President Obama riled up his detractors two weeks ago with his remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. In his nearly half-hour long speech, the part that attracted the most attention was his reflection on the countless ways faith has been distorted to justify horrible atrocities. He brought up several examples in the news today, from Pakistan to Paris, from Syria to the Central African Republic. This segment was undoubtedly well-received, but his following statement was more controversial: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” That last sentence rings all the more relevant as a study by the Equal Justice Initiative released just last week has documented nearly 4,000 gruesome lynchings that took place in the South between 1877 and 1950.
Obama has been criticized from both sides for these remarks, as he often is. Some to the right have called the president’s remarks “pernicious” and offensive to “every believing Christian in the United States.” On the other hand, and more interestingly to me, an op-ed by Rami Khouri in Al Jazeera America criticizes Obama for misguiding Americans “by making religion the key that explains some people’s criminal conduct.” This critique addresses the more worrisome trend in modern American society – that is, identifying a problem like violent extremism and then attributing it to religion alone rather than the more complex mishmash of politics, culture, history, and socioeconomic circumstances.
When Bill Maher and Sam Harris took to the airwaves last October to criticize Islam as “the mother lode of bad ideas” responsible for terrorism, oppression, and cultural backwardness across the Muslim world, they were guilty of this oversimplification. Their generalizations extended beyond political incorrectness and strayed into the realm of careless, pseudointellectual stereotyping. The fact that they did so under the guise of promoting liberal principles makes their misinterpretation even more deleterious. Categorizing violent extremism as a problem unique to Islam or implying that Islam is the cause of social stagnation demonstrates a dearth of analysis and a disregard for history. It ignores the influence of autocratic governing institutions, the historical memory of European colonialism, and the distressing nature of socioeconomic underdevelopment. It perpetuates a dichotomous clash of civilizations and does very little to address the problems at hand.
That all being said, I don’t think President Obama can be accused of making these same sweeping statements, as Rami Khouri might suggest. Contrarily, Obama has made a conscious effort to avoid using incriminating terms like “radical Islam,” particularly in his most recent State of the Union address, in favor of more neutral phrases like “violent extremism” (which is a wording decision that he has also been criticized for, unsurprisingly). In fact, just today he gave a keynote address on changing the narrative on Islam to make it clear that the US is not at war with Islam, but rather with “the people who have perverted Islam.” This highlights an important distinction, that this sort of fundamentalism is not an Islamic phenomenon, but perhaps an Islamicate phenomenon – associated with regions where Muslims constitute the dominant cultural groups (the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of South and Southeast Asia), but not necessarily a product of the religion itself.
Recognizing this distinction may prove to be far more fruitful in eliciting a societal change. Rather than blaming a religious faith observed by about a quarter of the world, which implies that the only solutions are either for the religion to change or for the people to change religions, we may instead focus on social mobility and economic empowerment. We may focus on politically inclusive institutions and rectifying centuries’ worth of exploitation, instrumentalism, and Western exceptionalism. This coheres more logically with the actual course of history, which has shown that Islamicate civilizations such as the Abbasids and the Gunpowder Empires were fully compatible with scientific, economic, and cultural advancement while at times, as President Obama noted, predominantly Christian civilizations were not.
It should be fairly obvious that the cause of these fluctuations in progressiveness is not religious doctrine. Muslims today still believe there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God, and Christians today still believe that Jesus is the son of God, just as both groups did a thousand years ago. Rather, these beliefs have now mingled with modern history and geopolitical conditions which have been more favorable to some civilizations than others. The result is the persistence of rampant inequality throughout the Middle East, fighting between Israelis and Palestinians, a hostile theocracy in Iran, and US-backed oil-rich monarchies. But not because of religion; as Fareed Zakaria puts it, “You can never explain a variable phenomenon with a fixed cause.”