I just finished watching this discussion between Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ramadan about whether Islam is a religion of peace:
Now, there is nothing particularly new about this discussion, or the points made therein. In fact, to follow this post, you really don’t need to watch it. But, do watch it if you are interested in the issues involved.
One of the themes in this discussion is one which I see come up often. When we talk about whether a religion–Islam or otherwise–is one of peace or not, this point is raised that the majority of the faithful are NOT terrorists, militants, or remotely violent themselves. The violence comes from the extremes, the fringe, who are not representative of the vast majority of the religious community.
I will leave aside Sam Harris’ point that even if they are not doing the violence themselves, the moderates/mainstream believers lend shelter for those who do. While I agree with this idea essentially, I am not interested in this point at the moment.
Instead, I want to talk about a related point. Throughout the discussion, Tariq Ramadan pointed out that people can take the text (the Koran, in this case), and read it in ways that will compel them to violence. And at the same time, most Muslims do not read it this way, nor do they live their lives around violence or terrorism. That is, even if there are parts of the texts that can be read as a motivation for violence, the fact is that most people don’t live that way as Muslims.
And at one point, he compared it to the fact that while the United States has a secular founding document, George W. Bush was still able to use religious rhetoric as President, including rhetoric used towards initiating war with Iraq. And, in fact, presidents continually use religious rhetoric, even if the Constitution is a secular document. Supposedly, the point is that even if the text says one thing (whether it is secularism or violence), the practical fact is that people can be representatives of that document and not necessarily reflect that secularism or call for violence. There is a disconnection between the text and behavior.
An interesting point, but it compels me to wonder how we are to define a religious believer (or representative of the Constitution of the United States), in light of this. Is it enough to believe in Allah, Muhammad as his Prophet, etc in order to be a Muslim? Is it enough just to live in an Islamic culture and follow the daily rituals and where the right clothes? Is it enough just to have Muslim parents?
Similarly, is it enough to be elected president? That is, is just being in the position, holding the title, sufficient to actually be a representative of the Constitution which they claim to represent?
In a practical sense, it probably is enough. And I don’t want to get too mired in the minutia involved in this question now. But is there a line which, upon crossing it, one can no longer be considered a representative? Is a person who was raised Catholic, attends Mass on rare Sundays, is for a woman’s choice to abort, doesn’t really believe in the Trinity, does not care much for the Pope (the one in Rome), and who has not confessed his “sins” to a priest in years a Roman Catholic?
And if the Koran really does ask you to kill apostates, convert the world to Islam, etc and you don’t do so, then are you really a Muslim?
Where is the line? A point worthy of consideration, but I shall leave it aside for now.
But back to Tariq Ramadan. His point that there is a distinction between the text and the behavior of adherents is important, if not new, and I do think it gives us pause in such discussion to consider its ramifications. Ultimately, however, I don’t think it makes the point that Ramadan may intend, which seems to be that the text is not enough; that we need to look at the practical truth of how those who claim to represent those texts actually live. The people are the body of the religion, and how they behave is, in many important respects, the definition of the religion. But this is not the whole story.
I think Ramadan’s point does not prove that Islam is not violent any more than George W. Bush’s religious rhetoric proves that the United States is a Christian nation. Muslims not acting violently, despite the violence called for in the Koran, is comparable to the fact that politicians in the U.S. may be crossing a line in endorsing their religious perspectives as representatives of a secular document. What this seems to indicate is that people are capable of finding themselves in positions where they are supposed to represent a constitution or sacred text and do so imperfectly. That is, they veer away from the text in such ways that displays their humanity (and other influence on them from their culture), and how such things can influence how religions and political climates change in practice from their sources.
The practice of one’s religion is a combination of their sacred text (interpreted by theologians and other intellectuals) and the secular and/or alternative religious influences that permeate their culture. And where they are not acting upon the text and its commands (whether violence or something else), this demonstrates not that the religion is not in fact violent, but that their behavior is informed by other things. Their humanity prevents them from acting on the violent parts of the text (whether for distaste for it or, perhaps more likely, their ignorance of it), and since most people do this, the religion itself begins to look non-violent based upon this behavior.
Further, those intellectuals and more liberal theologians who read the Koran differently are, perhaps, not being honest with the history and source of Islam, whose history is rife with violence. It was Mohammad himself who led an invasion of Mecca, which led to subsequent invasions in the name of spreading Islam (both as a religion and political force). The Koran is pretty clear that the goal of the faith is to convert the world. One has to explain this or reinterpret it to mean something else to not see the inherent violence contained within.
So where are these intellectuals within the Islamic world finding this lack of essential violence in Islam? How are they finding the peaceful, intellectual, and modern view of Islam? Well, the same way that most (liberal) Christian intellectuals find the roots of peace, social justice, and acceptance of homosexuality within the Bible and the Christian tradition. They ignore the atrocities, reinterpret many others, and focus of the parts that are helpful to their worldview.
(and the conservatives do the same, but with a focus on different parts).
It is as I (and many others) have argued before; liberal theologians accomplish their liberal views by being inconsistent with the entire text. By making decisions with their educated perspective, which is often the result of interaction with ideas outside of their sacred text, they reveal the secular source of their peaceful and open attitude towards alternative ideas and beliefs. They are not being peaceful and sophisticated because of the religious texts themselves, but because of their humanity which they project onto their interpretations of those texts. And because there are a few occasions where the text does inspire more modern and liberal values, they highlight these verses and put to the side the ones which display the violence which is part of that tradition and faith.
So, why are the vast majority of religious people generally tolerant, non-violent, and moderate? Well, because they either don’t know what the text says, don’t agree with a lot of it, or because as human beings they don’t literally take the whole text (and only that text) as the inspiration for how to live their lives. And those that do try to live their lives based upon that text become fundamentalists. They become the fringe, because this behavior pattern of taking one source very seriously is rare in human behavior.
But the more seriously they take the text, the more radical and insane they seem to the mainstream. And since the text is the source of the religious beliefs of both fundamentalists and moderates, without which those crazy notions of violence, evangelism, etc would not as easily exist, would it not be better to just view the text as something to not revere?
Where the text says things we agree with, we merely acknowledge that we agree with the text there. Where we find it out-dated and crazy, we admit that. But this would imply that the text is imperfect, and the theological notions which derive only from those texts (whether it be Muhammad as being the last prophet or Jesus being God who dies for our sins) should be discarded.
But the moderates hold onto those notions anyway. While they only accept some of the text (again, out of ignorance or distaste), they still accept some of it despite their being no other source for supporting the ideas and the utter insanity of them.
Again, how are these people really representatives of the text, and why should we respect their beliefs just because they are only partially nutty? Just because most Muslims, Christians, and Jews are not acting on the calls for violence that their texts clearly ask of them, how does that not make the religion itself non-violent? Following directions poorly does not change the nature of the directions.