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.


  1. Eric, this was awesome. I love your articles anyway, but this one hit home to me because even though I flatter myself about having a sense of solidarity with my religious friends from all religions, and I have stuck up for Muslims in the face of anti Muslim bigotry, I still didn't notice how our press paints terrorists who are Muslim as particularly religiously motivated, but fails to paint Christian terrorists with that same brush. I think you've hit upon the thing, the distinction between identity religiosity and actual living one's faith, and I am gonna share this piece to my friends.

  2. The following Brookings Institute article was sent to me shortly after I posted the above piece, and it makes one of the same points I was making about the difference between living out a religious faith and using a religious faith as an identity marker to construct an ideology of hate--but it does so in a somewhat different way and offers a deeper insight into some of the details of ISIS beliefs. It is well worth reading. You can find it here:

  3. I was very pleased to find this site.I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it and I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post.

  4. You have raised an important issue..Thanks for sharing..I would like to read more current affairs from this blog..keep posting..
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