Elisabeth Becker-Topkara on Diyanet Mosque fire for the Washington Post

Elisabeth Becker-Topkara, postdoctoral fellow for the Religion and Its Publics project, recently published another piece in the Washington Post on the most recent attack against a place of worship: her husband’s mosque.

“I think of how such acts devalue the lives of those close to my heart, from our dear family friends to my own husband and son. I think of how my husband could have been there praying, or my now 4-year-old Sami playing, still believing that all is right and good in the world when he is by his father’s side.”

Read the full article here: What it’s like to see my husband’s mosque in New Haven set on fire

Photo from the GoFundMe page for rebuilding the Diyanet Mosque.

 

 

Elisabeth Becker-Topkara on Muslim-Jewish Relations for the Washington Post

Elisabeth Becker-Topkara, postdoctoral fellow for the Religion and Its Publics project, recently published a piece in the Washington Post on the need for a Muslim-Jewish alliance in the US, and on what small steps may be possible moving forward, given the common threats they face. Here is an excerpt and a link to the full article:

Muslim and Jewish Americans face heightened levels of violence in our country. Hate crimes against Muslims and Jews alike are on the rise. During the deadly Unite the Right rally in my city of Charlottesville, neo-Nazis marched with machine guns chanting “Jews will not replace us.” A recently thwarted plot aimed to slaughter children, women and men in the peaceful New York enclave of Islamberg. Months ago, the single most deadly attack on Jews in U.S. history transpired, the killing of 11 congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. And our government has instated an unapologetic ban on immigration by some Muslims.

Amid this hatred, debates about the U.S.-Israel alliance wrap Jewish and Muslim Americans into an international conflict at the cost of domestic unity. And we simply can’t afford that.

Read the full article here: Blinded by the Israel-Palestine conflict, American Muslims and American Jews overlook the need for domestic unity

Seven Types of Atheism: A Review by Isaac Barnes May

February 13, 2019

In early December of last year, the crowdfunding website Patreon banned two accounts for using racist speech. One account belonged to Carl Benjamin, a star of the self-proclaimed rationalist and skeptical community who created YouTube videos under the username “Sargon of Akkad.” (The other account belonged to Alt-Right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.) Benjamin had risen to prominence on YouTube by producing content mocking creationists, but he eventually allied himself with the Gamergate movement and targeted feminism as his central foe. At the time he was banned, Benjamin earned $12,000 a month from supporters on Patreon, and his YouTube channel boasted over 800,000 subscribers. Patreon’s ban sparked outrage from certain parts of the organized atheist community. Sam Harris quit Patreon in protest, arguing that it was wrongly engaged in censoring valid political speech. Chris Steadman, a former humanist chaplain at Harvard and Yale, expressed concern from a different angle, noting with alarm that a visible minority of American atheists now overlap with the extreme political right.

Philosopher John Grey’s book Seven Types of Atheism is not principally focused on contemporary organized atheism; it deals with the so-called “New Atheists” consisting of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris in a single chapter. Yet Grey’s book is an important work precisely because it offers a reminder that atheism does not fit a single political or philosophical mold. As Grey argues, “there are many atheisms with conflicting views of the world” (p. 3). Grey devotes each of his seven brief chapters to a different type of atheism as articulated through philosophers and writers, though he rightly does not intend his book to be a representative account of all kinds of atheism that exist. He takes clear sides, rejecting those views that elevate science and humanity to replace theism or express anger at an absent deity, but he personally embraces “atheisms that are happy to live with a godless world or an unnamable God” (p. 7).

Grey’s often critical analysis provides an important alternative to the largely triumphalist narratives of progressive atheists present in historical works, like Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism or R. Laurence Moore and Isaac Kramnick’s Godless Citizens in A Godly Republic: Atheists in American Public Life. Grey makes clear that “atheism has no specific political content, and many atheists have been virulently anti-liberal” (pp. 20-21). While he has no objection to observing that some atheists did back laudable policies, his brief contrarian account seems to particularly revel in exposing the most regressive side of atheism and its connections with irrationality and pseudoscience.

Grey includes accounts of many thinkers that will not surprise readers – expect to find Auguste Comte, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Marquis de Sade. Almost all of the figures included are American or European men. The one exception to this is the special attention the book devotes to Ayn Rand, whom Grey persuasively argues is “one of the most popular atheist writers [of the twentieth century], and the only one who had a lasting impact on contemporary politics” (p. 47). Grey understands Rand as promoting an adulterated version of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and as the leader of a cult of personality that regulated almost every aspect of her followers’ lives. Rand’s influence as a political figure has been taken more seriously by academics in recent years in works like Jennifer Burns’s Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right, but it is extremely rare to see her evaluated as an atheist thinker. Given that Rand still has prominent followers in positions of power in the United States, including Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Grey’s intervention is welcome. Yet even with the importance that he assigns her, Grey may actually have underrepresented the debt contemporary atheist thought owes to Rand. For example, one of her followers, George H. Smith, used her Objectivist epistemology in his book Atheism: The Case Against to develop many of the arguments for atheism that still circulate online.

A key argument of Seven Types of Atheism is that atheism is not some kind of moral opposite of religion, and indeed atheism often employs God-surrogates like a faith in the concept of humanity or the potential of science. Both religious and atheist worldviews can be moderate or lead to fanaticism. Grey compares Anabaptist-controlled Münster, Germany in the sixteenth century, an example of extreme brutality by a theocratic regime, with the Bolshevik repression of their own citizens, an atheist example of millennial enthusiasm leading to atrocities. This is a compelling point, but it risks seeming reductive because it brushes over the numerous historical discontinuities between these events. The lack of such qualifications is one minor downside of the book’s brevity. It would have been useful if Grey had more thoroughly acknowledged comprehensive scholarship on these events, such as Yuri Slezkine’s House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, which arrive at similar conclusions.

The final two chapters reveal the kinds of atheism that Grey finds most appealing, which are united by the idea that human reason is too limited to envision God. It seems reasonable to question whether some of the thinkers he discusses, such as Baruch Spinoza, are really atheists at all. Grey anticipates this objection, making the point that “a clear line between atheism and negative theology is not easily drawn” (p. 147).  The inclusion of such boundary figures does a good job of conveying Grey’s point that theism and atheism are not always as antithetical as popularly understood.

Seven Types of Atheism is a provocative and short read that skillfully makes its point that atheism is not a uniform phenomenon. To know that someone does not believe in a god explains only the barest details of their atheism, just as knowing that someone believes in God conveys little about their religion. As atheism becomes more common in the United States, it will only become increasingly apparent that atheists are in all political parties, and on all sides in contemporary debates.

Isaac Barnes May is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

The Alt-Right and Medieval Religions by Dorothy Kim

November 9, 2018

The alt-right is a specific political and social ecosystem that has many nodes. The best article that explains this universe is Joseph Bernstein’s Buzzfeed piece from 2017, “Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Launched Racist Hate.” With evidence from a trove of leaked emails and documents, Bernstein maps all parts of the alt-right universe; how they are connected; and deliberately take orders from Steve Bannon to infiltrate, normalize, and make racist and gendered hate mainstream. Almost all the major nodes of this universe are attached to specific iterations of the medieval past. Their message is intended to incite violent racism, xenophobia, toxic masculinity, Islamaphobia, and anti-Semitism. The alt-right is interested in using the medieval European past because it sees this historical epoch as a space of pure white religious and racial culture. I will discuss two different examples of how they use, abuse, and exploit ideas of white medieval religions in order to push their violent racist vision.

Odinists and Wolves of Vinland

The Odinists, often called the Wolves or Sons of Vinland, claim their religion is based on a medieval, pre-Christian Scandinavian belief that worships the god Odin and is organized into warrior gangs. They practice a form of toxic masculinity based on their ideas of how the barbaric warriors of medieval Northern Europe functioned as a violent warrior comitatusTheir religion, based on a pagan medieval Scandinavian religion, enacts “group rituals (including animal sacrifice) and hold fights between members to test their masculinity.” They have been regularly connected to Aryan and alt-right violence, such as Jeremy Christian’s May 2017 attack in Portland, Oregon.

Odinists have been identified as violent white supremacists for several decades. Their ideology centers on using a non-Christian religion to claim not only a pure white cultural past that they can link up, vis-à-vis Vinland (the failed medieval Viking settlement in North America described in The Vinlands Saga), but a warrior culture they can align with their visions of toxic and racist masculinity that undergirds men’s rights activism (MRA). They have more recently gotten push back from Swedish live action role-playing groups, including Vikings against Nazis, and academics who point out that the Vikings were not a pure white maritime culture but were much more akin to the practices of multiracial pirate culture of the early modern period.

Odinism and the Sons/Wolves of Vinland are violent white supremacist groups that fetishize and glorify their cherry-picked version of the medieval past and particularly a pagan, Northern European medieval non-Christian religious past. They are not interested in addressing the actual practiced religion of Ásatrú, which Iceland has recognized as a formal, organized religion since 1973. In fact, the current theology and practice of this pagan Viking religion is doctrinally LGBTQIA-supporting, inclusive to all (regardless of culture, race, gender, sexuality, etc.), rejects militarism, and has called out any white supremacist, MRA, genocidally racist version of pagan religious practice based on the medieval Viking past outside of Iceland, as one that does not adhere to their theological and doctrinal interpretation—“Ásatrúarfélagið rejects this as a misreading of Ásatrú.”

#DeusVult

The next medieval religious frame used, abused, and weaponized by the alt-right is the medieval Catholic crusader. The Crusades were an ongoing set of memes during the 2016 election as well as during Brexit, in which #DeusVult has become a rallying cry. The #DeusVult arose from 4chan, meme culture, and video game culture. Video game culture is the gateway for the public to the medieval historical past. The distorted return of the Crusades and the Christian Crusader in imagining the West as the defender of democratic Christian values was redeployed after 9/11 by George W. Bush and his administration’s War on Terror. For a host of different alt-right groups, it specifically evokes an idea of a militaristic and racially-motivated defense of the Christian West against a racist fantasy of Islam and Muslims. All of which is historically inaccurate. The white supremacist use of #DeusVult and a return to medieval Catholicism is to invoke the myth of a white Christian (i.e. Catholic) medieval past that wishes to ignore the actual demographics and theological state of Catholicism today, let alone the doctrinal practices of contemporary Catholicism.

As the Pew Research Center has tabulated that 67 percent of the world’s Catholics in 2010 were not from the Global North, then 67 percent of the world’s Catholics were non-white. That statistic is compounded with the 2014 statistic that 41 percent of the United States’ Catholic population were racial minorities. We can firmly state that Catholicism today has a substantial, if not majority population, of non-white Catholic practitioners in the United States and around the globe. Yet, the alt-right’s vision of this medieval Catholic past is used now to uphold white genocidal and violent hate. For example, in January 2017 Alexandre Bissonnette, a French-Canadian university student, shot and killed six people in a Quebec City mosque. The #DeusVult meme and imagery used became a way for Bissonnette to identify as a violent Islamaphobic white terrorist.

But as this recent tweet shows, the connection between the medieval crusader and alt-right fascist violence is made explicit when a “crusader” dressed in medieval costume deliberately comes to harass and attack the antifascist Black Bloc at Kent State University. He calls himself the “Based Crusader,” and his medieval dress appears to highlight how much this vision is about inhabiting some imagined, white religious medieval past that aligns with the violent xenophobia, toxic masculinity, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism of the alt-right.

This alt-right vision of the medieval Catholic past has ignored 50 years of Vatican II, let alone the long history that created a global Catholicism that is made up of over 67 percent non-white Catholics. They have also ignored the consistent statements from Pope Francis that reject Trump and his numerous policies as not “Christian,” let alone aligned with the theological frames or doctrines of the contemporary Catholic Church (on the issue of refugees, fake news, truth, family separation, Jerusalem, etc.).

What the alt-right has done is pull from the medieval past what will align with their vision of a violent white supremacy in order to claim religious space. They are not practicing any form of theologically-informed, doctrinally-sanctioned version of a contemporary religion. They are also deliberately ignoring the majority practitioners of this religion (whether it is the Icelanders or the racially diverse majority in Catholicism). Instead, they are practicing a form of religiously-inflected medievalism that is based on medieval cosplay, video game culture, and internet memes.

Dorothy Kim is an assistant professor of English at Brandeis University who specializes in medieval literature.

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

How Does Conservative Evangelicalism Engage Alt-Right Views? By Melani McAlister

November 7, 2018

The official representatives of American evangelicalism have been almost uniformly opposed to the Alt-Right—issuing statements, condemnations, and disavowals. Since the alt-right protest in Charlottesville in 2017, in which one counter-protester was killed, Christianity Today, for example, has had a drumbeat of denunciations of the alt-right, with interviews and opinion from Christian commentators, both people of color and white, who have expressed themselves as appalled in every way. The Gospel Coalition has also repeatedly condemned the alt-right, with long articles explaining what is wrong with its theology, its politics, and its reasoning. Indeed, months before Charlottesville, in June 2017, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution condemning the alt-right—although this only happened after the resolution had initially died in committee.  There are numerous other examples.

But the issue is more complicated, and understanding it requires more than attending to the statements of evangelical leaders. To unpack how the alt-right’s virulently racist politics might seem plausible to white evangelical Christians whose leadership is busily denouncing those very views, we need to understand the development of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stances that are common today among white evangelicals. (Of course, not all evangelicals are white, and the percentage of evangelicals of color is going up, but I focus on white evangelicals here.) If we want to unpack the racial politics of conservative white evangelicals, we need to understand more about what Paul Harvey has described as the “folk theology” of race and identity. Harvey was referring to the theological arguments that undergirded support for segregation among white American Christians in the mid-century twentieth century, such as the specious notion of the “curse of Ham,” but his approach to the ordinary theologies of race is useful for understanding the appeal of the alt-right today.

For more than 50 years, there has​ been a cultural narrative about the global persecution of Christians that has infused a great deal of evangelical culture and activism. In the immediate post-WWII period, that was largely a discourse about Christians as persecuted by communism. After the end of the Cold War, evangelicals in the United States and globally focused their missionary attention and their political concerns on the “10/40 Window”—an area between 10 and 40 degrees latitude in which it was said that people were “enslaved” by Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam. That was linked to another development: increasingly, as American believers came to realize that the demographic center of Christianity lay in the Global South, and as they (like everyone else) had increasing access to information about the rest of the world, they paid more attention to news about Christians in the Middle East, Africa, or elsewhere. Often, in Christian media and on evangelical websites like OpenDoors.org, or in the yearly International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, the news focused on the ways that believers elsewhere suffered for their faith.

This recognition and embrace of Global South “persecuted Christians” as part of the global Christian community has a number of effects. It certainly has increased support for Christian communities that are facing violence or threats in the Middle East and Africa. And sometimes it has led American believers to attend to the multiple crises affecting Global South communities, including needs for clean water or healthcare. But it also has the effect of helping Americans to identify themselves, as Christians, as part of a globally oppressed or marginalized group. Thus, we can arrive at the shocking reality that, in 2017, 57 percent of white U.S. evangelicals told pollsters that they believe American Christians face a great deal of discrimination today, while only 44 percent said the same was true of Muslims. That is, the idea of Christians as victims on the international stage encourages a sense of aggrieved marginality among white American evangelicals.

Feeling that one is part of a persecuted community might be a long way from joining the alt-right, but we do know how the alt-right and the populist right in Europe uses this, plays upon it, and amplifies it—with the anti-sharia law campaigns and the attacks on Muslims who are running for Congress.

The alt-right can count on people to find something compelling in narratives of their own victimization. There is a resonance, I’m arguing, between a Christian evangelical embrace of the issue of Christian persecution and the demonization of Muslims that is part of thecommon sense of the alt-right.

We have to look at this reality—and I think conservative Christians need to look at it as well. It is not enough for Christianity Today or the Southern Baptist Convention to condemn the alt-right, as important as that is. It is also important for evangelicals to consider the parts of their own self-conception and their own folk theology that are portable into the logic of alt-right racism and anti-Muslim hostility.

Melani McAlister is an associate professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University.

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.

Taking on the Alt-right: Theological Considerations by Paul Dafydd Jones

November 7, 2018

While others have offered reflections on the alt-right from the standpoints of political science, sociology, and American history, my perspective is perhaps a bit different. While those fields tend in a descriptive direction, the work of the Christian theologian is often unembarrassedly normative in character. Such normativity will be on full display in this short piece. It forms an initial attempt to help Christians, and perhaps some others, formulate a theological response to the alt-right—one that (a) acknowledges that its distinctive combination of anti-Semitism and anti-black/anti-brown racism has precedent in the Christian tradition; (b) reckons with the difficulty of formulating an effective rhetoric and witness in response; and (c) understands the limited potency of ideas in the political sphere.

My first point: Christians shouldn’t succumb to the temptation to think of the alt-right as a baffling, strange, incomprehensible “other”—a political outburst that is entirely alien to the Christian tradition. Christians must instead accept and acknowledge that our religious tradition connects with, and in fact gives intellectual support to, the racial imaginary of the alt-right. To be sure, there are inspirations for the alt-right, and prominent figures within it, who repudiate Christianity. Think of Alain de Benoist and the Nouvelle Droit; think of Richard Spencer’s (painfully sophomoric) reading of Nietzsche. But it would be churlish to ignore the fact that the alt-right draws on a long tradition of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. It does exactly that, and sometimes quite explicitly. Furthermore, the way the alt-right blends anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism with anti-black/anti-brown racism finds striking parallel in the history of Christian thought.

Scholars such as J. Kameron Carter and Willie Jennings prove instructive on this point. Carter argues convincingly that the racial imagination of modernity is grounded in the attempt to detach Christian identity from its Jewish roots. Jews being viewed as “racial others” is the fatal cast of the dice: it forms the first step towards a “racialized chain of being” that culminates in an ideology of white supremacism. Jennings’s thought heads in a similar direction. The colonialist and racist currents that swirl within Western modernity are animated by Christianity’s long history of anti-Judaism.

So here’s a hard truth. When alt-right demonstrators chanted “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, and when similar sentiments are voiced in chatrooms, bars, schoolyards, churches, and government offices—sometimes with deadly effect, as the recent events in Pittsburgh show—we have to acknowledge that it is a tradition forged, at least in part, by Western Christian thought. And inasmuch as Christians, especially those of us who are white, inherit and benefit from this tradition, we have a responsibility to contest it. We have to own a common past, even as we challenge the alt-right in the present.

My second point is the identification of a quandary. Put simply: I don’t know what kind of religious rhetoric and witness is best suited to challenge the alt-right. One option is prophetic denunciation—treating white nationalism, neo-Confederate politics, and neo-Nazism as idols that must be smashed. (If you want inspiration for this stance, Karl Barth is a good bet). Another option is to attempt to out-narrate the alt-right, to overpower them with a celebration of Jewish, Latinx, black, queer, and immigrant voices. Yet another option is to focus attention on figures on the religious left (think of William BarberTraci BlackmonJennifer Harvey, and others) and to work towards changing the theo-political culture of the United States.

Now, none of these options (and there are of course more) are mutually exclusive, and each has its merits. Yet I worry that established modes of expression and action do not have much traction with respect to the alt-right, and that Christians need to develop new forms of rhetoric and witness to contend with this threat. The alt-right, after all, is not a political bloc or party. It stands somewhere between an assemblage, a mood, and a movement; it comprises a mess of neo-Confederate groups, free-floating white supremacists and anti-Semites, old and new neo-Nazis, pseudo-intellectuals, and—last but certainly not least—online trolls. Crucially, too, many who associate or sympathize with the alt-right have no interest in mainstream political or religious life. They’ve taken what Richard Hofstadter famously called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” to an entirely new level, with “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness … conspiratorial fantasy” and “apocalyptic … expression” forged in the furnace of online chatrooms and boutique websites.

In fact, even though religious critiques of the alt-right are desperately needed, those critiques might well strengthen an entrenched narrative of victimization. Just as some evangelicals thrill to the (false) idea that Christians are a beleaguered minority in the West, so the alt-right entertains the (false) idea that whites live with their backs against the wall. The “war on Christmas” and the “war on whites” form two sides of a paranoid, self-serving, counterfeit coin.

So here’s another hard truth. If contesting the alt-right means something more than outmuscling it—that is, if contesting this assemblage, movement, and mood requires fostering some kind of repentance and conversion among its adherents, so that their message is contested not just from the “outside” but undone from the “inside”—I worry that we don’t yet know how to proceed, either rhetorically or in terms of faith-based organizing.

Third and finally: Christians need to be careful not to overestimate the power of ideas when it comes to the alt-right. It is always tempting to suppose that sharp thoughts can change the world. A bit of consciousness-raising, a nicely turned thesis, deft penmanship: these are assumed to be the drivers of religious and political change. But we mustn’t fall victim to naïveté. Among the various forms of soft power now in circulation, theological arguments are downright squishy, and certainly no match for diverse modalities of hard power. So, granted my first two points, I would encourage Christians—especially Christian theologians, like me—to attend once more to the tradition of Christian realism. Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that the “preservation of democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice.” These are timely words.

Christians can and must reckon with the renewed vigor of the far-right, and Christian theologians can and must do our part to disrupt, undermine, and discredit it. But such work will only have a significant impact when it is complemented with tough-minded, concrete, local contestations of white nationalism, anti-Semitism, so-called “race realism,” and neo-fascism—the whole toxic, ugly mess gathered under the name of the alt-right.

Paul Dafydd Jones is an associate professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the co-director of the Religion and Its Publics project.

This post originally appeared on the Berkley Forum, a blog by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The post is a response to a recent conference, co-sponsored by Religion and Its Publics and the Berkley Center, entitled Christianity and the Alt-Right: Exploring the Relationship. Full video of the conference, broken into three panels, is available from C-SPAN here: Christianity and the Alt-Right in the pastChristianity and the Alt-Right in the present, and Christianity and the Alt-Right in the future.