I’ve been waiting for a long time for someone to say what I’ve been thinking about radical Islam, and now writer Kenan Malik has done it. On the one hand, he points out,
Muslims are not the only religious group involved in perpetrating horrors. From Christian militias in the Central African Republic reportedly eating their foes to Buddhist monks organizing anti-Muslim pogroms in Myanmar, there is cruelty aplenty in the world.
Nonetheless, he says,
There appears to be something particularly potent about Islam in fomenting violence, terror and persecution.
These are explosive issues and need addressing carefully. The trouble is, this debate remains trapped between bigotry and fear. For many, the actions of groups like the Islamic State or the Taliban merely provide ammunition to promote anti-Muslim hatred.
Many liberals, on the other hand, prefer to sidestep the issue by suggesting that the Taliban or the Islamic State do not represent “real Islam” — a claim made recently, in so many words, by both President Obama and David Cameron, the prime minister of Britain. Many argue, too, that the actions of such groups are driven by politics, not religion.
Neither claim is credible. A religion is defined not just by its holy texts but also by how believers interpret those texts — that is, by its practices. The ways in which believers act out their faith define that faith. The fact that Islamist extremists practice their religion in a manner abhorrent to liberals does not make that practice less real.
1. I come from a particular slice of Christianity. I recognize that the pie is bigger than my slice—while wishing to retain the right to say that some pieces have shoved their way in and don’t belong in the dish. The Bible is an absolute standard by which to measure all versions of Christianity. So I’m comfortable with someone saying that someone else is acting inconsistently with the holy text he claims to believe. The only way to show that ISIS doesn’t represent Islam as it ought to be practiced is to go back to the Qur’an (and other texts, like the hadith), and establish that ISIS isn’t reading correctly. But that, in turn, presupposes that a unified message can be gotten out of Islamic holy texts, a presupposition I’m not willing to grant. I can say, “CAR militas committing cannibalism are acting inconsistently with any Christianity they claim, because the Bible honors the human body and consistently sees cannibalism as a degradation.” But a religion whose holy texts and traditions are contradictory—like Islam (and like Roman Catholicism) cannot be defined by those texts alone. The practices accepted within each religious tradition are a necessary part of the definition of each tradition. If a group of people find a given set of beliefs and practices credible, they’ve got a bona fide religion. There are many Islams, not one (as a Muslim in Greenville once boldly told me before 9/11 revealed to the Western world the existence of the bloody rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites).
2. It was Stanley Fish who taught me that it was inappropriate for liberals to separate belief and practice, as if beliefs are “real” and practices are accidental. Fish thinks that liberals want religion to be limited to beliefs so religion will stay in its cage and not come out into the public square. Fish has to be right. Secularist liberals want to claim the banner of “liberty” while still kicking tiny evangelical groups off of Bowdoin’s campus or shutting down Christian wedding photography businesses. They can only call that “liberty” if religious freedom extends to beliefs, not practices. But I’m with Fish in saying that not only does religion necessarily entail real-life practices for individuals, but “a religion deprived of the opportunity to transform the culture in its every detail is hardly a religion at all.” (251)