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  • Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11
  • John C. Hammerback
Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. By Bruce Lincoln. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; pp xi + 142. $25.00.

In his preface Bruce Lincoln, a professor of religion and a prize-winning scholar at the University of Chicago, describes Holy Terrors as his "attempt to think through the nature of religion, to identify its core components (discourse, practice, community, institution), and to specify its historically changing relation to other aspects of culture (particularly the ethical, aesthetic, and political)" (ix). To accomplish these ambitious goals, he approaches 9/11 and its roots and effects from a religious perspective and relies heavily on rhetorical methods. The first three chapters focus on texts to and from the Islamic fundamentalists who hijacked the jet airliners as well as on the televised responses from Osama bin Laden, President George W. Bush, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson. The final three chapters cover "moments, projects, contexts" (ix) that help explain the events of 9/11 and its rhetorical discourse, drawing from three periods respectively beginning with the Reformation and culminating in the Enlightenment, occurring during nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonialism and neocolonialism, and taking place in contemporary times when resistance groups attempted to establish their religion's dominance in postcolonial states. Scattered throughout the book are numerous explanatory models, many created by Lincoln and presented in diagrams that connect history, religious movements, and change.

Chapter 1, "The Study of Religion in the Current Political Moment," begins with a learned overview and interpretation of scholarship and popular thinking on religion from Kant to Geertz and his critics. Lincoln collapses scholarly interpretations into two schools, the "minimalist," Kant's restricted view, and the "maximalist," in which religion is seen as influencing all parts of our lives; these two concepts are applied throughout the book. He then introduces his alternative approach: a "polythetic and flexible" (5) definition of religion that includes discourse, practice, community, and institution. With this historical [End Page 504] and intellectual setting in place, he turns to the instructions (possessed by several of the 9/11 terrorists) and the last will and testament found in hijacker Mohamed Atta's luggage. Lincoln's careful and sustained critique illuminates how this discourse "construed mass murder and terrible destruction as religious practices" and how al-Qaeda "constitutes itself as a religious institution that acts on behalf of a broader religious community (the Islamic ammah)" (8). From the instructions' spiritual center flows a narrative complete with reasons to justify killing innocent civilians, counterarguments to remove any hesitation felt by the hijackers, and Koranic citations that merge past history and present circumstances in ways that can induce suicide killings. The author's expertise about the Middle East allows him to add fruitfully to his analysis by tracing the historical and rhetorical development of the 9/11 terrorists' radical brand of Islam. "It was their religion," Lincoln concludes, that persuaded the 19 conspirators "that the carnage they perpetuated was not just an ethical act, but a sacred duty" (16).

Chapter 2 opens windows into the intent, workings, and effects of President Bush's October 7 televised address announcing his nation's military response and of Osama bin Laden's follow-up videotape released to Arabic television a few hours later. The full text of bin Laden's sermonic appeal—the U.S. government barred the complete text from being shown in America—tells much about its intended Muslim audiences, their rhetorical traditions and expectations, and his considerable rhetorical skill. Style receives particular attention, for example bin Laden's use of pronouns, the word infidel and other key "signifiers," and Bush's "double-coding" (32) that Lincoln believes was intended to persuade fundamentalist Christians without being noticed. Many similarities in the two speeches are identified, and the religious roots of allusions by both rhetors are unearthed.

Chapter 3, "Jihads, Jeremiads, and the Enemy Within," lays out the background to Islamic jihad, connecting it with "a specific body of religious discourse and practice as well as the community and institutions associated with them" (34). Contemporary and centuries-old Islamic examples are cited and often compared to non-Muslim religious discourse...


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