A Reply to Jean-Luc Marion’s “After Charlie Hebdo, Islam Must Critique Itself”

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Our University of Chicago colleague, Jean-Luc Marion, Andrew Thomas Greely and Grace McNichols Greeley Professor of Catholic Studies, wrote a passionate response to the horrific attacks in Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris this past January (see Sightings in References below). The final toll: 16 dead and 22 injuries.

Marion’s outrage and grief are not only understandable but also shared by countless individuals and communities around the world. We are grateful that in face of such repugnant atrocities, our colleague throughout his brief essay has emphasized setting aside “the emotion of the moment,” “to not confuse or stigmatize,” and that “our fellow citizens of Muslim faith . . . suffer from a terrible situation.”

Despite deep sympathy for our esteemed colleague and the French people at large, we also feel compelled to address some troubling aspects of Marion’s statements concerning religion, because our common profession is defined by its attempted study and understanding.

Announcing clearly from the beginning that “France is at war,” Marion’s essay proceeds to define the homicides committed by three militants, all of whom were French citizens, as an act of war, followed by a second point that such an act will more closely unite the nation to resist with greater courage and resolve.

Marion’s prediction that the homicides would “unite the nation” was largely fulfilled as subsequent events have unfolded, although one must note the young Muslims who refused a moment of silence for the victims. Even so, construing the situation as “war”—something usually understood as armed hostility between nation states—is dangerous hyperbole or, worse yet, a self-fulfilling act of performative speech that initially misconstrues, then dramatically expands both the problem and conflict.

Such hyperbole is also evident in Marion’s assertion that “the danger posed by Islam is not new—it is familiar to France since the Seventeenth-Century… The recent history of Europe confirms democracies eventually vanquish totalitarianism and fascism.” We wonder what evidence there is for so characterizing the entire faith of Islam as one endangering France for so long.

The implied equation of Islam with totalitarianism and fascism is even more inflammatory and disturbing. Western civilization, after all, owes an immense debt to Islam and to Arabic communities for helping to preserve and transmit the priceless intellectual legacy of antiquity, without which the modern West would have been immeasurably impoverished. There would have been no Descartes without Plato’s and Aristotle’s works, which were recovered and translated by medieval Arabic philosophers. The Arabic bequest not only benefitted Westerners, but, for example, Chinese and other Asian people also, who profited (in mathematics, astronomy, and medical knowledge, to name three forms coming to mind) from contact with Islam.

We do not disagree entirely with Marion’s earnest plea for Muslims to engage in “self-critique,” but he seems to be unfamiliar with the cogent essays Talal Asad has addressed to this issue, demonstrating that “Islam” (if one must, for the sake of convenience, reduce a complex and diverse tradition to a simple monad), constantly reflects on itself, cultivates internal debate and critique, and identifies problems and shortcomings, which it then struggles to address.

Once this is recognized, Marion’s point becomes more problematic, for he is urging “Islam” to engage in the same kind of self-examination and revision that “Christianity” experienced during the Reformation and Enlightenment. What was an internal critique for one tradition thus becomes an imperative that one tradition would impose on another, something the latter experiences as alien to its own history, precepts, and sense of integrity; something it associates, moreover, with European claims of cultural superiority and a history of colonial aggression.

Even if “Islam” were to follow Marion’s prescription, we wonder what criteria he would recommend that “they” follow to “test their religious validity?” Does a secular state have the final say in defining what is “religious validity,” much as the People’s Republic of China avers in its constitution that only those who practice “normal religion” will be tolerated by the state?  The question of how to make all religions equally acceptable to a secular Republic of the French sort is not identical to—nor easily reconciled with—the question of how to create a society fully tolerant of religious difference.

Marion justly urges us to avoid “a facile rallying to the banner of ‘culture wars,’ or lack of integration, or discrimination.” Noble as that counsel may be, one needs to say more about the social and cultural ground for breeding hatred and violence, i.e. the sharply disadvantaged situation of Muslims in France (and not just France) with regard to employment, education, housing, protection under law, and simple dignity.

It is one thing for Charlie Hebdo to mock the Pope, and quite another to mock Muhammad. To poke fun at the icons revered by the powerful is a courageous act of iconoclasm; to ridicule those of the weak is cheap bullying, as it subjects people who already suffer abuse of multiple sorts to public humiliation, making sport of their (perceived) inability to defend the things they hold sacred.

We understand the need to rally in defense of liberté and we also understand that free speech includes forms of critical speech that may be cruel and offensive, such as iconoclasm, blasphemy, ridicule and derision. But one also has to realize that when those who enjoy the full benefits of citizenship use their liberté to mock others to whom basic rights are abridged or denied, something has gone badly amiss.

The most important front on which France needs to wage a sustained struggle today is precisely the one Marion ignores: the struggle to extend égalité and fraternité to its Muslim population.  Here, progress depends on understanding the criminal events in Paris not as salvos that open a new front or new phase in a long-running war, but as symptoms that follow on—and point to—sustained failures of socio-cultural integration, socioeconomic equity, moral sensibility, political accountability, and human understanding.

France may be the flashpoint of the moment, but the issues extend far beyond.


Marion, Jean-Luc. “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre, Islam Must Open Itself to Critique.” Sightings, January 29, 2015. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/after-charlie-hebdo-massacre-islam-must-open-itself-critique-jean-luc-marion.

Asad, Talal. “The Limits of Religious Criticism in the Middle East: Notes on Islamic Public Argument.” Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Image: Torsten Rowekamp / flickr creative commons.
To read previous issues of Sightings, visit http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-archive.

Author, Bruce Lincoln, (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is Caroline E. Haskell Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions, Middle Eastern Studies and Medieval Studies. He is also Associate Faculty in the Departments of Anthropology and Classics. Lincoln emphasizes critical approaches to the study of religion and is particularly interested in issues of discourse, practice, power, conflict, and the violent reconstruction of social borders. His research includes the religions of pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islamic Iran. His two most recent books (2014) are Between History and Myth: Stories of Harald Fairhair and The Founding of the State, and Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification, 2nd edition.

Author, Anthony C. Yu, (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is Carl Darling Buck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities and Professor Emeritus of Religion and Literature, Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Civilizations, English Language and Literature, and the Committee on Social Thought. Yu’s research focuses on the comparative study of both literary and religious traditions. He also reinterprets classical Chinese narratives and poetry in light of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. His publications include comparisons of Chinese and Western texts, literary and religious histories, and issues of theory and criticism. In 2012, he published revised editions, with new Notes, of all four volumes of his translation of The Journey to the West. To comment, email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com.



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