The Meaning of Islam and the Politics of Multicultural Identity, Part 1


by Matt Sheedy

The term firestorm would not be overstating the media reaction to the recent debate between Ben Affleck, Sam Harris, and Bill Maher on Maher’s HBO program, Real Time.

In part one of this series of posts, I will attempt to deconstruct the logic that was at work in this debate, including Maher’s statement about Islam on his program from the week before, followed by a taxonomy of the responses it has provoked in part two in an effort to categorize these re-presentations, and to determine the ideological boundaries in which this discourse resides.

While both Maher and Harris have been criticizing Islam for many years now, the recent uproar was initially sparked by Maher’s comments on the September 26th episode of Real Time when he stated:

If vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans’ deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or a drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person, not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.

At least four common tropes are at work in this narrative:

1)    Being Muslim is contingent upon adhering to a particular set of beliefs;

2)    Some of these “Muslim” beliefs promote violence;

3)    A majority of Muslims support these violent beliefs, even if they’re unwilling to carry them out themselves; and, by implication;

4)    It is therefore Muslims and “Islam” that bear the brunt of responsibility for on-going violence and intolerance in Middle East (as well as for spreading such ideas in the Euro-Western world).

The following week’s episode, featuring Ben Affleck and Sam Harris, along with guests Michael Steele and Nicolas Kristof, echoed these tropes in variety of ways. For example, Maher began the discussion by stating that, “Liberals need to stand up for liberal principles,” such as freedom of speech and belief, freedom to leave a religion, equality for women, and equality for minorities, including homosexuals, and claimed that most liberals hold a double-standard when it comes to critiquing the “Muslim world.” This opened up the conversation to a variety of points and counter-points, which I’ve summarized in point-form below.

  • Liberalism has been unable to combat theocracy (Harris)
  • The charge of Islamophobia conflates criticism of the “doctrine of Islam” with bigotry toward Muslims (Harris)
  • “Islam at this moment is the mother-load of bad ideas” (Harris)
  • This position is racist (Affleck)
  • No it isn’t. It is not (Muslim) people we are condemning, but their ideas (Harris)
  • “And people who believe in those ideas” (Maher)
  • A basic liberal principle is tolerance (Kristof)
  • “But not for intolerance!” (Maher)
  • There are many Muslim’s who aren’t fanatics or jihadis, such as Malala Yousafzai (Kristof)
  • You (Maher and Harris) focus on a few bad things and generalize to the “whole religion” (Affleck)
  • Jihadists are motivated by killing apostates and represent the center of Islam; Islamists believe this too, but they work within the system; conservative Muslims are illiberal (Harris)
  • 78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted (Harris)
  • 90% of Egyptians say that death is the appropriate response to leaving the religion (Maher)
  • The real divide is between fundamentalists and moderates in each faith (Kristof)
  • Moderate Muslim voices that speak out are rarely heard (Steele)
  • “There are 100s of millions of nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously” and they should be propped-up as reformers of the faith (Harris)
  • Muslims are not a minority, it’s the second biggest religion in the world (Affleck)
  • Criticism should be levelled at individual actions, not the religion as a whole (Affleck)

One of the most interesting and overlooked aspects of this debate is that it takes place within a conceptual framework of (neo-) liberal ideology, where conflicts involving multicultural identity are framed around a select set of principles, which are drawn upon as the primary tool for interpreting and evaluating generalized “others” who are alleged to undermine these principles in some way. As is common in such cases, the “other” is narrowly classified by certain essential qualities, such as shared beliefs, which are represented in terms of their compatibility (or lack thereof) with liberal principles.

In this way, the debate was crippled from the start since it assumes that vast groups of people can be effectively described and encapsulated by their alleged “Muslim-ness,” which is never defined, but rather circulates around a symbolic economy of ideas and images that have been produced, for the most part, within the Euro-Western imagination.

For this reason, I would argue that most public discourses about Islam within the Euro-West tend to function not as debates about the varieties of Muslim identities—as confessional traditions, as complex theological positions produced within cultures, and as imbricated within various socio-political constellations that are constantly shaped and re-shape by internal and external forces—but rather as sign-symbols that are filled with a few, select tropes about “Islam” and “Islamic beliefs” that are made to stand-in for the whole. Some of these tropes include, as Nabil Echchaibi points out in a recent post, “Islamic terrorism, veiling and women’s rights, [and] sharia law versus democracy.”

One challenge for scholars of religion, then, is to avoid the temptation to play into the logic of this framework, which sets up a dichotomy between “good” and “bad” Muslims (see Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim 2005) and describes complex identities through the prism of better and worse expressions of “Islamic belief,” and focus instead on the ways in which “Islam” is taken up and re-produced differently in the material world and in contexts of human interaction. While this type of scholarly work is likely too complex to be represented in public discourse, it may have the effect of encouraging such debates to move away from talk of some essentialized “Islam” toward a discussion of how inherited beliefs and practices are never stable, but always re-produced in the environments in which they reside.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual, myth, and social formations. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ and ‘Native Spirituality’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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8 Responses to The Meaning of Islam and the Politics of Multicultural Identity, Part 1

  1. ricardo says:

    another postmodern pseudo-argumenting… another try to avoid what is crucial… another scholar having a lot to say for excuse what cannot be excused

  2. mattsheedy says:

    Thanks for your reply Ricardo. I’m assuming that you have some tangible reasons for your disagreement? Care to share them so as to encourage a debate?

  3. Azad Ali says:

    Well, trying to evaluate a certain religion and millions of its followers in a black or white way of thinking, is simple, but it neither objective nor scientific. Looking form specific paradigm at every thing, raises a lot of questions if the paradigm is somehow incorrect.. If we assume that this paradigm, the liberal view, is absolutely true, we will fall in the same ideological trap of religions! If we accept relativism, so we can not reclaim that our paradigm is the only true one, there are many other true paradigms!!

  4. Oliver murphy says:

    The logic of arguing that you can’t criticize Islam because not all Muslims subscribe to exactly the same beliefs can be extended to justify any ideology.

    E.g. ‘To say that fascists are all racist is to “classify them by certain essential qualities, such as shared beliefs, which are represented in terms of their compatibility (or lack thereof) with liberal principles”. Isn’t the assumption that fascism is linked to racism just a symbolic product of an Anglo-American imagination? So let’s stop demonizing fascists and look at the material conditions that make particular fascists act racist in particular situations!!’

    Obviously not all Muslims hold the same beliefs, but it’s equally absurd to say that there are no values that connect Muslims, albeit to varying degrees and in varying ways, stemming from the religious texts they read and believe in. The key thing to do is to use statistics rather than generalisations, *just as Harris and Mahler do* : “78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted”.

    • mattsheedy says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Oliver.

      I would take issue here with your analogy with fascism. Fascism, however we may define it in its central components, is a particular political ideology that, among other things, relies on forms of nationalism that tend to be hyper-ethnocentric. It therefore has racism built into its very fabric by privileging groups based on their particular ethic and/or religious identity.

      And I am not arguing that we can’t criticize “Islam.” I am arguing, first and foremost, that we should pay closer attention to what it is we are referring to when we talk about Islam. To summarize: my claim is a) that it not a very productive term *by itself* since it reflects certain generalized and symbolic idea rather than substantive ones, and b) that if we are going to criticize things related to “Islam” we need to pay attention to context, history, and the many variations/iterations of this term (e.g., who is using it, how, and why?)

      It is true that groups who base their identity on Islam draw upon all sorts of ideas within the tradition (e.g., the Qur’an, different schools of thought and theological traditions, etc.) that are compatible with radical political acts being carried out today, but to reduce their motivations to “Islam” is not only to grossly generalize the identities of approx. 1.5 billion people, but attribute causation that is a-historical and deprived of any socio-political context. Even if it’s true that “78% of British Muslims think that the Danish cartoonists should have been prosecuted,” which is one statistic and not exactly definitive evidence, Harris and Maher are using selective stats to generalize and condemn all Muslims. Their interests in undermining “religion” writ large (and I imagine you know how hostile they are to “religion”) makes their marshalling of these “facts” problematic to say the least and tells us very little as to what causes radicalization and the spread of said expressions in the first place. These are the sort of things that I am suggesting need closer attention.

  5. Carl J. Stoneham says:

    “…the effect of encouraging such debates to move away from talk of some essentialized ‘Islam’ toward a discussion of how inherited beliefs and practices are never stable, but always re-produced in the environments in which they reside.”

    (Though I’m all for efforts that move us away from notions of a “true” Islam, I’m not convinced that the notion that “beliefs and practices are never stable” isn’t a postmodern fallacy. There must be some stability, otherwise we would all be wondering what this nonsensical term “Islam” meant. Perhaps the better approach is to question whether beliefs and practices are “sufficiently stable” to support the usage employed by Maher and Harris or Affleck. Perhaps this is what you meant, but I felt it worth addressing it just in case.)

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and propose that neither Maher, Harris, nor Affleck are even remotely informed enough to offer coherent pictures of the “Islam” that they either disparage or defend. I see this play out in how they defend their position. Affleck falls back on the trope of racism: ‘You just talked bad about a large group of people who aren’t white. Only racists do that.’ Maher and Harris defend themselves against this critique (correctly, I would argue) but then fall into their usual cycle of Begging the Question: “True religion hates apostasy. ISIS hates apostasy. ISIS is true religion.” So we have Bulverism vs Begging the Question and the winner of the debate is determined by the Audience Reaction Indicator. It is here that I think we actually find the “most interesting and overlooked aspects of this debate.”

    While I appreciate the importance of avoiding descriptions of “complex identities through the prism of better and worse expressions of ‘Islamic belief,’” and the call to look at “the ways in which ‘Islam’ is taken up and re-produced differently in the material world and in contexts of human interaction,” should that be the focus when we can point to so many cases where “‘Islam’ is taken up and re-produced” similarly “in the material world and in contexts of human interaction?” Are we looking to socio-political factors to explain the atrocities committed by this or that “terrorist” organization because it’s easier than dealing with the implications of looking to religious ones? Certainly, there are “various socio-political constellations that are constantly shaped and re-shape[d],” but there are also many religious constellations that have a history of reasserting themselves, and it is not at all clear that these are rooted in said socio-political factors (no doubt a chicken-and-egg problem). After all, ISIS is not as unique a phenomenon as we’d like to think if our view of history is measured in millennia rather than decades. None of this is to say that Maher and Harris are correct in painting Islam as they do, but surely there is something behind the fact that so many seem so quick to consider their position as “phobic” rather than reasoned, and that academics appear quicker to assent to the former rather than the latter. (That is to say, it is not clear from my research that the “phobic” side has been discredited beyond the extreme positions of those such as Robert Spencer, et al.)

    • Matt Sheedy says:

      Some very good points Carl. I am certainly willing to amend my reflections along the lines of what you suggest at the start–that beliefs are not “sufficiently stable” to support their usage of the term “Islam.” More to the point, however, I am calling attention to the symbolic effects of this term, which, as you suggest, are generally devoid of any substance and reflect a very limited range of common ideas, esp. in the West. In this sense, “Islam” overdetermines what is at stake and often creates the impression that social acts that rely on “Islam” as an alibi are they product of “religious belief” rather than said beliefs re-produced in particular contexts.

      I do think that their position (Harris, Maher, etc.) is implicitly Islamophobic and thus racist, though I don’t think that the reasons for this are adequately spelled out. If we consider the ways in which the symbolic production of “Islam” is tied to all sorts of stereotypes about Arabs and foreign others (Iranians, Afghanis, etc.) and often conflated in highly reductive ways, any attempt to generalize “Islam” as the root of the problem must account for the fact that it is caught up within such fields of cultural representation.

      I would prefer to think of “Islam” as analogous to any ideology–sometimes minimalist, sometimes maximalist, and with many different effects in terms of how it is taken up in contexts of interaction. In this sense, I think it needs to be a central variable in our conversation, but one that always needs to account for how it has been produced within cultures and contexts that are shaped by socio-political factors. Otherwise, we get this regressive loop that attributes actions to “Islam” instead, e.g., particular “Islamic” ideologies that are the products of material conditions. This is the kind of move I would like to see rather than the banal and useless tennis match a la Islam is violence/Islam is peace.

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