Monday, August 13, 2007

Girard on Islam and Mimetic Desire

(Image from Wikipedia)

In yesterday's entry, I noted a question posed to René Girard by Nathan Gardels of New Perspectives Quarterly:
NPQ: Is Christianity superior to other religions?
Girard replied "Yes," prompting Jessica, one of my long-term readers, to pose a query:
How, then, is Christianity superior to Islam, might he argue?
I replied:
Not having read much of Girard, I don't know, but I'm guessing that he would argue that Islam lacks the necessary sacrifice of the willing, innocent victim who forgives those sacrificing him, a renunciation of vengeance that breaks the cycle of sacred violence.

In other words, because Christianity is Christianity, but Islam isn't.

That's my guess.
My guess was a bit off, it seems. In an interview by Henri Tincq, for Le Monde, November 6, 2001 (translated by Jim Williams, former Executive Secretary of COV&R), Girard responds to a question about Islam and violence:
Henri Tincq: What do you think of the fascination for sacrifice of the kamikazes of Islam? If Christianity is the sacrifice of the innocent victim, would you go as far to say that Islam is the permission to offer sacrifice and Islam is a sacrificial religion, in which one finds also that notion of "model" which is at the heart of your mimetic theory?

René Girard: Islam maintains a relation to death that convinces me that this religion has nothing to do with archaic myths .... The mystical relation of Islam with death makes it even more mysterious to us. At first, Americans took these Muslim kamikazes [of 9/11] for "cowards," but, very quickly, they began to see them differently. The mystery of their suicide thickens the mystery of their terrorist act.

Yes, Islam is a religion of sacrifice in which we find also the theory of mimetic rivalry and the model. The candidates for the act of suicide are not lacking when terrorism seems to fail. Imagine, then, what is happening now when -- if I dare say -- it has succeeded. It is evident that in the Muslim world, the kamikaze terrorists embody models of saintliness.
Girard seems to be arguing that Islam takes the archaic myth and reworks it in a way differently than Christianity did, for he continues:
[I]n Christianity the martyr does not die in order to be copied. The Christian can be moved to pity over him, but he does not desire to die like him. He is suspicious of it, even. The martyr is for Christians a model to accompany them but not a model for throwing oneself into the fire with him. In Islam it's different. You die as a martyr in order to be copied and thus manifest a project of transforming the world politically.
Yet, he also sees some parallels to the Christian concept of sacrifice in Muslim tradition:
[Christian passion] narratives announce the cross, the death of the innocent victim, the victory over all the sacrificial myths of antiquity.

Is it so different in Islam? Islam has also formidable prophetic insights about the relation between the crowd, the myths, victims, and sacrifice. In the Muslim tradition, the ram Abel sacrificed is the same as the one God sent to Abraham so that he could spare his son. Because Abel sacrificed rams, he did not kill his brother. Because Cain did not sacrifice animals, he killed his brother. In other words, the sacrificial animal avoids the murder of the brother and the son. That is, it furnishes an outlet for violence. Thus Mohammed had insights which are on the plane of certain great Jewish prophets, but at the same time we find a concern for antagonism and separation from Judaism and Christianity that may negate our interpretation.
Girard thus sees some elements in Islam that would allow for a sublimation of the archaic violence reproduced by mimetic desire, that pattern of rivalry founded in envy and jealousy that must be sublimated if society is to overcome violence. Yet ... Girard has some doubts, and perhaps sees Islam, in its "antagonism and separation from Judaism and Christianity," as a religion of mimetic desire writ large. Very large.

For the record, I located an online paper by Madaleine Sorkin -- a Colorado College student who participated in the 2004 Senior Seminar held by the Department of Religion -- that applies the Girardean theory of mimetic desire to 9/11: "Al-Qaeda’s Defining Moment: The Prominence of the Scapegoat Strategy."

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At 7:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Deep subject:
The original suicide bombers in the modern era were Tamils i.e. Hindus. Prior to that you had the martyrs of the 1916 Easter _rising_ Irish Catholics mostly. Fasting to death on your enemies doorstep was an ancient Gaelic custom which proved effective in Northern Ireland. Animal sacrifice is still practiced in Hinduism. There is nothing peculiar to Judaism or Islam about sacrifice. What is unique, and I think this may the core of Girard's insight, is that the redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the cross is the ultimate one. Only those who have this faith in full can avoid the natural tendency to scapegoat what becomes seen as the source of contagion that must be destroyed. Powerful as this insight is I personally feel that other religions have the power to avoid that scandal using other 'mechanisms'. The Bhagavad Gita has the theme of sacrifice in it also.

At 8:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, thanks for the comment. I'd need to read more of Girard before I'd know what he thinks of the other world religions. Clearly, he thinks that Judaism has the ability to transcend mimetic violence, and he suggests that Islam can, so perhaps he sees the possibility in other religions as well.

Nevertheless, whatever the parallels or differences, Islam presents us with a profound puzzle, namely, the widespread use of and approval for suicide bombings. This begs for an explanation.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be superior because it shows a more advanced (?) model of the Greek pharmakos: not a greater understanding of morality? That would have been nice. Sometimes I think that religious views are so complex I wonder if the faithful really understand them. No wonder that simple-minded fundamentalism wins the day.

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The connection between sacrifice and ethics is rather obscure, isn't it?

The term "pharmakos" is one of those fascinating words -- like "potion" and even "Gift" -- that can mean both "medicine" and "poison."

Marcel Mauss makes much of this fact in his book The Gift.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:03 AM, Blogger Jim Baxter said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jim Baxter, your 36k comment has been deleted for its obvious lack of relevance to the post. Please keep all comments concise and to the point.

Jeffery Hodges

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