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.

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