About six weeks ago I gave a presentation on ontological insecurity, cognitive dissonance, and prophetic violence carried out by the Islamic State. It was an informal setting; several pizzas adorned a round table, and the audience had as much talking time as I. Several members of the university’s Islamic Center came, eager to defend their faith when the focus was on terrorism. Knowing who half my audience was in advance I tailored my discussion to be as sensitive as possible. Unfortunately, merely discussing the Islamic State puts some people on the defensive.
My presentation went like this:
- Define ISIS’s methodology (barbaric killings, etc.)
- Define ISIS’s beliefs (the apocalypse is upon us)
- Attempt to explain barbarism with two theories: ontological insecurity in a world hostile to its identity, and cognitive dissonance when a) their prophesies do not come true and b) when the world, including fellow Muslims, condemn them
I made it a point to discuss how about half of Muslims believe in the end times prophesies, and that I was making no judgements in my presentation about what ideas are good and what ideas are bad. I merely listed ISIS beliefs. I thought I did this in the most sensitive way possible, but many in the group took the mere mention of violence and beliefs in the same sentence as a personal insult.
One girl begged me to come to her mosque to speak with other Muslims (as if I implied that all Muslims believe violence is justified if it defends their beliefs). Another girl (who I found out is actually atheist, but is a staunch defender of her former faith) implored me to instead write a paper about how most Muslims are non-violent (but that’s not a very scientific paper). I was pleaded with from every angle, and none of those angles had anything to do with the content of my paper.
Remember, my paper attempts to explain why ISIS’s brand of violence exceeds the norm (even bin Laden was appalled when Zarqawi started cutting off the heads of innocent civilians). The paper had nothing to do with what Muslims believe, but rather the lengths to which a specific terror group is willing to go to protect its beliefs.
I felt this was unjustified, and I think future presentations should be more formal. I shouldn’t yield the floor to everyone with any opinion about any sentence in my paper.
Later I was approached by a human security professor, who was confused about the whole ordeal. She thought the presentation was professional and objective. The department head also talked to me, dismissing the hecklers as contributing nothing to the academic discussion about ISIS. Thankfully people in the field understood what I was trying to convey to the audience. So I can rest assured I did nothing wrong during the presentation.
I think this is an example of what happens when we privilege any idea at the same level as scientific ideas in the halls of higher learning. If I say “ISIS is violent, and here’s my explanation of why they’re violent…” retorting “Not all Muslims are violent” contributes nothing to our understanding of why ISIS is violent. “Yes, I know not all Muslims are violent. I’m not saying they are; I’m merely trying to explain why ISIS is violent!” I know some people feel the need to defend their faith, and that defense is understandable. But there’s a time and a place for defense… like when someone is actually attacking their faith.