Getting Out of Our Grooves — Part II: Islam and Secularization?

We tend to think of countries such as Pakistan as quintessentially religious states.  As Humeira Iqtidar, of Kings College London, writes in her fascinating new book, Secularizing Islamists? (2011), the “increasing prominence of Islamists in Pakistani political space, especially over the last two decades, has crystallized a particular reading of Pakistan past and present . . . . Pakistan, Islam and fundamentalism – the conflation of the three has become an inescapable focus of media portrayals . . . . “

To provide a fuller picture, Professor Iqtidar spent a great deal of time in the relevant communities and had the rare opportunity to interview members of competing activist Islamist groups.  Her description of their competition for members, for power, and for the ability to define correct Islamic practices is remarkably interesting.

In the end, Professor Iqtidar argues that “Islamists are facilitating secularization at a social level even as they oppose secularism as an official policy.”  This is not, she is quick to note, a “strict demarcation of the public realm from the private . . . .”  Rather, the “Islamist insistence on the internal coherence of religious practice, its appropriateness to tackle the challenges of modern life, as well as competition among Islamist groups have led to a broad . . . thinking through of the role of religion in contemporary Muslim life . . . .  Religious practice can no longer be a matter of communal following of norms; it has been changed into a largely individualized decision that must be justified internally, that is, within a subject, and externally, to others around the subject.”

Finally, for those of us who periodically chafe at how some social scientists have superimposed Western European philosophical assumptions and religious categories on not necessarily matching American phenomena, I wanted to stand up and cheer while I was reading Professor Iqtidar’s comments about “universalist claims in social scientific analysis.”  In particular, she writes, “Within much of academic literature secularism continues to have immensely positive normative associations intertwined with a continued assumption of universal application.”  Until quite recently, social science theories “conflated diagnosis with prescription, description with projection.  This becomes particularly problematic in studying societies that are markedly different from the contexts in which there concepts took initial shape.”  No kidding.

Don Drakeman

Balkaran & Dorn on Violence in the Vālmiki Rāmāyana

On September 3, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion published Violence in the Vālmı̄ki Rāmāyana : Just War Criteria in an Ancient Indian Epic by Raj Balkaran (University of Calgary) and A. Walter Dorn (Royal Military College of Canada and Canadian Forces College). The abstract follows.

When is armed force considered justified in Hinduism? How do Hindu legitimizations of warfare compare with those of other religions? The Just War framework, which evolved from Roman and early Christian thought, stipulates distinct criteria for sanctioning the use of force. Are those themes comparable to the discourse on violence of ancient India? This article examines the influential Sanskrit epic Vālmıki Rāmāyana in order to broach these questions. This analysis demonstrates the presence in the ancient work of all seven modern Just War criteria—namely (1) Just Cause, (2) Right Intent, (3) Net Benefit, (4) Legitimate Authority, (5) Last Resort, (6) Proportionality of Means, and (7) Right Conduct. This study also shows the extent to which the criteria and the larger discourse in the Vālmıki Rāmāyana are distinctly couched within Indic ethical parameters, drawing particularly upon the moral precept of ahim (nonviolence). This article identifies both similarities and differences between the epic’s criteria for warfare and those of the Just War framework. By comparing representations of violence in the Vālmıki Rāmāyana to modern Western legitimizations of force, this study advances the inclusion of Hindu thought into the global discourse on the ethics of war and peace.

Grob & Roth (eds.), “Encountering the Stranger”

This October, The Washington University Press will publish Encountering the Stranger: A Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue edited by Leonard Grob (Fairleigh Dickinson University) and John K. Roth (Claremont McKenna College). The publisher’s description follows.

In an age when “collisions of faith” among the Abrahamic traditions continue to produce strife and violence that threaten the well-being of individuals and communities worldwide, the contributors to Encountering the Stranger – six Jewish, six Christian, and six Muslim scholars – take responsibility to examine their traditions’ understandings of the stranger, the “other,” and to identify ways to bridge divisions and create greater harmony.

What Film?

That, I think it’s fair to say, was the first reaction most Americans had to the news that a film insulting the Prophet Mohammad had set off mobs in Egypt and Libya, resulting in attacks on American embassies and the murder of an American ambassador. Apparently, the story is this. A couple of Americans have posted a film on YouTube, the oddly-named “The Innocence of Muslims,” that ridicules the Prophet and the founding of Islam, and also portrays the suffering of Coptic Christians in contemporary Egypt. It’s unlikely the “film” — it’s really more a poorly-done video — would have been seen by more than a handful of internet trawlers, had not Terry Jones, the Florida pastor last known for threatening to burn a Quran, promoted it. Word spread through the Middle East – who knew Jones had a following there? – and, eventually, as one thing led to another, Islamist mobs saw a chance to stoke resentment against the US. And now we see the results.

There will be time to reflect on all of this, but two things seem immediately clear. First, there’s going to be more violence before this episode ends. Some of that violence will be directed against American interests, but most will be directed against the Middle East’s own Christians, particularly Egypt’s long-suffering Copts. Local governments will do relatively little to protect these Christians, and the international human rights community will remain largely silent as well. (Hopefully, the US is getting ready to grant a wave of asylum applications from Coptic refugees, but you never know). In Syria, Assad’s support among Christians will only solidify. Syrian Christians really need no reminder of what is likely to happen to them if the Ba’ath regime falls, but yesterday’s events do underscore things.

Second, whatever happens in this crisis, similar crises are bound to occur in future. As long as America continues to respect the First Amendment, people will continue to make and show films like “The Innocence of Muslims.” In a YouTube age, in which anyone with a video camera and a computer can beam films around the globe for very little money, it will be virtually impossible to restrain them — even assuming it would be legal, which it would not be, to attempt to do so. And, as long as the religious sensibilities of the West and the Muslim world continue to diverge so radically — as long as videos most Americans would dismiss as obscure junk continue to be bloody provocations in the Muslim world — clashes like yesterday’s seem sadly inevitable.