As this writing, Boston is under siege, with one bombing suspect killed, and one on the run. But still there is little that is certain about why the attack was carried out.
This very uncertainty, though, expressed repeatedly in news broadcasts, can teach students of religion a great deal of what we face in our relations with the mass media.
What can we learn? Here’s my list of eight iron-clad certainties about how the media will cover events in which religion may play a role.
Same Old Experts The media will trot out its “experts,” but none of them from the academic discipline devoted to studying religion in all its forms: religious studies. Psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, and other wonky types will hold forth at length. But nary an expert in religion and violence will grace the sets of the major networks and cable outlets.
Same Old Misfits Next, partly because religion is ignored, we can also be 100% sure that commentators will rehash the psycho-“misfit” thesis. These young, under-employed Chechen immigrants never truly felt like “real Americans.” Like the Columbine shooters, one cable news commentator argued Friday morning amid the city lockdown, they seemed like normal young men on the outside, but on the inside, they were volcanoes of psychological instability, seething with the indignities they have suffered from society.
Same Old Double-bind We can be confident that commentators will once more fall into the double-bind in which they always find themselves when religion might be a factor in tragic events, to wit:
Islam, bad On the one hand, it is guaranteed that Fox will play the same shameless Islamophobic card it has played ever since 9/11. Hannity, O’Reilly, Varney, or Ann Coulter are 100% certain to lay the Boston Marathon attacks at the foot of Islam, subtly or crudely, as their political calculations dictate.
Religion, good On the other hand, the non-Fox media will do anything to avoid casting aspersion on Islam, but more generally and more significantly, on religion! This insistence to regard religion as good leads to at least two consequences, both of them short-circuiting understanding of events such as those in Boston this week.
Sanitation for the Nation I will guarantee that reporters and commentators will sanitize their language by systematically replacing any possible use of “religion” or “religious” with “ethnic.”
This purge is already well-advanced and active. Thus, even the recent resurgence of violence in Iraq between the Sunnis and Shias has again been described as “ethnic,” when the focus of identity defining the contending communities is explicitly religious.
Do journalists need to be reminded that “Sunni” is not the name of an “ethnic” group? Expect with a high degree of certainty then that, outside of the perversions of Fox News, we will never hear the word “religion” uttered in connection with the Boston Marathon attacks.
Instead, what Fox would refer to as “liberal” media (mainstream media to the rest of us) will have a good deal to say about “ethnic” violence because of the Chechen background of the young suspects.
Mind-Purge Second, because the non-Fox media presume that religion, in the abstract, is good, they will surely never even think of the relation of Islam to the Boston Marathon attacks. Mainstream outlets sanitize their language—in order to distinguish themselves from Fox et al—but they also thoroughly bleach out their thinking about religion and violence.
To wit: they do not seem even to be able to entertain the notion that something like the Boston Marathon attacks could have had anything to do with Islam. With 100% certitude, you can be sure of that.
No Big Deal: It’s Just an Identity Crisis The taboo against connecting religion (except Islam on Fox, of course) with evil makes it 100% certain that the media will also never explore how religion functions to provide the focus of personal identity in a globalized world.
In a way, Islam, like most other religions, is nothing more than a special mode of social organization. And, social organizations can be as good as they can be evil. (Nazism was a form of social organization, as was slavery). The religions, like nations, ethnicities, political parties, economic classes and so on, function as rallying points around which people see themselves as having a certain identity. And, these identities can be either good or not. Think again of “master-race” or Untermenschen; both are clear identities, yet both are morally problematic.
This social function of the religions, thus, provides a point where the notion of the self congeals or takes shape. It is the ability of the religions (as well as race, gender, or sexual orientation) to function as global centers of identity that explains their success today.
Islam works in precisely this way. Yet, of course, Islam hardly stands out as a force of global religious identification. Christianity has done so for many years. Consider the undertone of sympathy in the Western media for the plight of minority Christian communities in Egypt or Syria today. Or, what of the French mandate that created the modern nation-state of Lebanon largely to protect its Christian population after the fall of the Ottoman Empire? Were the Russian Empire’s campaigns against the Ottomans into Georgia and Armenia similarly devoid of globalizing sympathies with fellow Christians?
But, if we insist upon thinking that religion is only and always good, we will never entertain the way its social function to create identity can causes harm. And, that finally is something that we can be absolutely sure the mass media will never bring to the fore in its 24/7 onslaught of coverage of the Boston Marathon attacks.
Similarly, if religious studies “experts” never get the airtime their knowledge warrants, we will continue be offered the same-old-same-old uninformed “information” on religion and violence. If, finally, the media persist, in effect, in giving up understanding religion and violence by labeling the Boston Marathon attacks and their ilk the work of crazies and “misfits,” how will we overcome our fears? If our news providers continue to be governed by taboos against talking and thinking about religion and violence in a clear-eyed, unsentimental way, we will never make progress in understanding the globalized world of religious identification that is moving so many public issues.