By Matt Sheedy
The discourse surrounding media events like the “Danish Cartoons” and Innocence of Muslims has largely focused on the issue of freedom of expression–at least in the “West,” where such putative categories prevail. For example, with the recent publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, the paper’s editor sought to defend these actions as “free expression” and pointed out that when they had satirized conservative elements within the Catholic Church, the Church responded by filing a lawsuit (14 to date), while noting that “every time we deal with radical Islam, we have a problem and we get indignant or violent reactions.” While the editor included the qualifier “radical,” the implication is all too familiar: “Islam” is more violent and less rational than “Christianity.”
This got me thinking about a point made by J.Z. Smith in his essay “A Matter of Class,” where he argues that “Islamic fundamentalism” is perhaps better read as a “nativistic movement” inasmuch as this calls for a different set of comparisons than the generic term “fundamentalism.” Smith’s argument is meant to highlight the dual-tasks of comparison and criticism as complementary enterprises whenever we go about theorizing religion. For Smith, our focus should be on specific “populations”–borrowing a term from biology–as hybrid formations of specific genera (i.e., different “religions”), rather than assuming that there is some unified “species.” Among other things, this avoids the fallacy that there is something called “radical Islam” (or “Islam,” for that matter) that exists as a first-order category, and shifts the burden toward local manifestations of a particular ideological formation (e.g., conservative Salafi groups in Cairo) that draw upon “religious” discourses (e.g., blasphemy) in a specific context (e.g., post-Mubarak Egypt).
The question I am asking here is as follows: how useful is it to re-describe religion by starting with local populations in order to show how they relate to the discourses of a specific genera (e.g., Islam)? What problems might this avoid and what does it accomplish?