The Ritual of Provocation I – Burn, burn the Quran

The recent Quran burning has caused a lot of upheaval in Afghanistan. According to some a senseless act, according to others proof that Islam is a violent religion. Of course it is neither. If Islam was such a violent religion there would be more protests everywhere Muslims live. That is not the case; the riots are in Afghanistan. Not in New York, Cairo or Jakarta. It is also not senseless. The same can be said for Wilders’ movie Fitna and its sequal Fitna II, that (as he announced last week) will be released next year and will focus on ‘the barbaous life of the sick spirit of Mohammed‘ in order to stimulate a public debate on the prophet Muhammad that will leave Muslims with enough reasons to leave Islam. Announcing the film already should be seen against the background of the current (re-)trial of Geert Wilders. Last time the announcement caused severe unrest in the Netherlands but the reactions after the release were very mild, contrary to the current reactions in Afghanistan on the Quran burning. In a series of three posts I will try to think out loud about the use and meaning of such public performances by political entrepeneurs.

According to some Islamic traditions it is allowed (with certain conditions) to burn the Quran in order to dispose copies that are unusable, damaged and so on. The burning itself therefore is not necessarily an act of sacrilege. What matters of course is the intention with which this done that becomes clear when we look at the Quran burning by pastor Jones as a media event that fits into a particular pattern and that can be analyzed as ritual. Like the Muhammad Cartoons, the Dutch films Submission and Fitna, the Quran burning can be seen as part of a similar set of adversarial rituals creating, expressing, and validating an opposition between the self and a dangerous, irrational, foreign and violent other. They are actions with a particular performative regularity that serve to maintain, accommodate or mobilize deeply held collective sentiments, solidarities, values and imageries on the basis of a symbolic and subjunctive orientation to what is and what should be, while obscuring challenging alternatives. The emergence of this type of political rituals occurs in a social and political context wherein the debates about religion in the public sphere are changing and in wherein the debates about Islam follow a particular kind of cultural essentialist logic.

The cartoonsaffair, the films and pastor Terry Jones’ anti-islam message seem to work through a standard set of symbolic actions that can act (or are feared as such) as igniting violence. These can be seen as rituals of provocation defined by Gaborieau (1985) as ‘codified procedures’ of deliberate disrespect, desecration, blasphemy, or violation of sacred or symbolically charged spaces, times, or objects in which first a selection is made of key symbols representing each community and as a second step the means by which symbols may be most effectively desecrated is chosen. Fitna and Submission and many similar films on the Internet or the Danish cartoons contain images towards the prophet Muhammad, the Quran and the position of women in Islam. The film Submission I by Ayaan Hirsi Ali showed images of an almost naked woman with Quranic verses painted on her body attacking the perceived misogyny in Islam in a particular orientalist style (Moors). In Wilders’ film the Quran is targeted and according to Wilders the film will end with a particular depiction of the prophet Muhammad and ‘exposing’ the fascist and intolerant nature of the Quran. In their rhetoric Wilders and Hirsi Ali have chosen to use highly selective and often distorted narratives and representations about Muslims and Islam in Dutch society. In the case of pastor Jones he refers to the dangerous content of the Quran. In all cases Islam (and in particular the Quran) is defined as a violence-prone discourse that creates a disposition for large scale violence and conflict. In their analysis they seem to rely on the assumption that discursive formations have their own logic and agency. This results in the conclusion that people are continually produced and reproduced by discourses that form an essential characteristic of ‘their’ group and are a resource for long term dispositions such as resentment, arrogance, suspicion and intolerance with regard to outsiders.

Part (or even the goal) of the ritual of provocation is the creation and reproduction of the ultimate other by putting the blame for all reactions against the provocations on the targets of the same provocation. In this case behind all the talks about violene, security measures, crisis situations and so on, is the picture of angry, irrational and fanatical Muslim who overreacts against insults and provocations and thereby threatens the ‘absolute right of freedom of expression’ and secular society or seeing the violent reactions of a few as representative of all Muslims and prove of the violent nature of Islam. Without a doubt also for some Muslims this Quran burning is as a confirmation of something that was going on for a while (in particular since 9/11): a worldwide anti-islam attitude by which Muslims were seen as the enemy and outsiders to society.

The films, cartoons and the Quran burning as well as the debates about them are rather similar in the sense that they invoke and reaffirm moral boundaries and idealized norms of behavior. After Fitna Muslims were praised by both MP Balkenende and Wilders for their calm reaction; meaning that they did not resort to violence. An interesting dialectic can be noted here. Some opinion leaders (Muslims and non-Muslim) saw the calm reaction of Muslims as a sign of emancipation and a revatilization of the Dutch poldermodel. Muslims have grown accustomed to the insults and have a find way to endure them. Also in the case of the Danish cartoons there were, as Talal Asad made clear, reactions that it was a good thing people felt hurt because that would lead to a situation in which they would re-examine their beliefs. Criticizing or offending ‘questionable’ religious thoughts then becomes a form of liberating speech, necessarily to free Muslims and subsequently also society. Such comments can be seen as displays of feelings of superiority and rather then being emancipation the calm reactions then are the result of a process we also see in (ritualized) racial insults and verbal abuse: the insult, provocation or criticism is a ritual form of teaching a group subordination by way of humiliation (Guimarães 2003: 142). It is more or less like saying this is the way we do things here, and you better acknowledge that and act accordingly. It not only expresses and reproduces the desired social order but also reproduces and legitimizes the hierarchy between Muslims and non-Muslims and is form of including individuals Muslims in the group as long as they meet certain criteria that are determined by the dominant groups in society. At the same time the accusations by some Muslims that these films and the Quran burning constitute blasphemy is an attempt to block the transgression from the side of the secular or Christian politicians and opinion leaders.

Releasing ‘offending and provocative’ films and other performances is a means to express, legitimize and naturalize elements of the social order that are deemed fundamental in the discourses about how a society should be (non-Islamic), in times when these same elements are perceived as threatened (by Islam). Using a distorted, one sided and sometimes even false vision about Islam and dissemeniating this is an attempt to express, legitimize and (re-)naturalize the boundaries and categories in society by a similar set of adversarial ritual rhetorics creating, expressing, and validating an opposition between the self and a dangerous, irrational, foreign and violent other. As political rituals they reinforce, recreate and organize particular (hegemonic) collective representations (such as ‘secular’, ‘Western’, and so on) while it delegitimizes (such as the angry Muslim or the overreacting religious people) and obscures other representations (such as those Muslims who just don’t care or feel that there is a problem with the Quran). This could, I’m speculating here, well be the reason why the majority of Muslims hardly respond to such ‘offending and provocative’ acts. Because they don’t care or because they don’t want to fall into the trap set by political entrepeneurs such as pastor Jones and Wilders.

This is part I of a serie of three posts. Next time: Critique through spectacle. Sometime next week I think.

5 thoughts on “The Ritual of Provocation I – Burn, burn the Quran

  1. Ja, boeken verbranden is uit den boze. Er is geen boek dat mag worden verbrand, zelfs niet de koran. Voor de koran stel ik daarom een alternatief voor: een feestelijke dag waarop toiletpapier wereldwijd wordt vervangen door bladzijden uit de koran.

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