On this day after the announcement that Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy Seals, we collect reactions from religion scholars and journalists, including Jeremy Walton, Noah Jaffe Silverman and Brigitte Sion.
Late last night, on a return flight from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion biannual meetings, I was stirred from my sleep by an announcement from the cockpit: “Some uplifting political news—we’ve just learned that Osama bin Laden has been killed. It’s a great day to be an American.” Those passengers who remained awake broke into spontaneous applause and cheers, a celebratory scene that achieved quick replication in bars, dormitories, police precincts, living rooms and, most notably, outside of the White House and at Ground Zero in New York.
I did not join my fellow passengers in applause, and a curious emotion, some synthesis of chagrin, cynicism, and grief, gripped me in response. As a scholar of religion and Islam in particular, I have necessarily spent much of the past decade attempting to complicate many of my friends’ and acquaintances’ Manichean views of Islam. In the echoes of jubilation that greeted President Obama’s announcement of Bin Laden’s death, I was only able to hear the failure of all efforts to explain the complexities and contradictions of the political processes that produced and continue to animate violent transnational jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda.
I do not mean to denigrate the persistent grief of the families of 9/11 victims, or, for that matter, the pain that countless Americans continue to experience when they recall or witness the indelible images of that infamous Tuesday morning. But make no mistake: last night’s celebrators, and all those whom they represent, have no comprehension of the political history, quotidian violence, and post-colonial frustration over increasing global inequities—to gesture to but a few factors—that made Osama bin Laden and his network possible. Political theorist Mahmood Mamdani, for one, has vigorously argued that a reckoning of the American role in the creation of jihadist violence during the Cold War is indispensable to understanding al-Qaeda itself. Acknowledgement of this neglected political history is even more crucial in the wake of bin Laden’s death.
Clearly, most of the American public concurred with the pilot on my flight last night—bin Laden’s killing is cause for national pride. I beg to differ. Rather than pride, we should greet today’s headlines as an opportunity to interrogate the relationship between public ignorance of the logics of jihadi violence and the global reach of American political projects. It is clear to me, at any rate, that American power in south Asia, the Middle East, and across the globe leans directly on the inability of most Americans to conceive of this power, much less sympathize with its victims. So, no, I am not celebrating today. Nor should any of us celebrate the perpetuation of misunderstanding and ignorance that joy over bin Laden’s killing marks.
Jeremy F. Walton is Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Religious Studies Program at New York University.
I think it’s a complicated day for people who feel that the struggle of our time is not primarily a military one against individual people or organizations (although it is also that), but a struggle to articulate values that allow people everywhere to live with equal human dignity.
Not surprisingly, Christian leaders are articulating an ethical response well. Thanks to Frankie Fredericks, Paul Raushenbush, and, now, Brian McLaren:
“As you talk about this news, I hope you will consider how your response can counter rather than reinforce the cycles of violence that spin around us. And please God, help us bring healing beauty to the ugliness of violence in whatever small way we can.”
Noah Jaffe Silverman is a graduate student in the Religious Studies Program, NYU.
by Brigitte Sion
“What’s going on at Ground Zero right now, anyone know?” posted a friend on Facebook at about midnight on Sunday. I bet her that there would be nothing. Late Sunday night? Financial district? Construction site? And the mother of all arguments, “Look, in DC they went to the White House, not to the Pentagon. You can’t go to a cemetery to party.” I logged out.
At 6:30 on Monday morning, another Facebook friend posted the following: “Back home from being at Ground Zero where the Bin Laden death celebrations were…” I asked for more details. Patriotic celebration, peaceniks, drunken college students, a handful of people with candles, passers-by.
Ground Zero remains this blurry place of pilgrimage and tourism, mourning and celebration, patriotism and commoditization.
Brigitte Sion is assistant professor/faculty fellow in Religious Studies and Journalism, NYU