Religion, Extremism, and the Specter of “Islamophobia”

In its coverage of Robert Dear’s armed attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, the Huffington Post contemptuously reported that “Some Conservatives Couldn’t Believe the Shooting at Planned Parenthood Had Anything to Do with Planned Parenthood.” Other news outlets, from NBC to The New Yorker, were similarly quick to link Dear’s heinous violence to reactionary conservatism. When another mass shooting rocked San Bernardino just days later on December 2, however, these same publications reported with a decidedly different angle. Though the perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were devout Sunni Muslims and had expressed support for the Islamic State (IS), most media focused exclusively on the issue of gun control. Mentions of radical Islam as a cause of this shooting were few and far between.

Criticism of conservatism or even “religious fundamentalism” is taken more or less in stride today. Any special focus on Islam in connection to violence is immediately labeled “Islamophobia.” Islam is a religion, whereas conservatism and jihad are ideologies, but these two terms are far more synonymous than might initially appear to be the case. Just like Marxism, liberalism, and conservatism, religions are systems through which adherents structure their understanding of the world and organize their actions.

Some would contend that a philosophical distinction exists between “religion” and “ideology,” perhaps arguing that an individual is born into a certain religion whereas political orientation has more free choice associated with it. This distinction is nonexistent. In their purest sense, religion and ideology constitute a normative vision of the world, an application of abstract principles to physical situations. Though admittedly it is usually easier to change one’s political affiliations than one’s religion, the decision to accept any belief system is almost always a choice. One can be born into a particular religion and decide to convert to another or simply not accept certain aspects of that religion. Though there are, of course, societies where people are not free to choose their religion, these societies tend to be ones in which ideology and religion are still inseparable. Religion and political ideology are fundamental ways through which humans structure their worldviews and so must be jointly tackled if authoritarian governments are to instill sociopolitical control.

Still, in reacting to and analyzing violence, secular ideology and religious ideology are often treated as completely separate. To be very clear: no form of bigotry is justified, much less the wholesale condemnation of a group of people. But discussing the problems associated with a set of beliefs is not the same as bigotry – a fact which a great deal of Westerners, from political commentators to Stanford students, frequently ignore.

When looking at the structural causes of extremism, religious doctrine is a legitimate factor that cannot be overlooked. Attempting to discredit what little discourse there has been over this subject, for example, The Huffington Post’s Gabriele Arana declared that whenever people discuss the issue, “they aren’t merely ‘asking the question’ [if Islam is a violent religion]: they’re perpetuating prejudice.” Many Americans think it’s fair to demonize anyone who considers the role of Islam in extremist violence, but such behavior shuts down dialogue on what is one of the most important political and moral questions of our time.

Shortly after IS-affiliated attacks shook Paris on November 13, a number of Stanford students circulated an email calling for a rally against “Islamophobia.” Combatting unfounded hatred against Muslims is undoubtedly important, but the timing of the rally – right after men inspired by Islam had killed over 130 people in Paris – points towards this disturbing trend. Islam, the organizers of the rally implicitly argued, couldn’t possibly be to blame for the attacks, and so its adherents must be protected from those who seek to link Islam in any way to the violence.

Those uncomfortable with any such discussion of Islam per se try to deny, against overwhelming evidence, that there is a connection between religious doctrine and violence and intolerance. “Religions don’t promote violence,” they retort, “people do.” However, it is overly simplistic to argue that religion, or any ideology, is simply a tool employed to justify violence that would have been perpetrated anyway. Compelling ideologies (and particularly religions) radiate a mythos that can compel their adherents to action. The way a belief system organizes people and their emotions matters. One might ask, for instance, why Christianity could launch a violent project on the scale of the Crusades in the eleventh century, but any such attempt today would be laughable.

Not every ideology is equivalent. Not all belief systems can give rise to IS. Fundamentalism almost invariably results when a critical mass of individuals read divisive doctrines that come straight out of scripture (religious or otherwise) literally and allow these beliefs govern their behavior. A word-for-word interpretation of, say, the Koran (which contains some 109 verses calling for violence against “nonbelievers”) or the Old Testament (which prescribes stoning for any who work on the Sabbath) would necessarily lead to violence action. The core values of moderates, by contrast, chiefly come from larger cultural conversation and incorporate a wide variety of ideas from different belief systems. They draw upon an open outlook to reinterpret the ideologies to which they subscribe. To be sure, the fact that there are many forward-thinking, moderate Muslims does not preclude the possibility that Farook, Malik, and the Paris terrorists drew inspiration from Islam.
In discussing the tragic violence with which the world has been confronted over the past few weeks, the role of the ideologies involved, Islam or otherwise, must be openly discussed if we are to better understand when and where they are and are not driving causes of these incidents. Asking hard questions to confront harsh realities is exactly the type of practice that differentiates progressive actors from those who subscribe to dogmatic ideology. Wild accusations of “bigotry” stifle dialogue and stoop to the level of these extremists. Discrediting viewpoints out of hand is a form of fundamentalism in and of itself that does nothing to make our society safer or more tolerant.

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