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Who Gets the Power of Definition?

While reading through a survey of articles and opinions concerning the construction of the “Ground Zero Mosque,” the question of who gets to define the limits of social groups continuously rose to my mind.  None of the authors explicitly brought up the question – most just assumed that they (or the people they cite) had the best definition of “Islam” and what it means to be “American,” such that they could oppose their “true” definition with some “other” (not to mention, “distorted” or “radical”) definition.  This speaks directly to the problem that these authors are trying to address, whether it is an opinion of whether or not it is appropriate to construct a mosque at Ground Zero or an analysis of how Americans have discriminated against Islam throughout history.  The unspoken question that governs the results of their particular questions is that of definition: who gets the power of definition of “authentic Islam” and “American values” and what is “right.”

Some particular examples from the texts:

Claiming the existence of “the distortion of Islam in the media”[1]

Discussion of a “fatwa…issued by senior Middle Eastern Muslim clerics that called the 9/11 attacks un-Islamic.”[2]

Assuming the privileged role of scholars in resolving the issue, as “scholars are revisiting Islam’s primary sources to offer cogent interpretations of this contentious issue.”[3]

Claims to advantaged information: “Camie Ayash, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, lamented that people were listening to what she called ‘total disinformation’ on Islam.”[4]

If the involved parties recognized that ultimately their struggle was over the authority to define the terms, the discourse would shift from creating a narrative which pits their particular definition against others to legitimizing a particular definition.  This is not to say that this legitimization process will not contain narratives and contrastual illustrations.  Legitimacy comes from distinguishing itself from illegitimacy – thus claims to authority must on some level acknowledge that there exist alternative interpretations.  However, the discourse would center primarily on the conflicting claims to legitimacy rather than on the particular definitions involved.  The correct definition will come from a legitimate source.  If “logic” is the legitimate means to arriving at the correct definition, then the author will state this and then provide the steps in the logic which arrives at their particular definition.  If the consensus of the ulama has primary authority, then it should suffice that the ulama is in agreement concerning a definition to make it the correct understanding.  The problem with this then becomes which “logic” should prevail?  How do we determine what constitutes the ulama?  The definition of the source of legitimacy would also have to be defined; a particular form of logic with its own a priori assumptions would have to be legitimized.  This leads to an infinite regress of legitimizing definitions, forcing one to choose a priori assumptions upon which one will operate.  Ultimately, legitimacy comes from the arbitrary (however motivated) selection of a priori assumptions which allows one to create a worldview.

Legitimacy comes from the manipulation of symbols (including words) such that those symbols are understood to correspond directly to reality so that posited relationships become actual relationships in the mind.  A heuristic device (taxonomical categorization – or naming/labeling) is thus mistaken for natural reality, the correct way to understand and interpret reality.  A posited relationship between words, which we claim correspond to reality, thus becomes the essential relationship between actual objects/events.

Let’s apply this framework to a selection from the texts.  I have selected a discussion of what the “Ground Zero Mosque” actually is, and why its given name is misleading:

“It will contain a Muslim prayer space that has been referred to as the “Ground Zero mosque”, though it is not intended to be a mosque nor is it to be located at Ground Zero. In fact, the term “Ground Zero mosque,” which was coined by right-wing activist Pamela Geller, is a misnomer since it depicts the distorted impression that the center is to be constructed on the actual site of the 9/11 tragedy and former World Trade Center.”[5]

“It is not intended to be a mosque”: this phrase assumes a definition of a “mosque.”  What is the definition of mosque, and who gets to determine this definition?

“nor is it to be located at Ground Zero”: What is the size of “Ground Zero”?  Is it limited to where the foundation of the World Trade Center was located?  If it is a hallowed ground or sacred space, “Ground Zero” as a symbol and location, is far bigger than this limited space, it has symbolic meaning and importance.  What is the appropriate distance for a symbol of Islam from “Ground Zero”?

“right-wing activist”: an attempt to dismiss the view by labeling the source of the supposedly distorted understanding of the Muslim prayer space in (at least in this context) pejorative terms.

“distorted impression that the center is to be constructed on the actual site of the 9/11 tragedy and former World Trade Center”: This, again, attempts to limit “Ground Zero” to “the actual site” of the buildings.  Note the author’s use of “distorted” and “actual.”

If we approach opinion pieces uncritically, assuming that the author has a privileged access to the “truth,” we fall into the trap of mystificatory language, and we are unable to separate language and posited relationships from reality.

[1] Liyakat Takim, “The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy: Implications for American Islam,” Religions 2011: 134.

[2] Anne Barnard, “Parsing the Record of Feisal Abdul Rauf,” The New York Times, August 21, 2010.

[3] From a May 14, 2008 post on the “On Faith” blog in The Washington Post – quoted from: Anne Barnard, “Parsing the Record of Feisal Abdul Rauf,” The New York Times, August 21, 2010.

[4] Laurie Goodstein, “Across Nation, Mosque Projects Meet Opposition,” The New York Times, August 7, 2010.

[5] Liyakat Takim, “The Ground Zero Mosque Controversy: Implications for American Islam,” Religions 2011: 136.



12 thoughts on “Who Gets the Power of Definition?

  1. Alex,

    Your article is both very interesting and spot on. One of the greatest issues in this current popular debate, and I would contend almost any popular debate, is the definition of vague terms and the appeal by various parties to an equally varied sources of perceived or asserted authority. Ultimately, as you have pointed out in your article above, this boils down to the simple conflation of first order phenomena with second order phenomena. There is some social institution out there in the world that self-identifies as “Islam,” however, to say that Islam is a truly existing thing, rather than a constructed category for a set of doctrines, texts, and ideas, would be false. Any attempt to create a universal definition of this second category of “Islam” is ultimately doomed to fail, in the same way that no universal definition for religion can exist. The category “American” is perhaps even more troubling, since there is even less clear of a notion of that to which this signifier points. Geographic location? Why does the Unites States seem to monopolize this term, then? National identity? This is constantly changing due to immigration. The self-identification of the individuals who find themselves as citizens of the United States? There are all sorts of subsets of such identities. Perhaps there is no such thing as “American” to begin with. Of particular interest in your article is your discussion of “Ground Zero,” and the ultimate arbitrariness of the circumference of its perceived “sacredness.”

    Posted by woolmanjc | April 2, 2012, 11:47 am
    • The problem is that people will often assume that the words they use are common-sensically defined. Also interesting is the power of self-definition – which categories may I use to describe myself? There are discourses concerning whether or not Osama bin Laden or other terrorists are/were Muslims – even when it is fairly evident that they would consider themselves such, people will look at their actions and deem them non-Muslims. Who gets the power of identity maintenance?

      Posted by fetheras | April 12, 2012, 6:07 pm
  2. This is a very interesting way of looking at all the different articles, authors and misconceptions. I have never thought about it in this specific manner, but the misconception of words is not something new. You write, “Legitimacy comes from the manipulation of symbols (including words) such that those symbols are understood to correspond directly to reality so that posited relationships become actual relationships in the mind.” This is a valid point that you make about how words as well as other symbols are falsified within our own minds and what we believe is legitimate. A prime example of this is in fact, the term “Ground Zero Mosque was coined by right-wing activist Pamela Geller, is a misnomer since it depicts that distorted impression that the center is to be constructed on the actual site of the 9/11 tragedy and former World Trade Center.” So due to this perpetual cycle of false realities applied to words, people will continue to lack the ability to address such issues like the Park 51 controversy, because of the long history of twisted words with false information. So the entire world lives and understands the world, including conflicts like this as a falsified reality with no aspect of truth.
    So the continued construing of words in articles and other forms is a serious matter because everything has been misrepresented and only going to get worse. You write, “If we approach opinion pieces uncritically, assuming that the author has a privileged access to the “truth,” we fall into the trap of mystificatory language, and we are unable to separate language and posited relationships from reality.” If this is how we are approaching this material then my question for you is how do you propose we changed this? What do you think we need to do to get out of the cycle of delusion? Is there a better way of reading and understanding the content? The way you present your idea is very clear and concise. I like how you take different examples from the different sources and discuss what distorted it has meaning that is expressed to us. This is a valid point that you make, but the question is how to get the rest of the world to acknowledge this and changed how we all read and interpret this information.

    Posted by tealam12 | April 2, 2012, 2:17 pm
    • Those engaged in scholarly and political discourse need to demand definitions from everyone who gives voice to a particular opinion. It is my experience that most arguments which seem to be un-resolvable are un-resolvable because definitions are not clearly established and agreed upon. Making an argument like “Islam is a religion of peace” means nothing in itself – if part of the definition of Islam is that it is a religion and that it promotes peace, then the argument is tautological, if these are not aspects of the definition, then there seems to be little justification in making such a claim without essentializing Islam into an ideology which can only support peaceful activity, in which case it ends up being a part of the definition, however implicitly. We must demand more from those who seek to sway opinions and make arguments promoting a particular worldview.

      Posted by fetheras | April 12, 2012, 6:13 pm
  3. Alex,

    I really enjoyed your take on the issue. You definitely approached it in a way many would not have thought of. I have just two notes in terms of writing: 1. I wish you would have had more discussion at the end after all those quotes to help wrap it up. 2. Your style is not very accessible to people without college education, but that is not necessarily a bad thing depending on the audience you want. Back to your article, it was interesting how you broke down the problem into a problem of language. Perhaps most arguments are arguments about language and meaning. You say the trouble stems from definitions of Islam and “ground zero mosque”. This makes perfect sense to me, but for the people caught up in the situation it may not be very helpful unless they are trying to redefine these terms. Which is what I think is happening on the pro-mosque side. In an attempt to get what they want either party has to take part in this definition game. If I want people to be open to having a mosque, of course I am going to define it in a way that it is non-threatening. If I do not want a mosque, for whatever reason, I am going to have to define it in a way that is threatening. This the way that all negotiations take place. Definitions may be arbitrary, but they are useful. I think the real problem or perhaps solution here, is not whether a definition of a word is threatening but whether there is any actual “real” threat. Screw the meaning of words, what is the meaning of the actions taking place.

    Posted by cassidylp | April 2, 2012, 2:20 pm
    • I would not advocate that words and definitions are un-useful. Instead, since words can have more than one meaning, and context and worldview presuppositions affect the meanings of words, oftentimes successful communication is not taking place. When someone tells me that “Ground Zero is a sacred ground,” that means nothing in itself, except that it seems to name a particular ground and make a claim about its sacredness. When I understand that Ground Zero refers to the location of a horrific event which has shaped many people’s ideas about freedom, Islam, America, terrorism, etc., I then get an idea of what the person is saying. But still, I don’t feel that I understand what they mean. If they can tell me what Ground Zero is, what sacredness is (as our society is largely secularized, sacredness is not something generally agreed upon), and why we should consider Ground Zero sacred, then they will have successfully communicated their idea to me, whether I agree or not. Then, my agreement or disagreement will be based on the same grounds as the original claim, which is preferable to an argument based on different starting points.

      Your idea that actions have meaning (“the meaning of the actions taking place”) is equally problematic. Actions do not have a one-to-one correspondence with a meaning. If I wave my hand at you, I could be saying “hello” or I could be trying to get your attention, or I could be warning you of impending danger. The “meaning” of the act is not evident outside of a particular context. And even given the particular context, different people will assume different meanings. There would have to be some discourse concerning the meaning of an action to make sure that everyone agrees upon the meaning of that action…bringing us back to words, which will need to be defined.

      Posted by fetheras | April 12, 2012, 6:24 pm
  4. Dear Alex,

    This post is fascinating. You point to deeper questions that are often overlooked, particularly within the context of mainstream cultural debates. One must always look at the question of legitimation, particularly when it comes to definitions and terms. Of course we know that myths, terms, etc are used by political groups to forward their particular agendas. We know that names and discourse will pull people together or break them apart. Unfortunatly many people do not. At least, they are not aware of this process as it pertains to the news they watch, the books they read or the people they talk to. How many people ask what it means to be a “terrorist” or a “social justice” activist or “feminist”? Your post is brilliant in that it points out the arbitrariness of these distinctions. Ultimately it is an arguement over legitimacy. Perhaps if more people recognized this there could be more honest, if not profitable, dialogue.

    Perhaps being frank about questions of legitimacy is a political loser in America today. No one wants to be told what to do or what to think and for someone to acknowledge that their beliefs are rooted in something other than themselves may be difficult. Further, if we are to live up to the ideals of pluralism and tolerance and go along with the discourse that other people’s truths are as good as our own, we can only conclude that there is no real truth. The question of legitimacy would have a tough road to travel if it was to be accepted as a real topic of discourse.

    Posted by shannonwiese | April 2, 2012, 2:57 pm
    • I appreciate your insight concerning the difficulty of legitimizing any notion using terms which point to why it is legitimate. If legitimacy is assumed, it is much easier to convince people of a notion. If legitimacy is stated, then legitimacy is reduced. Also, as you state, if there is no access to “truth” then legitimacy is a constructed notion, and legitimacy is decreased as a result.

      Posted by fetheras | April 12, 2012, 6:27 pm
  5. You do an excellent job of shedding light on the mystificatory language these authors employ when attempting to assert their “authoritative” position on the subject matter with the purpose of convincing people that their view is the only “logical” understanding of the situation. I find it interesting that you only seek to poke holes on the side of the argument that support the building of the “Ground Zero mosque” (if we can even call it that?). An interesting example of mystificatory language is employed on the other side of the argument by labeling the former World Trade Center site “Ground Zero” to begin with as it calls into the mind of the listener the horrific tragedies and implications of a nuclear explosion which obviously did not take place at the World Trade Center site. I definitely agree with the general thrust of your argument and your elucidation of your position is very well executed. I understand that a defense (quasi-defense better) of the side of the argument that is opposed to the construction of the mosque (derived from your exclusion of similar analysis of the other side of the argument) is hard to manage without coming off as bigoted and ignorant (as the articles demonstrate pretty effectively) but you pull it off. However, as an argument that probably is not meant to legitimize the side of the controversy that opposes the mosque and is intended to be more broad in scope, it might have been beneficial to do a similar analysis on some of the “authoritative” claims through mystificatory language that were made in opposition to the construction of the mosque.

    Posted by drewcostello | April 2, 2012, 6:10 pm
    • First of all, it was not my intent to advocate for either side of this debate – I merely wished to point out how assumed definitions and legitimacy can obscure arguments and in essence, trick people into agreeing. I focused on a single article to illustrate the various ways an author can mystify the reader, rather than giving a skin-deep, one example-per-article picture. The language of any argument (except those who clearly define all “ambiguous” terms) is easily problematize-able. I would hope that the reader, after reading my article, could go and read any other piece and use the insights gained from my work – the ideas can be applied in so many contexts.

      Posted by fetheras | April 12, 2012, 6:35 pm
  6. Dear Alex,

    If I have understood your argument, I believe that the scholar assumption to use linguistic terms which carry cultural, religious, and political innuendos without first and foremost recognizing the misleading messages they convey, does not lead to a clear discussion of any topic. From our previous conversation, I understand that these claims of “authentic Islam” and “American values” are problematic since they generalize knowledge based on a pre-assumed understanding of the terms. Yet, as your article describes, this assumption leads to the manipulation of particular concepts which have not yet been clearly defined by the authors. Perhaps Omid Safi accurately describes your sentiment when he argues that “There can be no Islam without the humanity who is doing the submitting ” (18).

    I agree that the assumption that concepts such as “Islam” and “American values” do not require precise definitions lead to misinterpretations of arguments as well as the supposition that particular abstract notions are generally understood among academics in the field. Furthermore, the lack of describing what is meant by “Islam” borderlines an arrogant postulation that these concepts demand no further exploration.

    Although your critique of language being used a tool of communication which can lead to miscommunication is valid, I can’t help but to wonder if an accepted mode of conversation that provides definitions for every possible term can lead to a more effective resolution. In other words, since language is limited by culture, history, and perception, should we avoid finding a way to resolve issues that affect the lives of many due to its limitations? While the definition of every possible term may lead to a clearer argument, it seems that the fact that I am able to communicate my message to you without providing additional definitions also demonstrates that a certain level of knowledge is shared among those who live within a particular cultural reality.

    Posted by alfredo71 | April 2, 2012, 6:27 pm
    • The process of decision-making should be approached very carefully. Unstated assumptions of the legitimacy of a particular view obscures the argument, and renders the logic largely unfollowable in many situations. For example, I could claim that “Women cannot be president.” By itself, people can agree or disagree based on whether or not they give authority to me or my words. If I make clear the method for legitimizing and the logic behind such a statement, my authority is not as necessary – the idea and logic stands for itself on some level. “God made Adam first, and Eve from his side, as a subordinate partner, prefiguring the subordinate role of women in society, making women leadership not only inferior, but also against the will of God – as a result, women cannot be president.” At this point, the audience is invited to consider each point in my logical flow, which allows them to be critical of my words based on something other than my reputation. If a person does not subscribe to that particular creation myth, it is unlikely that they will agree with me (they may still arrive at the same conclusion, but it will be by a different route). If people disagree with a particular interpretation of the partnership prescribed by God, they will disagree. If someone thinks that God’s will in this context was over a household norm, rather than governmental and social power relations, my argument is not convincing. I prefer claims which are backed up by a particular logic, as it allows me to determine the legitimacy of their claims based on something other than their reputation, which, in my experience, is not a good indicator of claim legitimacy.

      Posted by fetheras | April 12, 2012, 6:48 pm

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