Archive - September 16, 2014

1
ISIS and Religion, continued
2
“ISIS” Bans Art and Literature, We Should Promote These
3
A Cosmopolitan Take on the Referendum
4
Required Reading on Religious Freedom

ISIS and Religion, continued

On September 10 President Obama delivered a televised address on the “Islamic State,” a.k.a. ISIS, a.k.a. ISIL, and America’s determination to defeat and destroy it.  At the outset the President stated that “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.”

It may seem presumptuous for a U.S. President to pronounce on what is and is not true to a given religion – particularly since this President does not adhere to the religion in question.  Political leaders, however, use words not primarily to describe the world as it is, but to move and steer people.  A President must be a rhetorician or he is not much of a President.  So we must receive this as a savvy piece of rhetoric, designed both to persuade non-Muslims and Muslims alike that ISIS is violating the tenets of Islam.

But what is the truth?  Is ISIS Islamic?

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is grounded in sacred texts, some passages of which call on the righteous to kill the unrighteous, others of which depict them doing so.  Over the millennia, in various times and places adherents to all three of these religions have used these texts to justify their own violence.  Yet, most Muslims, Christians, and Jews never kill innocent people, and the leading theologians and clergy of all three today certainly do not condone their doing so.

Modern history has been plagued by a number of ideologies that do condone the killing of innocents – although these took pains to portray the innocent as guilty.  Nazism is the first to come to mind.  Communism as practiced by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot also is on the list.  These were grand narratives that told people that their discontents were caused by some malignancy in the world, personified in a group of people, and that they needed to kill those people to rid the world of the malignancy.

We might think of these murderous ideologies as branches of trees.  The branches sprout and flourish when some of the faithful come to believe that God’s plan requires, in the here and now, direct violent action by them to purify the world.  Genocidal communism was a secular ideology, growing out of less lethal (although still oppressive) forms of communism.  Nazism is best thought of as a pagan ideology, appealing to a mixture of pre-Christian myths and a de-Judaized “German Christianity.”  Radical Islamism or violent jihadism, as practiced by ISIS, is an ideological branch of Islamism, itself an ideology that declares that the faithful must live under state-enforced Sharia.  In turn, Islamism is a branch growing out of the religion of Islam.

Looked at in this way, Islam does not reduce to ISIS, nor does ISIS somehow express or reveal the essence of Islam.  At the same time, it does grow out of Islam.  President Obama’s attempt to separate the violent ideology from the religion could actually be harmful, because it implies that the West can defeat ISIS just as well as Muslims can.  If it is nothing but a nihilistic movement, a collective psychopathy unrelated to Islam, then Arabs may as well stand aside and let America handle it.

The truth, then, is that although Obama and other Western leaders must keep their countries safe from terrorism, and join with Muslim leaders in defeating ISIS, in the end it is up to Muslims to destroy this virulent branch that is now attacking the trunk from which it grows.

 

“ISIS” Bans Art and Literature, We Should Promote These

The new school curriculum for Mosul issued by the so-called Islamic State bans, among other topics, art, music, and literature.

In banning these I believe they are telling us in no uncertain terms what they fear. Nuance and complexity are precisely the threat their rigid, black-and-white mindset cannot handle.

We should heed this. While we may not be able to intervene immediately in Mosul itself at the level of local arts, in other areas of the world with populations vulnerable to recruitment into this movement we should support programs which foster capacity to handle nuance and complexity.

Foster the arts. Support local arts teachers. Help local communities host music festivals. Support local arts business such as publishers, book stores, and book distributors. Develop programs for aspiring creative writers. Make sure literature is available in public, school, prison, and refugee camp libraries.

Refugee camps are particularly important. Not only are there young people there vulnerable to recruitment into extremist movements, but also these are the populations which will need to play a vital role in rebuilding their societies post-conflict.

The arts, by flowing out of rather than opposing human complexity, can help foster a rich understanding of what the human person is. Complexity and ambiguity abound in human life. Developing capacities to comprehend and work with, rather than against, this inherent complexity and ambiguity in human life can contribute to cultures which are open to the complex, nuanced, and deeply human processes such as justice and reconciliation which are among the cornerstones of flourishing societies.

The so-called Islamic State is telling us what they fear. So we should bring it on. Wage art, wage music, wage literature – even if not directly in Mosul at this moment, then at the very least all around it until we can help bring art, music, and literature back to Mosul.

A Cosmopolitan Take on the Referendum

Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, recently wrote the following concerning the referendum on Scottish independence that will take place on Thursday:

So a new idea of citizenship is emerging. It is not cosmopolitanism if that means that national loyalties do not matter. It is a citizenship that upholds national identities while recognising the benefits of shared sovereignty – the kind of citizenship Scottish people can understand: being Scottish, British, European and a citizen with connections with a world wider even than that. It is not abstract: it represents how people now live their lives – connected constantly through mobiles and the internet, able to communicate with anyone, in any part of the world, at any time – involving an identity that is, for individuals, more a matter of choice than at any time in history.

Brown’s intervention is in the context of his support for keeping Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. What is interesting is he puts it in terms of global citizenship, something that one wouldn’t expect in a debate between two sides that seemed very fixed on their understandings of nation and nationalism. Brown’s point, here and in other places, is that the United Kingdom can and will change, but devolving into smaller sovereign nation states is not the way to go. Rather, a new kind of citizenship and a new constitution is necessary to bind the UK together and simultaneously give it the chance to become part of the world in a different way.

His arguments have a strong appeal for me. Brown’s understanding of cosmopolitanism is close to my own – a mix of local, national, regional, and global orientations that allows us to understand and act in the global political sphere in new and interesting ways.

I know that for many in this country, Brown is a polarizing figure. His role as Chancellor under Tony Blair was part of the New Labour process of shifting the United Kingdom toward more neoliberal economic policies. And his tenure as Prime Minister was filled with stories of bullying and poor governance. But since leaving 10 Downing Street, Brown has embodied the kind of cosmopolitanism he describes above – he advocates for his own small constituency in Fife yet continues to speak on issues of national and global importance. Unlike his predecessor, whose cosmopolitanism is the jet setting world of the corporate executive, Brown’s cosmopolitanism is Scottish, British, European and global.

Many friends and colleagues have strong views on the independence debate, and even in my own family we do not all agree on what is the best route for Scotland. Much of the argument for independence has focused on economics and culture, both of which are important. What I like about Brown’s point, though, is that it’s about politics, the kind of politics that I think is most important – citizenship, constitutionalism, cosmopolitanism. Moreover, these are concepts that are not distant and unimportant in the debate, but actually underlie the more prominent issues of currency, pensions, and the future of the NHS.

There are, of course, very good political arguments on the side of independence. They include the centrality of self-determination, disparities in power, and a vision of social justice in Scotland that is more progressive than the current UK government. But too many of these arguments for the Yes campaign remain insular and localised. I believe, like Gordon Brown – and like other important figures such as Pope Francis – that division and borders are not necessarily good things. Rather, I want a Scotland and United Kingdom that is part of the world in a new way.

In fact, the reason I can’t vote in this referendum is partly the result of the sovereign state system that creates artificial barriers. I’m an American citizen who has worked in the United Kingdom for 10 years. Two of my children were born here. Citizens of EU countries and some former Commonwealth countries residing here can vote, but for reasons that perhaps have more to do with the United States than with the United Kingdom, I don’t have that opportunity. Brown’s vision of a different kind of world, one in which a kind of global citizenship creates new opportunities for political engagement might allow me to vote on my own future (truth be told, I have indefinite leave to remain and am only not a citizen because I don’t want to pay the exorbitant fees – but why should I have to pay money to become a citizen?).

An independent Scotland might be able to engage in the world in this new way, and if the vote goes for independence, I hope it will. But I think the danger of nationalism, a negative nationalism that wants to find conspiracies and dangers in those ‘down South’ will only lead to further divisions. I agree with Yes campaigners that having a say in how you are governed is really important. And, there is certainly no guarantee that a united United Kingdom will create the kind of cosmopolitan representativeness that Brown advocates. But it gets closer to the global politics that I support, one that sees through and beyond the insularity of a single sovereign state to a wider global constitutional order.

Required Reading on Religious Freedom

Two pieces are worth reading on the religious freedom theme.  One is Ross Douthat’s piece in the Sunday New York Times, “The Middle East’s Friendless Christians.” Reflecting on Senator Ted Cruz walking off the stage amidst boos in speaking to a recent summit of Middle East Christian leaders, Douthat explains why Christians in the Middle East are a battered, forgotten minority, both in their region and in the American political system.

The other is Thomas Farr’s recent testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, republished on the website of First Things.  A former foreign service officer whose last stint in the State Department was directing the Office of International Religious Freedom, Farr now directs the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.  In his testimony, he takes up U.S. policy towards the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) and argues, as I have, that more than guns are needed to defeat them.  Whereas I stressed the crucial need for political reconciliation among fractured groups, Farr stresses religious freedom.  Why?  Because, like John Owen, he stresses that the religious ideas of the Islamic State matter; the group’s rise cannot be chalked up to poverty, a reaction to western imperialism, or some other external factor.  Ideas matter.  Theology matters.  And the antidote for extreme religious ideas is a regime of religious freedom, where such ideas cannot dictate and dominate through repression.

 

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.