Reza Aslan, a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, is the author, most recently, of “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”
Bill Maher's recent rant against Islam has set off a fierce debate about the problem of religious violence, particularly when it comes to Islam.
Mr. Maher, who has argued that Islam is unlike other religions (he thinks it’s more “like the Mafia”), recently took umbrage with President Obama’s assertion that the terrorist group known as the Islamic State, or ISIS, does not represent Islam. In Mr. Maher’s view, Islam has “too much in common with ISIS.”
His comments have led to a flurry of responses, perhaps none so passionate as that of the actor Ben Affleck, who lambasted Mr. Maher, on Mr. Maher’s own HBO show, for “gross” and “racist” generalizations about Muslims.
Yet there is a real lack of sophistication on both sides of the argument when it comes to discussing religion and violence.
On one hand, people of faith are far too eager to distance themselves from extremists in their community, often denying that religious violence has any religious motivation whatsoever. This is especially true of Muslims, who often glibly dismiss those who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam as “not really Muslim.”
On the other, critics of religion tend to exhibit an inability to understand religion outside of its absolutist connotations. They scour holy texts for bits of savagery and point to extreme examples of religious bigotry, of which there are too many, to generalize about the causes of oppression throughout the world.
What both the believers and the critics often miss is that religion is often far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices. The phrase “I am a Muslim,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a Jew” and the like is, often, not so much a description of what a person believes or what rituals he or she follows, as a simple statement of identity, of how the speaker views her or his place in the world.
As a form of identity, religion is inextricable from all the other factors that make up a person’s self-understanding, like culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender and sexual orientation. What a member of a suburban megachurch in Texas calls Christianity may be radically different from what an impoverished coffee picker in the hills of Guatemala calls Christianity. The cultural practices of a Saudi Muslim, when it comes to the role of women in society, are largely irrelevant to a Muslim in a more secular society like Turkey or Indonesia. The differences between Tibetan Buddhists living in exile in India and militant Buddhist monks persecuting the Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, in neighboring Myanmar, has everything to do with the political cultures of those countries and almost nothing to do with Buddhism itself.
No religion exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, every faith is rooted in the soil in which it is planted. It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.
After all, scripture is meaningless without interpretation. Scripture requires a person to confront and interpret it in order for it to have any meaning. And the very act of interpreting a scripture necessarily involves bringing to it one’s own perspectives and prejudices.
The abiding nature of scripture rests not so much in its truth claims as it does in its malleability, its ability to be molded and shaped into whatever form a worshiper requires. The same Bible that commands Jews to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) also exhorts them to “kill every man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey,” who worship any other God (1 Sam. 15:3). The same Jesus Christ who told his disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) also told them that he had “not come to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34), and that “he who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). The same Quran that warns believers “if you kill one person it is as though you have killed all of humanity” (5:32) also commands them to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5).
How a worshiper treats these conflicting commandments depends on the believer. If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in your scriptures to justify your beliefs. If you are a peaceful, democratic feminist, you will also find justification in the scriptures for your point of view.
What does this mean, in practical terms? First, simplistic knee-jerk response among people of faith to dismiss radicals in their midst as “not us” must end. Members of the Islamic State are Muslims for the simple fact that they declare themselves to be so. Dismissing their profession of belief prevents us from dealing honestly with the inherent problems of reconciling religious doctrine with the realities of the modern world. But considering that most of its victims are also Muslims — as are most of the forces fighting and condemning the Islamic State — the group’s self-ascribed Islamic identity cannot be used to make any logical statement about Islam as a global religion.
At the same time, critics of religion must refrain from simplistic generalizations about people of faith. It is true that in many Muslim countries, women do not have the same rights as men. But that fact alone is not enough to declare Islam a religion that is intrinsically more patriarchal than Christianity or Judaism. (It’s worth noting that Muslim-majority nations have elected women leaders on several occasions, while some Americans still debate whether the United States is ready for a female president.)
Bill Maher is right to condemn religious practices that violate fundamental human rights. Religious communities must do more to counter extremist interpretations of their faith. But failing to recognize that religion is embedded in culture — and making a blanket judgment about the world’s second largest religion — is simply bigotry.