Public Advocacy and the Study of Religion after September 11, 2001

By: Michael Kessler

September 9, 2021

Religion, Peace, and World Affairs: Reflections on the Legacy of September 11

“9/11 changed everything.” I heard this trope many times in the weeks and years after the attacks. Commerce and travel ground to a halt. I was struck by the eerie silence of Hyde Park in the days after the attacks, where I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. The normal plane traffic overhead was silenced. People feared going to restaurants. The streets and parks felt unsafe, but so did buildings. An attack could happen again at any time. A plane or a bomb might obliterate life in a flash.

President Bush, planning for military strikes and nation-building expeditions, pleaded with Americans to go back to their lives: “When they struck, [the terrorists] wanted to create an atmosphere of fear. And one of the great goals of this nation’s war is to restore public confidence in the airline industry…take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

Most people did just that. The terror of another imminent attack slowly gave way to fatigue. People started to dine out and travel, exchanging fear of imminent destruction with annoyance at airport security and having to take off our shoes and throw away our water bottles. Parks and theaters filled once again. We returned to “normal” life.

Universities made some changes, too. Students flocked to study Arabic language and literature, creating high demand for courses and a surge in need for language instruction. Some scholars in social science disciplines, long enamored by the secularization thesis, rushed to rediscover the role religion played in political and social life. Some universities launched ambitious partnerships with foreign governments in the Middle East to provide top-flight education in the region. 

Yet, some scholarly ways remained unchanged. Academic discussion about the events of 9/11 and how to study religious groups, beliefs, and practices manifested some of the same fault lines about the study of “religion” that have beset the field for a century. 

Academic discussion about the events of 9/11 and how to study religious groups, beliefs, and practices manifested some of the same fault lines about the study of ‘religion’ that have beset the field for a century. 

First and foremost on the agenda was assessing the global challenges around religion exposed by the 9/11 attacks. What role did “religion” play in motivating the terrorists, in relation to other motivations like political and national identity, race, culture, and economic disenfranchisement? American Muslims—already subject to significant racist, ethnic, and religious discrimination—were targeted anew, with significant misrepresentations about them raging around the country. How could religious groups help build and overcome misrepresentations about their and others’ beliefs and practices? Do scholars have any role in advocacy?

A personal anecdote, but a telling one. As a graduate student I was invited to participate in a provost-convened University of Chicago yearlong program to host events and workshops on the myriad ways the university could help build understanding about the attacks and the threats to the peoples around the world. The provost hoped to let the university play a public role, convening the best scholars to provide analysis of the many intersecting issues and thereby help the community and larger public understand more clearly what happened and how to respond. An obvious part of this analysis was “what is going on with religious groups?” A good range of historians, cultural theorists, and political scientists were part of the planning committee and participated in events. The discussions were lively and rigorous. It was a deflating struggle that I could only convince two religion scholars to participate. “Much too complicated!” “It’s not how we think about these issues!” “We study and critique, we don’t advocate.”

Underlying this response, to my ear, were the legitimately complex definitional challenges of even defining what constitutes religion. Were the terrorists driven by “religious” motivations, fundamental shapers of identity and actions, or were these ancillary to other political, economic, or social forces? What is “religious” about some ideas and practices, distinct from material and cultural practices and ideas of peoples and groups? These and other well-worn debates are indeed compelling academic discussions, but I’m still a bit shocked by the general attitude of the many senior mentors I looked up to which seemed to be “ask me in 500 years when there are texts and histories and well-worn practices to study.”

Were the terrorists driven by ‘religious’ motivations, fundamental shapers of identity and actions, or were these ancillary to other political, economic, or social forces?

The attacks, in one sort or another, should probably not have caught us by surprise. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bipolar world order was obliterated; regional conflicts were no longer constrained and framed within this order. (Theodor Adorno argued in 1972 that social conflicts would continue in stages of highly developed capitalism, but that economic barbarization would result in “gangs and rackets” confronting each other—not the neatly defined class struggle of the previous generations.) Globalization, both economic and communicative, has compressed the world. Social action and political will-formation are less centralized and diffused across a range of non-state actors who can capture the world’s attention and pressure governments, using new modes of information and media to collapse state boundaries. There was already so much to sort out and analyze before any planes hit the towers.

9/11 is an immensely complicated set of events, with long historical, national, economic, and religious struggles that stand as a background to the acts of terror. A group of people of various stripes and identities engaged in a terrible set of acts, motivated by a number of ideas—economic, political, religious—that needed and need to be studied carefully. Religions are multifaceted, varied, and dynamic phenomena, and we certainly must resist monolithic explanations or reductionist, simplistic accounts. At the same time, we also must resist the quietism of scholarly elitism that uses complexity as a crutch to ignore the hard, messy work of engaging with the material challenges staring us in the face. 

We must resist the quietism of scholarly elitism that uses complexity as a crutch to ignore the hard, messy work of engaging with the material challenges staring us in the face.

With COVID-19 grinding down on us, and climate change posed to heatedly wrap us around our ideological axles, a basic challenge we all must critically engage is that religions constitute the highest ideals of humanity and simultaneously their worst motivations and moments. This tension will continue to grow within and among groups, nations, and religions. The religion scholar—to be true to the scholarly endeavor, and perhaps even useful—can help elucidate and complicate the conflict of identities and interpretations over what constitutes the “true” identity of any religious group. 

Religion is complicated, yet even while we work hard to illuminate all of the tensions and contradictions at play in religious practices and beliefs, we can also aid the efforts to help create structures of justice for ourselves and others, contributing to the solidarity that refuses the destruction and oppression so many nations and peoples foist on each other.

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