No. 49 August 2016
Musings from the Executive Secretary
by Jeremiah Alberg
I would like to report on a few things that have happened in the recent past, on a few decisions that the Advisory Board recommended and that the members at the Business meeting approved. I will conclude with a few reflections on where we might go from here.
I have to begin, however, by expressing my own and COV&R’s gratitude to the organizers of this year’s Melbourne Conference: Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming, Joel Hodge, Carly Osborn, and Fatih Erol Tuncer. It was an outstanding conference in every way. I will leave it to Matthew Packer’s report to give you a sense of it, if you were not able to attend.
Also, I thank David Garcia Ramos for his wonderful report on the preparations for next year’s conference to be held in Madrid, Spain. For 2018, Stephen McKenna has graciously agreed to take on the task of organizing our conference, to be held on the campus of Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
The biggest changes in the past year concerned the publication that you are now reading. We spent the past year in transition – Niki Wandinger edited his last Bulletin and Curtis Gruenler has already edited his first. We are working to integrate the Bulletin more and more with our website. Maura Junius has been doing yeoman’s service to make all of this operational. Thanks to each of you. We formally elected Curtis to a three-year term as Editor (with the possibility of unlimited extensions!).
While the layout of the Bulletin was deliberately not substantially changed, the webpublishing does give us more flexibility, allowing us to increase our efforts to get books reviewed. The Bulletin section of the COV&R website now includes a list of books to be reviewed. Please volunteer.
Our website continues to evolve, being separated from the University of Innsbrück’s website and now having its own domain name (violenceandreligion.com). We are working to have a twitter feed and to provide updated content. At the business meeting we elected Carly Osborn to be the Webmaster. She takes over from the founding webmaster, Dietmar Regenburger, who has worked year in and year out on the website since its first days. With each change in technology Dietmar brought us up to date. He did all kinds of hidden work through the years, the most recent being the continuous uploading of the obituaries that appeared in the world’s press for René Girard. We thank him for all of his efforts and look forward to continued advice and help.
After Martha Reineke did her usual due diligence, the Advisory Board recommended and members approved a move from our present system to a managed membership services. A company will maintain our members’ list (names, mail addresses, members’ dues and renewals). We are hopeful that this will result in smoother communication and more reliable notifications concerning books that members receive and renewal of membership. We will keep you posted on developments.
So much for “housekeeping” items. I left Melbourne invigorated and full of hope. We had many fine young scholars among us. There were fewer people from North America and Europe present for understandable reasons, but the Australian delegation was powerful. The conference made me realize that we need to continue to address the issues raised by indigenous peoples; also that we need to continue to educate ourselves about the Islamic tradition. The very real security issues that pressed to be addressed in a world where terrorism continues to strike cannot be isolated from the issue of mimetic rivalry and conflict—in fact, they can only be properly evaluated in that context.
Finally, I was able to speak, too briefly, with Susan Wright, the President of Theology and Peace, a Girardian organization that has been holding tremendous meetings every year in the United States. Many of their members are also COV&R members. We would like to explore ways that we might more closely collaborate with each other. It is a topic I look forward to exploring further.
I always love to hear from members. Please write me anytime – even just to let me know what you are up to.
COV&R Object: “To explore, criticize, and develop the mimetic model of the relationship between violence and religion in the genesis and maintenance of culture. The Colloquium will be concerned with questions of both research and application. Scholars from various fields and diverse theoretical orientations will be encouraged to participate both in the conferences and the publications sponsored by the Colloquium, but the focus of activity will be the relevance of the mimetic model for the study of religion.
Musings from the Executive Secretary
by Martha Reineke
I join President Jeremiah Alberg in expressing appreciation to Scott Cowdell, Chris Fleming, Joel Hodge, Carly Osborn, and Fatih Erol Tuncer for planning and hosting an outstanding annual conference at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. I am especially appreciative of the efforts made by the hosts to incorporate opportunities for reflection on mimetic theory into the plenary sessions. The resulting dialogues were always thoughtful and provocative of deep thinking.
I also want to acknowledge the sponsors, which include the faculty in theology and philosophy at Australian Catholic University and the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology at Charles Sturt University. Imitatio also provided key support, especially for travel grants for graduate students attending for the first time. The travel grants led to an unprecedented number of applicants, suggesting that a new generation of scholars find the topic of violence and religion of compelling interest and are intrigued by Girard’s analysis. The support of the Raven Foundation also was key to the success of the conference. The lecture by Professor Asma Afsaruddin on “Islam and Violence: Debunking Myths” is but one example of how the foundation played a critical role in creating outstanding opportunities for learning and reflection at the conference.
One of the great pleasures of our annual meetings is experiencing how the location of our conferences impacts our reflections on the conference theme. This year was no exception. Indeed, we were compelled to take notice of links between the topic and our location in the early minutes of the conference, when Scott Cowdell opened the conference with an “Acknowledgement of Country.” In his comments, Scott noted that the meeting was taking place in the Country of the traditional custodians of the land, the Wurundjeri people. He did so to pay respects to the First Peoples, who are recognized in Australia as the traditional custodians of the land. He acknowledged their hospitality not only to those who regularly reside on this land but also to those of us who had come to the conference as visitors from outside Australia. I too now take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank my hosts, the Wurundjeri, the Tjapukai, and the Anangu, in whose Country I was privileged to sojourn for over two weeks.
I could not help but notice how very differently my own President at the University of Northern Iowa had opened the COV&R conference in Iowa (a state named after the Ioway, a Native American tribe). UNI is less than forty miles from the Meskwaki Settlement, a community of Native Americans. Yet an Acknowledgement of Country is completely foreign to my experience! In Iowa and, indeed, across the USA, I have no regularized opportunities, such as an Acknowledgement of Country ceremony, to reflect on the relationship I have to native peoples, whose lands I now occupy. As I learned in conversation with Scott and with his wife, Lisa Carley, the Acknowledgement of Country with which our conference began is not unique to ACU. Rather, this acknowledgement is a feature of official events throughout Australia. As I learned from Naomi Wolfe, a member of the Wurundjeri people who followed Scott’s acknowledgement of Country with her own welcome, such ceremonies have been part of aboriginal culture for thousands of years. When crossing into another’s Country, permission is requested to visit, and the hosting group issues a welcome. This welcome is not just to Country as land; rather, it also is a welcome to the stories, cultures, and experiences of the peoples associated with the land.
This dialogue of recognition and reception, with which official events in Australia begin, does not undo the impact on the aboriginal peoples of hundreds of years of colonization. However, the Acknowledgement of Country is a powerful symbol that invites action: efforts at reconciliation that may lead to new conversations about land, economic, and social issues impacting the aboriginal peoples. The last plenary session of the conference, “Religion and Violence in Australian-Indigenous History” with Professors Frank Brennon and Kathleen Butler, Archbishop Philop Freier, and Ms. Wolfe, educated all of us in ways that violence shadows the relationship between the Christians who colonized Country and its First Peoples.
My own learning about aboriginal peoples continued during a post-conference trip that included a visit to Uluru. At Uluru I attended sessions hosted by members of the Anangu people, who have lived there for more than 22,000 years. I learned also about stories that are recorded on the walls of this mountain. One story is about Kuniya, the Python woman, and her defense of her nephew, Kuka Kuka, against the Poison Snake men. From a Girardian perspective, this story, which is about human conflict in animal form, discusses sacrifice, but from a place once removed, since the story is told from the perspective of animal participants. Not so with the “sensitive sites” on the other side of Uluru, where photography is forbidden lest the powerful energies located here transfer by way of photos elsewhere, transmitting danger to others. Here, the story of the Mala people’s encounter with the Mulga Seed men is told (I find myself thinking of the Sown Men of Ancient Greece). The Mala are in the midst of a special ceremony when the visitors arrive. They are invited by the visitors to go to a ceremony in the visitors’ own land. But they say they can’t go because of their own celebration. The Mulga are angry and work day and night to send spirits of anger and hatred against the Mala people. Some of the Mala people are killed in the battle: their bodies rest here still, sketched by the forces of nature into large patterns on the stone walls of Uluru. Girardians would recognize at this “sensitive site” an undisguised record of the origins of human society in conflict.
My sojourn in Australia, beginning with the conference on “Violence in the Name of Religion,” had a fitting end. On leaving Uluru, I looked out the plane window hoping to catch one final glimpse of the mountain. The last images I saw, as the plane rose in the air, were of the bodies of the murdered Mala, massively rendered in natural stone carvings, on the walls of Uluru. The powerful energies to which these marks attest are preserved only in my mind’s eye, there to inspire my continued reflections on violence and religion.
by Curtis Gruenler
Surprise! This Bulletin comes close on the heels of the last because we have decided to start publishing them quarterly. The reduced costs of online distribution make this possible, and the flexibility of the format makes it easier—though please bear with us if the publication schedule is also a little flexible. Most of all, it seems valuable for COV&R members to be in more regular communication about the business of the organization, events past and to come, and what is going on in the scholarship and application of mimetic theory.
The regular features of the Bulletin will remain the same but will be spread over four issues each year rather than two. The bibliography, for instance, will continue to appear twice a year, in November and May. We would like to have book reviews in each issue and to expand their coverage. To that end, I am very pleased to announce that Matthew Packer has agreed to serve as book review editor. If you are interested in reviewing a book, or would like to offer a book for review, please contact him. Please also see the list of books available for review. If you would like to write a film review, please see the film review guidelines.
A Request for Collaborators
Thomas Cousineau asked me to pass along this announcement about some work he is doing related to mimetic theory: “I have been working for several years on an online lecturing and writing project called ‘The Séance of Reading: Uncanny Designs in Modernist Writing,’ which appears now to be moving toward eventual completion. I would be especially grateful for feedback from Girardians on two particular aspects of this project: first, the convergence between Girard’s and Mircea Eliade’s theories of ritual sacrifice to which I refer; second, the main idea of the project itself, i.e., the uncanny way in which the protagonist’s role as the author’s designated victim is mimicked by the design of the work itself, which succeeds precisely where the protagonist has failed. Here is the link to this project.”
I am happy to use this space to relay similar requests. If it becomes popular, we could even make it a separate feature.
Summer School Report
In early July I had the pleasure of organizing and co-leading the first Mimetic Theory Summer School to be held in North America. A diverse group of seventeen participants, including undergraduates, graduate students, professors, clergy, an economist, and a social worker, gathered at Hope College for six days of studying René Girard’s first three books. Most were fairly new to mimetic theory. It was a joy to share in the labor of understanding and moments of discovery.
One participant, Rob Rixman, wrote afterwards, “The summer school challenged and grounded us spiritually and intellectually in mimetic theory. For me personally, as a twice-retired Christian minister, I entered the class somewhat saddened. My most recent work with troubled churches had revealed the need for a new way of teaching and practicing the Christian faith. Can mimetic theory fulfill that need? Most definitely! The intelligent and inspiring discussions opened up new ways of thinking and feeling about the quest for peace in a violent world. Girard’s anthropological and cross-disciplinary approach touches upon so many areas of life, and upon other faiths as well, that it was definitely renewing. For me as a Christian, upon hearing how mimetic theory is fulfilled in the teachings of the Bible, I became joyous. Like Cleopas and his friend after hearing Jesus on the road to Emmaus, ‘my heart burned.’ Indeed, I’ve experienced a ‘new birth from above.’”
And from one of the grad students, Elijah Null: “The Summer School was an incredible opportunity to engage Girard’s foundational texts in an intimate setting. Students brought their own academic and professional backgrounds to the conversation, making for a rich learning community. Our diverse perspectives illuminated the texts in different ways and ultimately created a much deeper and richer understanding of the implications of mimetic theory than any of us could’ve reached working through these texts independently. A week of delightful and challenging conversation and comradery around rigorous and profound texts!”
The sense of community that grew over six short days is a testament in my mind not just to the people but to the quality of shared interpretive work opened up by mimetic theory as a paradigm. I’m grateful to Imitatio for its financial support, to Trevor Merrill for his help in organizing, and to my co-leaders, Andrew McKenna and James Alison, for their insight and generosity.
COV&R 2017 Annual Meeting: Identity and Rivalry
July 12-15, Universidad Francisco de Vitoria, Madrid, Spain
The process to build identity follows different ways/paths: narrative, ritualistic, mythological, political, etc. Nationalisms, indigenisms, religious revivals, political and economic protests, crowd-based movements, the dynamics of identity have become more and more complex. Spain has been a country of cultures, rivalries, conflicts and fratricidal wars, but has been too homeland for great artists: Cervantes, Velázquez, Calderón de la Barca, Goya, García Lorca, Picasso… Their contributions to the understanding of human nature has been revolutionary. Girard’s predilection for Cervantes is well known.
We want to invite participants to explore the roots of identity, the ways rivalry takes to survive and to rise across the centuries as a force of destruction and foundation. Nowadays, Spain constitutes a privileged window to explore the possibilities and limits and the actual identity of our world.
The program is still in early stages of development. Below are preliminary lists of topics.
- Nationalisms: the inter-nation rivalry
- Spanish Civil War: memory and identity
- Indignados and other protester movements
- The construction of European identity: politics, culture and religion
- American identity from colonialism and empire to independence and revolution
- Identity, Religion and Communion: from Middle Age to Contemporary Age
- The European Identity after the BREXIT and the Refugees Crisis
- Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Spain and the Possibility of Peace
- Identity and the Mimetic Brain
- South American Identity
- Schwager Prize
- Nation, State and Identity
For more information, visit the conference website.
COV&R at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting
There will be three COV&R sessions at this year’s annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Antonio, Texas, November 19 – 22. All these sessions contribute to a year of tribute at the AAR to René Girard. We will celebrate Girard’s important legacy as we explore the significance of mimetic theory to the academic study of religion, theology, and biblical literature.
We are sponsoring with the Theology and Religious Reflection Section and the Sacred Texts, Theory, and Theological Construction Group a tribute session on the legacy of René Girard. A large number of outstanding proposals were received by the three sponsoring groups, creating an abundance of riches for our sessions at the AAR Meeting. Drawing on the wonderful set of proposals received for the tribute session, the second session sponsored by COV&R will feature papers which could not be part of the tri-sponsored session due to time constraints. We are thrilled that all of the authors have agreed to present their papers in another session. A final session of papers from the tribute session proposal process will be given at a COV&R session at the AAR Meeting in Boston in 2017. The visibility afforded to mimetic theory by the AAR Call for Papers has rained down on us a great bounty of engaging and important scholarship, enough for COV&R to share for two years at the AAR meetings!
About Session One:
Our first COV&R session will continue a well-established tradition: it will feature two books of significance to mimetic theory. The first panel will focus on the newly published (as of November) English translation of the René Girard and Raymund Schwager correspondence by Bloomsbury Press. Mid-way through this session, a second panel will discuss The Prophetic Law by Sandor Goodhart.
Theme: Book Session on René Girard and Mimetic Theory
Part I: Panel on “René Girard and Raymund Schwager: Correspondence 1974-1991
- Reflections on Translating the Correspondence – Chris Fleming, University of Wester Sydney
- Rene Girard and Raymund Schwager: Mimetic Theory and Christian Theology in Formative Dialogue – Mathias Moosbrugger, University of Innsbruck
- Key Themes in the Correspondence – Joel Hodge, Australian Catholic University
- Girard among the Theologians – Scott Cowdell, Charles Sturt University
Part II: Panel on Sandor Goodhart’s The Prophetic Law
- Rereading the Law: Looking for Forgiveness – Jeremiah Alberg, International Christian University
- The uniqueness of Jesus vis à vis Judaism – Scott Cowdell, Charles Sturt University
- Respondent: Sandor Goodhart, Purdue University
Saturday, Nov. 19, 9-11:30 am, El Mirador B East at the Hilton Palacio del Rio.
About Session Two:
Confirming the ongoing salience of mimetic theory, papers selected for the tri-sponsored session will introduce a general audience to the significance of Girard’s work and attest to the diverse ways Girard’s thought illuminates themes and issues in the study of religion.
Theme: René Girard: Religion and the Legacy of Mimetic Theory
- The Slow Apocalypse: What Sort of Difference Does Girard Make to How We Read Apocalyptic Biblical Texts? – Janice McRandal, Charles Sturt University
- “There are Many Antichrists”: Rene Girard, Ivan Illich, and Apocalyptic Criticism – Kevin L. Hughes, Villanova University
- Scapegoated: An Evaluation of the Theory of René Girard and the Role of Bodily Suffering and Disability in the Book of Job and Today – Leah Thomas, Drew University
- Police Violence against People of Color as Scapegoating Mechanism: René Girard, James Baldwin, and a Christian Theological Response – Jason Wyman, Union Theological Seminary
Saturday, November, 19- 4:00 PM-6:30 PM (Convention Center- 302B)
About Session Three:
The second COV&R session at the AAR will feature an additional set of papers that were submitted to the tribute session. The date/time/location of this session has yet to be set.
Theme: Further Reflections on René Girard, Religion, and the Legacy of Mimetic Theory
Sunday, Nov. 20, 3:30-5:30 pm, Conference Rm. 10, Marriott River Center.
- Disembodying Self-Knowledge: An Augustinian Criticism of Girardian Sacrifice – Joshua Nunziato, Villanova University
- The Violence of Identity: Using Mimetic Theory to Illuminate the Darkness of Human Origins – Chelsea King, University of Notre Dame
- Understanding Violence and Religion: René Girard’s Legacy for Political Theology and Studies of Violence – Joel Hodge, Australian Catholic University
- The Apologetic Legacy of René Girard – Grant Kaplan, St. Louis University
Report on the COV&R Conference 2016 in Melbourne, Australia
by Matthew Packer
COV&R this year gathered, as expected, with some sadness at the recent loss of René Girard but also with gratitude for his life and the example he set for so many people. Held for the first time in the Global South, in Melbourne, Australia, this twenty-sixth annual conference was an occasion, too, for optimism for the new era that COV&R is now entering. The Australians were brave in calling for a winter meeting downunder, a venue too distant for many members to attend, but their faith was rewarded with a strong turnout, which, along with the excellent speakers, lively discussions, meetings of friends old and new, and the warm hospitality at Australian Catholic University, all helped make for a very successful conference. In fact COV&R 2016 confirmed that the colloquium’s growth and presence in the southern hemisphere now make it a truly globa
l organization—a new world vine firmly established beyond its European and U.S. roots.
In what’s become an important tradition, Scott Cowdell opened with a refresher on mimetic theory, guiding a thoughtful conversation about recent MT developments, classic traps, and mimetic crises in current affairs. The session quickly brought us to some of the frontiers of MT, but it served as reminder that this annual get-together does call for a careful balance between welcoming fresh input and advancing the research conversation (to avoid treading over old ground)—a balance mostly, but not always, realized in the sessions and days that followed. Perhaps this “MT 101” could be leveraged even more in future, to provide at the start of the conference a few more clarified, current positions in mimetic theory. Or maybe the past year’s highlights could be included in a “State of the MT” address, to be given after the primer.
Next up, for the Raymund Schwager Memorial Lecture, William T. Cavanaugh spoke on the myth of religious violence, giving a fascinating and humorous talk on the shifting boundaries between the religious and the secular. Jean-Pierre Dupuy objected, during Q+A, that we already have, in Girard’s work, the concept of the sacred that provides in effect more critical torque than does the concept of religion. But respondent Petra Steinmair-Pösel insisted we ought, after Girard, to keep using “religion” not as an object but as a lens. And Cavanaugh had, after all, clearly shared in his (Girardian) conclusions that “there’s no society without religion, because without religion society cannot exist,” and that in the modern age, “we believe in reason much as people used to believe in the gods.”
Understandably, this year’s theme of “violence in the name of religion” meant several sessions devoted to questions about Islam, jihad, and violent extremism—which came with a tragic reminder Friday morning, when news broke of the massacre in Nice, an attack for which ISIS claimed responsibility but whose real motivations remain murky. Keynotes Greg Barton and Julian Droogan (who replaced Anne Aly) spoke that morning about the misconceptions surrounding Islam and the dubious attribution of religious motivation to so many recent terrorist attacks. “Radicalization” also, Droogan showed, explains little of what’s going on and probably masks the problem more than it helps anyone understand it. Both scholars presented compelling visual evidence of the vulnerable social situations and peer pressures that many rebellious, typically male youth face before turning to violence—mimetic pressures not having all that much to do with religious doctrine.
Not with quranic Islam, anyway, argued plenary speaker Asma Afsaruddin, who debunked some of the myths around Islam and violence the previous evening. Afsaruddin emphasized the abundant reference in the Quran to the mercy of Allah and that we ought to understand the “verse of the sword” (sura 9:5) as a defensive injunction for Muslims, not an incitement to violence against non-Muslims. Wolfgang Palaver noted militants often cite the first part of 9:5 but without the context of the merciful second part—and that a similarly fragmented use of the Bible has led to its use too as a weapon in mimetic rivalries. Regarding any question of going over old ground (2009’s COV&R conference addressed similar themes), Palaver added that mimetic theory has yet to really come to terms with this emergency. In one demonstration of what is partly a challenge for Christian–Muslim dialogue, Paul Dumouchel, responding to Afsaruddin, resisted what he called the “Christian temptation” to claim “turning the other cheek” as an ethical advance over Islam—that, based on Christianity’s track record, such a one-up would hardly be fair, let alone charitable.
In another plenary, Jean-Pierre Dupuy returned us to the territory of Battling to the End and the paradox of nuclear deterrence. Dupuy seemed to surprise some listeners, arguing, contra Girard, that a world without nuclear weapons would be a more dangerous place than the world we do have, with nuclear weapons. Sarah Bachelard conceded a certain logic here but also objected: relying on nuclear deterrence is infantilizing in a way, like outsourcing our own responsibilities for our actions, as well as a betrayal of our better impulses. Chris Fleming weighed in also, with
a funny and searching take on today’s increasing degradation of politics.
The final keynote session, fittingly, examined religion and violence in terms of Australian-Indigenous history. Speakers Frank Brennan, Kathleen Butler, Philip Freier, and Naomi Wolfe (who welcomed guests to Wurundjeri land) each shared insights into the long and troubled relationship between Aborigines and white Australians. Freier, especially, spoke of the mutual, mirror-like incomprehension and disregard between indigenous and settler cultures. But further consideration might have been given to the foundational role of violence in modern Australian society: a foundation whose legacy of injustice seems unlikely to disappear soon, and which surely warrants more Girardian attention.
Winners of the Raymund Schwager Memorial Essay Prize also captivated listeners, with impressive papers: Yevgen Galona (first place) spoke on the politics of victimhood in ecclesiastical discourse of the high medieval period. Elizabeth Culhane (second) explored the question, Are women of faith uniquely violent? And Lukasz Mudrak (third) looked at the correlation of Girard and Schwager’s thinking about the Holy Spirit. Of course, there were many more fine presentations given, on topics ranging across literature, film, colonization, education, and history, to name a few—an embarrassment of riches, really, and too much to do any justice here.
In closing the conference, at Saturday’s dinner tribute for Girard, Palaver and Jeremiah Alberg shared their reflections (following the many other recent eulogies) about what Girard meant for them personally and for COV&R: René stood apart from most academics, Palaver explained, because instead of respecting the boundaries of academic fields, he was “seeking answers to real questions.… Truth was more important for him than academic titles or world honors.” Alberg, similarly, acknowledged Girard’s humility and interest in listening for the truth: it was “ultimately his desire to hear…that has affected us, that makes us miss hearing him, but also makes us want to listen to each other, to the voices of literature and to hear the word of God. This desire lives on in us. It constitutes the very identity of this group and so we are deeply, deeply grateful for his life.”
We can also be thankful to Scott Cowdell, Joel Hodge, Carly Osborn, Chris Fleming and Fatih Erol Tuncer, for organizing and hosting a fine conference; grateful, too, for the support of ACU, Charles Sturt University, the Raven Foundation, and Imitatio.
Mimetic Theory and Islam
by Sheelah Treflé Hidden
In May of this year, the second “Mimetic Theory and Islam” conference was held in the beautiful city of Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps. This meeting was the continuation of an initiative of Wolfgang Palaver, the first gathering having taken place at Heythrop College of the University of London in 2013.
Adnane Mokrani, a Muslim scholar living in Rome, opened the conference with a paper entitled “What has Girard to tell a Muslim?” He began by stating that Girard attributed to religion a social role of pacification and control of human violence, adding that this assertion is in total contradiction with the assumption that religions in general, and Islam in particular, are factors of violence. Mokrani then outlined three elements that might hinder an entirely nonviolent awareness amongst Muslims: first, the birth of Islam in a tribal context marked by mimetic rivalry, in which the obvious scapegoating of the Prophet Muḥammad by his own tribe the Quraysh united the warring Arab tribes from a conflict of all-against-all to that of all-against-one; second, the element of triumphalism in contemporary Islam, an “imperialism without empire” which has become the pride of the oppressed, a means of recovering a humiliated dignity; and finally, the theological difficulties for Muslims concerning Christ’s death and resurrection, a difficulty he suggested might be resolved by a metaphorical reading.
Wilhelm Guggenberger, Professor of Theology at the University of Innsbruck, responded to this paper by defining the Girardian role of religion rather more broadly. “All religion is a tool to control human violence. But what is called archaic or sacrificial religion in Girard is the taming of violence by violent means, in particular by scapegoat-rituals. What on the other hand is called revelation in the Abrahamic religions uncovers the common root of violence tending to escalation and violence-taming through bloody rituals.” He also noted that the element of triumphalism referred to in Mokrani’s paper is not exclusively an Islamic attribute and cited the history of the Crusades as an example of triumphalism and regression to the archaic sacred in Christianity. Guggenberger agreed with the two parallels drawn between Muslim and Christian tradition with regard to mimetic theory in Mokrani’s presentation: the parallel between the histories of our religious communities, and the parallel between the life and fate of Muhammad and his family, and the life and fate of Jesus. He concluded by quoting the theologian Raymund Schwager, who insisted that the death and resurrection of Jesus could not be read metaphorically, the historicity of the empty tomb being the only real proof of God’s siding with the victim.
On a very different topic, Thomas Scheffler, of Beirut and Berlin, contributed a paper entitled “Islam and Islamism in the Mirror of Girard’s Mimetic Theory.” Scheffler observed that discussing Girard’s view of Islam is a demanding challenge: Girard didn’t leave us a systematic treatise on Islam. His scattered comments on Islam-related topics are few and were mainly published after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, that is, at a rather late phase of Girard’s work. In addition, most of these statements were uttered in the context of interviews in which Girard focused more on contemporary Islamist radicalism than on Islam in its entirety. Scheffler concluded that it remains an open question whether the historic egalitarian-democratic shift towards increasing “internal mediation,” the troublesome “proximity of the mediator” in a revolutionary Middle East, will end up in an “apocalypse” in the Girardian sense. He commented that it certainly implies that violent conflicts between multiplying “twins” will not stop anytime soon and will need a culture (and attractive models) of untiring negotiation and bridge-building in order to postpone the catastrophe to a later day.
In an excellent response to this paper, Benoìt Chantre, a Girardian scholar from Paris, explained that it is the fundamentally bellicose dimension of Islam that Girard—a non-violent thinker—did not hesitate to define, in Achever Clausewitz, as “a return of the archaic mixed with Judeo-Christian elements.” Jihadism would then be an unbridled violence seeking religious justifications in the Muslim tradition. “It is possible to come up with strong arguments against the thesis of Achever Clausewitz. It is possible to resist René Girard’s pessimism. But the resistance itself underscores the strength of his insights. I thus welcome you, dear Thomas Scheffler, into the community of Girardians who would like for Girard himself to have been mistaken.”
Michel Cuypers, a Belgian Qur’anic scholar living in Cairo, contributed “From Structure to Interpretation of the Joseph Sura.” In this fascinating paper, Cuypers explained that the Joseph sura demonstrates “the unfathomable guidance of God in human affairs” in that it illustrates very precisely how the role and itinerary of the prophet Joseph, as a herald of monotheism, is a perfect example and a figure of Muhammad. Much of Cuypers’s paper explained the use of Semitic rhetoric in the structure of the text of the Qur’an, which he arrived at by applying to the Qur’anic text the different rules and characteristics of Semitic rhetoric first rediscovered by biblical scholars.
Professor Sandor Goodhart enquired if this rhetorical structure contributed to an understanding of the text, to which Cuypers responded, “Semitic rhetoric is a tool that exegesis employs to reach the meaning of the text, and therefore its interpretation. Semitic rhetoric describes the composition of the text as the author (or the scribe) willed to signify a meaning. The goal of any exegesis is to understand the meaning of the text. The general idea is that the meaning of a verse or of a member should be sought according to the symmetrical rapports it has with one or several verses or members within the same rhetorical unity.”
A great deal of discussion was stimulated by these papers as well as all the other contributions which followed from scholars from Europe, the United States, the Middle East and Iran.
- Zekirija Sejdini of Innsbruck, “The Islamic Anthropology Based on Key Passages in the Qu’ran,” with a response by Michael Kirwan;
- Michaela Neulinger of Innsbruck, “The Becoming of a Model: Conflictive relations and the shaping of the Qur’anic Ibrahim,” response by Cenap Aydin;
- Sandor Goodhart of Purdue, “Fathers and Sons, Sacrifice and Substitution: Mimetic Theory and Islam in Genesis 22 and Surah 37,” response by Damian Howard of Heythrop College;
- Ahmad Achtar of Heythrop College, London, “Adam and Eve in the Qur’an: A Mimetic perspective,” response by Petra Steinmair-Pösel, Innsbruck and Vienna;
- Jean Pierre Dupuy of Stanford and Paris, “It’s the Sacred, Stupid! Not the Qur’an,” with a response by Yaniss Warrach a Muslim prison chaplain from France;
- Rüdiger Lohiker from Vienna, “On the Theology of Violence: ISIS,” response by Hüseyin Cicek of Erlangen;
- Habibullah Babaie from the Academy of Islamic Science and Culture in Qom, Iran, “Love and Suffering For: Considering René Girard’s Theory from a Shi’i Perspective,” with a response from Józef Niewiadomski of Innsbruck;
- John Tolan from France, “Reformer and Visionary: The European Enlightenment Reinvents the Prophet Muhammad” with a response by Roman Siebenrock of Innsbruck.
Differences of thought and opinion on many aspects of the topic were very much in evidence. In responding to Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s excellent paper on sacrifice and regression to the archaic sacred, Yaniss Warrach spoke out of his experience as a Muslim prison chaplain in the Paris region, with firsthand knowledge of arrested terrorists and their radicalization. He differed with Dupuy’s reading that the terrorists thought to bring back the golden age of Islam during the Abbasid era and felt nostalgia for a triumphant Islam entirely dominating the Middle Ages. He did not consider that Western hegemony aroused morbid jealousy among the terrorists who actually qualify Western culture as decadent and perverse or diabolical.
Concentrating on the issue of martyrdom and anti-martyrs in Islam, Warrach asserted that, “in the case of the terrorists, we were faced with men who chose to kill themselves, who knew they were going to die, who chose instead of God, who stole God’s privilege, who acted as God in God’s place.” This he described as idolatry. He then addressed the issue of jihad and anti-jihad, seen in Islam primarily in a moral or ontological sense before having a military sense: “Yet the terrorists didn’t share this viewpoint.” He continued, “We are faced with men who think of themselves as being actors in an Apocalypse, who are convinced that we had reached the end of time. The vast majority of Muslims around the world still have an idealized representation of the caliphate, despite the fact that this Caliphate, historically speaking, lasted for only 30 years. They should therefore legitimately question the reason for this failure, as did the Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Abed al-Jabri in his ‘critique of Arab reason.’ Unfortunately, as frequently occurs in times of trouble, we were faced with terrorists who preached blind faith rather than critical thinking.”
Habibullah Babaei, from Academy of Islamic Science and Culture, contrasted the mutual service theory of Mohammad Hussein Tabatabei with the thought of René Girard. The key idea from his title, suffering for (for the sake of human dignity), instances of which can be found in the history of martyrs in religions, constitutes a form of instructive suffering, and the memory of this suffering can be constructive for the human community as well. In contrast, both purposeless suffering from without suffering for and suffering for one’s own individual advantage and not for others are destructive of human relationships. He concluded that “the scapegoating process is in fact controlling of violence by violence, social suffering by individual suffering, and a big war by a small war. But based on a Shi‘i approach, spiritual love and sacred affection in the social process might be valuable alternative for what is declared by Rene Girard.”
Professor Jozef Niewiadomski of the University of Innsbruck, responding, saw a great similarity and a big difference between Professor Babaei and himself in their ways of reading mimetic theory. Where it says in the Qur’an “Do not covet the advantage which Allah has given some of you over others. … Ask Allah for His grace,” Babaei applied this to the ways in which mimetic desire has been considered in the Qur’an. Niewiadomski also saw in the great similarity between Tabatabei’s School and the theology based on mimetic theory some first steps towards finding a solution. However, where Babaei had wondered how to comprehend Girard’s “insistence on a scapegoat that must be killed,” there is no need to understand Girard’s theory as “a normative approach to recommend an ultimate scapegoat for achieving peace and unity.” Niewiadomski continued with a very comprehensive reading of how Girard also takes a clear stand against sacrificial Christianity, which simply identifies scapegoating, “suffering from” and “suffering for,” with God’s will. Girard saw this as backsliding into pagan logic. He therefore saw in Jesus the scapegoat: in the terms of Babaei’s thinking, Jesus was the man, who “suffered from.” Girard refused to see Jesus as a sacrifice.
The meeting was remarkable in many aspects. We Girardians, used to expounding at conferences on many and varied aspects of mimetic theory, listened and learned. The effect of developing friendships proved to be a very powerful element in the dialogue that ensued, the conversation being constantly honest and forthright. Each of the speakers spoke frankly from his or her own tradition, consequently, no inoffensive, beige middle ground was sought nor offered.
In his summary of the conference, James Alison observed that we had consistently been treated to what were, by any standards, world-class papers. He went on to suggest that it might be interesting to look at a mimetic analysis of modern subjectivity, which was much discussed after Ahmad Achtar’s paper as a topic which permeated the thought of Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb saw this phenomenon as an insidious and destructive force which could eventually destroy Islamic culture. Alison commented that modern subjectivity is a challenge for us all, both outside and within the Islamic world.
Many congratulations to Wolfgang Palaver.
Raven at 10 Announcement
A Unique Opportunity for Undergraduates
The Raven Foundation is observing its 10th Anniversary in January 2017. To mark that milestone Raven has partnered with COV&R to create a contest especially for use in undergraduate courses.
The Contest has been designed as a tool to generate excitement for mimetic theory, spark creativity, and deepen student connections to the global mimetic theory community.
This is a rare opportunity for undergraduates to be recognized by an international academic research organization. Among other prizes, student participants in the contest will receive a certificate of recognition from the Colloquium. For more details, visit the Contest page at the Raven Foundation website.
We hope that you will make use of the Contest in your fall classes. November 4, 2016 will mark one year since the death of René Girard. A wonderful way to honor his legacy is to encourage the same spirit of honest inquiry and daring innovation in your students.
Registration is open so you can register your class today. Simply click on the link at the bottom of the page and fill out the form with your contact information. After registering you will receive complete details about the Contest including rules, deadlines and prizes.
by Matthew Packer
Carly Osborn, The Theory of René Girard. Australian Girard Seminar, 2016. 14 x 15cm; 45 pages. Click here for ordering information.
For those new to mimetic theory, Australian COV&R member Carly Osborn has just published a very helpful and “very simple introduction” called The Theory of René Girard. In this booklet of “philosophy with stick figures,” Osborn does an admirable job of explaining the basics of Girard’s theory for those who mightn’t be ready to delve into a serious academic text. “I wrote it,” she says, “because I wanted a little book I could leave on my coffee table that my friends could pick up, flick through, and get a basic idea from.” Because of its smart combination of elements, the book succeeds on a number of levels. Osborn is well versed in Girard’s work, ably condensing its main elements into brief but insightful chapters, including those on mimetic desire, mimetic crisis, the scapegoat, rituals and myths, violence and apocalypse, and an FAQ section. She emphasizes the crucial difference between external and internal mediation, and has an ear for a fitting idiom: myths, she notes, don’t let truth get in the way of a ‘good’ story. Osborn also is a talented illustrator, and her stick figures balance the serious subject with the instant humor and emotion that perhaps only a good cartoon can provide. The Theory of René Girard fills a niche for a quick primer, and should find a wide audience.