Shared Text: Boston Massacre II and Echoes of the Potter Panic

‘Bombing Suspects Followed Harry Potter-Hating Australian Sheikh’

That’s the headline of a article by Jamie Dettmer that was posted 19 April this year. Here are the lede paragraphs:

Four months ago, the Boston bombing suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed yesterday in a shootout with police, uploaded to his YouTube Channel an eight-minute lecture by the radical Australian Muslim preacher Sheikh Feiz Mohammed denouncing the Harry Potter movies for glorifying and promoting paganism.

“How can you allow your children to watch this?” the sheikh demands in the table-thumping lecture. “This film glorifies, magnifies, promotes paganism…What does Harry Potter do and his devilish schoolmates, what do they do? They cast spells, learn magic, brew potions, learn how to tell the future…And this is called harmless.”

He condemns the Harry Potter movies for being built on shirk — the sin of worshipping someone or something other than Allah.

Two quick notes:

(1) Shared Text — As disturbing as this story is (and excellent reporting in its honest exploration of the jihadist roots of the bombing), the foundation of it is that bombers, victims, mullahs, infidels, reporters, news readers and watchers, all of us, have both become familiar with the Hogwarts Saga and had to reflect on how this story relates to our principle narrative, our view of the world. we accept and embrace, hold at arm’s length, or reject vociferously depending on this relation.

I’m not sure that the number of people who read the books and have their world view changed is statistically significant relative to those who find theirs confirmed and celebrated or threatened and denied. Forgive me for thinking that most of Potter fandom believes the relatively traditional artistry and meaning of the stories confirms their core beliefs when it does so only superficially (see the ‘Eliade Thesis’ and the chapters on postmodernism in Unlocking Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows Lectures).

(2) Not So Subtle Message — There is no mention of the Christian sects, largely Evangerlical but with loud pockets of Catholic and Orthodox alongside them, who found the Hogwarts experience a challenge to their beliefs about faith and the occult. I don’t think there needs to be; any of us who lived through the Potter Panic of the late 90’s and early 00’s read about them in almost every MSM article about the popular response to Harry’s adventures and anticipation of the next book or movie. It’s the reality of the backdrop of any story that includes paragraphs like this:

Poignant ironies abound with the Boston bombing. Martin Richard, the eight-year-old killed in the Boston bombing, and his brother and sister used to like dressing up as movie characters. A few months before the Boston bombing we know the eight-year-old, who perished in the first blast near the finish line of the marathon, and his sister and brother did just that: a snapshot of the kids dressed up in the backyard of the Richards’ family home in Dorchester was shared with the media and shows the kids as characters from the Toy Story movies and Harry Potter.

Happy children who love characters from their favorite stories are contrasted here with dangerous Muslim clerics, inevitably called ‘fundamentalists,’ when what is meant is Wahhabism, and the association in the American mind, forgive me, is inevitably with “Christian fundamentalists,” a phrase reporters use incorrectly almost always (there is a Christian fundamentalist sect with very specific beliefs, but the word has come to mean “religious people we don’t like”).

Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics “fundamentalist” has become a “term of abuse or disapprobation” that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, “sumbitch.”

“Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. … In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views,” noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. “That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch.’ … Its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’

I enjoyed this article, though since first reading it I have given up reading newspapers or any pieces even Potter related that are not sent to me (for why, read this twice). Despite the value of learning the bomber’s motivation sprang from their religious beliefs and the preaching of a specific Australian cleric, though, I think the take-away message was “beware religious believers,” which to secularist non-believers are easily understood on a bombing day to be largely “fundamentalist.” Which is to say, “crazy violent and hateful,” right? “Look out for bombings and gun fire from that crowd.”

Do you think the point of this Hogwarts Saga headline and emphasis — of all the wild things this Shaikh has said! — is to link the Islamic terrorists with Christian Harry Haters? I.e., it’s fundamentalist religion not Radical Islam (c) that is the problem. I think so, however sad and risible that notion is. If you think Christian believers who kill people are just like Muslim extremists who kill people, check out the response of the Christian community when the occasional — as in “not many times in a decade” — true-believer (TM) kills an abortionist. Churches fall over themselves, rightly, to explain that this is not what Christianity is about. Reporters for the most part are indifferent to this distinction, hence the frequently heard apologetic that “their crazies are no different than the Christian crazies.”

Note this parallel in the Rolling Stone profile of ‘Jahar:’

But Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic studies at UMass Dartmouth and an expert on terrorism and the politics of Chechnya, believes that Tamerlan’s journey – which he calls “jihadification” – was less a young man’s quest to join Al Qaeda than to discover his own identity. “To me, this is classic diasporic reconstruction of identity: ‘I’m a Chechen, and we’re fighting for jihad, and what am I doing? Nothing.’ It’s not unlike the way some Irish-Americans used to link Ireland and the IRA – they’d never been to Northern Ireland in their lives, but you’d go to certain parts of Southie in Boston, and all you see are donation cans for the IRA.”

Even the Boston bombing may have been more diaspora longing or ethnicity displacement than Wahhabism, conducive as that belief is now to violence, as historic violence in Northern Ireland is less about faith in Christ (!) than it can be about Gaelic issues, domestic and foreign.

In conclusion —

To those who think Harry Potter is “so over” now, I beg to differ. Not only is the Hogwarts Saga the backdrop of many of our current events, even the accepted story of how Harry Potter was received, the conflict between Christians and academics who despised the novels and those who embraced them, continues to inform and illustrate the core dramas and the media narratives of our time.

Which, of course, is one of its remarkable values as a Shared Text in a world without that many common  points of reference in the mental landscape beyond the experience of cars and smart phones.


  1. phoenixsong58 says

    You make a lot of good points here, and thank you for sharing this interesting article and your thoughts on it.

    There are three things that I’d like to comment on. The first is the idea that the term “fundamentalist Christian” has come to mean “religious people we don’t like.” This of course is true in some cases, but among most of the people I know and meet in the world, “fundamentalist Christian” has a specific meaning. It denotes a Christian who believes that anyone who has not accepted Jesus as their savior is going to hell when they die, and that anyone who doesn’t agree with this or doesn’t believe the Christian doctrine is wrong.

    When I was a lot younger than I am now, I was an evangelical Christian, and we proudly called ourselves fundamentalist Christians. We believed Jesus was the ONLY way to God and that those who didn’t believe like this were wrong and needed to be “saved.” I stopped believing any of that long ago. But in almost all circles, I’ve found that most people’s ideas of what a fundamentalist Christian is match my old beliefs, and are not about “religious people we don’t like.”

    It’s the beliefs we don’t agree with. I know fundamentalist Christians that I like VERY much; in fact one of them is probably the most admirable person I have ever known. But I don’t agree with her belief system, nor do I respect any belief system that believes it’s the only right way to believe rather than one of many, many ways. I think that all religions are mythologies, that humans often need mythologies to help us understand or personalize the realm of Spirit and Mystery (I do!), but that a mature person understands that it’s not the mythology that’s important, but the fruits of it, how it is manifested in one’s life.

    You mentioned that there is an actual sect that is called fundamentalist Christianity; I apologize that I’m not familiar with that group, nor do I have time to look it up at the moment. (But I will! I promise.)

    I don’t belong to any religion (although I have studied many of them in depth), but my spiritual beliefs are of paramount importance in my life, and I pray and meditate every single day. I’ve been working on a degree part time for the last four years, and I will graduate at the end of this semester. You mentioned academics, and I have to make one comment after sitting in the classroom of multiple professors the past few years. I have seen several of them make snide comments about people with religious and/or spiritual beliefs, and, yes, I’ve seen the dismissal of the Harry Potter books as beneath them a couple of times, too.

    Yet among those same professors I’ve observed such a fever pitch of worship for their “deities” of literature, science, philosophy, and art, and an absolute obsession about their academic rituals and the supposed importance of them. God forbid I don’t care much for Shakespeare or Aristotle or Picasso, or that I’m simply not interested in them. That makes me quite stupid and a heathen of the highest degree. And these professors’ mission is absolutely to convert me. These same professors also teach wonderful things in their classrooms, and are good people in other ways. But I have laughed to myself many times to see their disdain of fundamentalist religious people while they behave in the same “fundamentalist” way about the necessity to get others to worship their gods.

    Last comment, on your comment:
    The response of the churches does not make the Christian extremist killer different from or better than that the Muslim extremist killer! That’s like saying one killer is better than another killer if he comes from a family that responds better to the press. And it also seems to imply that our churches respond better than our mosques. The mosques in America ALSO “fall all over themselves, rightly, to explain that this is not what [Islam] is all about” when violence happens, but that is not what gets in the news. Although there may be a larger number of Muslim extremists willing to kill in the world right now, this was not always the case. The Muslims were once mainly a learned and sophisticated people, leaders in science, philosophy, medicine, art, and mathematics. One of the reasons for their decline was the three hundred years of violence against them from the Christian Crusades. Different groups at different times in history are more or less violent, so simply comparing the amount of violence of two different religions in the present does not give an accurate comparison of the two groups.

    Thanks for an interesting discussion!

  2. phoenixsong58 says

    Oops! This is your quote that I had copied into where you see in my comments above:
    “If you think Christian believers who kill people are just like Muslim extremists who kill people, check out the response of the Christian community when the occasional — as in “not many times in a decade” — true-believer (TM) kills an abortionist. Churches fall over themselves, rightly, to explain that this is not what Christianity is about. Reporters for the most part are indifferent to this distinction”