Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo Massacre And How We Talk About Religion

It's almost impossible to write about the role of religion in attacks of this kind, especially when the target is the West and when the culprits appear to shout Allahu Akbar (God is Great) while killing people.

No.  That's not true.  It's extremely easy to write about the role of religion in such attacks online.  But you must either go full force All-Muslims-Should-Be-Killed (if you are US right-wing) or US-Caused-It-By-Invading-And-Drones And The Reaction Is Understandable (if you are US left-wing).  And almost everyone can write But All Religions Do It Just Think Of The Crusades And The Klan.  The end of the story, because how can one meaningfully continue along on those lines if the actual question one has is different from the general Which Larger Group Is To Blame?

I exaggerate there, but not much.  What all that means is taking up the pen to write about this makes my gastritis flare up.  I swallow the unpleasant combinations into my stomach and then try to digest them.   I take up the pen so I don't have to surrender to my stomach.  Aren't you pleased that I shared?  And note the unintended connection to cartoons and the breaking of the cartoonists' pens.  The cost of silence.

If you think of a large and difficult problem as a giant onion, with many many layers, about ninety-nine percent of the debate on religion after some horror like the Charlie Hebdo massacre is about the outer layer, the emotions attached to it, the feeling of being on one side or the other, the angers and the fears (which differ by the side one takes).

The wider responses by powers that be are also on that layer:  Various politicians taking advantage of the situation to promote their own local concerns (some of which have nothing to do with the problem), Muslim leaders openly condemning the event all over the world and mostly getting ignored,  some people debating whether Muslims can even live in democratic societies, given the idea that Islam is a whole lifestyle, not just a religion, while others debate the idea that racism and discrimination in Europe has pushed the Muslim immigrant populations to ghettos where despair and radical preachers catch them in their wily nets.

I often feel like someone trying to catch a slippery eel when following those debates.  It slinks about, hides behind stones and water-weeds, dashes across some open water, the sun glints on it, I attack, and the eel is gone.  Take the way the term "racism" is used here.  It doesn't have its usual definition of applying to people who "look different" from one's own racial group (however that is determined).  It applies to people who might or might not "look different"  but who certainly have a different religion.

The term is incorrect.  I'm not sure what the correct term is, but it's not racism, and calling it racism makes the analysis more difficult.  Clearly people who "look different" can face the usual type of racism and it's also possible that the religion of those people will be labeled because the people are seen as "other."

But if all we saw here was racism, then the Sikhs and the Hindus and the Chinese in Britain should face exactly the same kind of problems, treatment and provoke the same kind of opposition and fears among the anti-immigrant groups.  So perhaps it's "religionism" people mean when they use the term "racism" in this context?

Islamophobia is the possible alternative term.  You get its intuitive meaning fairly easily:  fearing the religion and everyone practicing it.  The "phobia" part implies that the fear is irrational.

And that is a good term for defining some of the right-wing approaches when discussing terrorist attacks where the culprits were Muslims.  But the term can be misused as a routine response to any criticism of Islam, say.  It's also another slippery eel, as I realized last night when I was going through various tweets.  People mean very different things with it, from the definition I gave of irrational fear of all Muslims to "shut up and go home".

So much about the top layer.  The second layer into the onion is more interesting, intellectually.  It allows us to ask questions about the role of religion in these particular events, now without denying that many religions, and especially Christianity, have played exactly the same roles in the past.  Why have the rebellions, wars and terrorism in the Middle East taken a religious (instead of a nationalistic) garb?  What is the role of the Israel-Palestine conflict (which never ends) in breeding religion-based terrorism?  After all, that conflict is directly based on different religions (though access to resources is driving it, too).

And perhaps more importantly, what is the role of old Western colonial occupations and the more recent oil-based capitalist invasions on all this?  Is it that Islam provides the alternative to a history which to some in the Arab world looks like decades of submission to Western interests and local dictators?  But why religion, rather than something else?  Being Arab, for example, or being Egyptian or Iranian?

In this layer belong articles about political Islam, the use of religion as a political unifier, the way certain extreme organizations, such as Al Qaeda, use religion to recruit.  Juan Cole has written about this in the context of the Charlie Hebdo massacre:

The horrific murder of the editor, cartoonists and other staff of the irreverent satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, along with two policemen, by terrorists in Paris was in my view a strategic strike, aiming at polarizing the French and European public.
The problem for a terrorist group like al-Qaeda is that its recruitment pool is Muslims, but most Muslims are not interested in terrorism. Most Muslims are not even interested in politics, much less political Islam. France is a country of 66 million, of which about 5 million is of Muslim heritage. But in polling, only a third, less than 2 million, say that they are interested in religion. French Muslims may be the most secular Muslim-heritage population in the world (ex-Soviet ethnic Muslims often also have low rates of belief and observance). Many Muslim immigrants in the post-war period to France came as laborers and were not literate people, and their grandchildren are rather distant from Middle Eastern fundamentalism, pursuing urban cosmopolitan culture such as rap and rai. In Paris, where Muslims tend to be better educated and more religious, the vast majority reject violence and say they are loyal to France.
Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination.

Bolds are mine.  It's important not to forget the purpose of the terrorists, and I believe that Cole is correct when he suggests that the terrorists wish to begin a grand war of religions.  A very important part of that plan is to increase Islamophobia among the non-Muslims in the West.  Which suggests that it might be rather good not to succumb.

Then to the third layer inwards in this imaginary onion.  I am still trying to understand the importance of religion in these conflicts.  Not the importance of nationality or even of race or language or any of the many other bases on which groups of individuals have disagreed with each other but religion.  A Pew Global Attitudes survey from 2011 gives us some information on the way people define themselves in various countries:

Isn't that picture fascinating?  Ninety percent of French Christians consider themselves first as French.  Ninety-four percent of Pakistani Muslims consider themselves first as Muslims.  Those are the extremes.  But there is a general pattern here:  The Europeans use nationality to define themselves, most Muslim countries and Israel use religion first.  The US also has a fairly high percentage of those who choose Christianity before nationality.

None of this explains the deepest reasons for the importance of religion.  But it may explain why Muslims are more likely to get angry at something happening to people in some distant country, to people they have nothing else in common but their religion.  And it also made me understand some similar-looking trends among US right-wing Christians who are very concerned about the treatment of Christians in other countries.

Now add to that the fact that European Christians or atheists mostly don't think in terms of religion as the way to define people, or didn't before the events of the last few decades.  You might begin to see how the debate is full of those slippery eels:  "You killed our brethren!"  "We did what?"  "Look at what's happening to the Palestinians!"  "But I was never there, my country was never there!"  And so on.

That table above contains the great mystery, by the way.  If we could only understand the reason religion is so primary in some countries and so much less primary in other countries we could probably have a better debate.  Is it just a difference which cannot be explained by history?

Or has, say, the specific history of Europe caused changes which now mean that Europeans are out of step with large chunks of the rest of this globe?  What was the role of reformation in Christianity?  What was the role of getting the church out of absolute power?  When did literal interpretations of the Bible become the minority voice?  And what is happening in that sense inside Islam?  I'm also intrigued by the somewhat similar situation in the US.  Is the slippery eel I'm trying to catch something that is similar in Islam and, say, right-wing US Christianity?

Note that I'm still trying to understand why the terrorists attacking various Western targets choose religion as their flag, not national or tribal labels.

Onwards and inwards.  The fourth layer of the onion.  I should remind you that everything in this post consists of my own amateur thoughts, but the subjectivity gets stronger at this point.

This layer is about the conditions, inside a religion, which encourage a minority of believers to adopt extreme interpretations of the demands of their religions.  All religions have their extreme fringes, but certain conditions make them more common.

My theory is that the conditions are three (the first of them not being a condition at all but the usual state of things):  First, you must have a holy book from several thousand years ago which describes the mores and rules of the society then.  Second, you must have a rule (either real or self-determined) that the book is the literal word of a divine power and must be interpreted that way:  literally, never changing, never referring to some local circumstances then.  Third,  your religion must be non-hierarchical enough so that no higher level of the faith pyramid can tell you what the correct interpretation of god's words should be.

When these conditions are fulfilled a larger number of splinter groups will hold extremist values and will believe that they have interpreted god's words correctly.  And they are fulfilled in Islam, which is very non-hierarchical.  There are acknowledged authorities in the religion, but nothing comparable to the Pope. 

The non-hierarchical nature of Islam and the direct reading of the Koran (which is to be interpreted as divinely created) may be what has given rise to Islamic extremism.  And here is where I see faint similarities to various US right-wing protestant churches:  There is no supreme pope who can tell some sects that they shouldn't insist on the stoning of (female) adulterers if such stoning is mentioned in the Bible or the Koran.  There is nothing to stop a minister or an imam from interpreting their holy book themselves, even if that interpretation is extreme and results in recommendations to kill all unbelievers.

Indeed, in the literalist schools of religion, a more extreme interpretation is often regarded as a purer one, because if the interpretation is more stringent than god intended, at least one is following the rules, right?

Add to this the feeling that your religion is threatened, that outside forces try to change it or to fight it.  And you have a good staging ground for religious terrorism. 

But it's slipperier than that because it's not just the Koran which matters in Islam.  It's also the sayings of the prophet and the religious law.

Take the example of (the gross and disgusting) depictions of the prophet Mohammed, the presumed reason for the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  The Koran is, in fact, pretty silent on the question whether religious personalities can be depicted or not.  The rule comes from the hadith, sayings of the prophet, and different sects in Islam have different interpretations about that.   The sayings in the hadith are studied extensively, some determined to be more reliable than others, some accepted in certain sects and rejected in other sects.  Yet the Sunnis overwhelmingly agree that the prophet should not be depicted and certainly should not be ridiculed.

The vast, vast majority of those who are insulted by the cartoons go no further than that, of course.  But the non-hierarchical nature of Islam, combined with the role of Western powers in Muslim countries and the religious identification discussed above creates one of the conditions for extremists to react with violence, especially when they feel their religion is threatened.

Here's the feeling of slippery eels again.  We move from  (an impossible) literal interpretation of a book which was written in ancient Arabic to a large set of other rules, the interpretations of which vary widely.   But because the interpretations are ultimately supposed to be divine, too, we have no real way of choosing one over the others.

Perhaps the problem I'm facing here is the one discussed in a different context here:

NM: Let's start with why these two things — religious belief and civil rights — have come to seem so at odds.
KF: Part of the problem is the way we're currently framing the issue. On the one hand, we have the free exercise of religion, which is largely based in an appeal to revelation, to the truths of religious texts and religious doctrine. And on the other hand we have rights of equality and liberty, which are based in rational arguments — what are people entitled to as a matter of their humanity because we should all be treated equally under law. It’s an incommensurable confrontation between revelation and rationality. What ends up happening is that religion ends up like a trump card — you throw it down, it’s a conversation stopper, and we don’t know how to get out of this impasse. Law is really ill equipped for adjudicating between the claims of revelation and the claims of rationality.

That's as deep into the onion (and the eels! don't forget the eels!) as I want to drill today.  I apologize for any oversights or unintended religious insults.

The point of this post is that we must discuss religions if we want to get anywhere in terms of human and civil rights.  But we must do it fully understanding the dangers of the adventure.  While trying to catch our eels we don't want to hurt living people, we don't want to spread Islamophobia or the hatred of Westerners.