May 11th 2010

The Use and Abuse of Religion

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
Back in the 1960's Americans were deeply divided on matters of war and race. While Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and religious leaders associated with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference led protests and committed acts of civil disobedience demanding civil rights, they were countered by white Christian preachers in the south who warned of the dangers of violating God's will by ignoring the punishment God had meted out to the "sons of Ham". And while New York's Cardinal Francis Spellman had traveled to Vietnam to bless U.S. troops as they battled "godless Communism", a Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan led fellow clergymen and women in protests against the war, often resulting in their arrest and imprisonment (in one case, for burning the Selective Service files of young men who were to be drafted to serve in the military).


During this entire period I do not recall Christianity being described as a warlike or racist faith. Nor do I recall King and Berrigan being referred to as "Christian protesters". We did not engage in drawn out theological debates in an effort to determine which interpretation of Christianity was correct. Rather we defined these individuals by what they did. There were either "segregationists" and "civil rights leaders" or they were "supporters of the war" and "peace activists".

What we may have understood, at least implicitly, was that because a person or institution used religious language to define or validate certain behaviors that did not make that behavior "religious". Nor did this define, by itself, the religion to which they adhered. This is something that many in the West still understand, at least when it comes to Christianity. Because President George W. Bush, in some speeches, described the Iraq war as America carrying out God's will, we knew not to refer to that conflict as a "Christian" war. Our discussion of Islam is a different matter.

For reasons beyond the scope of this short piece, when dealing with Islam, political leaders, media commentators and ordinary folk here in the West, appear intent on using religious language to describe every aspect of life and all forms of behavior, both good and bad, as "Muslim". In doing so, we create confusion for ourselves and others, leading, at times, to incoherence and some very strange policies.

For example, faced with the threat of individuals and groups using religious language to validate their acts of terror, we refer to them as "Muslim terrorists". But then because we recognize that they represent only a tiny fraction of Muslims, we maintain that they "don't speak for Islam". This then leads us down the tortuous path of attempting to define what is "good" Islam versus "bad" Islam - creating a kind of "state sanctioned" interpretation of a faith - something we understood not to do when it involved Christianity.

Another example: a colleague, for whom I have the greatest respect, recently wrote a book in which he first correctly debunks the notion of "Muslim terrorists", but then goes on to write about "Muslim oil" - by which he means oil coming from Gulf and Central Asian and some African countries. To which I respond: Does that make U.S. and Canadian oil "Christian" or "secular democratic" oil? Or is Venezuelan oil "Bolivarian" oil or whatever?

And finally, the White House recently sponsored a summit for Muslim entrepreneurs - described in some of the literature as focusing on entrepreneurs from "Muslim majority countries and Muslim communities around the world". Aside from troubling questions about what message this sends to business people from the Arab World or Indonesia or elsewhere who may not be Muslim, or what local sectarian tensions such an effort may exacerbate, what exactly is a "Muslim entrepreneur"? Or, for that matter, what is a "Christian entrepreneur" or "Hindu entrepreneur?

At the end of the day, there are terrorists, there is oil and there are people who start up and run businesses. They are better defined by what they do. For government or the rest of us to insist on defining them by their faith, or even how they describe themselves or how they define their actions, is at best careless. It also runs the risk of Western governments treading into the murky waters of sanctioning "good" or acceptable Islam or applying a religious litmus test on groups which, in itself, makes a political statement that is most certainly none of our business, and can be dangerous.

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