Following Catholic uproar, a proposed Satanic mass at Harvard has been canceled. The mass was going to be put on by the Satanic Temple, the group who also has plans to plant a Baphomet figure on the front lawn of the Oklahoma Statehouse. Despite the fact that the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club dropped its sponsorship, the group still managed to have an unsanctioned "black mass" at Harvard Square's Hong Kong restaurant and lounge. What bothers me the most about the official quashing of the Satanic Temple's mass by Harvard is that it is being hailed as a victory for religious tolerance—it's not. Instead, it's a case of a small group getting bullied into submission because it offended a big religion.
In an editorial for the Harvard Crimson, Francis X. Clooney, Harvard professor and director of its Center for the Study of World Religions, expresses concern for what he calls this proposed “disconcerting incident.” He presents the elements in satanic ritual that invert and “blaspheme” Catholic sacraments as a potential slippery slope, asking, “What’s next? The endeavor ‘to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices’ might in another year lead to historical reenactments of anti-Semitic or racist ceremonies… or parodies that trivialize Native American heritage or other revivals of cultural and religious insult.”
Clooney’s nightmare scenario ignores one important question, that of institutional privilege: While racism is an oppressors’ power play that always moves from the top down, Satanism critiques a target immeasurably more powerful than itself. For Catholics at Harvard to complain about Satanists offending them is like white people complaining about Louis Farrakhan’s “reverse racism.”
In addition to his positions at Harvard, Clooney is also a Catholic priest. I know the history of Catholicism in America, and am sure that Clooney does as well. There was a time when Catholics were persecuted, reviled, and marked as the definitive “un-American” religion. Within the developing field of religious studies, the privileged position of liberal 19th-century Protestantism as “real” religion in its most evolved form also led to unfair anti-Catholic prejudice within the academy. Catholicism has struggled in the United States for recognition both as authentically Christian and authentically American.
Times have changed, so I’d like to tell Dr. Clooney how the American religious landscape looks in 2014. Dr. Clooney, I am a Muslim. As a Muslim in the cliché context of “post-9/11 America,” I encounter anti-Muslim discourses that use the same arguments that you have employed against Satanists. In more than one American city, Islamophobes have opposed the establishment of mosques by claiming that Muslims are intolerant and incapable of coexisting with other communities, or even that Islam is not a “real” religion and therefore cannot be entitled to the same defense of its freedoms. In the case of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” people argued against the presence of a Muslim community simply on the basis that it would hurt their feelings.
As a Muslim, I have to support the Satanists. Public revulsion of Muslims in this country is so popular that I have no choice but to stand with religions that are marked as ugly, offensive, and intolerant. Rather than join the anti-Satanist outrage and try to convince Christians that Muslims deserve to be included as “children of Abraham” or whatever, I would suggest that Muslims take a radical stand on behalf of the religious freedoms that we claim for ourselves. The people who wish to insult Muslims are not members of ridiculed fringe groups. They are not just isolated Qur’an-burning pastors, but extraordinarily well-funded and networked activists. Islamophobia is so mainstream that as Muslims, we must support freedom for all marginalized religions, because too many people have marginalized us.
I have no doubt that in his commitment to religious pluralism and interfaith understanding, Clooney supports the inclusion of Muslims as full participants in American life. His work in comparative theology, which focuses on dialogue between Catholicism and Hinduism, reveals great insight as to how we can be enriched by traditions that are not our own. Unfortunately, the projects of interfaith dialogue tend to privilege old religions over new ones, and big ones over small ones. Christian-Muslim dialogue, for example, isn’t typically going to invite Mormons or Ahmadiyya to the table.
In his treatment of Satanic mass, Clooney’s playing an authenticity game in which privileged religions get to name the terms by which something counts as “religion,” and respect for the sacred thus means respecting what privileged religions mark as sacred. I have seen this game played with destructive consequences for the Five Percenter community. In US prisons, Five Percenters have been historically denied the freedoms of conscience and assembly that are routinely protected for adherents to other traditions. Warith Deen Mohammed, one of the most important Sunni leaders in American Muslim history, endorsed the prison industry’s characterization of Five Percenters as a “dangerous” and “corrupt” group. Incarcerated Five Percenters have been thrown into solitary confinement for no other reason than their personal conviction. Their right to assemble has been taken from them and the lessons that they study have been designated as contraband. Outside of the prison system, Five Percenters have been occasionally denied the right to change their legal names to Allah, with at least one judge stating that for a man to name himself Allah is inappropriate and even blasphemous.
In prejudice against Five Percenters from both Muslims and non-Muslims, broader US Islamophobia, and Clooney’s attack on the Harvard black mass, we find the same mistake: A general failure to ask these people what their outrageous, offensive beliefs, and behaviors actually mean to them. Reducing the Satanic mass to a parody of the Catholic mass, he assumes that the Satanists involved must have no personal conviction that might endow the act with meaning, and discusses the act without any engagement of the human beings for whom it matters. In his editorial, they remain faceless, nameless, and voiceless.
So who are these people? The Satanists involved in the canceled black mass do not believe in Satan as a supernatural entity. For the Satanic Temple, Satan is more of a singular embodiment of their mission to advocate religious tolerance and pluralism. For them, the black mass is a kind of protest against the oppressiveness of religion. Despite the absence of a higher power, the radical atheism they practice is a religious conviction and no less entitled to public expression or ritual performance than the positions of the “one true church.”
Clooney justifies his concern by pointing out that the black mass might be hurtful to a “living faith practice celebrated each day in congregations that include Harvard faculty, staff, and students.” In an official statement on behalf of the university, Harvard president Drew Faust expressed an intention to attend a Eucharistic Benediction at St. Paul’s Church on campus “in order to join others in reaffirming our respect for the Catholic faith at Harvard and to demonstrate that the most powerful response to offensive speech is not censorship, but reasoned discourse and robust dissent.” For both Clooney and Faust, Catholicism’s dignity must be protected because Catholics have a place at Harvard, while Satanism gets casually reviled because of course, Satanists have no place.
What Clooney and Faust miss is that some of us find claims of Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation from eternal torture to be incredibly offensive. Any tradition whose advocates promise to be exclusive possessors of the capital-T “Truth” is going to bother someone. Should all religious discourse that claims supreme truth-making power over other religions disappear from the public? I get that Harvard Divinity School’s preferred religiosity tends to go soft in this regard: At Div School, folks don’t go much for the hellfire talk or claims of superiority. Maybe there’s a Div School version of Satanism that Clooney could go for. Or not, but who cares—Clooney’s personal taste does not provide the measurement of Satanism’s legitimacy.
It would be great if religions can always play nice. When they can’t, I am less concerned with Satanism’s alleged power to make Harvard unsafe for Catholics than the problem of big and powerful religions enforcing their privilege by stomping on small and powerless ones. This is where Clooney gets it wrong in a big way. There has never been—and I am guessing that there will never be—an openly self-identified Satanist with Clooney’s institutional power at Harvard. Because I care about religious freedom not only for the center, but also the margins, count this Muslim with the Satanists.
Michael Muhammad Knight graduated from Harvard with a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree in 2011, and is presently a PhD student in Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He is the author of nine books, including Tripping with Allah: Islam, Drugs, and Writing. Follow Michael on Twitter.