MRBlog | Playing With or Playing Into? On Subverting the “Terrorist” Category

Robert Doggart

By Thomas J. Whitley

Earlier this week I wrote about Robert Doggart, the “Christian terrorist.” As the piece got shared on various social media platforms, I got a little pushback for the stance I took, especially with regard to how I characterized Dean Obeidallah’s use of “terrorism.” In particular, I said,

By labeling Doggart a “Christian Terrorist,” Obeidallah is only playing even more into the hegemony of “terrorist” language that casts the causes, concerns, and complaints of these actors as really being religious in nature and illegitimate. . . . Obeidallah can lambast Fox News for its lack of outrage and panic over Doggart, but his desire to uncritically apply the term to Doggart is only exacerbating the problem.

It was rightly pointed out to me that Obeidallah may also be “playing with” the term “terrorist” in an effort to subvert the dominant narrative and actually be counter-hegemonic. I thought that this response was valid and that I should share a bit about why I chose to write about Obeidallah’s use of “terrorism” the way I did.

For starters, I fully think that Obeidallah was intending to “play with” the term “terrorist” by pushing against the idea that an old, white, ordained Christian minister could not be a terrorist. Indeed, he was trying to ruffle feathers, as it were, by calling him a “Christian terrorist.” He was hoping that some would stop and think about how they may have used the term in the past and realize that it can just as easily be applied to a white American Christian as to a dark-skinned Pakistani Muslim.

And this I think Obeidallah did well. He lays out the hypocrisy in the actions of both the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He points out that the news media apparently applies a different standard for a white American Christian planning a horrific attack on a Muslim-American community center than it does for a non-white and non-American planning an attack on Christians.

Yet, I chose to highlight how I think Obeidallah was “playing into” the hegemony of “terrorist” narratives by only calling for a re-application of the term – with all of its sting, implications, and discrediting power – as opposed to calling for a full reconsideration of how the term is deployed, when, and why. It is this aspect of Obeidallah’s piece that seemed veiled to me, so I took it as my objective, as someone tasked to thoughtfully and critically analyze “religion” in culture, to pull back the veil.

It is less obvious, in other words, that Obeidallah actually needs this dominant narrative to remain in place, and so he is simultaneously subverting the category “terrorist” while also buttressing and reinforcing it. Or, as James Scott put it, resisting groups have a “self-interest in conspiring to reinforce hegemonic appearances” (Domination and the Arts of Resistance, xii). For, Obeidallah’s subversion is only meaningful so long as the category as he is characterizing it remains.

Subverting a category is never so simple as broadening its application. The question is not whether Obeidallah is “playing with” or “playing into” the category and its dominant narrative, for the answer is both/and. Indeed, the former cannot exist apart from the later.