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Religion and Conflict director reflects on 9/11; leads panel discussion

"The model of never discussing religion and its relationship to politics is not
September 07, 2011

What does 9/11 mean today? What impact did it have on American society and the way we understand religion, politics and violence? What new challenges do we face as we head into this next decade?

Linell Cady, who will lead a panel discussion titled “The Difference a Decade Makes: Religion, Politics and Public Life” at 3 p.m., Sept. 8, in West Hall, discussed some of the issues in the interview below. 

Joining Cady on the panel will be, from the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, professor Yasmin Saikia, Hardt-Nickachos Chair in Peace Studies, prfessor Abdullahi Gallab from the School of Social Tranformation, and professors Carolyn Warner and Sheldon Simon from the School of Politics and Global Studies.To attend this free, public discussion, RSVP at The panel will also be streamed live on the web at

It seems that the center has a special connection to 9/11. Can you talk about that?

The Center’s roots are very much a product of 9/11. ASU President Michael Crow was the key figure here. He had a sense that questions of religion and conflict were hugely important and that there were enormous resources at ASU to deal with them.

The fact that it happened then is a reflection of the way in which that moment, that trauma, crystallized for people that religion was a significant political and potentially violent force. Up until then, many people in the academic and policy communities had operated under the assumption that religion was more or less a private phenomenon and did not have that much significance within the broader international arena.

How has 9/11 changed the view of religion within the public sphere?

Western secular society had considered itself to have successfully resolved the problem of religious conflict and violence by rendering it private. This underlying assumption has furthered the story, post-9/11, that religion is a potentially lethal power when it is not contained within this private sphere. This view is very characteristic of the public narrative concerning religion, rooted  in the idea of separation of church and state. But if you look back at American history, there has clearly been a recognition that religious values and orientations are deeply influential in American culture—the abolition, social gospel, and civil rights movements are just a few examples.

We can see the way in which religious currents are very powerful in transforming American society and American law, but it seems as though, once those transformative movements occur, there is a reversion to this abstract model that religion and the state are separate. The religious is private, the secular is public and we have this more or less oppositional picture of the place of religion in politics.

9/11 generated a rethinking of this narrative, and the rethinking varied depending on its source. If we look at the “New Atheists” this became a moment to “cash in” on the threat, the fear, that religion holds. Terrorism became one more piece of the story in which religion must become private and non-influential in politics, society, or law. And in some ways it was not just religion but religion as a stand in for Islam.

What difficulties are there in talking about religion and conflict while avoiding the framing of the West vs. Islam?

There is no doubt that 9/11, in terms of the rethinking that it provoked, helped to harden certain ways of understanding the place of religion and the place of Islam vis a vis the West. The clash of civilizations narrative that was circulating the decade prior was picked up by the public and morphed into not just a clash of civilizations, but the West vs. Islam in particular. There is a deep fear and anxiety surrounding Islam that emerged particularly after 9/11—although it has historical antecedents too. 

It is an enormous challenge to try to change this view of the relationship between religion and violence. The real difficulty is finding language that can capture the ways in which extremists/ terrorists do appropriate religious discourses for purposes of legitimating and motivating certain populations. And yet, it is clear that when we start talking about that it so quickly turns into an argument where Islam is portrayed as peculiarly related to violence. These assumptions simultaneously give the false impression that Islam is a homogenous entity with an intrinsic link to violence, while obscuring the political, economic, social, and global factors that are in play in shaping forms of extremism. 

Do you think the recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have helped Americans rethink their views of Islam?

It is very important to pay attention to the current events in North African and the Middle East as they have the power to dislodge this notion that Islam is all of one piece or that religion is the sole force that animates people across the Muslim world. It is quite obvious that there are a variety of interests at play there. It is a very powerful moment for changing the larger public narrative.

The recent events show the problematic nature of claims such as “Islam and democracy are antithetical” that reside in the West vs. Islam narrative. But it is crucial to remember that there is something about the way in which deep narratives that shape cultures do not change on a dime. This process discloses the way in which the notion that the United States is a secular country and has fully achieved religious pluralism and religious diversity is, in certain important ways, more rhetoric rather that reality.

Not to say that the United Sates has not been more successful than many other countries in the world in achieving some forms of equality, but it is an on-going process. There is still a notion that certain religious groups are the “true Americans” and that some religions are merely to be tolerated, or in the case of Islam, be suspicious of. We can see this in a variety of places, such as the building of the Islamic cultural center near ground zero, and you can see the way political entrepreneurs still capitalize on these fears.

So, while the events occurring right now are key to a transformation of the American public narrative about religion and conflict, this change will not take place over-night.

How has the impact of 9/11 and a focus on religion and conflict affected the notion of peace?

I think one of the effects of the focus on religion and conflict post-9/11 has been on the ways in which religion is seen as a dangerous force that needs to be contained. When the discourse operates this way, we see some things but miss others. Positive currents, especially, tend to be obscured.

Negative conflict dominates the media and plays a large part in the way public discourse is shaped, so it is important to highlight and bring to the foreground those practices, voices, and movements that are positive forces for peace, justice, and human flourishing. Peace is not simply the cessation of conflict or its containment but really needs to be understood as a substantive discourse and set of practices in its own right. So we need to put a spotlight on other currents that are very much part of our world today.

What is unique about this event in comparison to others that will be held this week?

We are interested in holding the program to provide a space for people to reflect upon an event that was transformative of American society. The model of never discussing religion and its relationship to politics is not a successful one. It is increasingly evident that in a global world it will not do at all. This event is not meant to provide answers but to continue an ongoing dialogue; there is something enormously important in thinking together and talking together about these issues that cannot take place entirely on one’s own.

Cady is the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and Dean’s Distinguished Professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University, whose mission is to promote interdisciplinary research and education on the dynamics of religion and conflict with the aim of advancing knowledge, seeking solutions and informing policy, is a research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on the Tempe campus.

Story by Richard Ricketts