Thursday, 27 June 2013

When is a Radical Religion Not a Radical Religion?

This is a fascinating article and you should read it. It's the first article of its kind - a negative description of Iranian culture (as opposed to the Iranian regime) from a liberal within Iran - that I've read, and it is equal parts frightening and revealing. What interests me today, though, is the author's attribution of all, or at least a great deal, of the sins of his culture to the religion of Islam. His contention is specifically that Islam is a 'more radical' religion than others, where 'radical' in this case means something along the lines of 'extreme, reactionary, socially conservative and violent'.

Far be it from me to gainsay the author's description of the culture he lives in - if even half of what he says is true, then that culture is flat-out horrible. My question is simply whether we're talking about Islamic rather than Iranian or Arabic culture - should we be identifying the religion as the problem? It's a question that's complicated, of course, by how intertwined Islam is with the culture and politics of Iran (and, indeed, most of the rest of the arab world).

How should we approach this question? Well, if Islam is intrinsically more radical than other religions - if the extremism we in the western world have been told Islam possesses is an essential feature or automatic consequence of the religion - then it should show up in every Muslim and in every Islamic community, and it certainly doesn't (or at very least, it shows up in wildly varying degrees). I have known Muslims as peaceful and liberal as any of the atheists I've known, and they saw no conflict between their sociopolitical attitudes and their religion (remember, the traditional Islamic greeting 'Salaam Alaykum' - apologies for anglicised spelling - means 'peace be with you').

The question, really, is over whether there is anything in the religion of Islam which is more conducive to extremism than anything in other religions. Islam certainly has its share of extreme stories and myths (but then, it co-opted many of them from Christianity and Judaism, since Islamic scripture includes versions of many Old Testament myths), and violent or dramatic practices (I can't remember the details, but there's a pretty brutal festival of self-flagellation in the Shi'a tradition, I think).

There's really only one honest answer to the question 'is Islam more conducive to radical behaviour than other religions?', and that's 'Well, it depends.' Like any large religion, Islam varies greatly from culture to culture. I would argue that what makes the Islamic culture of Iran so problematic is the cultural environment, not the religious one. If Islam appears generally more radical, it is because the areas in which it is most prevalent have more problematic cultures for other reasons.

At the risk of reducing it all to economics, think about the geographic distribution of Islam versus the geographic distribution of Christianity, particularly across Europe, Africa and the Americas. In central Europe and North America, Christianity dominates far and away the largest tracts of fertile farmland in the world. Islam, by contrast, has spread mainly through deserts around the Mediterranean and into Africa. There are roughly similar numbers of people on both sides, but far, far less wealth (in a purely bread-and-butter sense, and ignoring the question of how oil wealth really works) in Islamic areas. That spread is a matter of a couple of historical accidents (Christianity coming along first, Christianity getting the Romans on its side, to be very loose about it), and nothing to do with the contents of these religions.

That alone would be inconclusive. But if you look at levels of radicalism purely across the Christian world, you see more of exactly the problematic kinds of culture and behaviour discussed in the article I linked above whereever Christians are poorer. The middle-class British Christianity which I grew up with, if not in, is almost completely gentrified (though the culture that it resides in undeniably has its own problems). The Christianity of the US deep south - a much poorer area - is much more radical.

When people are driven to extreme behaviour, I do not believe it's the ideologies they espouse doing the driving. Rather, it's the emotional states which led them to those ideologies which we must blame for their behaviour. This is why one occasionally sees outburts of violence and radicalism without any structured ideology at all - as in the 2011 summer riots in the UK (again, mainly in economically poorer areas and cultures). The emotions involved - fear and anger in equal measure - are the results of cultural pressures; the erosion of long-held values, new challenges to established power and hierarchy etc.

There is, always, a question to be asked about the role of violent rhetoric in doctrinal texts (not exclusively the domain of religious texts - see for example Mein Kampf, Nietzsche's The Gay Science, or The Communist Manifesto), but it's one best answered by a scientific, psychological study, not philosophical analysis. For today, my point is that we should be very wary of blaming a religion for a community's faults just because it is the religion of that community.

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