By Matt Sheedy
Much ado has been made over the recent Qur’an burning at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and the ensuing riots that took approximately 34 lives, with mainstream narratives falling along the familiar liberal and conservative lines. Generally speaking, liberal narratives, when addressing conflict between different nations, ethnic groups or religions, tend to preach tolerance by focusing on similarities between “us” and “them,” while chalking up instances of violence to a few bad apples who, it is to be understood, are not representative of the social whole (in this case, Afghanis/Muslims). Conservative narratives, by contrast, tend to take a more one-sided approach, focusing on the justness of “our” side against “theirs.”
Variations notwithstanding, what is typically overlooked in these narratives is the larger sociopolitical field in which such events take place. One of the consequences of this is that religion continues to be treated as an independent source motivating human actions, thereby erasing the many other interrelated variables at play, such as war and occupation. For example, a recent article posted on Facebook entitled, “How Religions Handle Disposal of Religious Texts,” brought to my attention a particularly interesting version of the liberal doxa at work. In what can be assumed is an attempt to provide some broader context to this incident, this article looks at the intricacies involved in disposing of sacred texts by “scriptural religions,” identified here as Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Hindus, thereby presenting a range of similarities and differences in order to show the ways in which “they” are like “us.” The article also includes two apologetic notes from American Muslims, one instructing readers that “the Qur’an itself teaches Muslims to repel bad with good,” and the other pointing out that the proper way to respond to the desecration of the Qur’an “is by donating new ones or teaching about respect for the book.”
On the surface, toleration is being encouraged here by framing this event in relation to 1) similarities between us and them and 2) by suggesting that the violence in this incident is not representative of the “true” Islam. The overall effect, however, is one of ideological mystification. This is done, firstly, by upholding scriptural authorities as representative of religious traditions and, secondly, by setting up a dichotomy between good Muslims and bad Muslims, between those who resist and those that are on our side. By ignoring the larger sociopolitical field of war and occupation by a force widely perceived to be anti-Muslim, the long history of Western imperialist practices is removed from the equation and current relations of power are upheld and legitimated. By focusing on the “religious” motives behind such an event then, by suggesting that their practices are similar to ours, and that violence is a deviation from true Islam (or true religion, for that matter), the liberal doxa helps to perpetuate a dogma about Muslims that, ironically, often makes less sense than more hostile conservative narratives, since it ends up apologizing for seemingly irrational behavior that is never really explained at all.