Friday, February 20, 2015

Religious Extremism: Critiquing a Facebook Meme

There's a (new?) Facebook meme that's crossed my newsfeed recently, one which I think warrants some critical attention. It looks like this:

There are several problems with this meme. Let me list a few.

1. Caricaturing the Left

I've never seen or heard anyone on the political left openly "side" with Muslim extremists--that is, defend the horrors perpetrated by such groups as ISIS or Al Qaeda, or argue that these groups are justified in what they do.

Rather, what I've seen and heard them do is react to sweeping generalizations that impute to all of Islam these horrors, or that strive to hold moderate Islam accountable for Muslim extremists in a way that they don't hold moderate Christians (or Jews) accountable for Christian (or Jewish) extremists.

This is not to say that there don't exist "leftist extremists" who are cheering on ISIS as they lop off Christian heads. But if they exist, they have no reputable public voice in this country--and so I suspect that this meme is really intended to caricature and thereby prematurely dismiss the kind of views I have heard from the political left.

People often hear what their biases tell them to hear, rather than what others are saying. I suspect there are people out there who believe that many moderate voices on the political left are really "leftist extremists" who are "siding with the decapitators" because they don't hear what those voices are actually saying.

The person on the political left says something like the following:
"There are extremists in every faith, and just as we don't stereotype all Christians as extremists based on the existence of extremists who act in the name of Christianity, so too should we avoid stereotyping all Muslims as extremists based on the existence of extremists who act in the name of Islam."
But what is heard is this:
"In saying that not all Muslims are extremists, I am defending Islam--which means I'm siding with Muslim extremists. And in saying that there are extremists who act in the name of Christianity, I am criticizing Christianity as a whole, which means I'm siding against Christians."
The above meme invites such an extreme and extremely muddled mistranslation, and hence perpetuates misunderstanding.

2. Framing the problem as a matter of who to side with in an us/them polarization

There's a disturbing us/them theme running through this meme. There's "us": the Jews and Christians who are labeled as extremists for wanting to exercise religious freedom (freedom to pray where we want and to withhold services where our religious conscience tells us to). And then there's them: the Muslims, who really are extremists, who are actually killing people in gruesome ways. And the liberals, by defending the Muslims while criticizing the Jews and Christians, have chosen to side with them.

This way of framing things actually builds on the first issue I talked about. It is clearly and obviously a mistake to compare a conservative Christian baker's refusal to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding with a nominally Islamic extremist's participation in terrorism and murder. Anyone who treats the two as morally comparable is operating with dangerously distorted lenses.

But no one with any publicly credible voice does that. There are many on the left who both criticize the Christian baker and defend the typical Muslim from being wrongly stereotyped based on the actions of extremists. But that is not the same as likening what the Christian baker does to what the ISIS terrorist does, let along siding with the ISIS terrorist over the conservative Christian baker.

The deeper problem here is the tendency to deflate the meaning of "extremism" in the first two examples so as to implicitly suggest that what is identified as Muslim extremism is as common among Muslims as the desire for freedom to act on religious conscience (even in controversial cases) is among Jews and Christians.

Let me be clear: I think Christians who want to withhold their business services from gay and lesbian couples are misconceiving Christian ethics in a way that promotes division and marginalization, thereby undermining the core thrust of Jesus' love ethic. But laws requiring them to provide such service are demanding that they act in ways that violate their sincere beliefs. Not without reason, of course. For the sake of preserving equality of opportunity for a socially marginalized group, it may be necessary to tread on freedom of religious conscience--but if so, to treat this matter as equivalent to invoking the law to keep extremists from beheading their targets does no one any good.

But in a sense, this meme does that very thing. It lifts up, as the paradigm of Christian extremism, something that even the most progressive Christian can understand and (somewhat) sympathize with: the struggle of conscience faced by the Christian baker. By implication, the meme suggest that even the most progressive Muslim is likely to view in a similar light the ISIS foot soldier hacking into the vulnerable neck of an aid worker.

As such, the meme plays into anti-Muslim stereotypes. It draws a sharp line between us and them, between what we are like and what they are like. By portraying "our" extremism as mild and at worst controversial compared with "theirs," the whole Christian and Jewish community is contrasted with Islam as a whole. And since their extremists target us, they are a threat to us. Sides must be taken.

3. Minimizing non-Muslim Extremism

My final point is related to the preceding one. The meme minimizes the extremism of those who self-identify as Christians and Jews for the sake of sharpening the perceived divide between Islam and other religions.

If we're looking for the worst cases of Christian extremism, refusing to bake a cake isn't among them. One might be tempted to point to Westboro Baptist Church and their hateful signs as a better example--or perhaps the isolated acts of those who kill abortion doctors in the name of Christianity. But these Christian extremists operate within the context of a civil society that has been relatively stable since the Civil War. By contrast, ISIS operates in a war-torn region of the world, one heavy-laden with ethnic conflicts which were, for a long time, forcibly suppressed by oppressive regimes.

We can only learn so much from comparing the worst that Christian extremism has produced in the stable environs of contemporary America with the worst that Islamic extremism has produced in the more volatile social, economic, and political climate of the Middle East.

There are better comparisons. And although I'm not a fan of Christopher Hitchens' overall assessment of religion in god is not Great, Hitchens does discuss, in that book, an example that may offer a better basis for comparison: the ethnic violence that tore through the former Yoguslavia after the collapse of its totalitarian communist regime. Hitchens describes the scene that greeted him when he visited the region in 1992:
The mainly Muslim city of Sarajevo had been encircled and was being bombarded around the clock. Elsewhere, in Bosnia-Herzegovina...whole towns were pillaged and massacred in what the Serbs themselves termed "ethnic cleansing." In point of fact, "religious cleansing" would have been nearer the mark...In effect, the extremist Catholic and Orthodox forces were colluding in a bloody partition and cleansing of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were, and still are, largely spared the public shame of this, because the world's media preferred the simplification of "Croat" and "Serb," and only mentioned religion when discussing "the Muslims."
Hitchens goes on to  further describe what he takes to be the media's glossing-over of religious identities and divisions:
It would have been far more accurate if the press and television had reported that "today the Orthodox Christian forces resumed their bombardment of Sarajevo," or "yesterday the Catholic militia succeeded in collapsing the Stari Most." But confessional terminology was reserved only for "Muslims," even as their murderers went to all the trouble of distinguishing themselves by wearing large Orthodox crosses over their bandoliers, or by taping portraits of the Virgin Mary to their rifle butts. 
In Is God a Delusion?, I criticized Hitchens and the other new atheists for failing to distinguish between religion and what I call religionism. There is a difference, I think, between living out a religious faith and using religion as an identity marker to ideologically divide the world between us and them. The latter is what I mean by "religionism," and it's what I think is at work in cases like the violence in the former Yugoslavia. The Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs weren't slaughtering Muslims as an expression of their faith. Rather, they were acting out a divisive us/them ideology, and were invoking Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam as identity markers in their ideology of hate (in much the way that racists invoke "white" and "black" and other racial categories).

And so I think Hitchens is wrong to blame religion for the violence in the former Yugoslavia. But for the same reason, it is wrong to blame religion for the violence perpetrated by ISIS and other groups like them. ISIS and similar groups deserve to be called Islamist extremists only insofar as Islam serves as the identity marker with which they work out their ideology of hate. But if that is what warrants calling them Islamist extremists, then the closest parallel in Christianity--what deserves the corresponding label of "Christian extremism"--may be the brutal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina by nominally Christian Croats and Serbs.

It is quite possible that different religions don't do enough to identify and guard against elements in their theologies and religious practices that lend themselves to extremist interpretations. It is quite possible that Islam can do far more than it has done in this regard. It is even possible that in recent years, Christians or Jews have done better. I don't know. But if so, these concerns need to be raised and addressed in a spirit of solidarity, in which people of all faiths are working together to defeat the problem of extremism, rather than taking sides against each other and seeing extremism as the problem of the other guy.

Because as soon as we do that, we are on our way to embracing the very us/them thinking that leads to extremism.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

AP History Under Fire: Text of a letter to my state legislators

In case you haven't heard, the Oklahoma legislature is considering a bill--HB 1380--that would do away with AP History in Oklahoma. Reproduced below is the text of what I wrote to my legislators. If you live in Oklahoma, I encourage you to write your own letters (you can get help finding out who your legislators are here, although it doesn't give perfect results on the local level). Feel free to share this post or plagiarize the text freely (although you probably want to replace the personal anecdote if you do).

I am writing to urge you to oppose HB 1380, which would replace AP History in Oklahoma with a locally designed alternative. This bill would be bad for the state, and it would be bad for Oklahoma’s students.

AP courses have a long-standing national reputation for academic rigor. A newly-fashioned Oklahoma alternative would not enjoy that status. Successful performance on AP courses and tests enables students not only to prepare for college by undertaking courses of the sort that they will encounter at the college level, but gives these students the opportunity to earn college credit—thereby expanding the options and opportunities they will have for higher education. For example, in my own experience the college credit from my AP courses enabled me to take a semester off in my sophomore year to travel in India with my family and still graduate on time. This experience not only changed my academic trajectory but deepened my understanding of alternative worldviews and cultures in ways that have had a lasting impact on my life.

Part of the reason AP courses can confer college credit and hence provide these opportunities is because the curriculum and learning objectives laid out by the AP program reflect well what experts in the represented disciplines have recognized to be a sound college-level introduction to those disciplines. The motive for HB 1380 springs, on the contrary, from ideology—and in effect is advocating that a course structure which reflects the recommendations of experts in the field of American history be replaced by a course structure that reflects a specific ideological understanding of the American story. In other words, the motive is to render Oklahoma’s high school history classes less academically credible, less scholarly, but more effective at reinforcing a preferred worldview.

Even if many legislators do not see it in these terms, no one can reasonably expect colleges and universities to see it any other way. Hence, no one can reasonably expect colleges and universities to recognize the proposed Oklahoma alternative to AP History the way that they do the AP course. In short, were this legislation to pass, it would impose a handicap on all Oklahoma students pursuing college careers. The imposition of such handicaps is the opposite of what a state legislator should be doing. It shamefully prioritizes ideological agendas over the welfare of Oklahoma’s young people.

There is a dangerous tendency for those at the political and ideological extremes to confuse balance for bias. When one is prejudicially wedded to a particular worldview and narrative, the open and critical inquiry essential for sound academic scholarship can be misperceived as biased simply because it fails to prejudicially endorse the favored worldview and narrative over defensible alternatives. If we allow HB 1380 to pass unchallenged, my deepest worry is that it will strike a blow against sound academic scholarship in the state of Oklahoma.

Please do what you can to fight this bill.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Us and Them and Murder: Islamophobic Terrorism

This morning I was greeted by two disturbing pieces of news. First, I read that a Muslim woman, dining at a TGI Friday's last week, found pieces of bacon shoved into the straw of her drink in what appeared to be a deliberate show of disrespect for her religiously-rooted dietary restrictions. The second piece of news was more extreme: Yesterday, three Muslim college students--two sisters and the husband of the elder sister--were murdered in North Carolina. The alleged perpetrator, Craig Hicks, described himself as an anti-theist who was openly hostile to religion.

Here is a brief glimpse at one of the victims, a dental student, who made this video to raise money for a missions project:

The motives for the shooting remain undisclosed, but if they prove to be bound up with Hicks' anti-religious stance, then I think we need to keep two things in mind: First, Hicks' atheism is no more the reason for his violent attack than Islam is the reason for 9/11. In both cases, the problem lies with a kind of ideological targeting of people based on group membership. While Islam can be and has been invoked to underwrite that sort of us/them ideology, other things can be and have been invoked as well--including Christianity and atheism. This fact never justifies sweeping generalizations about the group and its members. In fact, falling prey to such sweeping generalizations is the first step towards embracing the very us/them ideology that is the root problem.

Second, if Hicks targeted his victims because they were Muslim, then we ought to take very seriously the idea that what he did should be called an act of terrorism. Islamophobic terrorism. And even if it isn't terrorism, the ideological patterns of thinking that underwrite terrorism may have played a role: It is easier to kill people if you first ascribe to an ideology that dehumanizes them.

What is terrorism? In my academic work on the subject, I've argued that it has to do with how victims of violence are targeted. Terrorists operate from an us/them ideology that sees every member of an enemy group as a legitimate target. Terrorists may select targets based on strategic or symbolic considerations, but they don't discriminate based on their innocence--because all members of the enemy group are seen as guilty, simply because they belong to that group.

Hence, no one in the targeted group is safe. That's why terrorism terrorizes. Being an American is enough to make you a legitimate target in the eyes of Al Qaeda extremists.

This way of viewing terrorism connect the dots between ideas and violence: If you embrace an ideology that divides the world between "us" and "them," and you portray all of them as collectively guilty, then you are laying the groundwork for terrorist violence. And violence that is done because of this sort of ideological motive is different in kind from violence done for, say, personal gain or jealous rage.

Among other things, those who kill because of allegiance to an ideology of hate are harder to deter. If you see yourself as an agent of the Children of Light fighting a war against the Children of Darkness, you may be perfectly happy to sacrifice yourself for the cause. Threats of punishment won't hold you back.

And that's why the most chilling thing I read this morning wasn't the news report of the triple murder (although that surely chilled me deeply). Instead, it was a comment, posted on one of the websites recounting the TGI Friday's incident, that reads as follows:
We unfortunately MUST do to them that which they wish to do to us, all I wish to do is to work, provide a living for my family. worship how I wish, (or not) and enjoy life. THEY want CONTROL over my life and how I live. THEY want me to convert or die. THEY want to tell me what to wear, what to eat, and what to do everyday... They are like the current U.S. Government under Obama on Steroids. Lock and Load Real Americans.
Notice here the universal imputation of nefarious motives, the repeated invocation of THEM. And then the call to arms: Lock and load. THEY are a threat to US. WE have no choice but to load our guns and shoot them down.

And to think this diatribe was sparked by the story of a woman who wanted her dietary restrictions respected, and instead had the forbidden food all but shoved down her throat.

Adherents to this kind of ideology know that members of their own group aren't all the same: they're normal human beings who want to live normal human lives, with diverse values and interests. They worship in different ways (or not at all). Some want to stand on a soapbox and spread their faith; others just want to eat at TGI Friday's without having bacon shoved into their drinking straw. But instead of seeing the same humanity and diversity in the other group, those in the grip of divisive ideologies offer a sweeping portrait of what "they" want. And what THEY want is so bad for us that we have no choice but to treat them in ways we would never treat members of our own group.

The philosopher John Ladd, in an essay that has strongly influenced my thinking, finds in Nazism a kind of template for violent ideologies: Such ideologies begin with what he calls the doctrine of bifurcation: the world is divided between the chosen group and the "other" group. They then move onto a doctrine of moral disqualification. The others are in some way rendered less than human: they aren't like us, and so can be legitimately treated in ways that we couldn't otherwise justify. But that's not enough. Another key tenet of these ideologies is the notion of a group mission: Our welfare is threatened by THEM, and so we must, to bring good and right back into the world, knock THEM down--marginalize, oppress, or destroy. Lock and load.

This is the sort of pattern of thinking that enables terrorists to ignore questions of guilt or innocence, and so target civilians. It is the pattern of thinking that feeds cycles of ideological hatred and violence. And were it isolated to a rare comment on an occasional blog post, we could set aside acts of violence like the triple murder in North Carolina as just the actions of a lunatic.

But when the lunatic is acting out the implications of a worldview that is repeatedly endorsed in the public sphere--when there is a subculture that repeats and disseminates and encourages this kind of thinking--the lunatic becomes more than a lunatic. The lunatic is the agent of a cause, and terrorism is the means of pursuing it. This is why our public leaders and intellectuals need to be so very careful about what they say and how they say it--because even those who don't believe in bifurcating the world into the good and the bad, the light and the dark, sometimes find themselves falling into rhetorical patterns and arguments that play into dangerous ideologies of the sort Ladd describes (as Sam Harris has done more than once).

We can't and shouldn't stifle free speech and free expression. But we can model modes of expression that encourage cooperation rather than division, that resist the urge to absolutize any group. And when hateful and ideological speech proliferates, we can counteract it with speech of our own, speech that calls it out for what it is and highlights its dangers.

The vast majority of atheists are well-meaning, decent human beings who care about humanity and disavow us/them ideologies. But sometimes, us/them tropes are invoked by influential atheist figures (who themselves denounce extremism) in ways that fuel subcultures of extremism. People are drawn to the seductive simplicity of a world where enlightened atheists are locked in a (metaphorical) war with the benighted religious fools who threaten the welfare of us all. They indulge this simple worldview, usually just with heated words and self-righteous diatribes. But when enough people begin to say "lock and load," eventually someone does just that. When someone does, we must recognize the depths of the problem--but we should resist the urge to absolutize atheists or attribute to all atheists the ideological motives of the extremists.

And, just to be clear, let me repeat the preceding paragraph with one small change:  The vast majority of Muslims are well-meaning, decent human beings who care about humanity and disavow us/them ideologies. But sometimes, us/them tropes are invoked by influential Muslim figures (who themselves denounce extremism) in ways that fuel subcultures of extremism. People are drawn to the seductive simplicity of a world where enlightened Muslims are locked in a (metaphorical) war with the benighted unbelievers who threaten the welfare us all. They indulge this simple worldview, usually just with heated words and self-righteous diatribes. But when enough people begin to say "lock and load," eventually someone does just that. When someone does, we must recognize the depths of the problem--but we should resist the urge to absolutize Muslims or attribute to all Muslims the ideological motives of the extremists.

Or plug in "Christians," if you prefer.

We don't yet know what motivated the killings of three young Muslims in North Carolina the other day. We don't know why Craig Hicks gunned them down. But there is a pattern of thinking in place in this country--sometimes articulated by self-described atheists, sometimes by self-described Christians, sometimes by others--that treats all Muslims as a single unit, characterizing them as an enemy that threatens us all and against whom we must be prepared to take up arms. When someone follows that call and strikes out against innocent members of the group, it is terrorism. Islamophobic terrorism.

If Hicks isn't an Islamophobic terrorist in the sense described here--and he may well not be--then there are others out there who have been primed to be just that. Some use the mistreatment of a Muslim woman in a restaurant as the occasion for a call to arms against the "Muslim threat"--as if the fact that she was treated with disrespect is proof that her kind are poised to ruin our way of life.

We can't address the danger that such ideologically driven individuals pose by treating them as nothing but isolated lunatics. We need to pay attention to the way that the ideas we permit and nurture in the public square can fuel our potential for terrorist violence.