“A Reluctance to Put the Religious Label”


by Russell McCutcheon

Note: This post originally appeared on the Studying Religion in Culture blog at the University of Alabama.

Did you hear about the White House summit this past week? It was in the news a fair bit and was on “countering violent extremism” — not just those attributed to Muslims but, because such adjectives as Islamic or Jihadist are often glued pretty tightly, at least in some North American and European media and politics, to the words violence or terrorism, that angle on the event has received a lot of attention.

You might find this story, broadcast today at “On The Media,” to be a useful overview of some of the issues circling around the summit. (The link between classification and politics is pretty evident in the story.)

While the main and longstanding debate is over the extent to which so-called extremists do or do not represent all Muslims (i.e., whether so-called Jihadists are legitimately Muslim or not), very few are discussing why we tend to presume a specifically religious causality to such actions and thus why we gravitate toward understanding these events, for example, as Muslim, whether characterized as an extreme or mainline form. To rephrase, while social actors draw upon a host of conventions familiar to them and use them to represent themselves, their actions, motivations, and goals, what might be gained by not confusing the rhetoric with the causes?

For, as the following story on so-called “homegrown terrorism” (also posted at “On the Media”) makes clear, when violent social actors here say (as detailed in the following story) that they are “a priest in the fight against anti-god people,” the vast majority of people hearing the story do not conclude that the perpetrator’s references to discrete elements of, in this case, Christian theology — regardless where such claims may be placed along the admittedly wide theological spectrum — ought to be understood as the actual causes of the person’s actions. No, there’s a good chance that we’ll instead see such claims as secondary (regardless how sincerely they may have been made by the person in question — for the issue is no longer about their sincerity…), and, denying to this person the right to set the terms by which their actions will be understood by us, we’ll quickly opt look for our own explanation in such other domains as their psychological health, emotional stability, economic status, degree of social alienation, etc.

My point?

Studying when we do and do not understand religious identification or religious beliefs as an autonomous and thus a causal force in people’s lives — as opposed to seeing them as a convenient interpretive framework that some social actors use to represent and thereby understand their own actions — may shed some light on how we make sense of those actions ourselves and how we deal with them. For if we come to see that self-interpretations of actions are not necessarily the same as explanations for their causes then perhaps we will realize that conflating these two will never help us to develop an effective strategy to address actions that we feel endanger the worlds in which we live.

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