Religious Identification and the Framing of Terrorism



3 comments
 (The following is a guest post from Caitlin Carenen, Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Connecticut State University and author of the highly acclaimed, myth-busting study, The Fervent Embrace: Liberal Protestants, Evangelicals, and Israel.  Caitlin is now working on a book about religious responses to terrorism.) 

Walking through the West Bank town of Bethlehem many years ago, I was struck by the immense amount of graffiti covering the security wall on the Palestinian side. Most of it was in English and clearly directed to English-speaking tourists, NGO workers, and non-Palestinians in general. Much of

it drew comparisons to the infamous Nazi death camps (“arbeit mach frei” “welcome to Auschwitz” and the like) and was clearly intended to be provocative. What got my attention, however, was less the provocative nature of the graffiti but rather the fact that it was written in English. As historians reviewing primary sources, we always interrogate our sources in considering their intended audience and I realized, slowly and perhaps dimwittedly, that I was, in fact, the intended audience. This was confirmed every time I took a taxi ride in the West Bank and was informed by my drivers that I needed to return to the United States and tell Americans what I’d seen behind the wall. The Palestinians I spoke with wanted Americans to see them as the oppressed and the Israelis as the oppressors.
A few months later I watched a movie, The Devil’s Own, starring Brad Pitt as an IRA terrorist living in the U.S. and trying to raise funds for anti-British militant campaigns. The story line involved a do-gooder cop, played by Harrison Ford, who discovers what Pitt’s character is up to and tries to stop him. Yet Pitt’s Irish character was clearly intended to be sympathetic. He was handsome, likeable, and had integrated himself well into his host family and by the end of the film; the audience

couldn’t help but cheer for his attempted escape. I began to think, as the credits rolled, about how Americans view terrorism. What role do religion and ethnicity play in how we shape our popular and political responses to terrorism? We know that a large Irish-American Catholic constituency exists in the United States and has exercised considerable political clout in our approach to the conflict in Northern Ireland and we also know that a significant Jewish-American constituency works to shape American policy toward Israel and the Palestinian conflict. In the name of “Freedom Fighting” the IRA (and its many variations) and the PLO (and its branches) have committed acts of terrorism that have killed and wounded civilians, yet Americans tend to be more sympathetic to the Irish “freedom-fighting” cause. Is it a question of religious sympathies or religious hostilities, common ethnic ties, or the ethnic “other”? Later that year, back in the States, I had a conversation about this with an educated non-academic and posed the question: why do so many Americans tend to view Palestinians as terrorists, but not the Irish? The response startled me into my next research project: “Because they didn’t bomb us on 9/11.”

Taking a historical approach to this question of how religion and ethnicity shape American popular and policy responses to terrorism led me to focus on the 1970s as a decade in which the PLO and the IRA actively engaged in acts of terrorism; so much so that by 1977 the overwhelming majority of Americans (90%) considered terrorism “a very serious problem.” After some preliminary research, I presented a paper on the topic at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University in England. I examined public opinion polls, scholarly analysis of terrorism in the 1970s, newspaper coverage reports, and religious journals. Ultimately I argued that US policy very slowly shifted in favor of supporting a Palestinian state and recognizing the PLO from necessity, not from sympathy. Despite widespread American anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim bias, the Oil Embargo of 1973 necessitated a moderated foreign policy in the Middle East. Conversely, American foreign policy shifted in favor of moderating a peace in Northern Ireland out of sympathy for the plight of Irish Catholics, not out of economic or geo-political necessity (in fact, despite it).
I discovered that this occurred for two primary reasons. First, Americans in numbers and in cultural affinities identified more readily with Irish Catholics than Palestinian Muslims—the “socio-religious link”—despite the decidedly secular and socialist political goals of both Northern Irish Catholics and Palestinian leadership. Americans consistently viewed the conflict in Northern Ireland as a religious war, while the Sunday school literature for four of the largest Protestant denominations in the U.S. helped “otherize” Arabs by implying that Muslims were “the most excluded of the deity’s descendants.” In the 1970s, most Americans still identified themselves as Christian, were familiar with the idea of a “Judeo-Christian tradition,” and tended to view Muslims as “anti-Christian.” Second, Palestinian Americans had little organized lobbying power. The U.S. Census did not even track “Arab Americans” until 1980, and even then, their numbers were small compared to those who identified themselves as “Irish-American.” Moreover, the Palestinians conducted a fairly unsophisticated public relations campaign that was no match for the Jewish-American lobby efforts and a general widespread support for Israel among most Americans, or the widespread support among America’s Irish Catholics for the republican cause. I received an enthusiastic response to the paper and after the presentation a scholar suggested I might want to consider using the African National Congress as my third case study in order to incorporate the Irish-American, Palestinian/Arab-American, Jewish-American and African-American perspective into a single project.
Moving forward, I am eager to learn what our blog-readers think of the project in general and questions/sources/archives to explore. Specifically, what do you think of integrating religious identity into a study of popular and policy responses to terrorism in the 1970s? Is it possible or feasible to link these issues? As a historian who works on the relationships between religion and foreign policy, this question intrigues me the most and I hope the project can provide some answers in understanding, at least historically, how religious identification has shaped our response to terrorism.

3 comments:

Elizabeth at: June 24, 2013 at 6:14 AM said...

If you are not familiar with this text, you might want to look at it: http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Peoples-Covenant-Africa-Israel/dp/080142755X/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_nC?ie=UTF8&colid=3DUSNWN74K4G2&coliid=I1WJB6Q0ZXVB7I This would focus more on the theological underpinnings in all three contexts, but because the United States is also shaped by a land theology, a narrative of exodus and conquest, it seems to me that anytime the frame connects the US settler narrative with another settler narrative, it drives down deep a cultural affinity. Which makes it all the more interesting when the settler narrative DOESN'T work, and we turn against, say, the Ulster-Scot and Afrikaaner arguments.

Also, I generally agree with your premise, but I think that after 9-11, all organizations using armed resistance found it more difficult to frame their cause as "freedom fighting." This, at least, is my sense in talking with some folks in Northern Ireland. The IRA and Sinn Fein are well noted (and in some camps resented) for their highly sophisticated public relations work, but even they found it difficult to win sympathy for armed resistance after 9-11.

Still, I think that racial, cultural and religious bias most definitely plays into why Americans romanticize the IRA but vilify the PLO. Throwing the ANC in there is a good way to test the thesis--at what point did Americans sympathize with them, and how many really did? I was too young to be an activist in the 80s, but probably therefore representative of the general public in terms of awareness of Apartheid, and basically, I started to care when rock stars started to sing about it and boycott it. So, was US sympathy to the ANC in the general public more a result of white US and UK public figures calling attention to Apartheid? How big of a role did the US churches play in constructing a religious argument for divesting from Apartheid? As (mostly white) churches in the US now seek to divest from the Israeli occupation, what arguments are they using to persuade those in the pews?

If you are not already aware of the Kairos South Africa, Kairos Palestine and Kairos USA documents, you might look at those, as they dig into the theology. The Kairos USA document draws on the previous ones but understands itself to be the response of the complicit rather than the cry of the oppressed. So, it makes a theological argument for why people with strong cultural and theological affinities to the zionist narrative should listen to the Palestinian voices.
http://www.kairosusa.org
http://www.kairospalestine.ps/sites/default/Documents/English.pdf
http://kairossouthernafrica.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/the-south-africa-kairos-document-1985/

Hopefully, some of this is helpful!
best,
Elizabeth Corrie
Candler School of Theology


Elizabeth at: June 24, 2013 at 6:16 AM said...

If you are not familiar with this text, you might want to look at it: http://www.amazon.com/Gods-Peoples-Covenant-Africa-Israel/dp/080142755X/ref=wl_it_dp_o_pC_nS_nC?ie=UTF8&colid=3DUSNWN74K4G2&coliid=I1WJB6Q0ZXVB7I This would focus more on the theological underpinnings in all three contexts, but because the United States is also shaped by a land theology, a narrative of exodus and conquest, it seems to me that anytime the frame connects the US settler narrative with another settler narrative, it drives down deep a cultural affinity. Which makes it all the more interesting when the settler narrative DOESN'T work, and we turn against, say, the Ulster-Scot and Afrikaaner arguments.

Also, I generally agree with your premise, but I think that after 9-11, all organizations using armed resistance found it more difficult to frame their cause as "freedom fighting." This, at least, is my sense in talking with some folks in Northern Ireland. The IRA and Sinn Fein are well noted (and in some camps resented) for their highly sophisticated public relations work, but even they found it difficult to win sympathy for armed resistance after 9-11.

Still, I think that racial, cultural and religious bias most definitely plays into why Americans romanticize the IRA but vilify the PLO. Throwing the ANC in there is a good way to test the thesis--at what point did Americans sympathize with them, and how many really did? I was too young to be an activist in the 80s, but probably therefore representative of the general public in terms of awareness of Apartheid, and basically, I started to care when rock stars started to sing about it and boycott it. So, was US sympathy to the ANC in the general public more a result of white US and UK public figures calling attention to Apartheid? How big of a role did the US churches play in constructing a religious argument for divesting from Apartheid? As (mostly white) churches in the US now seek to divest from the Israeli occupation, what arguments are they using to persuade those in the pews?

If you are not already aware of the Kairos South Africa, Kairos Palestine and Kairos USA documents, you might look at those, as they dig into the theology. The Kairos USA document draws on the previous ones but understands itself to be the response of the complicit rather than the cry of the oppressed. So, it makes a theological argument for why people with strong cultural and theological affinities to the zionist narrative should listen to the Palestinian voices.
http://www.kairosusa.org
http://www.kairospalestine.ps/sites/default/Documents/English.pdf
http://kairossouthernafrica.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/the-south-africa-kairos-document-1985/

Hopefully, some of this is helpful!
best,
Elizabeth Corrie
Candler School of Theology

Caitlin Carenen at: June 25, 2013 at 5:31 AM said...

Thanks very much Elizabeth--this is incredibly helpful! Great stuff to digest.

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