Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
Take a look at what else is going on. Religion is often used as a kind of tarpaulin: it covers a bunch of disparate things, presenting only itself to view. Best to look under the tarp. Sean McElwee writes in Salon:
Earlier this month, the perennial debate about religion and atheism was stirred up again by the combustible combination of Bill Maher, Ben Affleck and Sam Harris. And, while much ink has already been spilled dissecting the debate and its implications from nearly every conceivable angle, much of that coverage has been problematic, to say the least.
At the core of this debate is the extent to which the religion of Islam is responsible for the violence of ISIS, and other atrocities often committed in the name of god. But the problem with such debates, as I’ve argued previously, is that they mistake cause and effect. Religious belief is ultimately historically contingent: Religious beliefs, like cultural beliefs, are shaped by the material circumstances that give rise to them.
Those, such as Maher and Harris, who wish to defend “liberalism” against the tyranny of “religious fanaticism” are attempting to shift the blame from actual historical circumstances to ephemeral ideologies. Should we blame the rise of ISIS on “religious fanaticism,” or on the failed 2003 invasion of Iraq, the de-Baathification policy, the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the disastrous regime of Nouri al-Maliki? Furthermore, there is a long history of colonial oppression, military aggression and economic hegemony. These complaints, as well as historical grievances relating back to the Crusades, inform the views of radicals like Osama bin Laden.
Further, while the violence of ISIS is put in terms of a “caliphate” and religious symbols, such strategic violence has been deployed in war for centuries. The political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas has written a rather comprehensive essay on the military tactics of ISIS and how they relate to other guerrilla fighters. He notes,
there is nothing particularly Islamic or jihadi about the organization’s violence. The practices described above have been used by a variety of insurgent (and also incumbent) actors in civil wars across time and space. Therefore, easy cultural interpretations should be challenged. Third, if the Islamic State ought to be characterized, it would be as a revolutionary (or radical) insurgent actor … Revolutionary groups can appropriate a variety of other causes (nationalism, ethnic or sectarian identities), but their revolutionary identity is central and helps make sense of much of their activity.
Similarly, the best way to understand Osama bin Laden is not as a religious radical yearning for virgins in the afterlife, but rather as a political actor repelling what he sees as a colonial incursion. This is the preferred interpretation of Michael Scheuer, a former CIA analyst who spent three years hunting Osama bin Laden. He writes in “Imperial Hubris,”
One of the greatest dangers for Americans in deciding how to confront the Islamist threat lies in continuing to believe — at the urging of senior U.S. leaders — that Muslims hate and attack us for what we are and think, rather than for what we do. The Islamic world is not so offended by our democratic system of politics…
He argues that, “What the United States does in formulating and implementing policies affecting the Muslim world, however, is infinitely more inflammatory.” So rather than seeing terrorism as the outgrowth of religion, it stems from, “the Muslim perception that the things they love are being intentionally destroyed by America that engenders Islamist hatred toward the United States …
This leads to the core delusion pushed by the Maher/Harris/Dawkins “New Atheist” team: that religion exists independently of social, political and economic systems, and that religion influences these structures. In fact, the opposite is true: Religion is largely the handmaiden of economic and political power. It is fluid, able to mold to whatever needs are suited to those wielding it.
As Karl Marx writes,
The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
His colleague Friedrich Engels adds in a letter to Franz Mehring,
Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives.
While these ideas seem radical, there are important real-life examples of the ways in which changes in material structures shift cultural norms (or ideology). Take, for instance, birth control. The advent of birth control (a material change) has dramatically changed our political, cultural and legal superstructure. Women rapidly joined the workforce and elite educational institutions were almost entirely reshaped. As contraception has improved, social norms against sexual promiscuity have declined. Regardless of what religious people believe, their opposition to birth control was rooted in a simple, but now outdated, calculation: Premarital sex used to bear very large costs in the form of children and disease and these costs have been minimized. Jeremy Greenwood has demonstrated persuasively that the sexual revolution has been rooted in profound material changes, which have altered cultural norms.
These days, religions are already shifting to accommodate this sexual change, just as the church has accommodated to largely accept divorce, will sooner than later accommodate to accept gays, and will eventually accept other norms now considered odd. As population growth presses on economic and environmental constraints, stigmas about contraception and abortion will inevitably erode. And yet the religious texts will remain the same; they will simply be interpreted differently. . .
Continue reading. One good point made later:
When Maher criticized all Muslims, he paints with a broad brush manifold people, interpretations, cultures and sects. But what he is crudely attempting to say is that some religious beliefs are responsible for violence in the area of the world he is discussing. Might there be some other source of violence in the region and anger at the United States? Might colonization, imperial interventionism, deprivation, war, murder and widespread theft explain the chaos in the region? Might Sykes-Picot be of some remaining relevance? (Ironically, the “New Atheists” share with Christian conservatives their desire to use history as nothing but an ideological bludgeon.) The militant Islamic ideology, as we have seen, is not unique to the region; such tactics are commonly used by guerrilla groups fighting against overwhelming power. It’s as if Sam Harris and his cohort believe that were we to ignore religion, the Palestinians would be content to live under an occupying force. History suggests otherwise.
Peter Manseau has an interesting essay on what constitutes a Catholic family, but the ideas are easily extended to serve as a platform for one’s own ideas of a family. He ends his essay on a provocative note:
What family is not wounded? As Cardinal Erdo read the bishops’ relatio in a Vatican conference hall last week, anyone watching carefully could see on the desk before him a small sculpture of the holy family: Mary, Joseph and Jesus. To Catholics it is a depiction of a woman who conceived a child before she was married, a chaste stepfather who nearly divorced her as a result, and that original sign of contradiction, the human son of God. A church that claims to descend from this most untraditional of domestic arrangements might ask itself: Was any family ever more irregular than that?
Very interesting interview—and I do like Cenk Uygur’s style.
Elias Isquith interviews him for Salon:
As I’d imagine anyone with an Internet connection and even a marginal interest in current events knows by now, HBO comedian and pundit Bill Maher has been engaged in an ongoing debate (through the media) over the nature of Islam. And while Maher’s not lacked for volunteers willing to criticize his arguments and question his level of knowledge about one of the world’s largest religions, Reza Aslan, the popular religious scholar and author of the best-selling “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” has been Maher’s most prominent and scathing foil.
After noticing him tweet out our recent interview with Maher, Salon decided to give Aslan a call and chat about Maher, Islam, media ignorance and why it is that American society is so comfortable making sweeping generalizations about a faith that counts more than a billion human beings among its members. Our conversation is below, and has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
So I saw you tweet out my earlier conversation with Bill Maher. And I know you guys have tussled on this issue before —
I’ve actually been on the show four times. It’s funny, because a number of people have lambasted Bill Maher and said, “Why don’t you have Reza on your show!?” and I always tweet back saying, “I’ve done it four times now!” [Laughs]
He’s very open to having to having me on the show and, to his credit, he and I openly disagree with each other, and he knows that we come from completely different viewpoints on this, and yet every season he invites me back. So, that’s the kind of guy that he is.
Well, was there anything that he said during his conversation with me that you felt was new?
I suppose I would say that what’s different is that Bill Maher’s usual critique of religion in general has morphed into a real crusade against one religion in particular — Islam — which he has on repeated occasions said is worse than the other religions [and] not like other religions; other religions are bad, but Islam is far, far worse.
And I would say that the other thing that’s a little bit different is that the criticism of Islam has really crossed the line into what can only be described as frank bigotry. When he starts decrying how many babies born in Europe are named Mohammad, says things about Muslims in America “bringing that desert stuff into our world” — that is no longer just simple criticism of religious doctrine or practice. That’s a very specifically targeted animosity towards a particular group of people. You don’t see him saying things like that about other religious groups — though, again, in his defense, to him the problem is religion in general.
Do you feel like that shift — from being critical of all religions, including Islam, to being especially critical of Islam, specifically — is something we’re seeing elsewhere in the media? . . .
When television host Bill Maher declares on his weekly show that “the Muslim world . . . has too much in common with ISIS ” and guest Sam Harris says that Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas,” I understand why people are upset. Maher and Harris, an author, made crude simplifications and exaggerations. And yet, they were also talking about something real.
I know the arguments against speaking of Islam as violent and reactionary. It has a following of 1.6 billion people. Places such as Indonesia and India have hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t fit these caricatures. That’s why Maher and Harris are guilty of gross generalizations. But let’s be honest. Islam has a problem today. The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim.
In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.
There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities. While some confront these extremists, not enough do so, and the protests are not loud enough. How many mass rallies have been held against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in the Arab world today?
Drum’s point is that the epicenter of the cancer is Saudi Arabia.
UPDATE: Here is an op-ed by Reza Aslan, again defending Islam.
I recently blogged Reza Aslan’s CNN interview in which he offered a rebuttal of Bill Maher’s comments on Islam. Now Jeffrey Tayler comes to Maher’s defense in an article in Salon in which he offers a rebuttal of Aslan’s position:
Bill Maher’s recent monologue on “Real Time” excoriating self-professed liberals for going soft on Islam — hotly debated again last Friday with Ben Affleck and Sam Harris, and expounded on in this exclusive Salon interview — might well serve as a credo for atheist progressives the world over. He began by introducing a photo, originally posted on a social media site, showing a teenager in Pennsylvania mounting a statue of Jesus Christ in such a way as to create the impression that Jesus was fellating him. Noting that it “may not be in good taste,” Maher declared that “there’s no picture that makes my heart swell with patriotism quite like this one.”
Why? He explained that in the United States, with separation of church and state enshrined in the Constitution, the youth, on account of his sacrilegious prank, would not do jail time or face violence because “liberal Western culture is not just different, it’s better. . . . rule of law isn’t just different than theocracy, it’s better. If you don’t see that, then you’re either a religious fanatic or a masochist, but one thing you are certainly notis a liberal.”
(In fact, Maher proved too sanguine about the supposedly religion-free workings of the U.S. justice system. As punishment for the irreverent post, a court ordered the teen to do community service, observe a curfew, and stay off social media for six months. Hardly comparable to facing a fatwa for drawing a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, but indicative nonetheless of the worrisome pro-faith bias infecting at least courts of law in our supposedly secular republic.)
Maher included Barack Obama among those unwilling to talk straight about Islam, and rebutted the president’s repeated statements that ISIS is “not Islamic” by pointing out that “vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe . . . that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea, or drawing a cartoon, or writing a book.” This means, said Maher, that “not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.”
Maher’s is no offhand opinion, but a blunt statement of fact. A wide-ranging 2013 Pew Research Center poll, conducted between 2008 and 2012 in 39 countries, offered a deeply disturbing, unequivocal overview of the faith-based intolerance prevalent across much of the Muslim world. Among other things, majorities of Muslims – varying somewhat according to region – favor putting to death apostates and adulterers, condemn homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia as immoral, and believe that “a wife must obey her husband.” Large minorities condone “honor killings.” It should be noted that for practical reasons, the Pew Center could not survey Muslims in the repressive, highly conservative Gulf States (including Saudi Arabia, the homeland of Wahhabism), so, if anything, these numbers provide an excessively moderate summary of Muslim positions on issues progressives hold dear.
There can be no doubt about the wellspring of these nevertheless profoundly illiberal results. Texts in the Koran and the Hadith (the sayings and teachings traditionally attributed to the prophet Muhammad) back every one of the retrograde, even repulsive, positions the Pew Center catalogued. There are also passages in these writings that appear more tolerant, but the point is, Muslims looking to back up hardline interpretations of Islam do not lack for scriptural support.
Maher did not cite polls on his show – he is, after all, a comedian – but had he done so, he would have given doubters a way to verify the veracity of his monologue. That left room for interpretation and dispute, or at least for what passes for such on cable news channels. To decode Maher’s pronouncements about Islam, “CNN Tonight’s” hosts Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota called on Reza Aslan, the author of “No God But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam” and “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
To start the discussion, Lemon asked Aslan what he thought of Maher’s performance. Jumpy and defensive from the start, Aslan quickly steered the discussion away from the gist of Maher’s monologue – that Islam does have a violence problem Western liberals need to be frank about – and toward Maher’s outrage at Female Genital Mutilation. FGM, was “not an Islamic problem, it’s an African problem . . . a Central African problem,” Aslan asserted. “Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is [FMG] an issue.”
This is flat-out wrong. Though the barbaric practice predates Islam, FMG occurs, as far as is known, in at least twenty-nine countries (among them Egypt, Kurdistan, and Yemen) across a wide swath of Africa and the Middle East, and beyond. Muslims even exported the savage custom to Malaysia and Indonesia, where it is a growing problem. Those working locally to eradicate FGM have, understandably, a good deal of trouble making it an “issue,” given the lack on openness in discussing sex-related topics in the countries involved, so the situation may in fact be worse than is now recognized. And if it wasn’t originally Islamic, it has so been for fourteen centuries. The Prophet Muhammad, in the Hadith, condoned it, even encouraged it (calling it an “honorable quality for women”) and ordaining only that it not be performed “severely.”
Aslan’s erroneous dismissal of FGM as a “central African problem” will help none of the tens of millions of girls and women who have suffered mutilation across the Islamic world, but it will give comfort to those who hope to continue butchering their victims without scrutiny from abroad. Neither CNN’s hosts nor Aslan mentioned Maher’s call to liberals to stop ignoring the practice, nor did they bring up his pointed words about Yale’s craven, abrupt cancelation, earlier this year, of the invitation to speak sent to one of FMG’s most prominent victims, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the brave, Somali-born anti-Islam activist and writer. Maher blames a misguided attempt at evenhandedness by the school’s “atheist organization” for the disinvitation, but — surprise! — it was actually the Muslim Students Association that first asked for her event to be called off.
Lemon pressed Aslan to admit that mistreatment of women is nonetheless a problem in Muslim countries. Aslan misleadingly relegated the problem to Iran and Saudi Arabia, while declaring no such ill bedevils women in Turkey (where honor killings have increased in recent years), Bangladesh, and (FMG-riddled) Malaysia and Indonesia. Nor did he mention the salient fact about the status of women in his chosen “lands of enlightenment” — that women owe their well-being (at least in his eyes) there not to Islam, but to secularism and legal systems based on Western models curbing religious influence in jurisprudence. In Indonesia, however, Shariah law is advancing and may undo protections women now enjoy.
Camerota, however, insisted, wanting to explore “the commonplace wrongs that are happening [to women] in some of these countries.” She mentioned the Saudi prohibition on women driving, which gave Aslan the chance to browbeat both presenters for cherry-picking examples from one “extremist” country and using them to unjustly besmirch the entire Muslim world. He then kept on about Saudi Arabia, as though his hosts, not he, were harping on the country, and declared that their Saudi-centered approach was not a “legitimate” way to talk about Muslim women, but amounted to “bigotry” – a charge sure to intimidate his questioners and get them to back off.
It worked, at least for a moment. “Fair enough,” Lemon answered, though possibly less because he agreed and more because he wanted to move the interview along. After airing a clip of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu equating ISIS and Hamas at the United Nations, he asked Aslan straight-out: “Does Islam promote violence?”
“Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace,” said Aslan. “Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it . . . . There are Buddhist marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful. . . .” He then dribbled off into generic blather about social, political and psychological reasons for violence, none of which, in his telling, had anything to do with Islam or any other faith. . .