Giving Up the Islamic Ghost (by Joel Harrison)
My recent reading of Slavoj Žižek’s The Fragile Absolute: Or Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? brought back a memory of something I read in the Fall quarter last year. I tend to save a lot of things that I read, so dug through my desk, and pulled it out to look over it again. It was an article published by the The Semi (a weekly publication put out by students here at Fuller) that was an editorial response to Terry Jones and his plan to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11 last year. It was quite polemical. The student author fired names at Jones, questioning his intelligence and knowledge of Acts 19, which Jones cited as analogous to his cause. In the issue the following week was a letter to the editor arguing that the author of the editorial had fallen victim to the same irrational reaction against someone he disagreed with that Jones and his followers had—that as Christians, we are called to react to hate differently.
The title of my post is taken from the title of the first chapter of the Žižek’s book: “Giving Up the Balkan Ghost.” Žižek posits a method one can use to define an epoch as identifying the “ghosts” that haunt the culture of the time. He writes that for Europeans, the Balkans represent the specter of its barbarous past where Serbians perhaps see the Balkans as “down there” somewhere south of them in Bosnia or Kosovo, but Germans would consider Austria and everything southeast Balkan territory given Austria’s historic connection with Eastern Europe, the French would include German culture as being opposed to their finesse and refinement and thus see Germany as part of the Balkans, and the British would perhaps include the whole of Continental Europe as threatening to their sovereignty, part of a new Turkey with Brussels as the new Istanbul (a point demonstrated, in Žižek’s mind, by their resistance to joining the EU.)
I began to think about the ghosts that haunt not just Western culture but Western Christian culture specifically, and Islam came to mind immediately. Just as Europeans fear the Balkans because that location and “people group,” whoever they are, have been historically linked to the Slavic hordes, barbarism, the threat of the East, the Orthodox, as opposed to Western democratic values and the “true” Christian civilization, so does Western Christianity, in America particularly, now fear the Islamic for being linked to terrorism and a mystique that is not quite Far Eastern spirituality, more threatening because it is so much closer to us, one of the three pillars of monotheism. I say closer to speak of both its relationship to Christianity as well as its geographical location. Žižek speaks of an invisible cartography that maps the Balkans differently depending on one’s culture and location. It is formed in concentric quarter-circles, moving further west, each new location subsuming the ones proceeding it under the cartography of the Balkans: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Southern Germany, Northern Germany, France, and finally Britain.
However, Isalm’s invisible cartography is much more difficult to pin down. Where the map of the Balkan ghost is always knocking on one’s border, threatening to enter, but has not yet entered, the Islamic ghost is already inside our border. A television show like 24 demonstrates this clearly. There is a tremendous fear not that Islam will breach our border, corrupting our Western civilization, but that it has already done so, is already lurking in the shadows waiting to snatch everything we love from us, waiting to burn the entire nation to the ground, to bring us to our knees with nuclear armageddon. Even away from the fiction of television, we hear talk of “sleeper cells;” we have an over-abundance of security at airports; we feel threatened by an Islamic cultural center being built in Manhattan two blocks from the site of the World Trade Center. The article that immediately followed the editorial about Jones in that same issue of The Semi was an account written by an MACCS student (MA in Cross-cultural Studies). In it he recounts a story that while he was doing his practicum in Minneapolis this summer working with Somali immigrants, he saw a mailbox with the words “We Are All Terrorists” spray-painted on the side. He took this to have been written by someone who perceives all Muslims as terrorists, who entered this community to send a message. I think this story forces us to form that graffiti as a question—especially given history.
We tend to suffer from short term memory loss as Americans. This fear I’ve described above isn’t new to the US. Red Scare I. Japanese internment camps. The McCarthy Era. We’ve been haunted before. Somehow though these horrible displays of fear mongering, injustice, and–yes–terrorism, always seem to partially fall on Christians. “This is what America as a Christian nation did,” people will say. They’re right. Haunting provokes Christians to a racism that at the time is justified by the threat of terror. A Christian today may feel justified in even claiming to be a tolerant multiculturalist, to be accepting of others just as Christ accepted all, while acting out his or her repressed racism as a response to terror.
And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I think one could make the case that sometimes the “enlightened” Christian response to those erring, “fundamentalist” Christians falls into the same trap. Academics feel justified in tearing down fundamentalists: 1. Because they’re typically white, and just as Žižek points out that Europeans are openly racist against those perceived as Balkans for the same reason, we somehow accept comments alluding to someone being white trash as okay when we would never accept analogous comments being made about an African, Latino, or Asian American. 2. Because as Westerners, fear of the Other is unfortunately a part of our social imaginary, and that fear sometimes finds its way out in one form or another. Much more could be said about this last point, but I’ll save that for another discussion.
If Islam is the ghost that haunts Western fundamental Christianity, then fundamentalism is the ghost that haunts the academic Christian, especially the “Evangelical left.”
The author of the letter to the editor in that Fall issue of The Semi really said it best: “How can we critique someone like Mr. Jones for engaging in activities that are meant to inflame rather than heal when we ourselves use language that is meant only to insult and not to correct? Should we not demonstrate and model the same restraint and love that we would see Mr. Jones use with Muslims in his community? In light of the verse from Romans 14 that was quoted in this article, shouldn’t we who work in academia work to show love and respect to those without the same level of education and etiquette we, ourselves, presume to have?”
I have only one word: Amen.
Joel Harrison is a student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA where he is pursuing an MA in Theology. He blogs about the future of the church and theological conundrums at A Church Unbound.