Over at HuffPo Religion, Cynthia Boaz has written an earnest piece that implores Americans to think harder about Islam and not simply demonize it. I agree with much of what she says but the unfortunate fact is that her plea will fall on few or deaf ears. Not many religious or political extremists are reading The Huffington Post.
Regardless, Boaz astutely notes the connection between religious and political extremism, both of which are based in fear:
Both religious and political extremists operate from the same modus operandi: they find those issues around which people hold deep core beliefs — beliefs that, generally speaking, cannot be articulated nor defended through logic — and they exploit them. It’s a terribly simplistic strategy — tell people that “those people” are out to get them, that their own cause is righteous, and that without a militant — even violent — defense of one’s core beliefs, their livelihood and lives are threatened. Then the manipulators — ambitious political tacticians and unprincipled sycophants — stoke the flames of hysteria until they’ve engulfed rational thought entirely.
Boaz then attempts to correct three “misconceptions” that many Americans have regarding Islam:
- Misconception 1: Islam is a religion of violence.
- Misconception 2: Islam calls for the oppression of women.
- Misconception 3: Moderate Muslims enable radicals by tolerating their behavior.
While I appreciate Boaz’s efforts, it is complicated — and ultimately undone — by the fact that there is no single Islam. Boaz and her compatriots in Boulder may interpret Islam in a particular way, but this particular interpretation cannot lay claim to truth or authenticity. There are multiplicities of Islam and in certain strands of the Muslim faith, these “misconceptions” are truths. I do not particularly enjoy pointing this out — primarily because it can be used by the ignorant for their generalizing and stereotyping — but it is a fact.
As Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens have correctly noted, there are parts of the Koran and other Islamic texts that are quite explicit about violence and conquest. There are other parts that are quite explicit about women and oppression. What a person chooses to background and foreground is a complex matter of history, location, and exegesis. All this aside, language is slippery and interpretation is messy. Authorial intent and reader response are two different issues; the disconnect between them can often be immense.
Whenever and wherever you have religion grounded in books — all written by different authors at different times, and compiled over decades or even hundreds of years, you are going to have contradictions and ambiguities which leave ample room for different interpretations. As Stanley Fish would say, some communities of readers will interpret the writings one way and other communities of readers will interpret them another way. There are many thousands of communities that read Islamic texts; consequently, there are many thousands of interpretations of Islam.
Boaz’s preferred interpretation is therefore just one of many. If Boaz were to live for a year in Saudi Arabia or spend a year teaching at a madrassa in rural Pakistan, her interpretation of “Islam” (which does not exist in the singular) would most likely undergo radical change. But Boaz does not need to visit these places to understand that Islam has many heads; she merely needs to do some reading. The Economist recently reviewed John Calvert’s new book, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism, and had this to say:
[Professor] Calvert does not disguise the crudely Manichean character of Qutb’s worldview. He believed in an all-out global struggle between a noble vanguard of true Muslims and the massed ranks of jahiliyya. He depicted Islam’s external enemies as an insidious alliance of “Crusaders and Jews”—the same phrase that is used by al-Qaeda and the global jihadists of today.
But he was not, as has been suggested, an “Islamo-fascist” or an advocate of indiscriminate violence. Qutb opposed the killing of innocents and would have been appalled by what his followers, from the Egyptian radicals of the 1970s and 1980s to the current jihadist groups, have carried out in his name. This rich and carefully researched biography sets Qutb for the first time in his Egyptian context, rescuing him from caricature without whitewashing his radicalism. It is no small achievement.
As should be apparent, once Qutb committed himself to writing — his famous manifesto is titled Milestones, his words got away from him. Authors can never be sure how their words or ideas will be interpreted or used.