Friday, February 27, 2015

Is President Obama Right About Islam?

A few days ago, President Obama insisted that the United States was not at war with Islam. A few days earlier, speaking at a prayer breakfast, he remarked that Christians  have also committed heinous acts in war, especially in times past. Many Americans reacted strongly to the president's remarks and believe they reveal a naiveté about contemporary Islamic terrorism as well as a bias against Christianity.

For the record, I do not believe the president is intentionally biased against Christianity or that he has some sort of soft spot for terrorists, Islamic or otherwise. His administration has conducted an aggressive campaign against terrorism, which has involved thousands of drone attacks. He also ordered the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

What I believe the president’s remarks actually reveal is a profound misunderstanding, shared by most secular thinkers, about the nature of religion. In Formations of the Secular, Talil Asad explains this secular blind spot. Asad, a Muslim anthropologist, claims that Western leaders are incapable of understanding traditional religion and that they even define the  word ‘religion” differently than those who are actually religious.

Contemporary Western “religion” is not only unlike the other religions of the world, Asad claims; it is not even like the religion the ancestors of contemporary Western people practiced. The other great world religions are more like the religion your ancestors rejected, Asad says. For example, Muslims stop everything around them several times a day to pray. Western people once did the same thing. In Islamic countries, all commerce stops so people can attend to their spiritual lives, one day a week.  Several times a year, ordinary life stops for an entire day or even for a more protracted amount of time. A few centuries ago, Asad says to his Western audience, your ancestors did the same sorts of things.  However, movements like the Reformation and the Enlightenment secularized your culture so that  religious life moved from the center of Western community and individual life, to the periphery. In essence, you replaced your religion with your economic life.

According to Asad then, most Westerners, including Christians, are more affected by secular ideologies than by religious ones. Even if they embrace a religion, they do not expect religion to intrude in any way upon their economic, political, social or sexual lives. In the West, in other words, religious people have become indistinguishable from non-religious people except that they go to church occasionally and feel a sentimental attachment to their religious culture. Nonetheless, the ideologies that actually form Western thought and behavior are secular belief systems that emerged during and after the European enlightenment. Asad claims  this is true for the overwhelming majority of Western Christians, whether liberal or conservative.

If Asad is right, then Westerners – especially ones trained within the most aggressive institutions of secular thought  -- do not view religious life as much more than moving ceremonies and ancient communal habits. Some secular persons may enjoy those religious traditions and as a result think of themselves as being a part of religious community. However, that same person will likely think it absurd that his of her ‘religion’ will have anything to say about his everyday life. Much less would a secular person expect to inconvenience himself in any way because of the teachings of the antiquated ideas from an ancient holy book.

In that light, President Obama seems to have been attempting to calm the anxieties of the world’s Muslims by claiming that he does not view the Islamic terrorists as authentic representatives of their religion. That makes all sorts of sense to a person who accepts the secular, Western definition of religion.  Indeed, from that standpoint it was a kind, diplomatic and even wise gesture. When viewed in a secular light, the president’s remarks were as reasonable as rain and what one would expect from the head of a secular state.

The problem is, most of the world’s Muslims and Christians experience spiritual life very differently than what the president (and most secularized people) seem to understand. For that reason, his words actually disconnect him from religious people, whether Christian or Muslim.

One thing for sure, ISIS does not share the president’s definition of religion. In fact, the people who fight for ISIS find his words incomprehensible. Their media outlets repeatedly declare their position:  they view themselves as waging a religious war against secularists, against Muslims drifting toward secularism, against Muslims who practice the wrong forms of Islam, and most aggressively, against practicing Jews and Christians.

Now why do they take this position? It is because they believe God told them to behave this way. Therefore, most definitely, the ISIS terrorists are fighting as Muslims, as people devoted to and energized by an extremely fundamentalist expression of their religion. To believe they are merely using religious speech in order to gain followers and advance economic or political aims is thus naïve and dangerous. Marx made the same fatal mistake, reducing his definition of religion as “the opium of the people” instead of acknowledging that for most religious people, both living today and throughout history, religion is the core organizing principle of life. A secular minded person may not like that, and there are many good reasons not to like it, but it is the fact of the matter. People will die for religion, become poor for religion, give up sex for religion and, unfortunately, even kill for religion.

This implies that religion is incapable of being neutral or amoral. Religion may be healthy, true, beautiful and good; religion may be diseased, ugly, false and evil. It is possible that all religions are  false, that all  of them except one are false, or that all of them contain some truth and some falsehood. There are all sorts of ways to think about religion. But defining religion as a private, harmless comfort for those who need it is the most seriously deficient view of religion possible. Aggressive atheism is a more accurate view than this mild, kind secularism because aggressive atheism understands what religion is. Indeed, aggressive atheism is itself a form of religion.

So does this mean that I believe the United States should wage war against Islam? Absolutely not. Whether or not the United States should or should not go to war against  terrorists is another matter altogether. That is a political matter rather than a religious one.  But ignoring the religious motivation of the terrorists doesn't clarify the current discussion, it cripples it.

Many of the world’s Muslims are terrified at this current outbreak of barbarism. They would like us to not link them to this profoundly embarrassing evil. I think the president is right about that. And, Christians have indeed committed barbarous crimes, especially during the crusades. In fact, the European crusaders did as much damage to Eastern Christian communities as to Muslim ones. By referring to this, the president was merely reading history, which all of us should do from time to time. However, the crusades ended in 1265.   Christianity has undergone considerable development since that time. Also, and this is crucial, Christianity, unlike Islam, no longer aspires to be a state. Nearly all major and minor Christian sects rejects the very idea of theocracy --- that is to say 'ruling a political state as a religious community.' Some individual Christians get confused about that of course, which becomes apparent sometimes on Facebook. However, the official theologies of most Christian churches reject the notion of a theocratic state.

Christianity, in other words, is not the same thing exactly as it was a thousand years ago. Christianity develops. Fundamentalists of all sorts deny that, even though fundamentalists do not really hold to the original faith as it was practiced and articulated in the cultures and times in which their faith began as they claim.  Theological liberals agree with me on this, on course – that our faith develops – but they deny the supernatural elements, creedal boundaries and canonical integrity of our faith. It is orthodoxy then – that is to say those versions of our faith that both hold to that which has at all times and in all places been believed and which at the same time applies those core principle to the needs and opportunities of that particular time and place in which a particular group of believers live – it is those versions of Christian faith that remain both faithful and reasonable.

What will not work is defining religion as a private, personal, peripheral matter. Religion cannot be that. When we claim that a healthy religion is one that restricts itself in those ways, we are simply negotiating with religion; allowing it to disappear little by little so as to not unduly upset the ones who wish to hold on to their last bit of belief.  The truth is, secularized religion -- whether Christianity, Islam or Zoroasterism, is not religion at all. Asad is right about that.

Strangely enough then, this is something about which both devout Christians and ISIS will agree. But that is why those barbarous madmen beheaded the men they called “the people of the cross.” However, it is also why the men they beheaded prayed and then surrendered their lives to God with such visible peace.

The Coptic martyrs believed. They were not just going to Sunday School because they were raised to do that. That makes their view of life and religion incompressible to secular people. However, the way they died also demonstrates their fundamental difference from the murderers who slaughtered them. And that difference implies that there is a fundamental gap between the religious values and practices of the murders and those of their victims. That much should be clear, even to a secularist.

1 comment:

Eric Martin said...

Very well articulated! Thank you!!!