Marytrs and Warriors: Religion and the Problem of Violence (RELI 77) was an experiment for everybody. It was my first time offering the course and my initial experience with a First Year Seminar (FYS). The breadth and sensitivity of the topic daunted us all, even as its pressing urgency and relevance became increasingly clear throughout the semester. For all of these reasons, I was thankful to have the support of an excellent GRC, Matthew Dougherty.
Before the semester began, Matt helped me strategize the most effective assignments as well as pedagogical techniques that would provide important context to the students and prepare them for original research. The course was structured in discrete units that were meant to scaffold together as components of their final project. By engaging contemporary accusations, scriptural citations, scholarly explanations and historical instantiations of religion and violence, I hoped to provide the broader context and intellectual resources for the students so that they could take on their own projects in the last third of the semester. Matt supported the initial instruction by organizing a “scavenger hunt” at Davis Library. Together with library specialists, Matt exposed students to the digital and material resources that would be crucial for their success, including specialized search engines, databases, technology, and yes, even books.
We then guided them through short papers based on close readings of a so-called “texts of terror,” scriptural passages that are typically cited as inspiring violent action. As they interpreted these textual representations of stories like the “Akedah,” Abraham’s binding and potential sacrifice of his son (Isaac or Ishmael, depending on the tradition), we encouraged students to move beyond mastery of content and to an investigation of context and possible consequences for the original audiences. Matt proved especially crucial in pushing them beyond the twin errors of simple summary or rushed anachronism and into critical evaluations that engaged these texts on their own terms.
Their growing skill at combing empathetic understanding with critical inquiry served them well as they took on their final projects. We asked them to pick a contemporary moment of conflict or violence in which religion may have played a dominant role. Instead of taking the category of religion for granted as a discrete sphere of cultural production and direct cause, we encouraged students to imbed their research in local, historical, and social fields. They were asked to also evaluate how other factors contributed to the hostilities. As Matt pointed out in his blog, they found that these other elements proved crucial in understanding what is too often dismissed as “religious fanaticism.” He aided this process significantly as he met with students personally and helped them find the connections between our study and their own research.
Several students gravitated to moments when religion seemed to inspire conflict. At the same time, others charted hatred and fear against religious practitioners as its own source of violence. This reality hit particularly close to home in mid-February, when our class grappled with the brutal murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor and Razan Abu-Salha. Having chosen a topic almost ripped from the headlines, our class conversations had regularly circled around reports of terrorism – from the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, to the saints of the Mexican drug cartels, to the increasingly brutal theatrics of ISIS. However, none of us expected how our topic would touch our city and our campus in such a tragic and heartrending way. In the days after the deaths of Deah, Yusor and Razan, we simply created space to talk about both the murders as well as the campus response. Some knew the victims or were connected through the Muslim student community. They expressed how their faith sustained them as they grappled with its meaning.
As weeks went by, several other students were able to connect our academic study of martyrdom and persecution to the murders and trace the ripples of response that extended from our very campus to other parts of the country and the world in cycles of memorialization and recrimination. Two students, for instance linked vandalism at a New England school to the wider problem of Islamaphobia that may have contributed to murders, but certainly was one of the unfortunate reactions. Other students noted in their research that while Muslims are often presented as the principal perpetrators of terrorism in the media and popular imagination, they often find themselves the primary victims of ideological violence in Africa, Pakistan, Myanmar, and unfortunately even Chapel Hill.