Dangerous Recycling of Religious Language

Published on February 28, 2013

In Print for “The Phoenix,” Swarthmore College Newspaper

For this week’s bit of commentary on religion, I’ve decided to shake things up a bit and begin with a little guessing game. As promised at the end of my last installment, this week will again consider religious rhetoric, but not saint’s erotic wordplay or the hot to trot couple in “The Song of Songs.” Instead, I will now consider religious language’s sway in the context of violent world conflict. Specifically, I will explore the shared rhetoric of seemingly clashing forces on the world stage: former President George Bush and Osama bin Laden.


Here are two excerpts, one from each leader, from speeches and interviews in the wake of 9/11. As you may notice, it’s not necessarily obvious to whom each belongs — can you guess who said what?

“Tell them that these events have divided the world into two camps, the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels. May God shield us and you from them.”

 “In this conflict there is no neutral ground. If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril.”

If you guess the first as bin Laden and the second as Bush, then congratulations you win, well, bragging rights. Both statements profess equally blunt categorizations of what is good and what is evil, which belongs to the religious dualism of Manichean cosmology. Here, there is neither neutrality nor a middle ground, and any hesitation in deciding which side to agree with is deemed unacceptable.

For Bush, “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” while bin Laden quite similarly declares “whoever upholds [the enemy] with one word” becomes the enemy. Ironically however, despite these leaders’ desperate efforts to distance themselves from one another using this extreme language, they actually harmonize in their adoption of strict binaries.

Their powerful rhetor testifies to how religion bleeds into political discourse. Even though bin Laden’s rhetoric may seem to more explicitly cast a religious tone over the war, characterizing the conflict as “one of faith” between the infidels and the faithful, Bush’s speech proves just as faith-based. Bruce Lincoln illustrates the religiosity of Bush’s language, for example, in the former president’s description of the terrorists as those who “may burrow deeper into caves and other entrenched hiding places.” Yes, this language likens his enemies to hunted animals, but more importantly to those deemed fearful in the Apocalypse of Revelations 6:15-1729: “Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders…hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains…for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

In his thorough examination, Lincoln provides an extensive glimpse at the echoes between other biblical verses such as Job 8:13 and Bush’s claim: “…[anyone who sides with Bin Laden] will take that lonely path at their own peril” (http://fathom.lib.uchicago.edu/1/777777190152/). Though such biblical allusions may go unnoticed by those without the requisite textual knowledge, as Lincoln admits, they were audible to his audience who were attentive to such phrasing.

Even more striking however is this duo’s not-so-subtle shared references to the Crusades. Bush branded the holy war (arguably inadvertent): “This crusade, this war on terrorism (Sept. 2001)…crusade to defend freedom, this campaign to do what is right for our children and our grandchildren (Feb. 2002).” Also choosing to wield Crusader language, bin Laden describes Bush as “the biggest Crusader”; bin Laden himself was described as the “modern-day Saladin” (the Western name for the ruler Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub who was the great Muslim general who confronted the Crusaders in the Near East).

Not a one-hit wonder

In fact, the twenty-first century is a repeat offender for this type of recycling of religious language. January’s two-part coverage in the online publication “The Revealer” described Muslim protests in Ethiopia and the government’s response to weekly demonstrations by Ethopian Muslims (http://therevealer.org/archives/16502). What interest me here specifically is the Ethiopian government’s strategy in what is becoming an international religious affair: the use of rhetoric from the “War on Terror.”

Demonstrators claim that the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his successor Hailemariam Desalegn have given the “Ahbash” sect of Islam (has moved toward anti-Salafism and emphasizes the necessity for Muslims to obey political rulers) control over key Muslim institutions in the country.
For many, the government’s alleged promotion of the Ahbash sect represents an effort to counter the spread of Salafism (Islamic sect who grant more authority to the Qur’an, the Hadith and the consensus of approved scholarship) inside Ethiopia. Yet, the government crackdowns on protesters have drawn international criticism, including from Ethiopia’s ally the United States.

Appealing to the U.S., it seems that the Ethiopian government has borrowed its rhetoric with great purpose. Associating Salafism with extremism, the government has been able to position themselves as a “U.S. ally in combating terrorism” and positioning domestic dissidents as extremists. In fact, as “The Revealer” reports, the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have charged the Ethiopian government with the misuse of their Anti-Terrorism Proclamation of 2009. The Proclamation possesses “an overbroad and vague definition of terrorist acts” that can be misused to “stifle peaceful dissent.” Just last May, Meles employs language as a political weapon to appeal to his allies overseas: “We are observing tell-tale signs of extremism. We should nip this scourge in the bud.”

What’s the harm?

As per custom for my column, we arrive at some version of “so what?” and in light of this language of religious conflict, what are the consequences of recycling such lingo? In other words, other than proving linguistic savviness, what does it matter who borrows language and from where they borrow it? Well, the consequences are twofold.

First, there is the potential to disintegrate the protective symbolic walls that we often construct to keep others (especially enemies) at a distance — i.e. their motivations and worldviews are so different than and foreign to our own and therefore, beyond our understanding. This mindset cripples conflict resolution. Yet, the Ethiopian government seems to be using rhetoric from “War on Terror” in order to appeal to the U.S. instead of distancing us.

Now, in light of Bush and bin Laden specifically, what happens to these walls when extremists like bin Laden who we may deem as the barbaric and uncivilized “Other” employ the same terminology as our own leaders? It is threatening. Similar phrasing and speech would seem to imply that we also share the same worldview; therefore, it becomes harder to simply characterize others as irrational or unreasonable. The blinders are removed and we are therefore forced to move beyond our own ignorance to acknowledge the possibility that our enemy’s rationale may in fact be reasonable to some degree or that our may be equally unreasonable.

The second consequence of borrowing the lexicon of historical religious conflict is what political scientist Samuel P. Huntington first termed as “the clash of civilizations.” In his 1993 Foreign Affairs article, surveying post-Cold War politics, Huntington posits that the primary source of world conflict will be along cultural and religious lines rather than ideological or economic ones.

Originally, Bernard Lewis coined the term in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in his article entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1990/09/the-roots-of-muslim-rage/304643/). He wrote, “This is no less than a clash of civilizations — the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.”

Therefore, the lingering phantom of the Crusades too easily ignores the specificities of our own contemporary conflict. Bin Laden and Bush’s adoption of Crusader language reduces the particularities of the contemporary conflict: its tensions, questions and lead actors. We ignore the nuances and our own conflict inevitably inherits the animosity of a past conflict. To borrow a war’s rhetoric is to assume its sentiments and emotions as well.

In a November 2001 interview, Bin Laden speaks to this type of inheritance of conflict and speaks the contemporary war as either “a single, unrelated event, or…part of a long series of Crusader wars against the Islamic world.” Identifying the dangerous repercussions of Bush’s use of “crusade,” French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine explained, “We have to avoid a clash of civilizations at all costs. One has to avoid falling into this huge trap, this monstrous trap [which has been] conceived by the instigators of the assault” (http://www.csmonitor.com/2001/0919/p12s2-woeu.html).

This trap leads us to the erroneous conclusion that there exist self-contained societies that correspond to fixed civilizational values — for example, the “West” versus the “East.” In this vein, resorting to language of the Crusades stunts conflict resolution since it reinscribes a particular historic hostility and thus, merely adds fuel to the fire.

Whether bin Laden, Bush or the Ethiopian government, there is a power in authoring history with one’s choice of language, yet also a greater danger in manipulating rhetoric of past religious conflict.


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