The framework of fundamentalist propaganda distorts how we view every religion

The framework of fundamentalist propaganda distorts how we view every religion February 20, 2015

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
– W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Graeme Wood’s essay on “What ISIS Really Wants” is helpful and constructive in spotlighting the religious nature of that violent group. But it is also, as I said in the previous post, misled and misleading when it comes to the religious nature of religion. When it comes to the meaning of religion, Wood sometimes sounds like he works in the recruitment offices of Bob Jones University.

And that’s a problem.

The problem arises, I think, from Wood’s desire to persuade readers that ISIS is motivated by religious belief. So far so good. And ISIS is Islamic, so Wood wants to stress that we cannot hope to understand ISIS unless we allow ourselves to understand the Islamic nature of their religious motivation. Fine, cool, no problems yet. But to really pound that message home, Wood overshoots and — following his scholarly guide, Bernard Haykel of Princeton — implies that ISIS is more Islamic than any other form of Islam.

And that’s not true. It’s what ISIS claims about itself, but that alone isn’t sufficient reason for us to take their word for it. Wood and Haykel don’t explain why we should simply accept ISIS’s claim at face value, they just sort of assume that we can and should do so.

The closest they come to supporting this assumption is when Wood enlists Haykel to lob a bunch of dismissive insults that were apparently lifted from an IRD press release condemning mainline Presbyterians:

Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”

… He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

Haykel just contradicted himself. Twice.

Most obviously, he contradicts himself with that last sentence: “These guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.” That’s the opposite of what he’s just finished saying with his whole “politically correct … cotton-candy” diatribe. The point of all those insults is to make it clear that these fluffy PC Muslims have no legitimacy in Haykel’s view. He regards their form of Islam as “nonsense” — as inauthentic, unserious, unreal. ISIS claims that it has a truer, purer, more Islamic form of Islam than all those other Muslims — and Haykel agrees with them. He is not arguing that they have “just as much legitimacy as anyone else.” He is arguing that they have more legitimacy than anyone else.

On what basis is he making this claim? Well, there’s the second contradiction. He offers two contradictory reasons for the superior legitimacy of ISIS’s form of Islam. First he offers “the texts of Islam,” suggesting that there exists some objective, textual measure of this Islamic legitimacy. But then he retracts that and offers, instead, this puzzling statement:

As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.

That doesn’t seem either believable or meaningful.

Haykel has just finished telling us that he doesn’t believe this. He has just explained that what some Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts is not really “Islam” at all, but simply PC cotton-candy. Those Muslims’ interpretation of their texts is, Haykel says, “preposterous” and “willful ignorance.”

But let’s stipulate that Haykel actually does believe this. What does it mean? What does it mean to say that Islam does not exist apart from “What Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts”?* Let us see how Haykel applies this precept.

Well, in the case of some Muslims, what they do and how they interpret their texts is they launch a holy war against infidels and apostates. And thus, Haykel says, theirs is a legitimate form of Islam. Fair enough.

In the case of millions of other Muslims, what they do and how they interpret their text is they get killed by the first group who has just denounced them as infidels and apostates. Haykel’s precept ought to require that we regard these victims of the first group as equally legitimate, and yet he doesn’t seem to affirm their legitimacy with the same enthusiasm he has for that of the first group.

Hundreds of millions of other Muslims interpret their texts differently from the holy warriors. They say the holy warriors are mis-interpreting their texts and distorting them. That is what hundreds of millions of Muslims do and how they interpret their texts. Therefore, Haykel’s precept says that theirs also must be a legitimate form of Islam. But Haykel himself refuses to consider it that. He calls their expression of Islam preposterous political correctness and willful ignorance.

“Islam” is apparently not what most Muslims do or how most Muslims interpret their texts. It is apparently only what some Muslims — the most strident and violent — do, and the interpretations of the texts that support them.

I don’t think Haykel’s inconsistency here is the result of deliberate disingenuousness, I think he’s just succumbing to the relentless propaganda campaign that fundamentalists of every religious persuasion have cooperated on for as long as they have existed.

Haykel is, Wood tells us, an expert on the theological beliefs of ISIS. Studying that — studying the theology of any fundamentalist sect — means soaking in and soaking up the propaganda of fundamentalism. That’s not something you can easily filter out, because fundamentalism does not exist apart from that propaganda. 

Even those who reject the substance of that propaganda often end up unconsciously absorbing the framework it creates. And that framework has become accepted, repeated, and reinforced almost everywhere.

It looks something like this:

Screen shot 2015-02-20 at 4.24.01 PM

I think of this as a Yeatsian framework because it privileges the supposedly “more authentic” forms of religion due to their passionate intensity, while disregarding the supposedly “less authentic” due to their imagined lack of all conviction. And because it admires the passionate intensity of what I consider the worst aspects of religion while dismissing what I consider the best of religion as nothing more than that lack of conviction.

Yes, I have stacked the deck there a bit, using loaded language to make it as clear as possible what it is that this framework trains us to ignore as inauthentic.

And we have been trained to assume all of this. This framework is pervasive, shaping our perception of every religion, not just Islam. We’ve been tricked into seeing inquisitors and crusaders as a more genuine expression of any religion than that religion’s saints or mystics. We’ve swallowed the idea that the inquisitors must be correct in their interpretation of religious texts, while any who disagree with those interpretations must be willfully ignorant, or sweetly deluded by some irreligious “political correctness.”

Imagine you’ve just encountered two adherents of a religion you know nothing about, each representing a different strain of that religion.

“We represent the Real True Faith,” the first says. “We alone possess this truth and we alone walk the righteous path.”

“We wouldn’t quite want to say that …” the second one says.

Which one do you think is a more reliable source of information about this religion? Al Mohler, Ken Ham, Fox News, Bill Maher and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will all tell you to listen to the first person. I disagree.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I can imagine a rousing hortatory sermon based on this idea. I know a dozen preachers who could be given the sentences “There is no such thing as Christianity. It’s what Christians do” and could make that sing as the basis for a crackling call for revival. But that doesn’t make it useful for the purposes Wood and Haykel try to use it for here.


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