Saturday, January 17, 2015

Can religion claim innocence?

I’m still struggling with a question that’s hard to ask, because to ask it leaves you open to the charge of bigotry.  That question is, “Is there something inherent in Islam that leads one to violence?”

Logo of Boko Haram
In broaching this nearly taboo topic, I am mindful of a couple traps researchers often fall into.  One, unless you are highly disciplined (and even then), what you find tends to be influenced by what you expect to find.  And two, when most people argue, they don’t argue with a completely open mind (why would they – that would only mark them as unread, uninformed, and quite possibly just plain ignorant) but with a framework of expectations and assumptions.  So even when you insist on total objectivity, sometimes simply framing the question leads you, without your awareness, down the wrong path.  The best way around that trap, I think, is to identify your jumping off point and permit people to say they don't agree it's the right place to start.  Here's my jumping off point:  Religions are ideologies based on a questionable assumption – that there is a being greater than ourselves who made us, and has expectations of us.

Because I tend to be hostile to religion (I try very hard to be neutral, and not hostile, and sometimes I succeed – but not always) and because I’ve read a lot of history of religion, I’m aware of the human tendency to be tribal.  And tribalism leads, among other things, to a tendency to bop people over the head who happen to be not of the tribe - who adhere to a different religion, for example.  The pope announced today that he intends to make Junipero Serra a saint (which means you will now be able to ask him to use his weight to get God to have things go your way) – even though between the time Serra landed in Alta California and the time Alta California stopped being Mexico, half the Indian population had died off.   Probably not entirely Junipero's fault.  But sainthood?  Talk about a euro-centric perspective!

But I digress.  I was only trying to get at the point that I don’t see Islam as the only violence-prone religion, merely as the leader of the pack in 2015.  The Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jews, and even the Christians, tend not to strike fear in the heart quite as readily as do the Radical Muslims these days.  We once had the Ku Klux Klan, but they’re gone now.  We do have occasional wackos using a Christian or a white supremacist justification for killing – Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City, for example, or Anders Behring Breivik in Norway.  But these guys are small potatoes compared to ISIS, or to Al Qaeda, or to Boko Haram – radical Islamic groups of unprecedented ferocity.  The Islamic Jihad Organization, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, the Islamic Jihad Union, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Riyad-us Saliheen Brigade of Martyrs, Hezbollah, Hamas….  Check out this link if you want a list of dozens more.

I have tremendous sympathy for the argument peace-loving Muslims are trying to make – and am willing to grant that’s most Muslims – that it's people who know little or nothing about Islam who are giving it such a bad rep.  And sympathy for the view that it’s our fear, drummed up in part by the media, and our ignorance of the particular responsibility Western groups have for generating Islamic blowback groups, that have led to this question, “Is there something fundamentally wrong with Islam?”  But I insist on asking it anyway.

I grant you that Islamicism is not the same thing as Islam.  Islamicism is the ideology that Islam must be imposed by force, the individual is of no consequence, and loss of life - collateral damage to even your own life - comes with the job.  Islam, on the other hand, is a neutral, and possibly benign, force. Possibly.  I just don't know at this point, but it looks to me for all the world like there's something in Islam's fundamental message that is providing the fanatics with what they need to wreak havoc.  Just because Islamicism is not identical with Islam doesn't mean that it is not grounded in Islam.

It’s not just by chance that so many terrorist groups, even when they may not be actively following Islam on a personal level, have Islam in their name.  If it’s not about Islam, but about blowback, why not “The Group to Avenge French Crimes in Algeria,” for example?  The Mossadegh Warriors?  The Iraqi Liberation Front?   Kill the Makers of Drones?  Was bin Laden not motivated to start Al Qaeda because Americans “soiled” the “holy land of Islam” when it put soldiers (including females, no less!) on the ground in Saudi Arabia?  Why does the African group Boko Haram name itself in Arabic – haram being Arabic for forbidden.  And “boko” apparently refers to “Western education.”  And the group’s official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'Awati Wal-Jihad ("People Committed to the Prophet's Teachings for Propagation and Jihad")?  Why do people keep saying it has nothing to do with Islam?

Please note I'm not claiming expert knowledge here.  I’m still in the crowd, wanting to know, “Do I have a right to ask this question?”  If not, can you explain to me why not?  Because the reason is not obvious to me.

I just listened to a terribly interesting interview of a man named Maajid Nawaz.  He was on Fresh Air today, being interviewed by Terry Gross.  A wonderfully articulate man.  And Terry Gross was at her best.  It’s worth listening to in its entirely. 

Nawaz grew up in England, the son of Pakistani parents.  At age 16, bullied by racists, he became radicalized and joined the Islamicist terrorist group, Hizb-ut-Tahrir.  For this mistake, he spent four years in an Egyptian prison, where, he tells us, reading Animal Farm convinced him his fellow prisoners would not run the world any better if they ever ended up in charge.  He left the radical ideology behind and now works to get to kids before they fall into the same trap.

Nawaz said something interesting when asked the question I am asking – is there something in Islam that is a catalyst for people prone to violence?  His answer was, “Religion is what people make of it.  One can make anything of any religion.”

Up to that point, I was totally with this guy.  His claim that it’s not the source of the message that makes the determination, but how the people receiving the message choose to bring that message to life fits communication theory, that communication is interactive, that what is understood is not necessarily what is intended, that the hearer/reader makes of the message what they will, and that includes adding notions from sources which have nothing to do with the message.  But it's not salad recipes they're looking at in the Qur'an; it's passages hostile to people who insult the Prophet and deny the Muslim faith.  There's a direct connection here between the text and the action of terrorists.

If people of good will have the capacity to select out the passages that suit their desire to be decent, don't people of ill will – or people led for one reason or another into a psychotic state – also have the capacity to find passages that suit their pathology as well?  If there is something there to be gotten, I mean.  I don't see anybody making a jihadist campaign out of the Declaration of Independence.  Or the Bhagavad Gita, for that matter.

The argument by peace-loving Muslims goes, “if you know the history, you know how much of the Qur’an was debated over and over through the years and how much these killer-passages have been explained away by those in the know.”  Right.  I’ve got that.  But if what Mr. Nawaz says is true, that things are what you make of them, then is the reality we are now dealing with not, in fact, a seriously dangerous religious ideology?  And should our approach be not to sanitize the message or sweep it all under the rug, but to call attention to the source and get people away from it as fast as we possibly can?  To secularize the world of Islam?  To persuade those inclined to submit themselves to a cause to die for that it’s not the way to go?

Defenders of Islam love to point out that there was a time when the Muslim world led the world in knowledge and civilized behavior, when Christians were burning heretics and killing their enemies on sight.  Great.  Even if you want to give Muslims all the credit for that enlightened time in history, why were they not able to maintain it?  Europe got lucky.  Just as Martin Luther's notion that God was best accessed by a direct reading of the Christian Scriptures, along comes Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press and gives people access to the books that allow them to put this idea into practice. With the byproduct of widespread literacy, an essential building block of the Enlightenment. And what do the Muslims do?  Out of fear the Holy Qur'an might be misunderstood, they forbid the use of the printing press.

Readers of the Christian Bible eventually came to see its many inconsistencies, its approval of slavery, its denigration of women, and the violent parts - like God speaking to the Babylonians in Psalm 137 and telling them after all they've done to his people they're going to have their children's brains dashed against the rocks.  Nice going, Yahweh.

These days, however, we don't have people reading the Bible and concluding they need to take revenge on their enemies and smash their kids's heads against rocks.  But we do have young jihadists willing to kill and die over real or perceived insults to Islam.

Isn't that something that needs fixing?  Does insisting "Islam has nothing to do with it" really work as an explanation?

I’m still working here to make sense of this question.  Not giving answers, but asking for help in understanding this question.

All constructive comments will be welcomed and appreciated.

Note on the terms “Islamist” and “Islamicist” (at present, I see the two terms as synonymous, and distinct from “Muslim”):

Some argue against the term Islamist or Islamicist (and, I assume, the derivatives Islamism and Islamicism)  on the grounds that not all “isms” are like “fascism” and “communism” – i.e., not all negative - Judaism, being the best example.  We should instead be using a better descriptive phrase such as “Radical fundamentalist Islamic fanaticism.”

But I think that argument is weak.  We are beginning to use the term “Christianist” to identify the fanatics among the Christians who would make their organized religion mandatory all around and punish outsiders in one way or another.  And there is a world of difference between “Islamists” and “Muslims.”  Muslims are people who adhere to Islam, the Muslim faith.  As people they are free to make that choice, just as people are free to deny Darwinism.  It doesn’t make them right, necessarily (maybe it does) but it doesn’t take away any of their rights to fair and equal treatment in a democratic state.  So I’m sticking with Muslims to refer to people with whom I have no complaint, and Islamists, as people whom I hope we can talk out of their radical and very dangerous ideology.


Alan McCornick said...

Just came across an article published three days before I posted this - by Valerie Tarico on AlterNet. She says pretty much what I do. It's an obvious question, not an original idea. I'd like to see more people making the same point.

Alan McCornick said...

Michael Walzer has this to say of militant Islam:

"For myself, I live with a generalized fear of every form of religious militancy. I am afraid of Hindutva zealots in India, of messianic Zionists in Israel, and of rampaging Buddhist monks in Myanmar. But I admit that I am most afraid of Islamist zealots because the Islamic world at this moment in time (not always, not forever) is especially feverish and fervent. Indeed, the politically engaged Islamist zealots can best be understood as today’s crusaders."


When asked if Islamic fundamentalism is different from other fundamentalisms, Iranian feminist Irshad Manji says yes - "because it is mainstream."