Context & Religious Spaces: Why religion is more ambiguous than you think

By Akshay Ragupathy & Raunaq Chandrashekar


One of the most recent controversies that has emerged on the internet, having reignited the discourse on ideologies and their impacts (specifically, religious ideologies), is an episode of Real Time, with Bill Maher. For the uninitiated, it is a show hosted by comedian, and self-professed liberal, Bill Maher, on HBO, in America, which seeks to discuss politics, often through satire, as well as serious debate. A recent episode saw a standoff, between Maher and celebrated New Atheist, and author, Sam Harris on one side, and actor Ben Affleck, author Nicolas Kristoff, and politician, Michael Steele, on the other, on the issue of ‘Islamophobia.’ The phenomenon, quite simply, references the bigotry in political discourse, against Islam and Muslims. The debate saw Harris and Maher arguing that Islam is inherently violent, and something requiring reform, in order to neutralise radical and fundamentalist attitudes, which has been the main cause of violence and terrorism, and an obfuscation of these critiques in the media is morally reprehensible for a liberal world. Kristoff, Steele, and particularly Affleck, strongly disagreed with the notion that violence is something inherent to Islam, and argued that a wide array of practises exist in the world, ranging from radical, to moderate, which are influenced by context, an argument that was further articulated by author, and critic of Maher and Harris’ position, Reza Aslan, as well as news-anchor, Fareed Zakaria.

This episode has led to the discussion of this issue on a broad scale on the internet, through several op-eds, open letters, TV debates, as well as Facebook comment threads and notes, which then led us to mull over these issues and present a convincing case as to why Maher and Harris are, not only incredibly wrong in their arguments, but also extremely bigoted in reaching those conclusions, through flawed reasoning.

So, let’s begin with Sam Harris and his version of Islam.

Following his infamous appearance on Real Time, he engaged with Fareed Zakaria on the latter’s show. Sam Harris described Osama bin Laden’s perspective on Islam, and on Jihad as “straightforward”; as most consonant with a plain reading of the texts. “Ideas have consequences,” he declares, with some confidence, as he proceeds to link the idea of Jihad to an alleged Muslim proclivity for violence. In his book released in 2004, The End of Faith, Harris denies the utility of any analysis of terrorism from socio-political, historical, and cultural angles; his argument consists of stating that if terrorists claim to be acting for religious reasons, we ought to believe them. In doing so he levies to them a basic challenge of reason – he declares them insane and unable to communicate meaningfully – and this itself, a charge originating from the religious (as opposed to “rational”) character of the act. He extends this argument, applying across a vast expanse of land that he describes as the “Muslim world”. In a modern day re-enactment of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, he justifies military intervention in the lands of the unthinking barbarians, in this passage in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004): “There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. That is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.”

Some basic fallacies underlie this conception. First, there is the privileging of religion as the sole or even major determinant of behaviour, and further, its production as an autonomous field existing outside of, or superior to, the influence of the myriad of other movements and institutions shaping society continually. This seems to arise from the second misconception: a deeply textual analysis of the relationship between religion and society that ignores two processes central to the articulation of religion as a political force: the production of new narratives, which reinterpret religion’s orientation to culture and governance, and the accumulation of events that produce the historical context that provides for the language and politics of the aforesaid narratives. The shaky statistical grounds (see ‘Myth #1’ here) for the initial claims serve to portray them as only marginally less satisfactory. While there is no denying that one can call these terrorists Muslims, because they claim to be so, one has to separate and juxtapose the apparent motivation, which seems exclusively religious, from deeper-seated issues emanating from realities of society, culture, economics, and politics, that in fact provide the impetus required to interpret dogma in manner that best fits certain predisgnated ideas and wants. A misogynistic interpretation of dogma stems from misogyny, and not the dogma itself. The exclusion of other factors is ridiculous, for they are what create a vacuum that allows for the genesis of a violent interpretation of dogma, in order to justify acts of violence, sought to remove said vacuum. The idea that Islam is inherently violent, and that Jihad manifests itself only in violent forms, is preposterous considering the vast number of Muslim states that don’t suffer from this degree of violence, like Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and such. Multiple, and often contradictory interpretations of dogma are indicative of two distinct features: the lack of an objective, dogmatic truth, and that the nature of interpretation and its consequences have a causal relationship with conditions prevailing in a society.

It is often instability in those spheres, where existing structures fail people that people fall back on more conservative and regressive interpretations of dogma, seeking to violently alter the prevailing conditions quickly, and radically, and it is the degree of instability and insecurity that dictates the extent of such fundamentalism. It is no surprise, therefore, that it was in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, that America saw the galvanisation of the far-right in the form of the Tea Party movement, in the Republican camp, which strongly emphasised Christian principles, leading to demands for laws that alter the economy, whilst also laws that prohibit gay marriage, abortion, and enforce programmes like abstinence, among other things. This reaction came in the context of what was seen as a threat to their way of life, in the form of increasing economic instability, growing tensions owing to loose immigration laws that lead to an influx of immigrants who allegedly burden the economy, and the fear of terrorism, which made conservatives fall deeper into the crevices of dogma that ensured that their way of life re-establishes itself as a dominant narrative. While less physically violent, the far-right of America seem as inclined and determine to impose their conception of society on their nation, whilst foisting other narratives and conceptions, much like Muslim nations in Africa and the Middle East (which are admittedly, more violent, but predicated on the same factors and causalities). This isn’t to say that such movements are unlikely to take place otherwise, but contextual realities are what determine the nature and pace of such ideas, and the kind of traction they get in a marketplace of ideas. There are several such analogies that further the argument that context causally affects the way religion is interpreted: Greece, in the aftermath of its economic meltdown, has seen the rise of the far-right in the form of the Golden Dawn party, characterised as an ultra-nationalist, neo-nazi party. In India, economic failures under the two UPA governments have enabled the rise of a new, “development” rhetoric, couched in a narrative littered with religious and cultural supremacy (read: Hindutva) and has lent traction to growth of Hindu fundamentalism, that has manifested itself in several aspects, from communal violence, to moral policing. It is no surprise, therefore, that centuries of colonisation, ending as recently as a few decades ago, economic subservience in neo-colonialist constructs in a globalised world, and constant exertion of western influence in politics, economics and culture (not to mention the invasion of Iraq, and a merciless War on Terror) have led to a collapse of existing structures, and what was a way of life, which has driven people to embrace violent interpretations of dogma, to try and reclaim autonomy. Therefore, this sole attribution to dogma, specifically one interpretation of it, is an obfuscation of the myriad factors that determine the way people and societies behave.

A good example of this absurd religious fetishism is Bill Maher, when he claims that Islam is uniquely violent (mafia-like, in his words), in that “no other religion would kill you for leaving.” In this view, the violence of Islam is the specific consequence of a specific idea: Jihad. Zakaria rightly questions Harris regarding this assertion on the basis of a historical record that depicts the areas of the world with traditionally large Muslim populations as considered, for long stretches of time, as relative bastions of religious freedom, and even the emblems of an erstwhile modernity: in how these religious ideas were interpreted, and lived, they constituted a variety of different political and cultural forms. Malaysia and Saudi Arabia have vastly different political regimes (as well as alternate discourses of Islam). All of this points to the obvious, basic point – context shapes religion and gives the raw emotion of the sacred and the divine a direction, and a program. To corroborate, one only has to read about the long history of Christian violence, over the centuries, be it the Inquisition, the Crusades, or slavery. Not only were they acts carried out by Christians, but they were acts that were sanctioned by the Orthodoxy, couched in a specific interpretation of religion, that enabled them to carry out these actions justifiably. Furthermore, the way in which Christianity has evolved in the first world is noteworthy: In an era of individualism, where the person is valued for her uniqueness, and due respect is given to her identity, whether in the realm of gender, sexual preference, race, political opinion, etc., selective readings and subjective interpretations of dogma ensues, with Christians who are pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, and so on, to the point that Priests have conducted wedding ceremonies for gay couples in America. This is besides the fact that majority of first-world Christians no longer live their life through the prism of the Old Testament, which is regressive and violent enough to not sustain itself as a viable conception of society and way of life in the modern world. There is even an openly gay Imam in Washington, who has his own interpretation of Islam, which enables him to maintain seemingly conflicting identities of sexual preference and religion. Moreover, the impetus that contextual realities provide to enable certain forms of action, and making them seem as legitimate, and justifiable forms of action, is pervasive to the point that it manages to blur lines of religious differences. For instance, the problem of female genital mutilation, which is often characterised as a Muslim problem, was in fact rightly characterised by author Reza Aslan (in response to Maher and Harris), as a Central African problem, for this practice is equally prevalent in Christian-majority nations in Central Africa, such as Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Subjective and selective religious practices beg the question: Who is a Muslim? For Harris, the serious believer of Islam (the real Muslim, so to speak) is the one who takes the Quran as presented, literally and plainly. Those who choose to deprioritize the purported central focus of Jihad, or even those who conceive it without violence, are nominal Muslims. They are Muslims who “do not take their faith seriously.” This is problematic on several levels. The initial claim of the literal and plain interpretation here referred to, is suspect. The Quran, like similar, ancient documents with a long history, has seen much disagreement throughout the past 1400 years over the contents of its text. There are contradicting passages, claims that this or that was added later or a false addition, (very) heated arguments over the interpretation of specific ambiguous words, shifts in the meanings of words over centuries, and errors in translation hover from above, keeping a beady eye from the sky on any attempts to reach said literal, plain reading. Claims are made to the sort that a ‘general sense of the text’ may be gleaned from an examination of the texts, and these serve as vital centralizing narratives that resolve contradictory stances in the text. Most vitally, this kind of analysis fails to understand that texts are themselves acts rooted in context. The Quran is not merely a book – it is a book addressed to an audience. There are things that such a book would hardly attempt to point out – such as the fact that the humans it spoke of were the bipedal creatures milling about over the countryside, as this is, simply put, a basic fact that everyone already recognizes. The idea of a literal reading is simply an incoherent notion that presumes that a multifaceted historical text proceeds to have identical universal impact. This is, therefore, a ludicrous assumption to make, that Harris openly makes, but never qualifies, reeking of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. The informal logical fallacy occurs when an individual forwards a universal claim, which is met with a counterexample. The individual then, without rejecting the counterexample or the universality of the rule, adds a rider as a modification, without actually addressing an objective rule. In Harris’ case, he believes all Muslims believe in violent jihad. When presented with counterexamples of Muslims who don’t believe the same, the arbitrary qualifier becomes that they aren’t real, or true Muslims (and thus, “nominal” muslims), which sidesteps the challenge to the universal rule entirely. Quite simply, an individual is a Muslim if they claim to be Muslim, for there are no objective parameters to distinguish “real” Muslims from others, seeing as there is no objective text, unanimously approved. There clearly is no objective, and correct religious truth, but Harris seems to miss that point entirely, when he explicitly agrees with Bin Laden’s interpretation of Islam, which is that Jihad is violent.

This division of Muslims into sincere and nominal is deeply insulting, and dangerous in how it establishes an aura of legitimate orthodoxy around the self-same structures it denounces as retrogressive. Harris and Maher contradict the very “liberal principles” they seek to protect, by attributing an objective correctness to a version of Islam, which not only adds legitimacy to an oppressive orthodoxy, but quite clearly violates their own principles of religious freedom and expression, by labelling specific non-violent expressions of Islam as being, well, not really Islam. Both of the central claims here are problematic: (a) there is no legitimate reason to believe that the Muslims of Malaysia, Indonesia and India take their religion less seriously, the only case to be made is that they prioritize specific narratives in the prism of a cultural context to organize differentially; (b) Islam in nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran is similarly a political project. The view that takes these issues as purely religious is facile (and as accurate as a study, which after interviewing a particularly patriotic soldier, concludes that wars occur not for economic or social reasons, but because Germans are smelly) and ignores a history of colonialism, and a contemporary reality of neo-colonialism, that create a space for a regressive politics, and the western support that allows unpopular dictatorships such as in Saudi Arabia to remain in power (and which initially placed it there).

In short, Harris and Maher essentialise Islam and Muslims on the basis of a (with emphasis on the singular) interpretation of it and then proceeds to generalize across a vast space of geography and culture, ignoring assiduously context of any sort.

This is a stupid way to think about things.


Akshay is a second year student at the Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi, a graduate in Biology, from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi, and is a long-time friend, and debating teammate of Raunaq’s. They wrote this because they were annoyed by Harris and Maher, whom they otherwise like(d).

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