Sunday, December 11, 2016

Two discussions on the relationship between Islam and violence

Last week, the Dalai Lama made the following comments about religion and terrorism:

“Buddist terrorist…Muslim terrorist…that wording is wrong!  Any person who wants [to] indulge in violence [is] no longer genuine Buddist [or] genuine Muslim.  Because it is a Muslim teaching, you see, [that] once you involve bloodshed, then actually [you are] no longer [a] genuine practitioner of Islam…

All major world religious traditions carry [the] same message: message of love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, self-discipline – all religious traditions.  So these are the common ground and common practice.  On that level we can build genuine harmony on the basis of mutual respect, mutual learning, mutual admiration.”

I posted a video of him saying this on my timeline.  The reception was generally positive, but two of my friends objected.  The transcripts of both conversations are below.  As always, their names are changed, and their text is in italics, whereas mine is in regular font (unless I was quoting someone else).

Conversation One:  Is Islam inherently more violent than other world religions?

Marty: Quran (4:89) - "They wish that you should reject faith as they reject faith, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of God; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and slay them wherever you find them; take not to yourselves any one of them as friend or helper." Verse 4:65 says that those who have faith are in "full submission" to Muhammad's teachings. This verse explains what should happen to Muslims who do not have faith.

Andrew Doris Interesting quote Marty! Thanks for sharing. Reminds me of Leviticus 24:16, which reads "anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death."

Seems like the Dalai Lama was right - the world's major religious traditions really are more similar than we think!
Now that you've piqued my curiosity, let's see if we can find any other similarly-themed Bible passages...

Exodus 35:2: "For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does anywork on it is to be put to death."

Leviticus 20:14: "If a man marries both a woman and her mother, it is wicked. Both he and they must be burned in the fire, so that no wickedness will be among you."

Leviticus 25:44: "you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you."

Exodus 21:7: "If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do."

Deuteronomy 22:13-29: “If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then turns against her, and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, ‘I took this woman, but when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin,’ then the girl’s father and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of the girl’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate...if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin, then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father’s house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you.

If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel.

If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you."

Aren't Ancient cultures FUN?

In all seriousness, now...I am a proud Christian, and I don't believe any of the shit I just pasted above. I doubt you do either, because like me, you probably realize a) it was written by people who, divinely inspired or not, lived thousands of years ago under a set of moral norms that simply don't apply today, b) it was then subjectively spliced and edited and translated and re-translated hundreds of times, by people who were neither perfect nor divine, and in fact had strong biases and incentives and political motivations of their own, and c) it is recanted and outweighed by the vast bulk of Biblical passages in both the New and Old Testament that preach themes of peace, forgiveness, and loving your neighbors in spite of their sin. In other words, you are capable of thinking for yourself, and so take the verbatim verbiage of antiquated texts that contradict your conscience with a grain of salt (or even a whole pillar of it!)

To deny 1 billion Muslims the courtesy of the same interpretative leeway about what their own text actually means in its totality, when it's written in their language and they have studied every word of it since they were very little, is hypocrisy at best and bigotry at worst.

Frank: Great point, but of course nobody is using those ancient quotes from the Bible to murder anyone today - and haven't for hundreds of years. But every day radical Islamic terrorists kill nonbelievers or their own people for violations of the Quran all around the world.

MartyYes, but the difference between the Qur'an and other religious books is that the Qur'an is very clearly states that, in the case of contradicting statements, the contradicting passages that come later cancel out the earlier ones. In the Qur'an, the violent passages come after the peaceful ones.
And the Qur'an was written by one man.

Andrew Doris Frank: Sure, and neither I nor the Dalai Lama are denying that such acts occur more often in Islamic parts of the world, nor that terror attacks are waged more often by self-professed Muslims than they are by self-professed Christians even in Western countries like our own (and we can trade theories for why that is if you like). He's just saying that of the over 1 billion self-described Muslims in the world, the extreme minority (under 0.1%) who even affiliate with radical Salafi terror groups (much less carry out attacks themselves) are the ones whose interpretation of the religion is wrong, and that in fact by carrying out such acts they contravene Islam so completely that they cannot rightfully be called Muslims. I haven't studied the Koran intensively by any stretch, but I'm inclined to trust the opinion of a globally beloved leader who has devoted his life to religious study since he entered a monastery at the age of six, and has lived in a country with 172 million Muslims since 1959, over that of my Trump-loving Facebook sparring partner from PA.

MartyYeah, I don't love Trump by any stretch... And don't believe me? Fine. Read the Qur'an and find out for yourself. Think for yourself.

FrankTrue again, but one of the fundamental precepts of Islam is that only a Muslim can accurately interpret the Quran so most scholars would say that while they might agree, or hope to agree, with him, the Dali Lama isn't qualified to render an opinion on the Quran.

Conversation Two: How do we define who is and isn’t a member of a religion?


Are religions a dangerous tool, especially prone to justifying violence, that the modern world has no use for?

KyleI have read all the above responses to this and as always, I appreciate your dedication to factual accuracy where applicable. I also really like that as a Christian, you went out of your way to find commonalities in the Quran and Bible, because while I reject all faiths and wish for their end, I know that until such a time, interfaith pursuits are of great value.

That being said, I think this is all bullshit for a very simple reason: No one gets to decide who is and who is not part of any religion, especially those with as many sects and schisms as the Abrahamic faiths. The Dalai Lama knows this, he is just ignoring it to promote a well-meaning message of peace and support for the Islamic community. Muslims who are inspired by their religion to commit acts of terrorism or general violence are as much a part of Islam as their altruistic, peaceful counterparts (not saying that they're equal in number, just equal in claim to the religion).

Andrew Doris This touches on a very common debate about the parameters of various ideological labels and who gets to determine where they are. There is never an objectively right answer, as all of language is a constantly evolving human construct and the fenceposts are largely up for interpretation.  I can appreciate that major world religions with so many subdivisions are necessarily a big tent and don't mean to appoint myself gatekeeper of who is and isn't Muslim.  Certainly radical Salafi terrorists are culturally Muslim, whether or not their ideas meet whatever criteria our definition of Muslim would establish.

With that conceded, the flip side of the coin is that if ideological labels are to mean anything at all, and we're going to have any sort of productive discourse on their merits without just talking past one another, there has to be a certain constancy of terms. We can't just have words mean whatever is convenient for our argument or our self-conception. For example, as a libertarian, I am frequently frustrated by people who support mass deportation, an aggressive war-hawk foreign policy, the war on drugs, torture, warrantless NSA surveillance and social conservative policies turning around and calling themselves "libertarian" because they like low taxes and think it's a more chic thing to call themselves than Republican nowadays. After a certain point (subjective though it may be) those people are wrong about what they are and that needs to be stated plainly. Affiliations must have definitions and an apple can't be an orange just because it claims to be one.

So it is with Islam. Smart people can define it differently and disagree about which of the thousands of offshoots do and don't make the cut, but somewhere along the line there needs to be a cut. There exists that which isn't Islamic. I think the Dalai Lama's point was just that the ideology practiced by a billion people and the ideology advanced by ISIS are so irreconciliably different as to warrant distinct descriptive terms.

KyleI agree with you about the inherent fuzziness of big tent ideologies. They create confusion and lead to semantic arguments. This is the root of my issue with how pretty much everyone talks about Islam. Big tent ideologies are not one thing. That's why no one gets to say a person who derives their personal religious beliefs from Islamic sources isn't a Muslim.

If you want to say one group of people is not part of the same specific religion as some other group of people, great, use well-defined terms (which absolutely exist in this case), but don't continue to muddy the water of religious terminology by intentionally omitting information so you can pretend your umbrella religion is flawless. If the Lama's point was what you think it is, the way he's communicating it is a huge disservice to the overall conversation about Islam. And for the record, I don't think it was his point. I think he purposefully crafted his statement to be vanilla peace-talk to protect everyone's stupid feelings and insecurities. And I think that makes him kind of an asshat (not overall, just situationally).

Andrew Doris "Big tent ideologies are not one thing. That's why no one gets to say a person who derives their personal religious beliefs from Islamic sources isn't a Muslim."

That's not really what he said though, especially if we give him even the slightest bit of interpretative leeway as a non-native speaker. In context, he appears to have objected to a reporter who chose to describe someone as "buddist terrorist" or a "muslim terrorist," and sternly argued "that wording is wrong." The reason he thinks that’s wrong isn't necessarily because such people wouldn't technically be categorized as Muslim in a census or poll. I already conceded they are at least culturally Muslim. The reason the wording is wrong is that it's irrelevant, in his opinion, to why they are a terrorist, and as such is a misleading adjective for describing their motivations. If I were to murder you, and then a Bears fan described it as "the act of a crazed Packers fan", your family might also respond that the wording was wrong - not in the technical sense (because I am a Packers fan) but in the larger sense that it's not WHY I killed you and Packers fans are actually nice people by and large so saying that doesn't make any sense (and could even counterproductively stoke tensions).

You don't have to agree with him that it's irrelevant to their motivations, but it's sort of begging the question to say such people are "inspired by their religion to commit acts of terrorism or general violence" Were they? Or were they inspired or angered or motivated by something else to commit such acts, which they then tried to square with their self-identity as Islamic men? It's sort of like saying racist Southern homophobic Christians are inspired to be hateful by Christianity. Are they? Were they neutral on those questions until they read Leviticus and the quotes above, after which they were convinced and inspired solely on the weight of those passages that homosexuality must be an abomination, and so is eating shellfish and touching pigs and wearing polyester? Or did they likely form strong prejudices against gays and racial minorities for secular reasons (like deeply ingrained patriarchy and white supremacy) and then retroactively try to square and mesh such beliefs with the only comprehensive ideological framework accessible to them (their Church?)

Maybe you'd disagree with me about which theory is more accurate, but you should at least concede it's an open question. And surely you can see the parallels to how the factors which radicalize people who happen to be Muslim are neither exclusively nor necessarily "Islamic sources." If terrorists are pushed into committing terrible acts not by dispassionate and level-headed religious study of such sources, but by a toxic mixture of growing up in communities devastated by western imperialism and lacking access to education, which in conjunction renders them desensitized to violence, resentful towards the West, distrustful of modernization, and susceptible to manipulation at the hands of anyone who can explain their suffering in the terms of the only comprehensive ideological framework accessible to THEM, I think it's fair to argue that whatever that original ideological framework may happen to be isn't the cause of their terrorism.

It is very common for the left to accuse self-described Christian conservatives of acting in a very un-Christian way towards the poor and powerless. Wouldn't it also be fair to call them even more anti-Christian the moment they decide to do something so heinous as bomb an abortion clinic, for example? And if so, why can't the Dalai Lama opine that terrorism is a fundamentally anti-Islamic act based on his own interpretation of that faith?

One last point…you write:

"If you want to say one group of people is not part of the same specific religion as some other group of people, great, use well-defined terms (which absolutely exist in this case), but don't continue to muddy the water of religious terminology by intentionally omitting information so you can pretend your umbrella religion is flawless."

But again, those weren't his terms! He was admonishing someone else's terms: the vaguest possible description of what in truth is very narrow sect. So which of them were truly the ones trying to "muddy the waters of religious terminology"? The broader your definition of Muslim, the murkier the definition of that term becomes.

As it usually turns out in semantic arguments, neither of us are right - we just want words to be defined in a way that comports with our worldview. The Dalai Lama believes religion is mostly a force for good in the world; you believe it is mostly a force for bad. There's a set of activities which nearly everyone can agree are evil, so naturally it fits your narrative to see them as quintessentially religious and it fits his narrative to see them as deviations from "genuine" or "major" religion. All three of us are "intentionally omitting information" that would harm our thesis, because we have confirmation biases we're currently uninterested in re-examining. So maybe I should stop typing and go to bed.

Kyle: He absolutely is saying that people who commit acts of violence and identify themselves as Muslims/Buddhists are not true Muslims/Buddhists. That is verbatim what he is saying. If he stopped after saying "Buddhist terrorist. Muslim terrorist. That wording is wrong," I would agree with you 100%. In that context, all he's saying is that using the umbrella religion these people identify with as their primary descriptor is unfair and harmful to the religions at large, which is objectively true. They are terrorists who are Buddhist and terrorists who are Muslim. But he doesn't stop there; he delivers a condescending exclusionary message about violence and Islam being totally incompatible, which is definitely not objectively true.

Acting like you can steal away elements of their character as people is not helpful. All it does is make peaceful religious people feel good about themselves and allows the further division and extreme polarization of major religions. When you make it okay for people to deny others the right to claim the word Islam over violence, it makes it okay to do the same over any other issue a Muslim considers fundamental to their interpretation of Islam. Wouldn't it be insulting for someone to tell you that you're not a real Christian (for whatever reason they might have). You're an intelligent, well-adjusted person, so you're not going to lash out at them, but it's still insulting. And they shouldn't feel like it's reasonable for them to do that. When that happens to people who aren't as smart or well-adjusted, we get lots of fuel for the new wave of insane Christian Conservatism we have now (remember how a bunch of moderate Christians felt like it was okay to say that if you're not openly accepting of homosexuality, you're not a real Christian?)

You are right that I don't agree that people's religious beliefs are irrelevant to their motivations. What you are wrong in assuming is that I subsequently believe that terrorists are inspired primarily by their religion to commit acts of violence. You obviously understand that the motivations of terrorists are complex. There are geopolitical elements, cultural elements, economic, and so on. Being able to normalize and justify to yourself and others the violence you are inspired by your complicated negative environment to commit is a huge step. Historically, that justification is rooted in religion with terrifying frequency. And today, that justification is undeniably centered on Islam. That doesn't mean Islam is totally to blame. It means it plays a meaningful role. It is just as wrong to say that Western imperialism has nothing to do with the motivations of ISIS as it is to say that Islam isn't relevant to their motivations.

Other minor points that don't fit neatly:

- I don't think religion is "mostly a force for bad." I think that whole "force for good v force for bad" argument is nonsense. I think religion is a poorly-designed, obsolete tool. It's like a blunt rock tied to a stick. You can use it as a hammer and do just fine. I'll even concede that at one time it was the best we could do, but some people are inevitably going to bash their fingers in due to its inelegance and sometimes the rock will come untethered and fly off into someone else's face. What makes it really terrible is that we have better tools available that do all of its jobs without all the inevitable negative consequences (like hammers, pneumatic presses, science, and humanism).

- I'd like to address your analogy of "saying racist Southern homophobic Christians are inspired to be hateful by Christianity." Are they inspired to be hateful by Christianity? No, not in the way you're getting at, but indirectly, yes they are, and it makes perfect sense to my point about complex motivations above (so thank you). Kids grow up not understanding religion, but they are still forming prejudices based on their environment. So are people who grow up surrounded by racists and homophobes themselves racist and homophobic because they're Christian? No, but their racist, homophobic environment was heavily influenced by Christianity, so it's still PART of the problem. I'm not saying Christianity in general is racist and homophobic, but due to its inelegance as a tool (see above), there are totally valid interpretations of the Bible that are explicitly homophobic, supportive of the institution of slavery, and exalt a chosen race who are above all others.

Andrew Doris First, just want to say I’m thoroughly enjoying the conversation.  It seems our disagreement revolves around two primary focal points.  First, were the Dalai Lama’s comments in this instance generally accurate, conciliatory, and likely to reduce religious violence? or generally inaccurate, exclusionary/divisive and likely to stoke that violence?  And secondly, in a historical sense, is religion (and especially Islam) most often used to restrain people’s violent temptations, or to justify them?  You have good points on both arguments, but I’d like to start with the second, where this quote in particular stuck out to me:

“Being able to normalize and justify to yourself and others the violence you are inspired by your complicated negative environment to commit is a huge step. Historically, that justification is rooted in religion with terrifying frequency. And today, that justification is undeniably centered on Islam.”

This is a very strong argument.  It’s more nuanced than my earlier comment had given you credit for, and needs reckoning with because it’s pretty clearly true.  I just think it’s incomplete.  My objection is twofold: a) the only reason the justification for violence has historically been rooted in religion is that religion has historically been the only widely accepted ethical framework available to justify anything.  I don’t think the secular moral codes which have subsequently emerged are less prone to an interpretation which justifies violence by those amply motivated to engage in it, and would point to things like nationalism leading to world wars and egalitarianism leading to vicious (and atheist) communist regimes as evidence of that.  And b) the extent to which religion has been successfully used as a tool to normalize and justify violence needs to be weighed against a second, unseen effect in the opposite direction: the extent to which religion has successfully RESTRAINED those who wanted to wage violence, but were convinced not to after consultation with a trusted religious leader or text.  This effect is unseen (it makes neither the news nor the history books when someone decides NOT to be violent) and consequently it is difficult to quantify.  But I suspect that over the thousands of years that monotheistic religion has dominated relatively primitive human societies, this positive effect has probably dwarfed the misuses of religion you described.

This leads me back to the first focal point of our disagreement, about this video specifically. You write that the Dalai Lama’s comments were “a condescending exclusionary message about violence and Islam being totally incompatible” and worry this will “allow further division and extreme polarization of religions,” by making it “okay for people to deny others the right to claim the word Islam…over any other issue a Muslim considers fundamental to their interpretation of Islam.”  That’s fair enough, it just doesn’t mesh with your other theory that terrorism is made possible when religion normalizes and justifies violence.  If you agree that people are initially inspired to commit violence by a series of geopolitical, economic or cultural gripes, but argue religion shares the blame because it allows them to then take the “huge step” of justifying that violence to themselves or others, how can you then admonish efforts of religious leaders to prevent that step from being made?

If people tempted to commit violence by secular motives are going through that crucial justification process you described – trying to square XYZ horrible beliefs with Islam – a respected religious leader telling them that XYZ beliefs DO NOT SQUARE with Islam is exactly what they need at that crucial moment!  To the extent that there’s a period of soul-searching going on among those who conceive of themselves as pious Muslims and have the potential to be radicalized, the Dalai Lama’s message is precisely calibrated to leverage that self-conception for good by threatening exile from the community they fancy themselves a part of, which is just what that audience needs to hear to deter violence.

The only circumstances under which his statement would offend someone would be if they have already made up their mind that violence is justified, in which case it’s too late to be conciliatory.  And even in that case, it is far less insulting for people to be told that theirs is an aberrant interpretation of a religious text than it is for them to be told that their entire religious text is an obsolete farce, and that’s basically what you’ve been saying.  You can’t roll your eyes at “vanilla peace-talk to protect everyone’s stupid feelings and insecurities” in one comment and then lament how exclusionary and divisive he’s being in the next.

To continue my earlier analogy, I will continue to proclaim that white nationalism and libertarianism do not mix, even if some self-described libertarians are currently Klansmen.  I will make it very clear, in public, that whatever the self-professed overlap, they are in truth separate and ideologically incompatible.  I will loudly explain why anyone who tries to do both is contradicting themselves.  And my hope is that by doing this, anyone who is attracted to aspects of libertarian ideology, and would like to conceive of themselves as libertarian, will be deterred from accepting any white nationalism at the same time (or at least be forced to choose between which of these distinct self-identities they prefer to adopt).  And I believe my status as a self-described libertarian may make me more successful in this deterrence than an outsider to libertarianism who tries to convince them that both ideologies are wholly irredeemable.

Lastly, you describe religion as “a poorly-designed, obsolete tool,” which may have served some necessary function previously but today is just more dangerous and less effective than the many more refined tools we have available.  To follow your analogy, I counter that it’s more like a multi-tool, perhaps a Gerber or Swiss Army Knife for example.  To be sure, this is still a limited tool.  Sometimes it breaks and is kind of useless, and if you give it to a stupid person they can do a lot of harm.  It also cannot perform every function we humans need tools to accomplish, and even within its limited functions (cutting, carving, sawing, opening bottles, clipping nails, etc.) there may be other tools that can do some of those things just as well or better.  It is good that we develop those other tools alongside it, and maybe its services are no longer required for some of the tasks it used to be used for.

And yet, we might not want to throw away the multi-tool.  Just as hikers have limited pocket space, human beings have limited capacity to comprehend and apply dozens of complex moral philosophies at once, especially when the teachings that are ultimately no less subjective or arbitrary than religion.  Organized religion offers, in one package, a sense of purpose to people’s lives; opportunity for fellowship and community; a reason to be kind in your daily interactions; pressure to forgive those who have wronged you; a reason to do good and charitable works, to be selfless and place others before yourself.  It offers a sense of perspective and belonging in the universe.  It offers reasons to celebrate life and ways to make sense of death.  It counteracts arrogance.  It instills discipline and self-restraint.  It fulfills a deep-seeded need to feel spiritual connection with the other people on this planet.  It also has shortcomings.  But by and large, I don’t know anything else that offers all those things in one ideology, so I’m glad humanity has this tool on its belt (even if I wish we were a bit more selective in when we chose to bust it out).

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