Story by Christopher Peak
It’s safe to say that over the past month, the topic of Islam has been widely discussed by a lot of people. Talked about to death, actually, by those who know a lot about religion, and more who do not.
The most recent example of this was last month, when the topic was reignited during Ben Affleck’s appearance on Bill Maher’s HBO show, Real Time With Bill Maher. Affleck was joined by panel guest Sam Harris, who, along with Maher, is an atheist.
During the discussion, Harris stated that “Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas.” The statement led to a ten-minute exchange of the three men that’s now been viewed millions of times on YouTube. I’ll avoid citing it and just assume you’ve seen it.
But yet again, the conversation focused on whether or not religion, and specifically, Islam, is inherently violent. A debate that is quite frankly wrought in short-sightedness.
I consider myself to be a new atheist, but one that leans toward the apathetic side of religion — that I don’t particularly care about nor have interest in one. I don’t necessarily believe that any or all have an inherent evil within them.
But the topic remains an interest to me. Which is why I reached out to Reza Aslan. If I could be taught anything about the problems of and solutions for religion, a well-respected religious scholar could teach me.
On the role that social media plays in promoting and propagating groups like ISIS:
Well look, I think the important thing to understand is that groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are extremely sophisticated when it comes to the role social media plays in propagating their message. These are quite modern globalized organizations. I don’t mean to say that they simply use global tools of communication. I mean, that their very thinking, their very ideology is extremely modern, which is bizarre, because I think obviously a lot of people look at their actions, their religious beliefs and think of them as draconian and archaic, and they would be right. However, these organizations are dedicated to ridding the world of all nationality and nation states — of re-constituting the globe as a single world order under their control. And that idea itself is quite a modern notion.
It’s funny, because sometimes people are confused that organizations like ISIS and al Qaeda draw so much of their support from Europeans, but if you think about it, it’s not that strange. After all, the EU is in some ways the exact model of the world in which — the world that ISIS or al Qaeda envisions. A world that is essentially a super-state, a super-structure. Different nationalities, different ethnicities, different languages, but a single bureaucratic order. In other words, that vision of a border-less world is one that many Europeans are familiar with. And so it’s incorrect to think of these organizations as either traditionalist or anti-modern, because they’re neither. They’re actually quite against traditionalism insofar as that represents the conservative religious establishment of the Muslim world, which these organizations reject outright. But they’re also not anti-modern. The vision that they propagate is ironically quite a modern one. These guys are the children of globalization.
On Sharia (law):
Sharia is an infinitely eclectic and diverse sect of moral principles that has been ever-evolving for fourteen centuries, and that comes in not just half a dozen different authoritative schools of law, but in about a thousand different flavors.
Most importantly, Sharia has to be understood as divided into two major branches. There is what often is referred to as family law, by which we’re talking about things like marriage and divorce, inheritance, child custody, you know, things like that. And everywhere in the world in which there is a significant Muslim community, those Sharia laws are in play, including here in the United States. Just like a Jewish community in America has access to Halakha court when it comes to these kinds of issues, the Muslim community in the U.S. has access to Sharia courts when it comes to these issues. And that’s true everywhere in the world.
Now, the second branch of Sharia is what’s referred to as penal law. So, these are laws the way that we would think of laws — laws against criminal behavior, etc. And those laws exist in only a very, tiny handful of countries, for instance, Iran, Saudi Arabia, parts of Nigeria. In almost every Arab country in the world, the constitution recognizes Sharia as either a source of law or the source of law. Now how that is actually reflected in the laws that are passed is enormously diverse. So, for instance, Egypt, the largest Arab country in the world, has in its constitution, the idea that Sharia is the source of law, but nobody takes it seriously. The punishment for stealing in Egypt is prison time, not your hand being cut off.
Many of them (Arab countries) also have Sharia when it comes to penal law, but it’s more sort of a matter of national identity than it is anything else. In other words, it’s the equivalent of our constitution giving Americans God-given inalienable rights. When we legislate our laws, we don’t actually bring — well we do — but it’s not expected that God is the one who is mining these laws for us. But it’s part of our national character, our heritage, as a country founded by Protestants, that our founding documents portray that spiritual heritage. And that’s true in most Muslim majority countries.
The question sort of brushes over the enormous complexity and diversity of what actually Sharia is. That’s what’s so funny about this, you know, the anti-Sharia legislation that you see in the U.S., and why every single one of them is being challenged and overturned by federal courts — because they make no sense.
When it comes to Sharia as penal law, the constitution forbids any kind of foreign law, any foreign law, to trump the civil law of the country. So there is no possibility of Sharia as penal law establishing itself in America. When it comes to Sharia as family law, the constitution expressly allows every religious community in the U.S. to deal with family matters according to their own religious statutes. And so, you can’t take that away from one religious community unless you take it away from all religious community. Every single one of these laws is being either challenged in the federal court or has already been overturned in the federal court.
On autocracies being the problem, not theocracies:
And not just autocracies, but secular autocracies. I think people don’t understand because they think of, you know, all Muslim-majority states as being either Iran or Saudi Arabia, both of which are tyrannical, autocratic regimes, that also set themselves up as both religious and political authorities.
But almost to a country, every other autocratic Muslim-majority country is aggressively militantly secularist. And what I mean by that, is that they not only forbid direct political participation from openly religious parties, they outlaw and violently suppress those parties. Again, let’s go back to Egypt. Egypt is an oppressive, blood-thirsty dictatorship. But it’s a secular dictatorship. It’s a dictatorship that aggressively and violently represses any group, like the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, that seek to inject religion into the political sphere. So the problem, particularly of the Arab world, is indeed autocracy. But not religious autocracy. And as we’ve seen over the last fifty years, in situations in which these kinds of regimes violently suppress legitimate religious political groups, those groups become radicalized.
On the problem of it being the reader (of scripture) and not the book:
That’s the most basic, most simple foundational understanding of religion that there could be. And for the life of me, I cannot understand why people don’t get that — particularly, why the aggressive militant-atheist don’t get it.
Of course it’s about the reader and not the text. The text can promote violence, it can promote peace. It can promote pluralism, it can promote bigotry. And how one confronts that text, has everything to do with who that person is.
Honestly, it’s the most childishly, unsophisticated, and simplistic understanding of religion to believe that there is this 1:1 causal connection between a text and a person moved toward action. And yet this is the sort of the primary error of the so-called new atheist movement. I mean, just go and read that criticism of me in Salon by Jeffrey Taylor, and that’s exactly what he says. He says, “It’s ridiculous to think that people bring their own values to their scriptures when the scripture itself is so full of horrible things.” Except by that silly logic, that would mean that every single believer, without exception, who reads that scripture, responds exactly the same way. And that’s not just irrational, it’s idiotic. And more importantly, then what do you do with the hundreds of verses that promote peace and compassion and tolerance. Just ignore those — verses?
I really have to be honest with you, I get so sick and tired of saying this sentence, because it’s as basic and obvious as the sun is hot. And to have to continually say it is an indication of how willfully ignorant people are when it comes to religion.
On the future of Islam and religion:
All religions without exception are in a constant state of evolution. They’re constantly adapting to the social, economic, political situations in which they find themselves. And since those situations are constantly changing, so are the religions. That’s true of all religions.
If you’re asking me what trends do I see in Islam that might inform what the religion will look like fifty years from now, that’s a different question and I think it’s a very good one. And I would say that there are two primary trends that are going to dramatically affect Islam in the next fifty years.
Number one is migration pattern. Islam as a global religion is moving increasingly northward and westward. By the way, at the same time… Christianity is a global religion, is increasingly moving southward and eastward. And that’s going to have a dramatic effect in the interpretation of both of those religions.
Number two. What you’ve been seeing over the previous fifty years, is a dramatic increase in the individualization of Islam. In other words, as a result of greater education, greater literacy rates, greater access to new and novel theories and sources of information, Muslims are increasingly reluctant to interpret and understand their faith according to the religious authority or the religious institution, and are instead, bypassing those institutions and confronting the texts on their own, in a deeply individualistic manner. This is what I have referred to as the Islamic-reformation.
Now, what kind of Islam will arise from that? It depends on the individuals, obviously. You’re going to see, probably, a surge in democratic, individualistic conceptions of Islam, but you will also see a surge in violent and misogynistic versions of Islam, because as we discovered in the Protestant reformation, when you say that the individual is the sole arbiter of religious truth, you open up a can of worms. And all of sudden, every individual interpretation is equally valid.
Dr. Reza Aslan is an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions, author of the No god, but God, and the #1 New York Times Bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Follow him @rezaaslan or visit him at rezaaslan.com.
Photo: Bret Hartman/The Washington Post