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Tongue in check: paralleling the Taliban with the Amish.

Many will assume I have tongue in cheek when they read the subtitle of this essay. To a certain extent I do, since I am a specialist in neither Islam nor Anabaptism, faith traditions which are beyond comparison in terms of their historical contexts and breadth of expression. Nevertheless, I want to employ some striking similarities between these groups in order to bring our tongues into check as we converse about post-9/11 ethics.

My discussion is guided by a moral philosopher who took great interest in the tongue: Mikhail Bakhtin, considered a co-parent, along with Ferdinand de Saussure, of poststructuralist intertextuality. (1) Bakhtin would feel uncomfortable with this parental alignment, however, for he was wary of Saussure's distinction between langue [tongue] and parole [word]--a language system and the individual speech acts which arise out of it--for it ignored the physicality of the literal langue: the tongue that tastes and kisses, the tongue that expresses the "heteroglossia," or "divergent tongues," manifest in a society. While Saussure affirmed that "In the beginning was the Word"--that is to say language precedes and structures thought--what was important for Bakhtin was the positionality of the word: "and the Word was with God"; the word has meaning only in relation to the tongue of the Other. (2)

For Bakhtin, then, morality is ground in the inter-responsibility of particular bodies, uniquely situated, rather than in universal instantiations of an over arching moral code. If we were to employ Saussure's terms, morality for Bakhtin is NOT an abstract langue which controls various ethical paroles. Instead, Bakhtin regards all humans as mutually interdependent, with identity "unfinalizable" as encounters with multiple others draw attention to our changing subject positions. (3)

On September 11, 2001, due to actions of a very distinctive Other, many Americans became aware of a subject position which, up to that point, they had never noticed in themselves before: as patriots of their country. The Other of 9/11, however, problematizes the postmodern ethic which pronounces that the other must be allowed to remain Other. Derek Attridge, for example, in a issue of the PMLA devoted to postmodern ethics, argues that to accept the "uniqueness" of the other, one must recognize "the impossibility of finding general rules or schemata to account fully for him or her," forcing one to experience "an encounter with the limits of one's powers to think and to judge, a challenge to one's capacities as a rational agent." (4) According to this perspective, to condemn terroristic operatives for not honoring our sense of morality would be to reduce the other to the same--which is unethical.

Because of this aporia, we heard numerous tongues attacking postmodern discourse immediately after the 9/11 atrocity. While few reached the level of inanity seen in Jerry Falwell's assertion that American tolerance of feminists and homosexuals precipitated the attacks, there was more than a touch of Hale Falwell Well Met in repeated assertions from thoughtful people that postmodern multiculturalism was complicit with terror. In a New York Times article published eleven days after the fall of the World Trade Center, Edward Rothstein made scathing comments about postcolonialism, saying, "While affirming most of the postmodern rejection of ideals and universals, postcolonialism establishes its own universal: Western imperialism becomes a variety of Original Sin. The implication is that any act against the West by a postcolonial power can be seen as a reaction to [acts of imperialism] by the West." He then defined this perspective as "ethically perverse." (5) Rothstein, like Falwell, redirected outrage felt about the Taliban Other toward others grown in American soil.

By October 15, Stanley Fish felt the need to create a postmodern apologetic, which enables one to condemn actions of the other. In an essay entitled "Condemnation Without Absolutes," he wrote, "Postmodern thought tells us that we have grounds enough for action and justified condemnation in the democratic ideals we embrace, without grasping for the empty rhetoric of universal absolutes to which all subscribe but which all define differently." (6) His argument ultimately hinges upon a neo-pragmatic ethic which asserts that one must hold assiduously to the values of one's interpretive community while also recognizing their contingency. But this leaves us with the same problem as before; you can condemn what your community defines as terroristic outrage, but you must also recognize that the vocabulary of another interpretive community may celebrate the same action as "just." (7) Denouncing the murderous attack simply becomes one tongue eschewing the ethical gloss of another.

In order to grapple with the ethics of otherness in a post-9/11 (and, perhaps, a pre-World War III) world, I want to foreground the similarities between the two interpretive communities of my subtitle: the Taliban and the Amish. Most obvious is their common repudiation of modernity, both believing God has called them to live apart from a world that has sold out to materialist values. Furthermore, both groups perform their defiance of modernity on the body, covering it with markers of difference: Talibe women are veiled with the burka and Amish women wear headcoverings; men of both groups follow prescriptions about facial hair. Such prescriptions help maintain ethnic distinctives for both, with stiff punishments when the rules of the community are broken. Orthopraxis, then, subsumes orthodoxy--as is true for many groups formulated within their respective faith traditions. Islamic scholar Farid Esack notes that the Qur'an "presents God as being 'concerned with something that persons do, and with the persons who do it, rather than with an abstract entity [called belief]'." (8) This abstract entity is also disdained by Anabaptists, who repudiate the "'heresies' of 'only believism'" often displayed in American Christianity. (9) With an emphasis upon equal behaviorial expectations for every member of the community, both the Taliban and the Amish tend to reject the notion of trained clergy who have been formally educated in systematic theology; instead, God designates those who are to lead worship, the Amish through a casting of lots, the Taliban through a manifest knowledge of the Qur'an. (10)

The Taliban and the Amish, of course, are extremist splinter groups from large and extremely diverse religious traditions--Islam and Anabaptism--that seem beyond comparison. (11) Nevertheless, it seems significant that both traditions are rooted in historical movements which dramatically defied the political and religious status quo. The resulting persecutions instantiated and perpetuated what Anabaptists call a "Two Kingdom" theology and Muslims regard as the "Two Regions" of the world: the dar al-Islam, or "abode of Islam," and the dar al-harb, or "abode of war."

At Mecca in the early seventh century, Muhammad was ridiculed for his revelations and his followers attacked. A millennium later, Anabaptists were persecuted for their own revelation: that Christian baptism should be an act of intellectual assent and hence not performed on babies. This was a powerful threat to secular authorities, who established citizenship and taxation through infant baptism. Anabaptists therefore distinguished between the Kingdom of God, to which they felt loyal, and the Kingdom of the world, from which they felt the need to separate. Their defiance led to horrific deaths at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants, 4,011 of which are recounted in a seventeenth-century text entitled The Bloody Theater or Martyrs' Mirror of the Defenseless Christians Who Baptized Only Upon Confession of Faith, and Who Suffered and Died for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ to the Year A.D. 1660.

The most dramatic similarity, then, between the Taliban and the Amish is the fact that they are embedded in faith traditions whose members have been killed by Christians. In reaction, Anabaptists developed, and still manifest, an animus toward what they call "Constantinianism": the compromise to faith that occurs when political and religious domains are blended into one power, as happened when Constantine converted to Christianity in 313 A.D. Ironically, of course, bloody attacks upon Muslims during the Crusades were engendered, in part, by their advance on Constantinople. And so it is with the Constantinian assumptions underlying the fight for Constantinople that I would like to consider repositioning an ethics of otherness. For, despite all their similarities, the Amish, unlike most Christians, have maintained a 600-year tradition of pacifism, while the Talibes, unlike most Muslims, have chosen terroristic violence to achieve their ends.

It all boils down, or up, to radically different views of the Other. As Simon de Beauvoir comments in The Second Sex, "No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself," (12) which may explain why, according to Farid Esack, "the Quran denounces, rejects and asks Muslims to oppose the Other or aspects of Otherness." (13) As with Christian Fundamentalists, such an attitude often leads to a demonization of the Other in order to sanctify the One true community with which the self identifies. (14) Talibes, of course, have spectacularized the demonic nature of the American Other, consigning it to a fiery hell. For them, "Islam," or "submission," means forcefully submitting others to the will of Allah.

In contrast, the Amish word for submission, Gelassenheit, radicalizes the concept of Otherness, I would like to suggest, by establishing the Amish themselves as the Other. (15) Rather than forcing others to submit to their ideology, they submit to the forces of a dominant discourse which needs to see them as Other. In present-day America, this often means submitting to a culture that markets Amish otherness as a tourist attraction. But on a more radical level, defining themselves as Other puts Anabaptists in the position of acknowledging the threat they make to the dominant culture and not resisting the ensuing recriminations.

The martyrdom of Jesus, who turned the other cheek rather than resist attacks to his otherness, serves as a model for the Amish--as it did for Bakhtin, who notes that "in all of Christ's norms the I and the other are contraposed: for myself--absolute sacrifice, for the other--loving mercy." (16) Significantly, Muslims, as David W. Shenk recounts, "insist that the Messiah could never be crucified if he was a blessed prophet of God. Within Islamic theology, a crucified Messiah is impossible," because a "sovereign, powerful Creator does not suffer." As the Qur'an notes of the Messiah, "But they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so he was made to appear to them" (Nisaa [4]:157). (17) Such emphasis on transcendence, which is also manifest in those Christian theologies which focus predominantly on Christ's resurrection, eviscerates what Anabaptists have identified as the unique offering of Christian doctrine: the Kenosis--God's willingness to empty God's self of all power to become Other, spectacularizing that Otherness with the scapegoating of the cross.

Significantly, the Anabaptists described in The Martyrs Mirror also spectacularize their Otherness. While refusing to violently resist their enemies, these people either through proclamation or song--gave tongue to a discourse which marked them as Other. As a result, some had their tongues cut out, one had it screwed to the roof of her mouth, another had her mouth filled with gunpowder "to keep her from giving 'good witness' to spectators at her execution." (18) All were forced to put tongues in check.

But what good does that do us today? We are far removed from the antimodernist assumptions of the Amish, who in their closely knit separatist communities can uphold their pacifistic principles like all the other rules of their Ordnung--the only shooting their pacifism need withstand being that of tourists' cameras. We might learn something, nevertheless, from their modernist and postmodern heirs: those Anabaptists living among us who have exchanged the quietism of Old Order nonresistance for a pacifism ground in nonviolent resistance. Nevertheless, this resistance is still marked by otherness, as when members of Christian Peacemaker Teams walk into the middle of violent situations, literally placing their bodies between fighting antagonists. They are willing to take the bullets intended for the other because they are incarnating Otherness. Anabaptists in the International Conciliation Service take a long-term approach, malting themselves Other by submitting to "strategies suggested by cues and patterns elicited from" the cultures they have entered. As R. Scott Appleby explains, this "elicitive method," developed by John Paul Lederach, "is based on an awareness and appreciation of culturally specific ... ways of knowing, and recognizes that any model of peacebuilding must be both multivalent and adaptive to local knowledge and customs." (19) In other words, the self becomes Other.

This, of course, does not solve our problem with terrorism, except to encourage us to think of ourselves as Other in the eyes of the Taliban, in an attempt to understand their hatred. Unfortunately, white Americans are not used to thinking of themselves as other--which explains the intensity of the outrage over 9/11 while similar acts of violence toward defenseless peoples of other countries--such as the slaughter of thousands of Christians in 2000 by the Indonesian Laskar Jihad--have gone unmourned. Instead, the events of September 11 generated a unified sense of patriotism, with Americans displaying the stars-and-stripes as gestures of sameness. Significantly, this patriotism reduces pacifism to the reviled Other of American discourse, as demonstrated by journalist Michael Kelly fifteen days after 9/11: "[I]n the situation where one's nation has been attacked ... pacifism is on the side of the murderers, and it is on the side of letting them murder again." (20) Without tongue in cheek, Kelly has, by implication, paralleled the Amish with the Taliban, establishing both as Other.

And it seems imperative to me that pacifists remain Other. As E. J. Dionne notes in his response to Mike Kelly's harangue, "The fact that we live under a political system that honors the right of individuals to object conscientiously to engaging in war is one of the reasons why ours is a system worth defending.... To stand up for pacifists--even when you disagree with them, and especially when they're unpopular--is to protect this moral difference." He quotes Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote in 1940, "We who allow ourselves to become engaged in war need this testimony of the absolutist [by which he meant pacifist] against us, lest we accept the warfare of the world as normative, lest we become callous to the horror of war, and lest we forget the ambiguity of our own actions and motives and the risk we run of achieving no permanent good from the momentary anarchy in which we are involved." (21) Niebuhr seems to validate the "heteroglossia" that inscribes culture, the divergent tongues that, according to Bakhtin, must be dialogized rather than harmonized: "It is necessary that heteroglossia wash over a culture's awareness of itself and its language, penetrate to its core, relativize the primary language system underlying its ideology and literature and deprive it of its naive absence of conflict." (22)

It would be inconsistent, then, for Anabaptists to impose their pacifism on the dominant culture by demanding it think the same as they. (23) Instead they must continue to model Otherness, hoping to attract the patriotic same to resist the dominant ideology--as did Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, known as the "nonviolent soldier of Islam" for leading the Pathans of the Khyber Pass to protest, without violence, British power. (24) Khan demonstrates that Anabaptists do not hold a monopoly on God-fearing pacifism. However, unlike those Talibes who have internalized denunciations of Otherness in the Qur'an, Anabaptists can inhabit Otherness because they believe in an Absolute Other who spoke into existence a universe which valorizes Otherness.

While it is not at all fashionable these days to talk of an Absolute, it may be the only way to resolve the contradictions which inscribe most postmodern ethical discussions. Antifoundational theorists who seek to avoid what Seyla Benhabib describes as the "social conformism, authoritaranism [sic] and patriarchalism" of communitarianism (25) usually end up laying some kind of foundation--a metaphysical first principle--upon which to build their ethics, whether it be reason, love, justice, or the body. Benhabib, herself, in her appeal for "interactive universalism," establishes intuition as her pre-discursive ground. But one wonders about the etiology of her intuition. Either it is constituted by a community's discourse, and hence is not universal, or else it is tied to something that transcends our human situatedness. Herein lies the fundamental problem with most postmodern ethical positions: those who hold to a purely naturalistic explanation of existence, an existence Darwin quite convincingly situated in natural selection, are hard pressed to explain why an intuition for justice should ever extend beyond either the discursive practices or the selfish genes of an individual species or tribe. (26)

Bakhtin, like many people of faith, was simply more self-conscious about his ethical ground; it was situated upon God as Other: "Outside God, outside the bounds of trust in absolute otherness, self-consciousness and self-utterance are impossible." (27) Significantly, due to his belief in that Other, Bakhtin was sent into exile, limned as Other to Stanlinism. This may explain why he came to pronounce the Golden Rule in a new tongue, a tongue valued by postmodern thinkers. Rather than starting with the traditional Christian ethic "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," which makes the self the source of morality, he begins with what I would describe as "see others as they see your otherness." (28) We are all other to each other, making humans of all races and faiths mutually interdependent. For Bakhtin, as for the Anabaptist, I need the other to live, because, and this is the gist of my argument, the I AM is the Other.


(1.) See Graham Allen, Intertextuality (NY: Routledge, 2000).

(2.) Bakiatin writes, "the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people's mouths, in other people's contexts, serving other people's intentions." M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: U Texas Press, 1981), 294.

(3.) Bakhtin uses the word translated as "unfinalizability" in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. and ed. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1984).

(4.) Derek Attridge, "Innovation, Literature, Ethics: Relating to the Other," PMLA 114 (1999): 24.

(5.) Edward Rothstein, "Attacks on U.S. Challenge the Perspectives of Postmodern True Believers," New York Times, 22 Sept. 2001, late edition, A17.

(6.) Stanley Fish, "Condemnation Without Absolutes," New York Times, 15 Oct. 2001, (15 Oct. 2001).

(7.) In her forthcoming book, Just War Against Terror: Ethics and American Power in a Violent World, Jean Bethke Elshtain gives the example of the French Revolution: "Those who guillotined thousands in the Place de la Concorde in Paris and called it 'justice' were pleased to speak of revolutionary terror as a form of justice" (Qtd. in Elshtain, "The Importance of Words," Cresset LXVI [2002]: 40).

(8.) Farid Esack, Qur'an, Liberalism and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression [Oxford: Oneword, 1997), 115. Esack is quoting Wilfred Cantwell-Smith.

(9.) Martin H. Schrag, "A Historical Survey of Brethren in Christ Hermeneutics," Reflections on a Heritage: Defining the Brethren in Christ, ed. E. Morris Sider (Grantham, PA: BIC Historical Soc, 1999), 202.

(10.) According to Patrick Gaffney, author of The Prophet's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt (Berkeley: U California Press, 1994), this Muslim ideal is more theoretical than implemented. See Agnieszka Tennant, "The Prophet's Pulpit," Books and Culture, Jan/Feb 2002, 19.

(11.) I admit that my parallel becomes problematic here, for Islam is a profoundly widespread and heteroglossic religion, while Anabaptism is a small and relatively homogeneous subset of the Christian faith. The point of this essay, however, is not to make new claims about either Islam or Christianity, but to employ the Taliban and the Amish as tropes with which we might rethink the ethics of otherness.

(12.) Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Vintage, 1989), xxix.

(13.) Qur'an, Liberalism and Pluralism, 116.

(14.) Cautioned by Charles Amjad-Ali, I avoid using the word "fundamentalist" to describe the Taliban. He, like others, situates the word in an historical moment: the North American Christian reaction to Modernist liberalism. See "How Did We Get Here? Caveats and Encouragements from History," Cresset 65.2&3 (2001-2002): 9-13.

(15.) My sense of Anabaptist "otherness" arises from multiple conversations with Julia Kasdorf, who suggests, in The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life, "that Anabaptists are probably most comfortable thinking of their community as the other" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2001), 81-2.

(16.) Bakhtin, "Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity," Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. Vadim Liapunov, ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 56.

(17.) David W. Shenk, "Jesus and Muhammad: Two Roads to Peace," Where was God on Sept. 11?: Seeds of Faith and Hope, ed. Donald B. Kraybill and Linda Gehman Peachey (Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2002), 54.

(18.) Qtd. in Kasdorf, The Body and the Book, 178.

(19.) R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation (NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 147, 240.

(20.) Michael Kelly, "Pacifist Claptrap," Washington Post, 26 Sept. 2001. (4 Oct. 2001).

(21.) E.J. Dionne, Jr, "Pacifists, Serious and Otherwise," Washington Post, 4 Oct. 2001, (9 Oct. 2001).

(22.) Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, 368.

(23.) Scott Holland makes a similar point in "Peace and Polyphony: The Case for Theological and Political Impurity," The Conrad Grebel Review 20 (Spring 2002): 103-118. His appeal to "polyphony" is consonant with Bakhtin's advocacy of a dialogized heteroglossia.

(24.) Appleby, Ambivalence of the Sacred, 12.

(25.) Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (New York: Routledge, 1992), 74.

(26.) In both this paragraph and the next I have borrowed ideas and phrases from my essay: "Antiseptic Bakhtin: The Dialogic Christian," Pacific Coast Philology 34 (1999): 18-31.

(27.) "Author and Hero," 144.

(28.) Bakhtin writes, "I must empathize or project myself into this other human being, see his world axiologically from within him as he sees this world; I must put myself in his place and then, after returning to my own place, 'fill in' his horizon through that excess of seeing which opens out from this, my own, place outside him" ("Author and Hero," 25).

Crystal Downing. Associate Professor of English and Film Studies, is recipient of the Dr. Robert and Marilyn Smith Outstanding Teaching Award at Messiah College. She has published widely on Bakhtin, who takes a prominent role in her forthcoming bootk, Writing Performances: The Stages of Dorothy L. Sayers.
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Author:Downing, Crystal
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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