DECEMBER 6, 2001
Searching in Vain for an Essence
-- Jonathan Gold>
George W. Bush has taken a stand on the true nature of Islam, calling it, for instance, a "religion of peace." As strange as this is to hear from the president of the United States, Bush's declarations have given rise to a good deal of useful public discussion about Islam. Unfortunately, this discussion has too often accepted the confused terms of the president's rhetoric: Is there, or is there not, something wrong in the nature of Islam? Salman Rushdie ("Yes, This is About Islam," New York Times 11/2/01) and Jonathan Ebel ("Territory is Not Mind," Sightings 11/15/01) both make some useful points in the process of taking up the question, but somehow leave standing the president's fundamental misconception that a religion has an essence.
Surely it is not fair to say that September 11 is "about" Islam. Violent hatred and intolerance can be adduced in too many corners of the religious world to imagine that it comes, simply, from the doctrines of one holy book or another. At the same time, it is difficult for me to blame Salman Rushdie, especially, for perceiving something within Islam today that is prone to violence. His non-violent, literary attack on Islam was, after all, taken by some Muslims to justify very real threats to his life. And, he marshals some reasonable evidence that many Muslims do believe that Islam is on board with the September 11 terrorists.
Still, we ought not to declare that September 11 is "about" Islam, especially if this means that we ignore "foreign policy, humanity, global society, and the just ordering thereof"-- which Ebel says are obviously what September 11 is also "about." Ebel's list implies that a larger, broader causal story needs to be told, rather than simply to say that Islam gave us the horrors of September 11. I agree wholeheartedly. Believing too simplistic a causal story carries both moral and practical flaws. If Islam itself -- or something in its nature -- was the cause of the attacks, we could only prevent further attacks by preventing further Islam. In this way, such a simplistic belief would tend to sanction persecution if not genocide against Muslims. From a practical standpoint, we will have to understand the details of the real, long-term causal story if we wish to minimize the threat of repeated terrorism in America.
But when we deny that Islam has violence at its core, we must also deny simple dichotomies. The president's words suggest that either September 11 is "about" Islam or it's not; either Islam is a religion of violence or Islam is a religion of peace. This is wrong.
Religions do not have unchanging natures. They are (among other things) complex social organisms that exist in history. Thus, while they are molded by that history, they mold it back in turn. When we focus on social forces that affect the development and transformation of peoples, therefore, we always remember that religions are a crucial part of that causal story. While multiple social forces contribute to the development of religious movements, those religious movements often then become forces within society. There is no essence in Islam that makes it unavoidably violent; but there is violence in Islam today.
Whatever September 11 ought to be "about," the fact that the question continues to be asked provides a teaching opportunity. Millions of Americans who for decades have done without lessons in history and foreign policy want to know, now, what might have brought us to this point. Of course, the particulars of the history of the Middle East will be a crucial part of this education. But scholars of religion also ought to be able to provide a more general understanding. For instance, what forces enter into the development of violent religious movements, and what might be done to mitigate such development?
Is it too fantastic to imagine that this kind of education might reach a segment of the voting population large enough to affect American policy? Right now our military is engaged in a "war against terrorism." If America and the international community can also engage other forces that will allow Islam--and other religions as well, since this is not only "about" Islam--to take paths of peace, we must. What better use of the knowledge provided by religious studies?
-- Jonathan Gold is a doctoral candidate in the philosophy of religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.