverage of Islamophobia.)  One of the most “successful” initiatives to come out of this movement has been the push for anti-shari’a legislation in more than 20 states, which would forbid courts from considering Islamic Law in any cases whatsoever. Although the Oklahoma referendum of 2010, one of the most publicized examples, passed a popular vote, it was ruled unconstitutional and attempts to re-route the proposal through the Oklahoma Senate this year have so far failed.

At issue are a few cases in which judges have considered Islamic Law in inheritance and divorce situations where circumstances were ambiguous or where civil laws had holes (some examples). There have been no cases where shari’a concepts were used to replace or override American civil laws. But the proposed legislation could have sweeping consequences that might render contracts void simply for referring to Islam. So, if I borrow ten bucks from you and promise to pay you back eleven, that’s allowed, but if the contract suggests this was done according to principles of Islamic finance, the courts may have to refuse to uphold it. Most brained-Americans have no problems dismissing such proposals as loony, but these debates have not actually improved the general public’s understanding of what shari’a actually is, effectively ceding much of the definitional power to the loons.

To make matters worse, we are constantly hearing about threatening shari’a abroad, whether it’s the Taliban’s draconian approach to public order, the stoning of adulterers in Saudi Arabia, or the political influence of “Islamist” groups like the Muslim Brotherhood on the Arab Spring. Although I do not wish to diminish our sense the horror at what life is like under the Taliban nor do I wish to campaign for the Muslim Brotherhood, we are often given the idea that these otherwise disparate phenomena are part of some aggregated global conspiracy akin to the Communist Threat in the 50’s and 60’s (itself of dubious aggregated-ness). The logic seems to be that shari’a is shari’a is shari’a. But it may not be – and I won’t even have to redefine “is” to attempt to persuade you. Shari’a means vastly different things to different people in different places, and as a society – in policy, journalism, or education – we won’t really be able to grasp the real situations of those people and places until we beef-up and complicate our collective one-dimensional understanding of shari’a.

Unfortunately, most media outlets have failed at getting a nuanced presentation of shari’a to the public. I chalk this up to the “wikification” of journalism dealing with “other” cultures/people, or in a more academic sense, the notion that “origin equals essence,” which is particularly pervasive in coverage of the Islamic world. Providing a textbook definition of a term or its historical origin, no matter how accurate, crowd-sourced, or hyperlink-referenced, often falls short of providing the needed context for deeper understanding. So, for example, we had countless articles about the sectarian violence in Iraq telling us about the disagreements in early Islam over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad or maybe some doctrines on the Hidden Imam. But the Iraqis were no more fighting about the honor of ‘Ali than the Irish Troubles were about papal infallibility or transubstantiation. A few more responsible journalists delved into Saddam’s policies regarding the Iraqi Shi’a, but hardly any brought in 19th-20th century migration patterns, demographic shifts, tribal dynamics, or other factors in the tensions. As a result, the American public, policy-makers, and military could just throw up their hands and say, “They’ve been fighting over irrational dogma for thousands of years. There’s no solution.” (One finds this argument for inaction in discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Contrary to popular perception, Muslims and Jews have not been fighting in the Holy Land for hundreds/thousands of years. But examining current problems or asking who has an interest in keeping the conflict going takes too much risk and effort, apparently. But that is grist for another mill.)

What I propose to do here is contribute in some small way to a more nuanced treatment of shari’a. A universal definition won’t suffice (although we can start with that), because shari’a means different things to different people in different places, and we can’t even begin to understand the debate in this country, or in Egypt, or in Afghanistan without taking into account local attitudes and circumstances. In a series of posts, I want to present a few sketches of Islamic Law in context. After introducing an overview of classical shari’a, I’ll discuss the idea of shari’a in an American Muslim context. I plan to follow-up with posts about “Islamism” as a set of ideologies and the role of shari’a in local village contexts.


Shari’a, literally “path”, is usually translated as Islamic Law, and it is that, at least. But one is often left with a sense that there’s some document out there that contains some kind of fixed code. Islam in Arabic means “submission (to God’s will)” and shari’a is simply the set of answers to the question, “Well, how are we supposed to do that?” As in the other Abrahamic faiths, human beings from the Islamic viewpoint are imperfect while God alone is perfect. Only God fully understands Himself, but even though human beings must fall short of that perfection, they are nevertheless meant to reach for it, to embrace goodness to the best of their capabilities. But because of human imperfection, the existence of multiple interpretations or priorities is deemed inevitable – and perhaps even necessary.

There is no centralized doctrinal institution in Islam – no Vatican or even a Southern Baptist Convention. As in Rabbinic Judaism, doctrine and law are studied and debated by scholars educated in the religious texts. One occasionally finds practical consensus on some issues, but there is no universally-recognized institution to enforce consensus on the community. A certain doctrinal position comes to prominence based on the strength of the argument and/or the perceived authority and authenticity of the scholar, past or present. In Islam, the religious scholars are collectively known as the ‘ulama’. Nearly all attempts of historical Muslim governments to herd the scholarly cats into a hierarchical church have failed. This did not lead to the modern concept of a separation of church and state, but it did result in political and religious institutions in Islamic history that were rarely completely under the thumb of the other type.

That being said, much Islamic legal scholarship ended up coalescing around schools of thought defined by slightly varying methods and traditions. In many ways, what makes the Sunnis Sunnis (literally “followers of the Prophet’s example” – although Shi’is claim to do the same thing. It’s kind of like claiming to be more “orthodox” than your rival.) was the gradual mutual-recognition of four of the legal schools with broad geographical or scholarly adherence. They “agreed to disagree.” Many contemporary Muslim scholars even suggest that in the absence of caliphs and the hidden-ness of the Shi’i Imam (for Twelver Shi’is, anyway), the differences between Sunni and Shi’i legal doctrines are no greater than those between the Sunni schools. Doctrinal and theoretical ecumenism, however, doesn’t automatically translate into social or political reconciliation.

So where do scholars look to figure out God’s will? Obviously, the first source would be the Qur’an, which for Muslims is the unadulterated Word of God transmitted through the mouth of Muhammad. The Qur’an itself typically speaks of God in the first person, unlike the third person perspective found in most of the Bible. However, the explicitly legal material in the Qur’an is very limited. While there are some straight-forward do’s and don’t’s, most of the Qur’an is interested in broader themes of the nature of God, humanity, prophets, and the good society. It is generally closer to Isaiah or Amos in tone and content than to Leviticus. And there is nothing at all laying out the ideal shape of political or legal institutions, other than exhortations to justice and fairness. Countries that claim to use the Qur’an as the basis for their constitutions can only do so in the most vague and symbolic sense.

While lending more certainty to some legal positions, the Qur’an doesn’t provide the breadth or quantity of legal material to divine all facets of God’s will. So a second accepted source derives from the question, “What would Muhammad do?” For Muslims, the Prophet was not divine, but he was uniquely touched and guided by God, so emulating him is a good bet for aligning oneself on God’s path. This led to the emergence of originally oral reports about the Prophet’s words and deeds, the hadith. While there are several written collections of hadith that enjoy general acceptance among many Muslims, the hadith do not form a closed canon, unlike the Qur’an. There are hundreds of thousands of these individual prophetic “sound bites” on topics ranging from dental hygiene to the proper conduct of war and peace. And Muslim scholars, from the outset, realized that these reports vary in accuracy and authenticity. Traditionally, one would interrogate the reliability of the oral transmitters, but there are other ways to weed out the weak hadith from the reliable. But scholars often differ wildly about the validity or even the interpretation of individual hadith, even if thy agree on the methodology of verification. This, by itself, leads to vastly divergent understandings of Islamic Law.

Scholars traditionally draw on some additional sources, but disagreements over which ones can be used were what created the boundaries between the legal schools. Many use some form of rational argument, such as analogy, but this is tempered by a fear of presuming to put imperfect human rationales in the mouth of God. Certain forms of scholarly consensus and local tradition may also influence the shape of Islamic Law in a particular region or case.

In short, there is no fixed shari’a code but rather a set of contested procedures based on sources that themselves might be contested. This doesn’t mean, however, that shari’a is just willy-nilly and can be whatever an individual says it is. Legal scholars earn the respect of believers and build up their authority through a sense of rigor and meticulousness. The ‘ulama’ who “show their work” and explain their process are more likely to have their positions supported by their colleagues.


What might happen if you go out on the green without your qadi

So that’s where shari’a comes from, but how does it work and what does it do? Depending on the situation, the shari’a becomes relevant in expanding circles from the personal, to the social, to the truly legal.

While many believers would say that shari’a is a comprehensive way of life, in practice the daily activities one pursues may reference it to greater or lesser degrees. There are recommended procedures for dental hygiene, for example, but most Muslims don’t have the sense that it’s a mortal sin to skip flossing with an aromatic twig. Likewise, what channel to watch or which gas station to use are probably not situations most would want or need to filter through a religious lens. Still, the most common application of shari’a is personal discipline: how to pray, how to treat others, how to cultivate moral purity. There generally has not been a mechanism for enforcement of these matters, other than one’s own sense of religious merit or social pressure (which can, admittedly, be very great).

Some of these issues might get a little murky, however, so some believers will appeal to muftis, legal scholars whose legal opinions on personal conduct have come to be respected. Some countries have had “national” muftis, who render opinions on larger social problems, but most muftis these days are essentially dealing with “Dear Abby” questions on relationships and manners. A mufti’s answer is known as a fatwa, a non-binding opinion.

When most Americans hear the word fatwa, they immediately think of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for denigrating the Prophet in The Satanic Verses (and/or for providing a deeply scathing caricature of Khomeini himself in the novel). But fatwa does not mean a death sentence, a least not literally. Khomeini opined that it would be morally virtuous for someone to kill Rushdie; he did not order the state or security forces to carry out a legal execution. The effective difference probably doesn’t make Rushdie feel any safer. But my point is to show that a fatwa does not call upon state enforcement and relies instead on the reputation and authority of the scholar in the eyes of the believer.

As I suggested above, however, most fatwas are fairly mundane. In the modern setting, it has not become uncommon for conferences or organizations of scholars to issue joint fatwas on things like bioethics, political situations, or ritual reforms. But even in these cases, compliance with these fatwas is left largely to the believer.  The Fiqh Council of North America is one such organization that issues such joint religious recommendations, although they are not in a position to enforce compliance or even universal regard, as exemplified by the furor over their recommendation to calculate the beginning and end of the fasting month of Ramadan by astronomical calculations instead of the naked eye viewing of the new moon.

Historically and in some modern Muslim countries there are shari’a courts, whose function is to deal with concrete disputes or even criminal cases. The judge, or qadi, can count on the state, who is usually his employer, to enforce his ruling. The jurisdiction of such courts has varied widely in different societies historically. In medieval times, qadis could count on an entire bureaucracy of market inspectors, professional witnesses (public character witnesses cum notaries), and maybe even police or others who would mete out the demanded punishments.

However, the jurisdiction of the qadi was never total in any society, limited or superseded by the decisions of the ruler’s own court. As time went on, the scope of shari’a courts generally shrank in the face of increasingly complex bureaucracies designed to maintain justice and order over legally, religiously, and ethnically diverse populations, such as was found in the Ottoman or Mughal Empires. Even before the rise of European colonialism and the imposition of European legal systems in many places in the Islamic world, shari’a courts had found themselves dealing with fewer types of cases.

Most contemporary Muslim-majority nations, if they implement shari’a at all (and many do not), have limited the enforceable jurisdiction of shari’a to family law: marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc. Of course, it is exactly these matters where gender inequities in traditional understandings of Islamic Law stand out. Saudi Arabia and the once-and-maybe-future Taliban regime are among the few that have determined criminal or contract law according to their interpretations of shari’a, not without bending the law here and there to suit the needs of the regime. Even Iran has a complex hybrid legal system that blends secular and religious legal principles and institutions, and thus only partly makes use of shari’a. Others have limited shari’a‘s effective scope but occasionally indulge in a public spectacle such as a stoning or hand-removal to deflect criticism from the otherwise un-Islamic behavior of a given regime. Although still too many, perhaps, the cases of the death penalty for adultery in Muslim-majority countries are surely far fewer than occasions of adultery.

This state of affairs is exactly what some “Islamists” would like to change, although what those changes would look like are another source of contention. My next post will look at the question of shari’a in the U.S., where we can throw most of what I said in this post out the window. But as I hope to have shown, even classical “textbook” shari’a refuses to conform to an unchanging, monolithic code – even less so when you toss modern politics and society into the mix.


The information in this post comes mostly from my experience teaching about Islamic Law, but I wanted to share a few very useful sources for those who want a taste of classical Islamic Law, and particularly those who are interested in learning about the culture of debate and flexibility that characterized pre-modern Islamic jurisprudence.  Two very thorough overviews can be found in N. J. Coulson’s An Introduction to Islamic Law and Wael Hallaq’s A History of Islamic Legal Theory (Hallaq’s substantial body of scholarship on Islamic Law is worth checking out).  For a glance at Islamic tradition legal institutions in practice (such as what qadis and muftis do in a village setting), I find Brinkley Messick’s The Calligraphic State to be a great work that blends history and textual studies with living ethnography.  A good case study of the role of shari’a courts in shaping family law in contemporary Iran and Morocco is Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s Marriage on Trial: A Study of Islamic Family Law.  I’d also recommend the works of Khaled Abou el-Fadl, about whom I will be speaking more in my next post.