What’s “Religious” About Religious Terrorism?

There has been a particular meme running through public discussion of religion and terrorism ever since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001–particularly in connection with Islamist terrorism.  This is the idea that the Islamic religion has nothing to do with Islamist terrorism. The origins go back at least as far as President George W. Bush’s description of Islam, in the days after the attacks as a “religion of peace.”  Lauded at the time as a gesture of interfaith support for American Muslims, indeed Muslims around the world, the description has become more controversial when uttered by American public officials since that time.

A case in point is President Barack Obama’s description of Islam at the annual National Prayer Breakfast as having been “hijacked” by terrorists who are religious in name only for political ends. Conservative Christians in the U.S. have reportedly been scandalized by President Obama’s analogy between the Crusades and Inquisition and the activities of the Islamic State. (There has also been debate over whether ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, or Daesh in its Arabic abbreviation should be called “Islamic.”) Other commentators have defended the analogy, pointed to what has been aptly described as the “ambivalence of the sacred” in most, if not all religions.

In political science, the issue is often framed in terms of “religion by proxy,” a term used to describe the use of religion to press arguments and achieve objectives that have more to do with other ethnic, social, political, and economic issues than they do with religion itself. It connects in interesting ways with a tendency in politics, the media, and many secular fields to be reticent to ascribe religious causation to conflicts that seem driven by other concerns. These conflicts are often described as “political not religious” in nature.

The issue also connects up to a debate currently brewing in religious studies, law, and political science circles about the definition of religion–particularly definition of religion through the mechanisms of law, court, and the state–in ongoing debates over religious freedom.  The idea propounded by religious freedom skeptics in those debates is that any legal or political regime of religious freedom requires the state and its courts to become inextricably entangled with religion in attempting to define it in ways that challenge notions of the secular state and, particularly, the U.S Constitution.  The term, indeed, the very category of “religion” is seen as a product of the Enlightenment, even the Protestant Reformation, such that any attempt to impose it, particularly on religions outside the “Christian West” threatens to become hegemonic, even imperialistic.

But this reticence, or relativism, about applying the label “religion” to actions and movements is becoming more and more a subject of debate in connection with terrorism. Even Muslims who are rightly reluctant to fashion themselves as “moderates” or to bear the full burden of #NotInMyName remonstrances, are raising the question.  In a recent interview, Ani Zonneveld, the founder and president of an organization called Muslims for Progressive Values maintained:

I call them Muslims because they identify themselves as Muslim, and they act upon what they believe is an Islamic edict. If you’re going to say ‘Allahu Akbar’ and kill people, then unfortunately or not, they’re identified as Muslims.

Zonneveld further noted that many Muslim organizations steered clear of her organization and its views.  As she put it:

I think they are not comfortable with the brutal honesty with which we say things. Many mosques don’t want to address the issue of theology and the intolerance within the theology.

Interviewed for the same article, Muzammil Siddiqi, an imam at the Islamic Society of Orange County (ISOC) and chairman of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, took a different view, arguing:

It has nothing to do with the religion. Neither Christianity teaches violence, not Judaism, not Hinduism, not Buddhism and certainly not Islam.

This view is in keeping with the “religions of peace” perspective, but it ignores the existence of violent tendencies in all of the mentioned faiths. A third interviewee, Salam Al-Marayati, president of the L.A.-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), distinguished the Islamic faith from the ideology of the Islamic state, maintaining:

Islam stands for liberation, ISIS stands for oppression; Islam stands for mercy, ISIS stands for cruelty; Islam stands for constructive engagement, ISIS stands for destructive behavior.

There are shades of truth in all of these perspectives–just as there are variations of violence and intolerance in all of the world’s religions. And there are, indeed, questions about how religious the Islamic State adherents really are, at least as far as knowledge of the faith.  The Amazon.com purchase lists of some recent jihadis have reportedly included such titles as “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies.”

Just as we need to be able to identify religious dimensions of conflicts, we need also to be able to admit the religious dimension of terrorism. Religious definition skeptics argue against traditional understandings of religion in terms of “creed, cult, code, and canon/conduct/community.” (Religion 1.0) (The fourth leg of this definitional table has several variations. They typically focus on the rituals, practices, and close communities of “lived religion.” (Religion 2.0) But what we may be seeing with these “religiously” inspired terrorist groups in the form of transnational communities based on identity, belonging, and terrorism may be a new form of religion. (Religion 3.0)

This new version of religion–if it is, in fact, new–is powerful stuff. As the religion scholar and writer, Reza Aslan, has described it:

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. . . .

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.

We may need better scholarly resources and policy responses to understand the phenomenon of religion and identity, particularly since it seems to be connected with much of the religious violence and terrorism that we are seeing today.  The first step would be to acknowledge its religious dimension–whatever that turns out to mean.

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