Religion, ethnicity, democracy

One thing, at least, that marks Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam as world religions is that their adherents come from just about every color, ethnicity, language, and nationality imaginable. What sets Hinduism and Judaism apart as world religions is (in addition) their inseparability from a very specific cultural ethnicity. The other three may have (as they clearly do) holy sites and holy cities, places of historic significance and life-changing pilgrimage; but among the seven major world religions (which is, yes, of course an arbitrary metric) only in Hinduism and Judaism are ethnicity and religion so intertwined that to convert to the religion is to change one’s ethnicity, and yet leaving the religion has no effect at all on one’s ethnicity.

Small wonder, I suppose, that India and Israel have had comparable difficulties negotiating the ideals and practicalities of democracy and ethnicity as modern nation-states. Small wonder, too, perhaps, that in just these two countries nothing seems to bring radical rightwing governments together quite like militant Islamism.

Nuance is hard (cont’d.)

Andrew Sullivan has done his usual impressively thorough job of ferreting out some of the more salient points regarding the recent dust-up sparked by Reza Aslan (on CNN) and Sam Harris, Bill Maher, and Ben Affleck (on Real Time), first in the first several paragraphs of two successive “Best of the Dish Today” sign-off posts here and here; then in a lengthy mid-day post today on The Trouble With Islam, and finally (so far) again at some length in tonight’s “Best of the Dish Today” as well.

I recommend them all (and by that I mean, all four of them together, in order, as a group) to anyone who is at all interested in understanding the political situation of Islam in the world today (or, mutatis mutandis, the situation of the world with political Islam today”). From the first post:

I think it’s pretty indisputable that any religion that can manifest itself in the form of something like ISIS in any period in history is in a very bad way. I know they’re outliers – even with respect to al Qaeda. But, leaving these mass murderers and sadists to one side, any religion that still cannot allow its own texts to be subject to scholarly and historical inquiry, any religion that denies in so many parts of the world any true opportunities for women, and any religion whose followers believe apostasy should be punished with death is in a terrible, terrible way. There is so much more to Islam than this – but this tendency is so widespread, and its fundamentalism so hard to budge, and the destruction wrought by its violent extremists so appalling that I find Affleck’s and Aslan’s defenses to be missing the forest for the trees.
Yes, there are Jewish extremists on the West Bank, pursuing unforgivable religious war. There are murderous Buddhist extremists in Burma. There are violent Christian extremists in Nigeria, and in Russia. All religions have a propensity to banish doubt, to suppress humility and to victimize outsiders. But today, in too many parts of the world, no other religion comes close to the menace and violence of Islam.
Christianity has a bloody past and a deeply flawed present. Islam has a glorious past in many respects, and manifests itself in many countries today, including the US, humbly, peacefully, beautifully. But far too much of contemporary Islam – from Pakistan through Iran and Iraq to Saudi Arabia – is more than usually fucked up.

Sullivan is of course by choice and disposition a political blogger, so what caught my eye was, with all this broad brush painting, the repetition of concern regarding the absolutely central practice of scriptural interpretation (“any religion that still cannot allow its own texts to be subject to scholarly and historical inquiry … is in a terrible, terrible way”) in his second post too:

[W]hen the Koran can be publicly examined, its historical texts subjected to scholarly inquiry and a discussion of Muhammed [sic] become as free and as open in the Middle East as that of Jesus in the West, then we will know that Islam is not what its more unsparing critics allege. When people are able to dissent, to leave the faith, and to question it openly without fearing for their lives, then we will know that Islam is not, in fact, ridden with pathologies that are simply incompatible with modern civilization. It seems to me that until that opening happens, there will be no political progress in the Middle East. That is why we have either autocracy or theocracy in that region, why the Arab Spring turned so quickly into winter, and why the rest of the world has to fear for our lives as a result.

The crucial qualifier here is “in the Middle East”, though one hastens to add “in Central Asia”, and then “in West Africa”, and then “in Southeast Asia”, until what we’re really left with, I think, at least for now, is the notable exceptionalism (!) of Muslim America. From Sullivan’s third post linked to above:

Yes, we need to make careful distinctions with respect to Islam in different places at different stages of development.
Conflating the Islam of America and the Islam of Malaysia and the Islam of Saudi Arabia is, well, dumb, especially as it relates to foreign policy. But to deny the core religious element of the violence in the Middle East, to ignore the fact that Islam, to a much greater degree than other faiths, is still resistant to some core freedoms of modernity, to ignore the fact that fundamentalism of this kind can do extreme damage to other Muslims and infidels … well this strikes me as another form of denial.

And finally the nuance kicks in, because statistics (h/t to the Pew Forum’s report on “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society”):

[N]owhere has Islam come closer to a reconciliation with modernity than in America. American Muslims are far more like American non-Muslims than Muslims in any other country. On the core question of religious liberty, 56% of American Muslims “believe that many religions can lead to eternal life … Across the world, a median of just 18% of Muslims worldwide think religions other than Islam can lead to eternal life.” Here’s another big difference between Islam in America, and Islam elsewhere: “About half of U.S. Muslims say that all (7%) or most (41%) of their close friends are followers of Islam, and half say that some (36%) or hardly any (14%) of their close friends are Muslim. By contrast, Muslims in other countries nearly universally report that all or most of their close friends are Muslim (global median of 95%). Even Muslims who also are religious minorities in their countries are less likely than U.S. Muslims to have friendships with non-Muslims. For example, 78% of Russian Muslims and 96% of Thai Muslims say most or all of their close friends are Muslim.” I think it’s essential that this is better known in America, and that dumb conflations of Islam here and around the world – leading to foul prejudice and discrimination and fear – be challenged at every point.

Amen to that.

UPDATE October 10, 2014: And, as usual, the readers’ pushback that Sullivan gets is priceless for the way it furthers and deepens the conversation.

Nuance is hard (cont’d.)

Rabia Chaudry offers a liberal Muslim perspective in response to Bill Maher.

Putting aside the unavoidable optics and dynamics of a conversation about Islam that excluded Muslims (oh, and women too), it’s vital to point out what Maher seems to be missing: the absolute inefficacy of an argument that he could win only if 1.6 billion people suddenly decided to abandon [their] religion….
Under Maher’s construct, Islam itself is the culprit. It’s not an issue of terrible Muslims, it’s an issue of a terrible system, or as he put it “the motherload of bad ideas.” As if racial equality, women’s rights, social justice, charity, minority protections, and the avoidance of conflict were ideas generated in the liberalized West that Islam missed completely 1,400 years ago. To those of us who are countering social and political ills using Islam as our authority and foundation, Maher’s understanding of Islam is not just profoundly myopic, it is dangerous and hurts our work….
Likewise, as Maher and others step up attacks on Islam, it feeds directly into the narratives used by terrorists and extremists abroad to justify attacks on any Muslim person or institution seen as a Western apologist. Those of us who firmly believe that “liberal” Western values are part and parcel of Islam are viewed as apostates by extremists, and Maher is evidence that Islam is indeed under attack by the West.

One sentence wonders

Calvin and Hobbes - Academic Writing

Distilling an MA thesis or PhD dissertation down to a two or three hundred word abstract is difficult enough. But this … this is the academic equivalent of the technical skill required to compose a really memorable Very Very Short Story, combined with a steely resolve for Truth In Advertising. Go to and see for yourself what a timesink it is, with gems like

It usually helps when people take their medicine.
Social Work, WCU
“Remote Medication Management Systems: Potential Benefits for Polypharmacy and Rural Populations”


Powerful people want your personal data because $$$.
Sociology, San Diego State University
“The Surveillance Network”

and my current personal favorite,

Sometimes when people don’t say things, they don’t say things differently.
Linguistics, University of California, Santa Cruz
“Beyond Deep and Surface: Explorations in the Typology of Anaphora”

Nuance is hard.

The Bulletin for the Study of Religion‘s current Religion Snapshots focuses on Reza Aslan’s recent interview on CNN, offering four points of view on how he did there. The discussion between Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher on the Oct. 3, 2014 episode of Maher’s HBO show Real Time covers a good bit of the same territory.

One of the most important things that both Aslan and Harris bring to public discourse about religion in these clips, precisely in their role as scholars of Religious Studies, is concern for nuance. Even scholars have their own blind spots, of course, as both of them clearly do (that Female Genital Mutilation is an African, not a Muslim, problem, e.g., or that Islam is the “motherload of bad ideas”), but their significant contribution, as I see it, in this pair of media discussions about Islam, is the argument that we need to guard against reifying Islam (or any religion, for that matter), that what tends to be missing from public discourse about religion is nuance.

Islam isn’t ever Just One Thing. It isn’t even a thing; no religion is. What Islam is, is particular sets of practices and beliefs that the people doing them regard as Islamic, and these sets differ considerably across time and territory (however much they have in common in terms of sources of authority: Qur’an, Hadith, consensus, analogy, etc). It’s no good saying “All Muslims believe/do X” or claiming that “X is what real Muslims believe/do”; somewhere there will always be a significant population of Muslims you’re ignoring who won’t toe that line.

Aslan arguing that we’re better off distinguishing between, say, Saudi and Indonesian or Turkish and Iranian ways of doing Islam is one way of bringing nuance into the discussion. Sure, “most Muslims” “believe in” “Shari’a law”; but what counts as Shari’a differs from time to time and place to place. Consider that, strictly speaking, only about 350 of the Qur’an’s 6,236 ayat/verses explicitly deal with legal issues; scripture hardly offers a complete, self-contained legal system: hence the need for interpretation and extension via Hadith, consensus, analogy, etc. Much of what might count in some places as Shari’a (FGM, e.g., or honor killing) is in fact quite arguably only nominally Islamic (where is the justification in the Qur’an and Hadith, e.g.?), if at all.

Harris arguing statistics, that X percent of Muslims are violent extremists, X percent are various shades of fundamentalist/conservative (some more sympathetic/supportive of violent extremism than others), X percent are only nominally Muslim, X percent are liberal/progressive, is another way of bringing in nuance. Sure, statistically, a much larger percentage of the Muslim than the Christian world certainly continues to be what most Americans would call fundamentalist (=anti-intellectual, anti-modernist, anti-secularist, not to mention anti-Western and post-colonialist). And sure, historically, fideism and anti-rationalism have dominated Muslim thinking pretty much across the board since the demise of Islamic philosophy and science with the Abbasid Caliphate back in the 13th century, only partially compensated by the rise of Muslim progressivism since the 19th century. Still, to argue that what the majority of Muslims believe counts as some kind of gold standard would be like arguing that Roman Catholics are the standard by which to judge all Christians because there happen to be more of them. Quakers and Mormons and Baptists will beg to differ. Clearly, Islam is many things, but one thing it is not is Just One Thing. No religion is.

No religion is inherently violent or peaceful (there are Buddhist terrorists in Myanmar, for crying out loud!). Rather, violent or peaceful people do religion in violent or peaceful ways, with whatever resources they happen to find at hand. Of course statistically any given religion’s population may trend more or less toward political conservatism or liberalism, acceptance or suspicion of secular/modernist culture, rationalism or anti-intellectualism, etc. Even so, significant differences will always continue to defy reification, and helping to keep things grounded in What People Actually Do by pointing this out from time to time is an essential part of the role of Religious Studies scholars in public discourse about religion.

Homo narrans

“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our days’ events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.”

– Reynolds Price, “A Single Meaning: Notes on the Origins and Life of Narrative” in A Palpable God (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985) 3-46: 3.

“[S]tory is for a human as water is for a fish.”

– Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Boston: Mariner Books, 2012) xiv.