The Ideology, the Believer, the Society, and the Text

The Ideology, the Believer, the Society, and the Text February 28, 2014

The response to some of my earlier posts about Islam pointed out that there is some essentialism in my articles, and that I should simply say that Islam is “practiced” this way, or Muslims “believe” it this way, and to me all of this doesn’t necessarily point to a disagreement about Islam but a more fundamental disagreement about how ideology works. Without the intention to disprove the criticisms leveled at my previous posts, I simply want to express my own thoughts on this matter.

Now, as far as I can see, there are three elements that we can use to judge an ideology as a whole.

  1. The believer: people who profess those believes, the consensus, the dominant interpretation
  2. The society: how this ideology is treated and upheld in various countries, how does it function in power, how has it affected the world
  3. The text: the corpus of works that theorize that ideology

To me, this is very similar in how literary schools of criticism, especially reader-response criticism, choose to define a work of literature:

  1. The reader who understand and interprets
  2. The context, historical, social, racial, etc
  3. The text itself

How should we judge Islam? Based on how Muslims observe it? Based on the theocracies and its effect on the society? Based on the Koran and hadith? What about Marxism? Do we judge it based on famous Marxists, as different as they were, based on the history of Marxist societies, or based on the works of Marx and Engels and Lenin, etc?

I think ultimately it’s wrong to give supremacy and dominance to one of these elements. If we look at the final result, which is the world we live in, you cannot ignore any of them.

You cannot ignore the effect of the consensus of the believers. If all Christians, or a strong majority of them, had decided to make evolution not a big deal, creationism wouldn’t be a problem. If the tide of the dominant interpretation had shifted differently in dealing with Leviticus, we would be discriminating against people with funky hair and not gays. And maybe if all Marxists were democratic, like Raymond Williams or Allende, Marxism would be considered differently, but it has been defined by people like Lenin.

You cannot ignore the history and its powers as well. Islamic countries experience deep troubles. A history of colonialism, anger over the founding of Israel, poverty, lack of great general education, hunger, wars, totalitarian regimes, etc etc all add up to make these countries a welcoming soil for radicalism and intolerance. Marxism never succeeded in starting a revolution in Germany and Russia but in impoverished countries like Russia and China and Cuba and Cambodia. Great income inequality, harsh labor laws, all and all led to a population ready to embrace Marxism.

You cannot ignore the text either. I love Marx, I really do. I gave a lecture about him in the university. I use many of his terms to describe the reality of the world, like False Consciousness. I think his impact on the world is invaluable. Yet, can you really ignore the fact that there is a strong sense of determinism in his works, that logically leads to totalitarianism? Can you say that his utopian vision had no role in creating a justification for the gulags and cultural revolutions? You would, if you are a strident Marxist, but you’d be motivated by whitewashing. Sure, later Marxists diverged from Marx in many aspects, but does that render his whole influence moot?

There would be no Marxism without its texts and without Marxists, without the socio-political climate of Marxist countries, and without Marx himself. They all affect each other, they all shift continually in importance. But overall, I can say that Marxism was not good for humanity, that overall it didn’t make the world a better place.

I say the same about Islam and Christianity and Judaism. And I say we can say Islam is especially a destructive force based on all those elements, the scripture and the realities of the Middle East and the consensus of Muslims. We can say the same thing about Christianity, too, of course.

But the point I’m trying to make is this: it’s wrong to say “religion is only what is being practiced”. It’s wrong because religion is practiced differently because of both historical and political context and the scriptures. It’s also wrong to say that the context is the only thing that’s important because the context is shaped by the practice and the scripture. And it’s wrong to hang everything on scripture because the practice and the context filter and interpret it.

It’s very complex, because these three aspects affect and change one another simultaneously. However, I still make a simple claim with confidence: religion sucks.

What do you think? Do I make sense or am I completely full of crap?

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