Jan. 23, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 8

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    Lincoln’s new book ‘Holy Terrors’ offers broader view of 9/11 events

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Bruce Lincoln
    If scholars of religion ever had a time to speak publicly, it would seem to be now. In the immediate wake of Sept. 11, 2001, world leaders and commentators rushed to point out that the terrorists were not representative of Islam, but that they in their extremism had “hijacked” Islam.

    Commentators, including Muslims, seemed divided about the role of Islam in the battle between al-Qaida and western democracies, with major consequences for international relations abroad and civil rights at home.

    In his new controversial book, Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11, Bruce Lincoln, the Caroline E. Haskell Professor in the Divinity School, presents a study in comparative religion as an attempt to cut through the muddle. Lincoln argues that the conflict that is rearranging relationships in the United States and throughout the world makes disturbing, but much clearer sense, if it is seen as being about religion as much as it is about Islam or democracy.

    “It is tempting, in the face of such horror, to regard the authors of these deeds as evil incarnate: persons bereft of reason, decency or human compassion,” writes Lincoln. “Their motives, however–as revealed by the instructions that guided their final days–were intensely and profoundly religious. We need to take this fact seriously, uncomfortable though it be, since it can tell us important things about the events of the 11th, the broader conflict of which those events are a part, and also the nature of religion.”

    Lincoln argues that first there must be an understanding of what religion is. He boldly offers a definition, stressing the way religion acts to root present behavior in other-worldly foundations, and then states that the real divide is not between “the West and the rest” but between two visions of religion–the minimalist view and the maximalist view. Prominent in Europe since the Enlightenment, the minimalist view sees religion as a personal choice about what to believe and how to act privately on those beliefs, while the maximalist view, one shared by certain Christian, Jewish and Muslims today, regards religion as the best way to order virtually all aspects of life, morality and society.

    By presenting details of the “hijacker’s manual,” which was found in Muhammad Atta’s luggage, the book ventures into potentially dangerous territory. Lincoln’s reading allows for a closer examination of the religious thoughts and habits with which these terrorists armed themselves. Also included is a side-by-side comparison of Bush and Bin Laden’s speeches, showing how both of these leaders have constructed a dualistic universe of a virtually Manichaean sort, where Good and Evil have locked in mortal combat, with no neutrality possible.

    Lincoln’s analysis, while bold, is rooted in careful, point-by-point examination of what the people involved in these events have actually said and done, forcing the reader to pay attention to the most basic and concrete kinds of evidence for what has occurred and what is now taking place.

    If Lincoln’s conclusions are surprising, it may be because some fundamental aspects of the situation have been ignored, whether it is because these aspects are considered inconvenient or too complicated and difficult with which to deal.

    Richard Hecht of the University of California at Santa Barbara recognized the analytical power of Lincoln’s method, stating that the book is “destined to become a classic reflection on the phenomenon of religion . . . that forces us to rethink entirely what religion is in an increasingly global and conflicted world.”

    The book comes out of Lincoln’s long-term concern with the relationships between religion and social conflict, which produced such books as Discourse and the Construction of Society, the edited volume Religion, Rebellion, Revolution; Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice and Authority: Construction and Corrosion. Lincoln’s recent book, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship, received the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in 2000.