Volume 11, Number 1 (January, 2014)
Author: Dr. Thorsten Botz-Bornstein
Religion pertains to absolute values granted by revelation and on the existence of a god. Culture is more relativist but also more able to seduce. In this article I show that the revelation-seduction opposition developed by Baudrillard in Of Seduction applies to the difference between religion and culture. In Of Seduction, Baudrillard does not talk much about religion but postulates, right at the beginning, that seduction is clearly not on the side of religion because “for religion seduction was a strategy of the devil, whether in the guise of witchcraft or love. It is always the seduction of evil – or of the world. It is the very artifice of the world” (Baudrillard: 1). At first sight, Baudrillard’s statement is surprising because one might assume that religion – like culture – can enchant us with rituals and other socio-aesthetic phenomena that transcend reality. Both religion and culture attempt to seduce us into their own world, both offer similar visions or consolations pointing beyond the harsh realities of civilization, and both like to offer some “truth” that points beyond the randomness of purely secular constellations. However, it does not matter into what we are seduced: it is the process of seduction itself that is evil. Whenever we adhere to a religion, in the very end, we are supposed to do so not because we have been seduced, but because a certain truth has been revealed to us. And this revelation is clearly the opposite of those half-revealing techniques of seduction.
II. Seduction and Revelation
Seduction is always revelation-dissimulation, it seduces by hiding its truth, by not fully spelling out the truths and by letting us guess, think, and imagine the truth: “Seduction never stops at the truth of signs, but operates by deception and secrecy, it inaugurates a mode of circulation that is itself secretive and ritualistic, a sort of immediate initiation that plays by its own rules” (81). Therefore seduction does not follow the ritual of religion (which is based on revelation) but of culture. Culture creates its own rituals, it becomes a ritual in itself. This is why religion can never be merely culture: a religious god should not be imagined or evoked but seen.
The difference between revelation and seduction is thus not defined by the “what” of religion and culture but by the way in which God is approached. The American-German protestant theologian and existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich (1886-1965) has explained this very wellin his What is Religion? For him, both culture and religion contain the spiritual, but both direct the spiritual towards different aims: “Religion is directedness of the spirit toward the unconditioned meaning. Culture is directedness of the spirit toward conditioned form” (Tillich: 72). True, only “revelation is the breakthrough of the Unconditional into the world of the conditioned” (29) and only in the “‘Holy Spirit’ does the nature of spirit find its realization” (73). However, the spiritual can also find some sort of realization (though never a breakthrough) in the conditional – which is culture. For Tillich, “concepts such as ‘revelation’ and ‘redemption’ stand in clear opposition to religion because they express an action “happening only once” while religion subsumes a “whole series of spiritual acts and cultural creations under one concept” (27-28). Revelation is divine while religion depends on human actions. Revelation is absolute, singular, exclusive, and self-sufficient while religion depends on relative events that are always recurring and never exclusive. Culture and religion are thus on the same side and they are opposed to revelation.
When the spirit is directed towards the conditioned form, the approach is that of seduction while any directedness of the spiritual towards the unconditional form represents an act of revelation. Neither the one nor the other is “reasonable” but both overcome reason. However, the delirium of seduction is different from the delirium of revelation, which is, strictly speaking, not supposed to be a delirium at all but a clear insight. The first reason why culture does not pretend to be a generalized reproduction of truth is that its entire existence is based on desire, that is, on the desire of something that has not been achieved, that still needs to be discovered. The second reason is that even this discovery does not follow the pattern of revelation but rather that of a construction. Culture does not reveal truth, but it constructs truth in its own terms; which is also the principle of seduction.
Culture and seduction are imperfect by definition, which is why they can be called “interesting.” I am using the word “interesting” in Matthew Arnold’s sense as a quality that he sees as one of the most distinctive marks of culture. Culture, in Arnold’s understanding is “best described by the word interesting” because it provides subtle reflections on the world and on ourselves (Arnold: 170). Interesting are those phenomena that we can submit to critical examination – after which we will perhaps not even agree with them – but which we will still perceive as being beneficial for the development of our cultural or intellectual environment. The word “interesting” comes here very close to “seductive.”
This is very different from the procedures of religion. In religion, desire is, to use an expression that Baudrillard advances in another context, “operationalized without restrictions” (Baudrillard: 5), which concerns also the desire to discover God. God is presented as a revealed truth, which means that nothing “interesting” can remain here, simply because the full truth has been revealed. Certainly, both religion and culture produce deceptions that they maintain in the form of what Nietzsche has called “ritualized fictions.” However, the difference is that culture does not present those fictions as “revealed” while religion does.
III. Religion and Revelation
When religion is strong, pure, and original it needs the “generalizing conceptual structure” (Tillich: 27) called culture to a much lesser extent. Sometimes religion attempts to work within a sphere beyond culture, which means that it attempts to impose a revealed truth upon the world. In those cases, religion becomes a reality that claims to be pure revelation. By abandoning its cultural imagery, religion decides not to seduce but merely to reveal. Extremist forms of religion often chose this option. Then culture and religion become antagonistic entities and their relationship ends up in conflict. The fundamentalist project of “islamicizing the world” or of “islamicizing modernity” for example, attempts to submit culture-religion to a truth of revelation that has been well defined beforehand outside the context of any culture. By extending religious faith to mundane phenomena or by using religion and its symbols as vehicles for the articulation of political claims, fundamentalists integrate culture into religion (and not the other way round). Then cultural ways become absolute and iconic: rituals, gestures, and phrases will be admired for their own sake because they are strongly linked to what has been revealed in the scriptures. They are no longer “merely culture” but revelation-religion. Both the revival of Islamic legal systems and the sacred nostalgias spread by born-again Christian sects in the United States and Africa represent such “revealed” realities. Those realities are “cultures” that have been inflated and overloaded with a maximum of sense based on revelation. In other words, those religions do not seduce us into their religion-culture but want to submit cultural reality to a reality based on revelation. While culture seduces us into a dreamlike cultural truth that can never be fully achieved, religion-revelation (in Tillich’s sense) attempts to appear simply everywhere in the form of a generalized simulation. In the worst case, this truth qua revelation will end up as indoctrination.
Normally, this cannot happen to culture except when it is turned into a “sort of religion” (for example, an official state culture). In all other cases, culture seduces us through its partial lack of sense, which makes culture interesting or “cool” in the sense of McLuhan’s definition of a cool “semi-presence,” while religion attempts to immerse us in its own truth through a pretended fullness of sense that is supposed to explain “everything.”
IV. Religion and Pornography
Baudrillard mentions McLuhan’s ideas about a “hot” presence opposed to a more elusive but inspiring “cool” semi-presence in the context of ritual forms that transcend all sociality (Baudrillard: 90) and by which we are seduced. For McLuhan, the term “hot” applies to any kind of information that is highly defined or that “leaves not much to be filled in” (McLuhan 1964: 37); and revelation is supposed to be exactly that. As a matter of fact, nothing can be “hotter” than revelation. Religion (as it contains revelation) is thus hot, while culture is cool because it leaves the transmitted information partly unexplained and open to interpretation. Still, revelation does not produce a “real” truth that can be measured. Is it “really true” that Jesus is the son of Christ or that the Quran was revealed to Mohammed by God? Culture does not produce truth in the form a reality either; but at least in most cases, it does not pretend to do so.
Originally, Baudrillard’s above quoted idea that desire can be “operationalized without restrictions” does not refer to religion but to pornography. It is surprising how well it works within the present analysis of religion: If culture is seduction, then religion is pornography. Seduction is not sex, it might lead to sex, but once it has led there, seduction will stop. Above that, seduction never pretends to be sex. Religion goes the other way. Like pornography, religion simulates truth (real sex) through an abundance of signs without ever showing us how this truth (real sex) can be obtained. Naturally, the process of pornographic simulation signifies also the total loss of seduction. Seduction is the contrary of pornography because it refuses the fullness of sense in which everything is shown, seen, explained, clarified, and magnified. Baudrillard writes that “the great stars or seductresses never dazzle because of their talent or intelligence, but because of their absence. They are dazzling in their nullity, and in their coldness – the coldness of makeup and ritual hieraticism” (Baudrillard: 96).
The obscene sense of revelation as a concept persists even in the context of science. Fatma Oussedik criticizes the idea of a “revealing” science that is often metaphorically linked to religion. She speaks of “the confusion, widespread in the educational system and society, between science as an object of ‘revelation’, in the near-religious sense of the word, and science as a process of construction of concepts and objects, that is, of phenomena” (Oussedik: 137). We are not supposed to be attracted or seduced by the light of truth that Plato sees shining into the cave of ignorance, we are not supposed to work ourselves “upward” in order to become more and more knowledgeable. Truth will simply be revealed to us through a sudden insight. This model of revelation fosters an idea of passiveness that is shared by the users of pornography while seduction encourages constructive participation.
Seduction is deception and secrecy, which is the contrary of revelation. Pornography does not deceive. Instead it creates a simulated truth. Certainly, we are not forced to accept this truth as real; but we are shown this revealed truth as if it were real sex. In other words, pornography eludes seduction altogether by producing blunt revelation. Strictly speaking, pornography cannot seduce, but it limits itself to the ambition of revealing more and more. Pornography does not even proceed through what Baudrillard calls “vulgar seduction,” that is, through seduction based on persistence.
In some way, the idea of religion and pornography as devices of anti-seduction comes close to Harry Frankfurt’s philosophical definition of “bullshit” as the “deceptive misrepresentation of reality.” However, there are also essential differences. According to Frankfurt, bullshit misrepresents reality but remains different from lying because, contrary to the liar, the “bullshitter” does not try to deceive (Frankfurt: 6-7). In other words, bullshit is not false, but merely fake and phony (47) because the bullshitter is not lying but bluffing. He attempts to establish a new reality, which is an alternative reality “not inferior to the real thing” (ibid.).
First, while not all religion is bullshit (the topic is discussed by Reisch 2005), it is a fact that both religion and pornography tend to deceive without lying by producing deceptive misrepresentations of reality that rely on an exalted effect of revelation. They tend to but they don’t have to. Everything depends on whether we deal with religion-revelation or with religion-culture (in Tillich’s sense). At the same time, both religion and pornography can transcend bullshit because their deceptive simulation can be so perfect that it comes close to lying. The principle of regular bullshit is that it attempts to seduce us through its images and ideas. Of course, this is a very blunt form of seduction: very often it is the kind of seduction that relies on bluffing or perhaps on what Baudrillard has called “vulgar seduction,” that is, seduction based on persistence. Still it remains in the realm of seduction. In this sense, religion and pornography, as long as they are based on revelation, are worse than bullshit: they are trying too hard to be real, they are bluffing too much, and by doing so, they abandon any agenda of cultural or erotic seduction. However, it does not have to be like this. The more religion relies on revelation the more it loses its seductive powers and comes closer to pornography; when it relies on culture, its seductive powers increase. The same goes for pornography: as soon as it integrates erotic qualities, its seductive powers increase. When its devices are restricted to mere “revelation,” its seductive powers decrease.
Strictly speaking, culture and seduction also deceive without lying, but they are further removed from bullshit because they clearly pose as weak deceptions and do not attempt to “reveal” new realities. Usually, cultures do not attempt to immerse us in an abundance of “true” signifiers, but merely try to seduce us; and often they do so by producing an intriguing and partial absence of sense that asks to be reestablished. There is always something “interesting” in culture whose sense we would like to discover; any complete revelation of the culture’s “sense” spelled out by science would make that culture boring. As mentioned, though bullshit can seduce (and it is often meant to seduce), most of the time it does not follow a genuine pattern of seduction: its overwhelming quantity of signs and senses is meant to be “impressive” in the first place. Sometimes we are seduced because we are impressed, but this is not the most genuine sense of seduction. In the worst case, bullshit (like pornography) produces what Baudrillard calls a “terrorism of meaning” (Baudrillard: 137).
As a rule, culture is seductive because of its partial absence of sense, just in the way in which Baudrillard describes the act of seduction as a “flickering of a presence. She is never where one expects her, and never where one wants her. Seduction supposes, Virilio would say, an ‘aesthetics of disappearance’” (85). We know that hysterical people are terrified at the idea of being seduced (cf. 120); and this hysteria is shared by both believers and the atheists. People who are terrified at seeing signs signifying something other than the pure (revealed) truth (for example signs that are linked to the cultural history of a religion) are hysterical. What both believers and atheists abhor is the potential total inner absence of the signifier. They refuse to be seduced because once they have given in to the seduction it could turn out that no truth (no real sex) can be obtained at all. Baudrillard explains that iconoclasts destroy icons not because they believe that icons are bad, but because they are afraid that once they have icons, their examination will lead to the discovery that they do not contain any truth at all. Therefore they decide to have no seductive icons at all and to revel in the full sense of an abstract revelation in which no sense is lacking (cf. 58).
Whenever religion is transformed into culture, this will happen through a partial elimination of sense. The reduction of sense creates the seductive charm or coolness that we find in culture but not in revelation. The notion of play is very important here because play always proceeds as an imperfect simulation. This is why play is able to seduce. When Baudrillard analyzes the anatomy of seductive play, he traces (though not explicitly) a process identical to the one which turns religion into culture. He describes:
the capacity immanent to seduction to deny things their truth and turn them into a game, the pure play of appearances, and thereby foil all systems of power and meaning with a mere turn of the hand. The ability to turn appearances in on themselves, to play on the body’s appearances, rather than with the depths of desire. (8)
Seduction is (played) weakness while pornography is (fake and not played) strength: “We seduce with our weakness, never with strong signs or powers. In seduction we enact this weakness, and this is what gives seduction its strength” (83). The conclusion is that when religion is transformed into culture, signs are cancelled in order to produce a void. What we appreciate in seductive culture is “not the accumulation of signs, nor the messages of desire, but an esoteric complicity with the absorption of signs” (77-78).
V. From Pornographic Religion to Seductive Culture: Examples
An example of such a transformation is the Kuwaiti comic book The 99 featuring a team of superheroes based on Islamic religion. The cartoon chronicles the adventures of ninety-nine superheroes, each of whom embodies an attribute of Allah. In spite of this “religious” content, the creator of the series, Kuwaiti psychologist Naif Al-Mutawa, insists that the comic is only vaguely based on Islamic concepts and promotes rather universal virtues. In a personal conversation with me he affirmed that his aim is to take “religion out of religion.” What remains, is an Islamic culture that is supposed to seduce children all over the world. Critics interpret this seduction still as a disguised indoctrination, as does Zionist Pamela Geller, who sees no cultural values such as moderation and tolerance in the presentation of “Burqa Babe Batina the Hidden,” but only the civilizational project of an “ongoing onslaught of cultural jihad” (Geller’s blog), which remains fully inscribed in the logic of religion.
A more extreme but also more original example of how religion can be turned into culture is the North American Islamic Punk scene known as Taqwacore. The word Taqwacore is composed of hardcore (from hardcore punk) and the Arabic word ‘taqwa’, which means ‘piety’. Taqwacore is a sort of “Islamic punk,” which relies on the fusion of antagonistic elements as well as on a common ground that punk shares with Islam as it is perceived by the U.S. public: both “shun mass media” and both are “deliberately ugly” (Knight: 56). Muslim punks not only exist in North America, but occur in local punk scenes around the world, even in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, and Singapore where punk is strongly frowned upon.
The Taqwacore punk movement was inspired by Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel The Taqwacores, whichillustrates the radical transformation of religion into culture by applying, precisely in Baudrillard’s sense, an “annulment of the signs, of their meaning, with their pure appearance” (Baudrillard: 76). Taqwacore is an example of how “regular” religion (which almost all protagonists of the novel do not find very seductive) can become a procedure of seduction by renouncing to its fullness of sense.
The Taqwacore Muslim punk community lives and prays in a smelly house where “queer alims, drunk imams, punk ayatollahs, masochistic muftis, junkie sheikhs, retarded mullahs and guttermouthed maulanas” (Knight: 28) celebrate a brotherhood of nations. The surrealistic juxtapositions are supposed to install Islam as a perfect system of life able to overcome the various identity crises that have struck those young people. For the Friday prayer they expect “kids from campus who couldn’t identify with the Muslim Student Association” (30). There is a band called “Burning Books for Cat Stevens” and an obscenities-saying burqa clad girl with an apparent sarcastic smile under her face veil. Conversations are interspersed with random Arab words and oral rituals and revolve around parodic and fussy negotiations of tiny religious details (“don’t blow on your tea to cool in down, it’s not sunnah”) as well as orthodox interpretations of “Shaikh Iggy Pop” songs. While an electric guitar plays the call to prayer, incoherent discussions of Allah end up in a wrestling match in which the burqa girl participates. While the official “guys from the mosque” are characterized as mean, ignorant and hypocrite or as defenders of “religious assholes spirituality (128),” the Taqwacore community believes to practice, in spite of – or just because of – the above incoherences, a sincere and authentic form of Islam: “Rabeya gave every stupid second of her life to that Islam” and “if Islam was to be saved, it would be saved by the crazy ones” (31).
Strict piety and its idols are deconstructed by dissociating culture from religion: Culture should not claim to be religion but remain culture. This is why Jehangir claims that “figh is worthless. No madrassa of imperfect human beings can claim ownership of my deen [religion]” (censored part). Taqwacore is “interesting” in Arnold’s sense of the word because it is “still young enough to be malleable, still a long way from growing old and stale and rigid like its cousins” (74). The problem with “real” religion is that “people are so uptight and emotional about religion and take it so seriously, sometimes you need a punk to say ‘fuck you’” (censored part). In Muslim punk, Islam as a “perfect system of life” is made imperfect by producing an intriguing absence of sense that participants are asked to reestablish.
If theologian Reinhold Niebuhr identified “the yearning for perfection” as the typical religious impulse (Niebuhr: 113), then Muslim punk has a yearning for imperfection and is therefore cultural. Those Muslim punks avoid what Niebuhr has called the “too simple alliance between the divine and human ends,” which he sees as the main danger of piety (6) and which must be destroyed by highlighting the limited character of both culture and religion. Truth is limited and it should therefore be rescued by declaring religion to be culture.
The “religion” practiced by the Taqwacore movement is supposed to seduce through its lack of meaning and not through its fullness of revelation, just like for Baudrillard “seduction supposes not a signified desire, but the beauty of an artifice” (76). Consequently, Knight presents his version of Islam as an “open symbol” and as a “free and shapeless” (74) form of Islamic religion. The protagonists believe that Islamic culture should not be rigid but full of promise and vitality. The radical consequence is that even apostasy will have to become part of this “religion.” Fiscella points out that:
In contrast to conservative Islamist tradition that considers apostasy anathema, Knight’s theology considers the option of apostasy, the revocability of one’s beliefs and religious “culture,” to be central. In contrast to liberal Islam (whom Knight was partly reacting against), apostasy is not merely permitted in a punk version of Islam but more or less recommended. Taking God seriously implies not taking arbitrary human institutions too seriously, including the Quran itself. “Even a book by or from Allah is not Allah.” (Fiscella: 276)
Though Fiscella insists that Taqwacore should be seen “as a theological development within Islam” (266), it seems to me rather that those young Muslims and converts who are living in Western countries produce a music that clearly rejects religious Muslim values though they still claim to adhere to a vague but powerful enough concept of “Muslim identity.” This cultural identity is interspersed with religious elements in order to maintain the cultural link with religion. But is it also very much fed by protest against mainstream society as well as by protest against the Muslim tradition.
Of course, there is something contradictory or even absurd about all this, and the coherence of this cultural system can only be explained through Baudrillard’s model of seduction in which “a duel [sic] relation transacted by meaningless signs” is still “held together by a fundamental rule and its secret observance” (Baudrillard: 82). As a consequence, Eyad and other individuals involved in the Taqwacore movement and who have been interviewed by Hosman, explain that Taqwacore is a way to “explore complexities” within themselves and to challenge and question the Muslim community (Hosman: 50). Taqwacore is thus a culturalphenomenon that exercises “a power of attraction and distraction, of absorption and fascination” (Baudrillard: 81). It can be considered cool because of its refusal of any yes-no paradigmatic language.
Fusions of Muslim culture with Punk, Hard Rock or Hip Hop youth culture are widespread, as demonstrated by studies of the Indonesian Muslim punk scene by Fiscella as well as of Hard Rock in the Arab world by Mark LeVine (2008a). It is interesting that LeVine refers in his book Why they don’t Hate Us (2008b)to Tillich and his theory of “secularization” as defining not the absence of religion or faith, but rather a directedness of the spiritual towards the unconditional, that is, towards culture. However, in my opinion LeVine misinterprets Tillich’s idea because he depicts secularization as a “materialistic perspective producing emptiness and lack of sense” (LeVine 2008a: 26). Persons involved in the above streams of popular culture do not merely deny the sense of religion, but produce a “sense” that they even spell out through symbols that remain strongly linked to religion. This sense will define their identity within a certain social context. It is a spiritual sense, but at the same time it is fractured and “cool” which removes it from the purely religious in the sense of revelation. This is the reason why those symbols will never become idols.
Something similar is done, though less radically, when Muslim practices are adopted for fashion purposes. For thirty years Islamic dress has been actively adapted to the modern fashion situation as young, urban, middle class women wear the Islamic veil in a completely new style. In Turkey, so-called tesettür (veiling fashion) combines veiling with the standards of beauty as well as with marketing methods intrinsic to modern international fashion. The new phenomenon could be observed in many places where this practice had previously been almost nonexistent, such as Bangladesh (cf. Sandikci & Ger: 11). Carla Lewis sees in those revivalist positions” the attempt “to reclassify previously normative community practices as cultural (hence open to correction) rather than religious. (…) A less doctrinal take on new definitions of the umma leaves matters of religious practice heterogeneous.” At the same time it “adopts the umma’s potential for politicized affective identifications” (Lewis: 68). Muslim women interviewed by Tarlo in England who are in a similar situation, very clearly expressed their desire to separate the cultural from the religious (Tarlo: 25). And a female Muslim stand-up comedian insists that “I never make jokes about my religion, only about my culture” (18).
The fashion examples in combination with the Islamic punk movement show that those cultural phenomena can very well be classified as counter-cultural. They are not however “counter-cultural religions” and have no potential to convert into those. Their version of “Islamic Revival” is strictly cultural and cannot be compared with the sort of “religious revivals” occurring in the U.S. in the form of groups like Youth for Christ, Jesus Freaks, Hare Krishna or the Unification Church (the Moon Sect), all of which represent responses to the increased secularism and materialism of contemporary society by using purely religious means. Also more “vague” forms of spirituality (“experience the spiritual by living for three days like Benedict monks in a hotel-converted monastery”) still isolate and exalt the spiritual in order to inject it into an alternative form of culture that has been created for this purpose and comes close to a religion in the form of a non-religion. Instead of applying an annulment of signs in order to seduce through a lack of meaning, those counter cultural religions or anti-religions try to convince by revealing a fullness of sense.
Islamic punk and Muslim hard rock practice religion in the way in which it has been expressed by Tillich. Tillich’s radical separation of religion from revelation, his insistence that revelation exists beyond both religion and culture describes the paradigm that those examples of popular culture are trying to produce. They want to take revelation out of religion because they find that as long as religion remains linked to revelation it simulates, like pornography, truth through an abundance of signs without ever showing us how this truth can be obtained. By inventing “cooler” approaches, religion becomes more seductive.
About the Author
Dr. Thorsten Botz-Bornstein is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Gulf University, Kuwait.
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