Religion Snapshots: Aslan on Islam

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Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially topics relating to definitions, classification, and method and theory in the study of religion more generally.

Editor’s note: This snapshots feature is based on a recent interview on CNN with Reza Aslan on the topic of Islam and violence. The interview opens with the following statement: “Defenders of Islam insist it is a peaceful religion. Others disagree and point to the primitive treatment in Muslim countries of women and other minorities.” Aslan is introduced as a scholar of religions, professor at UC Riverside and the author of Zealot. The interviewers’ lead with a clip from Real Time’s Bill Maher equating Islam with violence, citing examples of circumcision for women and not respecting gay rights, and a caption is displayed throughout much of the interview reading: Does Islam promote violence? The following are four commentaries on Aslan’s reply.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PzusSqcotDw]

 

Carl J. Stoneham: Aslan needs to check his figures on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and the idea of ‘100%’ gender equality in Indonesia (and it wouldn’t hurt him to look up the actual definition of ‘bigotry,’ either). He’s made some good points, but obscured them with hyperbole, half-truths, and outright false statements.

In his zeal to highlight the fact that Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, treats women far better than Saudi Arabia does, Aslan quantifies equality by stressing that women in Indonesia are “absolutely, 100% equal to men.” Setting aside my main concern that this whitewashes important issues concerning women’s equality in Indonesia, I’m bothered that a self-identified religion scholar is trotting out what are demonstrably false claims (e.g. the World Bank rates Indonesia at 91 out of 144 countries for women’s equality). Why not just state “Indonesia is way ahead of Saudi Arabia when it comes to treating women as equals?” This would maintain the comparison without stumbling over a fiction. What did he hope to gain from using this sort of hyperbole to defend a comparative truth? Still, it is Aslan’s point about FGM that strikes me as more troubling.

In response to Bill Maher’s comment that FGM is “a Muslim country problem,” Aslan responded, “that’s actually empirically factually incorrect. It’s a Central African problem.” (Note: “Central Africa” is the wrong region. He should have referred to the Sahel, as in a “Sahelian problem”). As support, he offered Eritrea and Ethiopia as Christian examples, stating that (in reference to Somalia) “nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.” But this simply isn’t true. One, Somalia is far from the only Muslim-majority country in Africa where FGM is practiced. Two, if one maps FGM in Africa to the religious majority in each country, it is clear that it is primarily Muslim-majority countries that do practice FGM. While this does not mean that FGM is an inherently “Islamic” practice, it could mean that Islam, writ large, offers a frame to justify such cultural practices. All four of the primary Sunni schools of jurisprudence look on female circumcision (known to the West as FGM) as *at least* neutral (mubah), with the Shafi’i school going so far as to declare it obligatory (see link at the end). The reasons for this are mostly rooted in a certain respect for local tradition that comes with Islam (which is a good thing in other cases), but it does not change the fact that it is stated as an *obligation* incumbent upon Muslims in at least one of the four major schools of jurisprudence, with the others considering it either recommended or permissible. Granted, there is always more complexity to be had here, but if we’re painting with a broad brush, as Aslan is, his supporting argument does not pass muster. Perhaps he has gotten caught up in his own brand of polemical apologetics?

In his zeal to undermine (rightly) the use of “Muslim country” in popular media, Aslan offers half-truths and outright falsehoods as support for his position. Are we OK with a sort of “I got the big picture right, even if all the supporting facts are wrong?” As a public scholar who, quite literally, banks on his academic bona fides, is Aslan getting away with something a grad student could not? What’s more, has he pre-emptively discredited his excellent point about “Muslim countries” because his supporting arguments are either hyperbolic or outright false? For viewers skeptical of his position on “Muslim countries,” would a little bit of Googling undermine his thesis? Judging by the comments section, Aslan won this debate hands down, but surely his is an example of something we as scholars should avoid doing when presenting complex ideas, especially in popular fora.

*For a quick Internet link on the Shafi’I school of jurisprudence and female circumcision, see here:

Dennis LoRusso: I find several things interesting here. First, Aslan and the interviews almost seem to be speaking different languages. When Aslan interrogates the assumptions in statements like “Muslim countries,” his interlocutors respond with questions that simply reproduce these same problematic categories. In general, I have not been overly sympathetic to Aslan as a public scholar in the past (especially towards his tendency to protect certain versions of religious traditions as more legitimate than others), but I do think, at least in this instance, he draws attention to the political and contingent quality of concepts like “religion.”

However, even though he acknowledges religion as an unstable classifier, Aslan inadequately addresses the problem. By preferring to characterize female genital mutilation as a “central African” problem rather than a “Muslim” problem, he fails to explain why “Central Africa” serves as a more sufficient frame. Do our geographical maps somehow capture the territory better than our religious ones? Both strategies prove reductionistic because they feign objectivity, where in fact, none can exist.

It is through these kinds of moves that we can see Aslan’s apologetics at work. A “religion,” as he says, can never be the cause of either peace nor violence, but his audience should uncritically accept that cultures, nations, politics, or societies (all constructs of an order similar to religion) are the “real” agents, who only use religion as their veneer to account for their modes of action.

A more intellectually responsible way for Aslan to address these issues with a public that lacks the scholar’s theoretical (sometimes haughty) background would be to not only combat the reductionist rhetoric of “religious violence,” but also to point out why all such claims are not helpful. In drawing attention to how discourse, identity, and action are tied to historical change, the public scholar illuminates our collective complicity in these acts of human suffering.

Matt Sheedy: Despite problems that I have with Aslan’s narratives about religion in general and Islam in particular, I do appreciate his willingness to not soft-peddle his position and call out “stupidity” (he politely goes there) where he sees it. I think this speaks to Dennis’s point about “speaking different languages,” where the short term interests and “sound bite” nature of prime time often requires a radical break with the standard narrative (e.g., the common assumption that “religion” or “Islam” is a causal force, and the follow-up move of distinguishing good/correct versions from bad/incorrect deviations) in order to re-establish the discussion on more fruitful ground. Being generous to Aslan, we might grant that his generalizations that Carl points out may be conditioned by the medium (e.g., using hyperbole to make a point), though this seems to go against the more nuanced analysis and careful attention to language that he’s calling for in this interview. I also find his assertion that it’s “people” who are violent and not “Islam” to be problematic. He follows this up with the caveat that it “depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way that they see themselves.” Earlier in the interview he had mentioned that Islam is neither violent nor peaceful, which is the correct rhetorical move, though his attempt to change the narrative by pluralizing Islam and adding the politics of nation-states into the mix remains trapped in an similar framework, where the criteria for “bad religion” is now Islam + authoritarian regime. A better move, it seems to me, would be to discuss the identities of distinct groups that identify as Muslim thereby showing how multiple theological world views get caught up in shifting historical conflicts and tied to various political, cultural, and ethnic constellations, etc. In this sense “Islam” is always a variable (and one without a stable meaning!) that can never be determined in advance.

Zeba Crook: I thought the interview was fantastic. I loved that he can spar with the talking heads without losing his cool, that he can be so aggressive (“Did you hear what you just said?!”) while smiling in a friendly way. I think what is most important about his interview is his point that Islam is not anything (peaceful or hateful). Islam is what people do with it, it is not any one thing. That the CNN commentator had so much trouble following him (evidenced by her continual return to “But isn’t it the case that Islam…”) shows how important it is to make that point, and I thought he made it well. His other main take-away point is that one cannot take Saudi Arabia and Iran as representative of a global religion with over a billion members. Indonesia and Turkey are not like Saudi Arabia and Iran. You can’t generalize about a global religion based on two extreme examples. This gets to the problem of totalizing and reifying religion: Islam is mean to women, or Islam is peaceful. The point he made again and again is that “Islam is nothing” and it was both made well and worth making.

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