In the quietly Teutonic suburbs of Buffalo, where the new national politics of Muslim-hating builds on the solid base of black-hating and Jew-hating, November 2015 saw the Town of Elma resolving to let Christian refugees in. Only Christians. If those Christians happen to be Arabic-speaking, perhaps they’ll smile at being welcomed—but not at taxpayer expense, mind you—to a town whose name means “apple” in Arabic. Meanwhile, back in the heimat of the Fishers, November saw Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the other adult German children whose political lives expiate Teutonic guilt for the Holocaust, welcome more refugees than any other country.
To say that there is no historical memory in the anti-tax, Tea Party-ruled Elma Town Council would be oxymoronic. Their foreign policy, as they passed their pro-Christian resolution, bears a striking similarity to that of the American Anthropological Association, which that same November week passed its own ahistorical, naive, pernicious resolution, this one an anti-Jew resolution, just in time to make a little bit of e-news before allegedly devout Muslim jihadis massacred more than a hundred in Paris and then then another 14 in San Bernadino.
Dopes in suburbia, dopes with professorships. Trying to understand the politics of religiously justified violence is hard work, which some anthropologists and political scientists are working at diligently, even as there’s a pernicious confluence of anti-understanding happening here on this, our fair island of American innocence and studied ignorance.
By contrast, there is the Norwegian scholar Thomas Heggehammer. He probably doesn’t have many readers among either our suburban Tea Partiers nor among the intellectual politically correct crowd. The Tea Party just wants to bash all Muslims, and the the PC campus elite, our wannabe Martin Heideggers, the ones who want to side with animal spirits against somewhat antiquated notions like human rights, free speech, and such, both willfully ignore ugly realities. Specifically, the Tea Partiers ignore the impact of Muslim-bashing as they embrace the amplified fear-stoking of Trump and of Republican political consultants, and the PC crowd ignores the bloody reality of a tiny but empowered fringe Muslim religiosity that favors, justifies, and even encourages killing Jews, Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, and indeed anybody who isn’t with the jihadi program.
It is not coincidence that the Town of Elma passed its resolution in the same week that the American Anthropological Association resolved to boycott Israeli universities because they are, assert the anthros, “complicit” in anti-Palestinian Arab actions of the Israeli government. After the anthros acted, the Women’s Studies Association resolved an Israeli boycott, too.
It’s a good bet that the actions of a few learned anthropologists and women’s studies scholars don’t have much political relevance. But these expressions are of a piece with the Elma Town Council’s resolution: It’s all about simplifying and avoiding unpleasant realities. Doubtless Elma’s leaders carefully considered the lengthy history of European and American intervention into the Middle East, and concluded, after deep study, that US oil politics, support for the Shi’a in Iraq but not in Iran or Saudi Arabia or Syria or Lebanon, and being in lockstep with the wannabe Ataturk known as Erdogan, make a statement of town-level refugee policy critical to resolving conflicts in eastern Syria while asserting American constitutional law here.
Nor can one really question the American Anthropological Association’s deep research into Israeli politics, in which about 5.5 million Jews as well as about 1.8 million Arab Muslims and Christians today participate, shaped these days again by the random assaults on Israeli civilians (now by knife) and by occasional rockets and mortar shells lobbed into Israel by civilian-killers sited in Gaza. At one time, presumably in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, perhaps even into the 1980s, anthropologists knew that Israeli politics had had to digest the existential threat of religious-sanctioned genocide before, during, and after Independence in 1948. At one time, maybe when the Boomer scholars were still playing with their Barbies and Daniel Boone coonskin caps, they knew that Israeli Jews, fresh off the boats from Europe, once enjoyed near-universal international political support, except of course from Arab states with Muslim religious authorities sanctioning, justifying, even encouraging Jew-killing. Just before the lifetime of the Boomers who now lead American academic organzations, anti-Semitism in Europe had nearly succeeded in wiping the Jews out—but after Hitler’s defeat, every country from the Soviet Union to Iran to the USA recognized that the Jew-killing might stop were the Zionists to achieve their dream of a reconstituted Jewish polity in the ancient Jewish homeland.
Here’s a New Year’s resolution from one German-surnamed academic: It’s time for Americans to sit still and study up, and whether you like Bernie or Hillary or even Jeb! for 2016, pay attention to the people who are trying to help Barack Obama manage the problem that simply refuses to go away—namely, that there are people with guns who want to wipe out the Jews, the Christians, and anybody else who isn’t with the caliphate program, and that there at at least one billion Muslims who aren’t with the caliphate program, a billion who are our allies, not our enemies.
Knowledge: a better policy guide than fear
Norwegian scholar Thomas Heggehammer is not, from his CV, a member of either the Elma Town Board, the American Anthropological Association, nor the Women’s Studies Association. Nor is he a caliphate guy. He studied Hebrew and Arabic in France, lectures all over the US, advises the Norwegian and US governments, and uses his skills to promote understanding of this dangerous phenomenon that he has spent 15 years studying—the new jihadism—with neither the prejudice of an Elma politician nor the agenda of an Israel-bashing PC academic.
Heggehammer is an exemplar of a Wwestern-educated scholar who speaks the languages, studies the texts, does the field work, and lets his subjects do the talking even as he does his job, which is to publish his findings and subject himself to peer review—and that’s how come he actually helps the people whose job it is to keep civilians safe from murderous violence. He does this work at a time when our political class, and our wannabe geopoliticians, want to keep it very simple.
Heggehammer works on the psychological and cultural dimensions of the jihadist movements. He has studied the Afghans, but his focus is the former territory of the Ottoman Empire, including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Turkey. Though not yet as famous as the American scholars Bernard Lewis, Marshall Hodgson, or Edward Said—who all tried to explain the widespread sense of aggrievement at the West harbored in the Muslim world—Heggehammer writes and speaks for wider audiences than his fellow academic specialists who dissect the Arabic-language poetry and song, live and on social media, in which jihadists justify their actions with appeals to sacred texts and to deep cultural traditions.
The PC crowd needs to face up to what Heggehammer sees: young armed people singing songs and reciting poetry about killing Christians, Jews, and others. The Elma/Tea Party crowd needs to face up to what Heggehammer also sees: that the Jihadis are a miniscule subculture that can only be dealt with, in the interests of everybody else in the world who wants to go about their business without fear of being machine-gunned, knifed, or suicide-bombed, if the entire Muslim world is not told that being Muslim equals being jihadi in the West’s eyes.
Heggehammer the scholar writes papers and delivers lectures that can help the necessary intercultural, interfaith, international conversation that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others need to have—all in pursuit not of western capitalist hegemony, not in support of the triumph of white privilege, but rather in support of what the tragic philosopher Ernst Cassirer debated the egregious intellectual pimp and Nazi Martin Heidegger about, namely, the preferability of a universal, comprehensive, inclusive notion of what it means to be human. Heidegger, the guy who bought into the PC of his day, got his big-time academic reward. Cassirer, the earnest promoter of the notion of a human essence that transcended nation, state, and sacred text, was exiled from the nation he’d so naively embraced.
Our anthros are today’s Heideggers, but one would have expected more of them. After all, their profession has been maturing. For people whose professional lives are rooted in the triumph of Western imperialism, and in the entertainment-oriented curiosity of the ruling classes about indigenous conquered peoples, some introspection might have been expected before they sided with the people who make videos instructing Muslims that the pinnacle achievement of group identity comes from knifing Israeli innocents or other dhimmi. Here in the land of free speech, in our infantilizing island, some of our learned colleagues are becoming enthusiasts for people who would exterminate them. Thankfully these days, it is possible to read other anthropologists who no longer gild the lily or gloss over hideous realities like jihadi violence against minorities, or like old calamities that used to be excused, such as the mass Aztec sacrifice (i.e., ritual murder) of children, which brutal Spanish colonialism ended (mainly unwittingly, mind you, by importing killer diseases from the Eurasian-North African to the North American biome). Thankfully, these days our students here in Buffalo can read both about the intellectual and poetic integrity of Iroquois texts, and yet also learn about the Iroquois practice of genocidal warfare. Professionally, there’s been some maturing since the days of 1960s first-wave historical revisionism, in which the European males were universally evil. Politically, however, maturity hasn’t happened.
Heggehammer’s papers are easily accessed, balanced, insightful, and helpful. He parses the jihadists’ words about Western colonialism, about cultural expropriation, about authentic indigenous culture and Sunni Muslim religiosity. He helps explain that these killers are not robots, and that jihadis have skillfully overtaken the language of emotions in a way that has a deep cultural resonance.
“A common denominator of things like music, imagery, storytelling, or weeping is that they evoke or involve emotion,” Heggehammer writes, noting how Muslim intellectuals inside and outside the jihadi movement appeal to the authority of revered authors like al-Ghazali, the 12th-century theologian who “wrote extensively on the benefits of weeping.” The terrorist Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s enemy, a man who sent many suicide bombers against American soldiers and against civilians in Iraq, was known simultaneously as al-dhabbah (the slaughterer) and al-baki (he who weeps a lot). This guy who personally beheaded captives on video, who sought war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and whose influence lives on in a quasi-state that terrorists say inspires if not directs them, “was known for weeping during prayer and when speaking about Muslim women’s suffering under occupation.”
If we who would live are to thwart the murderous designs of those who would willingly die just to kill us, then it makes sense to know this vocabulary, and to reclaim it for peace.
In studying culture, Heggehammer is trying to give some shape to the mental processes of those who made international news shooting civilians in Paris and San Bernadino, who daily knife Israeli civilians, and who in the past few years have massacred and enslaved religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. He quotes the poetry of a young Syrian woman, whose most widely dsitributed collection includes the verses “Shake the throne of the cross, and Extinguish the fire of the Zoroastrians / Strike down every adversity, and go reap those heads.”
Culture, it would seem, ought to be relevant subject-matter for the people who would keep Western and other civilians safe from the murderous violence of the people Heggehammer studies. But culture, it would seem, ought not to be blandly accepted as justification for ignoring the decision that Jews have made, with international support, not to be annihilated by people who claim scriptural authority for killing them.
One would hope that Americans, long beneficiaries of the notion of protected speech, protected free association, and legally enforced rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as our own foundational text has it, might pick up on how the real threat we can pose to jihadis is spreading our view, Cassirer’s view, the universalist view, and not what these guys are selling.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo State and director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.