Thursday, February 19, 2015

On Religious Motivation in a Secular Age

In a speech yesterday to the "White House Summit on Countering Terrorism," the president of the United States said:
“Al Qaeda and ISIL and groups like it are desperate for legitimacy. They try to portray themselves as religious leaders, holy warriors in defense of Islam...We must never accept the premise that they put forth because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek. They are not religious leaders. They are terrorists.” (Source: ABC News)

I'd like to think that what Obama really meant was that ISIS does not represent most Muslims or is not regarded by most Muslims as a legitimate form of Islam--but that is not what he said (though see here for more measured comments). What Obama did say should concern all religious people, regardless of their particular religion, because his remarks could be taken more broadly to imply that "religion" has no explanatory power. In a secular world, religious beliefs must be reduced to some other, more real economic, political, or social motivation. Those who claim to be motivated by their religious beliefs are really driven by something else, or they are simply incomprehensible. Religious people are irrational. They are crazies, terrorists.

But it turns out that people still act on the basis of their religious beliefs. Faith commitments prompt some people to abandon lucrative careers to serve the poor, winning the grudging praise of Nicholas Kristof. And faith commitments prompt other people to commit acts of brutality. We will not understand the crusades if we are unwilling to grant that the crusaders were motivated, at least in part, by religious motivations. And we will not understand ISIS if we are not willing to take seriously the religious beliefs that motivate them. To label someone a 'terrorist' is to fail to understand.

My thinking on this point has been influenced by Graeme Wood's generally excellent essay, "What ISIS Really Wants," in The Atlantic, which Obama really should have read. An excerpt:
"The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers....But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam. ....Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal." (Do read the whole thing.)
However, if ISIS has deep roots in one form of Islam, it is important also to recognize that it is not the only legitimate form of Islam, as if authentic Islam leads naturally to terrorism--and here I react against the view of Bernard Haykel, whom Wood quotes:
"Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”"
Outsiders--perhaps especially Christian outsiders--too often assume that the more "literally" a Muslim tries to practice his religion, the more authentic he is. But setting aside problems with the term literal (see AKMA), a religion is in general what its practioners do, not what outsiders say it should be. And a good case can be made that "literal" fundamentalist Islam is a product of Western influences (i.e., assumptions about what a sacred text should do and how it should be read) just as much as forms of Islam that seem more amenable to Western cultural norms.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Observations on Life without Gluten

Exhibit A
I seem to have developed a gluten allergy. It came on quite suddenly last fall, after I consumed a large quantity of delicious home-made cinnamon buns. There followed mourning (see exhibit A to the left), denial (this is only temporary...right?), and a long (and on-going) period of adjusment as I resigned myself to a future without wheat, barley or rye.

(1) When food is sickening: To my surprise, the initial adjustment wasn't that difficult...for me. Much as I like lasagna (!) and fresh bread, it becomes less attractive when a bite or two makes you ill for days. The bigger challenge, by far, has been the radical change in menu suddenly imposed upon the Miller family cook. Top marks to the cook: Home-made gluten-free bread is still a work in process, but we now enjoy tasty gluten-free waffles, gluten-free buckwheat pancakes, gluten-free muffins and cookies, and we've had decent success with gluten-free pizza dough and pie crust.

(2) Gluten allergy and addiction: Once I'm off gluten, my digestion seems to return to normal, and it is easy to imagine I'm better. Surely one home-made bun will be okay? The difference, I suppose, is that I am seldom tempted to go on eating because the symptoms appear quickly.

(3) The sociology of eating: What you can and cannot eat affects where you eat--most restaurants are out--and who you eat with. It is one thing to know this on a theoretical level, another to experience it in practice. Thanks to my gluten-free diet, I now have a new appreciation for the social implications of eating kosher. Inasmuch as eating together enacts community, it is also odd to have to walk past the shared communion loaf in church to get to the small plate of gluten-free crackers. (I'm grateful that we attend a church where consideration is made for celiacs and co.)

(4) Ancient grains: It felt like we turned a corner mentally when we started learning about other flour options, and began to think of them not as wheat-wannabe's, as sorry wheat substitutes, but as ancient grains that are in many cases more healthy than wheat (if you believe the hype), and for whose distinct flavours we could acquire a taste. According to Gluten-free Goddess, "It takes about two weeks or so to adjust your wheat craving taste buds to the alternative charms of gluten-free grains." (Emphasis on the "or so.")

(5) Stages of grief: A couple weeks ago, I squished the home-made gluten-free bread I was trying to use in a sandwich into a ball, out of frustration that it crumbled to pieces on my plate. That didn't go over well, despite my attempt to explain that I was mourning the loss of "real" bread, not upset at the cook. Enter store-bought gluten-free bread (at $6 / loaf).

(6) Am I a celiac? My first reaction was, "obviously not!" But then I noticed that a piece of communion bread or the barley malt in a Rice Krispie treat was enough to cause a reaction, and I began to wonder. Unfortunately, the conventional test requires people to go back on a gluten-rich diet for 4-6 weeks before getting a blood test. If the blood test comes back positive, they will do a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis, which involves snaking a scope down your throat through your stomach, and into your small intestine. If you go through all that, you get a tax break (in Canada) to help with the expenses of such things as $6 bread. The problem, as one website noted, is that most people who go off gluten do so because it makes them sick. Apparently, a new more accurate blood test is in the works.

 (7) Causes and symptoms: By all accounts, gluten intolerance of one sort or another is on the rise, and nobody seems to know why. There are all sorts of symptoms; mine are of the digestive variety. Triggers include stress