Religious Freedom laws in the U.S. : Freedoms used to justify discrimination?

I taught my students about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law that is being used to pass similar laws in various states in the U.S. The most controversial case involves  a similar law in Indiana. The contours of the case point to the idea that private businesses can discriminate against LGBT couples. But the ramifications of the case extend to other groups, point out civil rights activists. I spoke to my students about the origins of the freedom of religion provision, starting with the first amendment. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” These words have been interpreted variously and are being fought over. The meanings and interpretation of these words are being debated, both by the socially conservative and the

liberals.rel free

While cases such as the Hobby Lobby are egregious examples of what can occur when large corporations work to deny healthcare to their employees, there are smaller instances of abuses of rights – in terms of daily indignities or insults that LGBT folk may have to put up with. And this brings us to the spirit of why these laws can actually hurt the minorities – not just LGBT, but potentially Blacks, Muslims, Jews and anyone who doesn’t look like a person who could fit in, and with whom the business doesn’t want to ‘do business’. The Atlantic has a powerful piece on this story that is developing, as we speak. The author of this piece points out two main issues with this law in Indiana. He says “First, the Indiana law explicitly allows any for-profit business to assert a right to “the free exercise of religion.” The federal RFRA doesn’t contain such language, and neither does any of the state RFRAs except South Carolina’s; in fact, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, explicitly exclude for-profit businesses from the protection of their RFRAs.” This clearly seems to be a case of interest groups lobbying to introduce provisions in laws that are intended to create an impact / make some noise, in particular, since many states are legalizing gay marriage.

So, is ‘Freedom’ an American virtue? If one would look closely at how the founding farmers came to the conclusion that there must be no established religion, one would conclude that freedom was constructed as an ideal that had to be held. While it is framed as an absolute ‘American virtue’, it is part and parcel of the American exceptional narrative – not bad or evil in itself – but it can certainly have certain implications, if taken to extremes. As my colleague pointed out to me, after the class, the very people who are fighting for the freedom of religious rights in Indiana are the ones who are creating a scare about Shariah law – and telling Muslims they cannot use their laws in American courts – if this is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

While teaching my students about freedom of religion in America today, I realized that i’ve (accidentally) become an Americanist. It is surprising that I can teach a few courses on American politics/ administration, but not a single one on South Asia/ India. Not sure if I should be proud of that! While I may have become an accidental Americanist, I do appreciate the insights I am gaining, both in teaching ideas to my students, and in delving into issues that are shaping contemporary America. The biggest challenge in analyzing many of the issues of contempory America stem from not parsing out the intended consequences and the narrative around issues. The narrative of freedom is used to create un-freedoms for some. This is a factor of American public life that is often lost sight of. Only by being vigilant and responsive to challenges such as these can we all ensure that the spirit of the American constitution remains alive.

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

Why Gandhi is Relevant in 2014

Indians around the world celebrated Gandhi Jayanthi on October 2, his birth anniversary. It is a solemn day, often marked by social gatherings, politicians saying something banal about Gandhi’s life and legacy and talk-show hosts debating his life. While the question whether Gandhi’s life lessons are relevant is taken seriously by few, a vast majority seem to have created a myth around the Mahatma’s life and are happy to live by platitudes. I believe there is an urgent need to look at Gandhi’s life and the lessons he offered us.

Nehru_with_Gandhi_1942-Churchill Firstly, Gandhi’s life is a testament to the struggles that oppressed people have to go through to achieve freedom. Gandhi’s entire life can be seen as a struggle and his life, an example in sacrifice. As Arthur Herman writes in Gandhi and Churchill – The epic rivalry that destroyed an empire and forged our age, Gandhi had undergone a spiritual transformation in the decades he had spent in South Africa and had found his life mission. This mission was to ‘transform the character of his fellow Indians by bringing them closer to God.’ “By doing so, he intended to undercut the foundations of British rule in India and set his people free.” (p.215). Gandhi’s life mission was rooted in self-transformation and transformation of society at large, missions that most ‘value driven’ organizations and institutions espouse and aspire to.

Secondly, the techniques that Gandhi promoted – Satyagraha being the key one – is still being used by nonviolence activists around the world, from the U.S. to Palestine. As a model of resistance, nonviolent resistance and non-cooperation are tactics that forced the British Empire to the negotiating table, more than once. Time and again, Gandhi deployed this tactic, both in South Africa and in India and despite some failures, it did succeed. In a situation where a powerless people are faced with a majority, that is armed, mighty and powerful, passive resistance did prove useful. Whether it was fighting for the miners rights in Johannesburg in 1908 or for self-rule or Swaraj years later, in India – similar tactics were in play. Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian activist seems to have been using Gandhis’ methods for years now. Martin Luther King in the U.S. considered himself a protégé of Gandhi’s methods.

Thirdly, with globalization, increasing consumerism and a general increase in materialism in India, perhaps it is time for Gandhi’s message to make a comeback. While economically, the Mahatma proposed self-rule and self-reliance, it may be next to impossible to roll back the Neoliberal framework that came into play in the 1990s, with the opening of India’s economy.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Gandhi made to the Indian ethos is that of embracing pluralism and rejecting casteism. As a self-conscious Hindu, he practiced his religion throughout his life, but was against caste and its de-humanizing influence on the Indian mind. An anecdote that Herman quotes in his book is relevant here. In 1916, Gandhi took in an untouchable family at the Sabarmati Ashram. As Herman says, this set off a domestic pitched battle, with Kasturba threatening to leave immediately. “However, Gandhi’s will prevailed. He had deliberately broken the greatest Hindu taboo of all, the prohibition against any contact with dalits or untouchables. It was part of his war against the India he detested most: the India hidebound by ceremony and meaningless tradition split by ancient religious feuds, festering in its own filth, the India without compassion or pity.” (p.221).

While Indians are justifiably proud of the progress that the country has made since 1947, much remains to be accomplished – not only in economic and monetary terms, but also in terms of achieving basic dignity for the poor and oppressed. While there is growing pride in India’s ascent on the global stage, this must be tempered with a realization that India is also home to the world’s largest number of poor people. A mission to Mars may have demonstrated to the world that India is home to capable Engineers, Scientists and technocrats, but facts such as the above demonstrate that India has a long way to go before being truly a ‘regional power’, much less a ‘super-power’. India is the inheritor of a great civilization, hat has contributed much to the world, but also has a lot to learn from the rest of the world. Recent attempts to vilify Gandhi and his life are a danger not only to India’s legacy but are also part of a campaign to distort Indian history. For sure, Gandhi was not a perfect human being, nor was his life perfect by any means. Nevertheless, his life and message were a moral force that moved millions. While we must not fall into the trap of worshipping our leaders uncritically – something that most contemporary Indians seem to be doing – we must, at the same time embrace the best that our tradition has to offer. Towards this, Gandhi’s life lessons are exemplars that can be emulated.

Two models of Community Engagement – Co-optation or Exclusion?

Hamza Yusuf is arguably the most well-known American Muslim (after Muhammad Ali- the former heavyweight boxing champion) alive. As a spiritual leader, his influence goes beyond the Muslim community to the White House, and the Obama administration. He enjoys wide influence (and receives some criticism) but overall, he is a respected man, who is seen as representing Muslims in America, though some may argue on theological or other grounds about his positions on policy etc… On the other hand, Tariq Ramadhan, the Swiss Muslim scholar, who teaches at Oxford University is perhaps the most reviled Muslim intellectual in Europe. He has been called at various times: a Muslim brotherhood member, a terrorist sympathizer and worse. The treatment of these two leaders is emblematic – at least symbolically- of how the governments of these two regions treat Muslim leaders. While North America seems to have learnt to tolerate and even embrace its Muslim leaders, Europeans seem to not only shun, but actively cast a shadow of suspicion on its Muslim population and their leaders. What does this imply for leadership and prospects for Muslim engagement in both continents? I will try to address this question in this short piece.

Differing histories, divergent perceptions

Muslims in Europe and America are at opposite spectrums when it comes to many issues – level of education, where they stand in terms of per capita income, their personal histories. While American Muslims are- on an average- wealthier, better educated and tend to come from solidly middle class backgrounds, European Muslims are overwhelmingly from poorer backgrounds, lesser educated and seen as dependent on ‘welfare’ of the European system. While the backgrounds and histories of these groups of immigrants is very different, what makes American Muslims ( who are the most diverse racial and ethnic group in the country) unique is their internal diversity. According to a recent PEW Research study, American Muslims are the most diverse racial group in the U.S. This is not true of many Muslims in Europe. According to a recent article in The Economist, most immigrants to European countries tend to be from one or two dominant ethnic groups. The Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain etc. This makes it easy to stereotype them into a single category. The article mentions the assimilation of Muslims in the U.S, by pointing out that “The Islamic Boy Scouts had a stand, as did a Muslim liberal-arts college from California. People discussed how to erect mosques without infringing America’s arcane building regulations, or swapped business cards in the food court. The star turn was a Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter (whose grandson is in the news, too: see page 42). The only overt hostility to Israel came from two Hasidic Jews in fur shtreimel hats, who had come from Brooklyn to announce their solidarity with the people of Gaza.”

Islamophobia is a growing phenomenon that has exacerbated in Europe and the U.S. after a few key incidents. In Europe, one can consider the Iranian Revolution, the Madrid train bombings in 2004 that killed almost 200 people, the Paris metro bombings earlier in 1995 and the recent London tube bombings as key turning points for the growth in ambivalence and negative attitudes towards Muslims, while in the U.S., September 11, 2001 stands out as the single paradigmatic event that changed everything for Muslims, argue Yvonne Haddad and Nazir Harb, in their paper Post-9/11 : Making Islam an American Religion. They argue that “When the government was trying to define the ‘enemy’ in the Global War on Terror, Muslims were placed under the microscope,” pointing to the institutionalized scrutiny that thousands of Muslims went through after 9/11 and that continues in some ways, even now.

The Economist article further says “America’s Muslims differ from Europe’s in both quantity and origin. The census does not ask about faith, but estimates put the number of Muslims in the country at around 1% of the population, compared with 4.5% in Britain and 5% in Germany. Moreover, American Islam is not dominated by a single sect or ethnicity. When the Pew Research Centre last tried to count, in 2011, it found Muslims from 77 countries in America. Most western European countries, by contrast, have one or two dominant groups—Algerians in France, Moroccans and Turks in Holland.” The article argues that mixing of religious traditions within Islam breeds tolerance – arguably true – in the case of U.S., while a dominance of one or two ethnicities does not promote it – as in the case of European countries.

In the U.S. the ‘Islamophobia industry’ has taken various forms, including attacks on the personal law that Muslims follow i.e., Shariah and positioning it as ‘medieval and barbaric’. There is a clear attempt to map Muslims as ‘moderate vs. extremists’ and cultivate the ‘moderate’ ones as being ‘loyal’ to the U.S. This false dichotomy and tactics to associate practice of Islam with violence and terrorism has been ongoing for a while and well-funded by extreme rightwing groups. The trend has been well documented by a Center for American Progress Report Fear Inc.

Coming back to the example of Tariq Ramadhan, who has argued for a nuanced understanding of violence and its role in our societies. As he argues in an Op-Ed in The Guardian, “The problem today is not one of “essential values”, but of the gap between these values and everyday social and political practice. Justice is applied variably depending on whether one is black, Asian or Muslim. Equal opportunity is often a myth. Young citizens from cultural and religious “minorities” run up against the wall of institutionalized racism. Rather than insisting that Muslims yield to a “duty to integrate”, society must shoulder its “duty of consistency”. It is up to British society to reconcile itself with its own self-professed values; it is up to politicians to practice what they preach.” For this, Ramadhan has been called a terrorist sympathizer, a Muslim brotherhood member and worse. If this is an indication of how the Europeans react to demands for reflection and critical thinking, then something is surely wrong. The problem in Europe seems to be one of excluding the Muslims and their leaders from public discourse. There have been some attempts by Muslim leaders in the US and Europe to amend some of stereotypes about them – the supposed anti-Semitism in some Muslim societies being the most egregious one- by visiting Auschwitz, as this newsitem shows. One must also remember that Jews, despite being a minority seem to be thriving, in an environment of Post WWII awareness of the horrors of Holocaust. Germany in particular is rather sensitive to any charges of ‘anti-semitism’ and this trend seems to be prevalent in Europe. There is no comparable movement to address Islamophobia, which seems to be growing by the day.  This is a welcome move as it would demonstrate, rather publicly that Muslims don’t have anything per se against the Jews. But such attempts seem to be few and far in-between and they could also be seen as reactionary, rather than proactively thought through.

As an example of the kind of discourse that French and (some) American media have created about him, see here, here. These are but two examples – a simple google search will demonstrate the amount of vitriol and negative propaganda against a leader, who is trying to showcase the diversity of opinion within the house of Islam in Europe. And mind you, he is a professor at Oxford University and an accomplished scholar. If such a scholar is reviled and guilt by association is used as a tool to link him with all forms of organizations, that are violent; it seems like there is a conscious attempt to delegitimize him as an individual and also as a leader of the community.

Further, as Talal Asad argues in his essay “Muslims as a ‘religious minority’ in Europe”, the very identity of Europe is built so as to exclude those who are not ‘European enough’, ethnic Muslims from other countries, for instance. This situation is exacerbated by a history of conflict between Europe and the East – Ottoman Empire for instance, that conquered a part of the continent. Despite the geographic proximity, Bosnia is not ‘one among the European nations’ though it is in Europe, it is not entirely European. The same holds true for Turkey’s attempts to enter the E.U. He quotes from a 1992 Time magazine article “ However it may be expressed, there is a feeling in Western Europe, rarely stated explicitly, that Muslims whose roots lie in Asia do not belong in the Western family, some of whose members spent centuries trying to drive the Turks out of a Europe they threatened to overwhelm. Turkish membership would dilute the E.C’s Europeanness”. This quote captures more than sufficiently the anxieties and the thinking that underlies the paranoia of ‘Muslims taking over Europe’. The current media representations about Muslims in Europe are not very helpful either, relying as they are on stereotypes of Muslims and fear mongering by even mainstream media about the immigrant threat etc.

American Muslim Leadership and co-optation by the establishment

‘Civil Religion’ is a framework that can help us understand how religion in general and Islam in particular has been coopted by the American state, to serve its purpose. Given the relatively high religiosity among people in the U.S. and a general tolerance of religious rhetoric, it is interesting to study how the ‘new religions’ have been accommodated in the American landscape. Before that, let us understand the notion of ‘civil religion’. Scholars such as Robert Bellah have pointed out that one can find a ‘civil religion’ in the U.S. that pervades our society, and it is more a cultural rather than a dogmatic view of religion (Bellah, 1967). Using the example of President John F Kennedy’s inauguration, where he used the word ‘God’ three times, Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all? .”(p.1). The answer, he argues, is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. There has been a strong trend of accommodating religious rhetoric in politics, Bellah further adds. He further defines Civic Religion as: “This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion[i].” Bellah says that Kennedy’s whole address can be seen as an address that argues for man’s obligation to others, and that this obligation transcends any political affiliation or hierarchy.

I would argue that there is a conscious attempt on part of the American Muslim groups to reach out to the political establishment – especially since 9/11 – in an attempt to gain legitimacy. Several scholars have made this argument too and it is a testament to this efforts that religious leaders and organizations have access to the White House, sections of the Obama Administration and some Congressmen and Senators. In turn, there has also been a conscious effort on part of the state apparatus to work with and embrace some of the organizations, who seem to legitimize the actions of the state. Historically, there has been an antagonistic relationship with muslim groups – think Nation of Islam and others in the 1960s’. It was with the arrival of new immigrants in the 1970s onwards that this trend shifted and there was a conscious effort on part of the state apparatus to reach out to the Muslim groups and vice versa.

Presently, American Muslim organizations tend to include messaging about religious tolerance, equality in an attempt to address this ‘Civil religion’ in America. While some scholars and activists have denounced this as ‘appeasement’ by the establishment, one can argue that this forms a bulwark against demonizing the entire community and could function as an important lever for negotiating the fragile relationship of Muslims and the state apparatus.

Bellah, like others such as Robert Wuthnow (2005) points out that trend of mixing religious messaging in the public sphere can be understood in a sense to be a deeply American tradition, an obligation of carrying out God’s will on earth. This, manifest destiny, he argues, was the spirit that motivated those who founded America and it has been present since. Bellah is right in examining this aspect of a strong sense of civic religion in the U.S., but the changing demographics, religious landscape in the country presents a different picture of religion in the U.S. than one of a uniformly religious country. Demographic, socio-economic changes in the last four to five decades have complicated the religious landscape in the country and this has also in effect made the situation more complex. The inclusion of Muslims in America can be argued for – and has been argued – using this very notion of Civil religion, apart from the constitutionally mandated notion of religious freedom. This notion is also one that allows Muslims to practice their religion freely – and issues such as the headscarf etc. seem to be nonissues in the U.S. (for the most part, at least). There are rare occasions when it does become an issue, but mostly, American Muslims are able to carry on with their lives, with no major hindrance.

So while Muslim leaders on both continents are grappling with similar issues – one of stereotyping, Islamophobia and also growing youth unrest and perception that the law enforcement authorities are not treating them well, the reactions and approaches taken by each are different. One can argue- based on what I have also learnt this from conversations with a dear friend who is German, being originally from a Muslim country – that no matter how ‘European’ one is, it is never enough. This includes assimilation efforts in terms of acquiring the native language, following the social customs of the adopted country etc.

The American approach seems to be one of co-optation and working with the establishment to gain legitimacy, while in Europe, this doesn’t seem to be possible. In Europe, the minorities and their leaders don’t seem to be welcome in the public sphere, and the only position they seem to be offered is one of the ‘other’, with no agency or will to determine their future.

[i] Bellah Robert, Civil Religion,. Accessible at http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm Accessed on Jan 29, 2013

“ I am a devoted follower of Jesus, the man. Not Jesus, the Son of God” – Reza Aslan.

Reza Aslan, Ph.D. is the well-known author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, which has been translated into thirteen languages, and named one of the 100 most important books of the last decade. He is on the faculty at the University of California, Riverside, and is a contributing editor for The Daily Beast. He is also editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, published by W. W. Norton, and co-editor with Aaron Hahn-Tapper of Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

RezaCrop

In this candid interview, he talks about his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, to be  launched on July 16, 2013.

How did you come about writing this book?

I became a fundamentalist Christian at the age of 15 and intensely read about Jesus and Christianity. This is what led me to become a scholar of religion, early on. What happened is that after I began my academic studies, I left the church altogether and went to the faith of my forefathers, continuing my academic study of the New Testament. I wanted to find out the historical Jesus, the historical context of his actions and the forces that shaped them. The more I did this, the more I became devoted to Jesus, the man and not Jesus, the son of God. And over the next 20 yrs, I researched the historical Jesus, the man, as he was and what his actions mean. The result is the book you see.

What are the sources  you used?

Outside of the gospels, there is no historical source of Jesus. The only mention outside of the Gospel is this throw-away phrase by a Jewish historian, who mentions Jesus, but is not interested in him, but rather his brother – James. He tells about the death of James, at the hands of a high-priest. And you must remember that back in the day, people did not have last names, and you were referred to you from your fathers’ name or village. And he refers to Jesus here as James’ brother. That is how we know that he is referring specifically to Jesus.

My book is unique in that it doesn’t use Gospels as the primary source material. I do rely on Gospels in filling a loose outline of Jesus’s life, but my first source is the history of first century Palestine, an age we know a lot about, thanks to the Roman occupation. The few facts we know about him – that he was a Jew and he started a Jewish movement, whose focus was in establishing a kingdom of God. We also know that he was convicted of crime of sedition and crucified.

My argument is that, if that’s all you know, it is enough to create a biography about a person. Anyone with those characteristics would be a radical, political revolutionary in those times. I draw on the gospels and investigate the context of Jesus’s actions. I make sure to investigate the claims of the gospels, given the context.

Source: Amazon.com
Source: Amazon.com

Who is your audience? Is it a scholarly work or a popular book?

It is definitely a popular book, though there are 100 pages of footnotes and the book is meant to read like a non-scholarly historical biography. It is meant for people who are interested in his era and are aware of the legends and myths. Jesus is an enormously complex and interesting person.  I am aiming to reach mainstream Christians, those who go to church and see him as the son of god. These believers have heard all these stories, but don’t really know the world in which Jesus lived. These people tend to read the Gospels, as if there is no context to his actions- we must remember that he lived in a turbulent period and the recordings of his actions are contextual and in response to those events. If you truly want to know him, you need to know the world he lived in.

Your biggest surprise in researching the book

The biggest surprise is just how un-extraordinary Jesus was. There were a dozen people during his time, at least a dozen, who walked around claiming to be messiahs. They gathered disciples, exorcised demons and all of them were captured and executed by Rome for the crime of sedition. Jesus just happened to be one of them. Many of them were more popular than Jesus, in their lifetimes. But what is fascinating is that only one of those is still called messiah, today. And my question is, why that is? That’s part of what I answer in this book.

Are you expecting any controversy?
For the most part, anyone who thinks of Jesus as God made flesh, is going to be upset with a book that sees him as just human and a historical figure. At the same time, the book is very respectful. I have deep, abiding love for Jesus and I see myself as a follower of Jesus and the very notion of looking at Jesus as a man will find it offensive. Many people won’t read it for this reason. And others will also not read it because I am Muslim, though I have a PhD in religion.

Some will see this as a Muslim attack on Jesus, which it is not. That audience is obviously out. They will be upset regardless. There are some conclusions in the book, some general assumptions that are part of Christian orthodoxy, that are overturned by my analysis. The fact that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem for instance  and did not debate with the learned Rabbis, as he was illiterate. The passion narratives perhaps never occurred. These will be seen as controversial, but based in research of the holy-land.

How long has it taken you to write it?

I have been researching this since my freshman year in college. But in terms of actually researching and writing, it took me four years. That’s about how long it takes me to write a book.

What projects are you currently working on ?

I am working on some film and TV projects and also gearing up for a novel. This is going to be my last non-fiction book.

For more about the book, or to get your copy, see: http://www.amazon.com/Zealot-Life-Times-Jesus-Nazareth/dp/140006922X

Is soccer a religion?

Source: Creativecommons/flickr
Source: Creativecommons/flickr

This is not meant as a rhetorical question, but a rather serious one. Is Soccer a religion? What makes it one, and if not, why? There are several reasons why one can argue for Soccer ( or football) as you call it, to be classified as religion. “Religion,” which comes from the Latin root “Religio,” which means to practice, or to do something over and again. The problem only begins with semantics, but doesn’t end there. I believe that it is important to clarify what religion means, what its role in public sphere is, and how one is to deal with it, for purposes other than merely spiritual. The role of religion needs to be understood now, more than ever – with seismic changes taking place around us in the U.S, vast political and demographic changes in the Middle East and North Africa and also economic challenges and recession making a deep impact on people in Europe. Many of the explanations offered to us, by journalists, academics and policy makers are couched in the language of “religion.”

There is much more going on in the religious realm, if one pays close attention to it. The debate becomes salient in the context of “football hooliganism,” as in the latest case of Egypt, where 22 people are reported to have died in clashes, following a verdict about football riots in 2011.  Religion in the public sphere is making a come-back, often for the wrong reasons. While the debates advocated by many are outright misleading, there are many nuances to the debate, if one pays close attention and has the patience to look carefully at the intersections of religion and the public sphere.

Jonathan Benthall, a scholar of Sociology of Religion argues that a “religion” has the following 19 characteristics. Let’s see if Soccer satisfies these criterion:

  1. Appeal to supernatural entities
  2. Appeal to an ideal world
  3. Totalizing discourse, creeds, master dogmas and scriptures
  4. Ontology, or an explanation of human beings’ place in nature
  5. Foundation narratives – Narratives that talk about how the world was created
  6. Conversion experiences
  7. Acceptance of doctrinal paradox
  8. Ceremonies, Rituals and Spiritual disciplines
  9. Solace in the face of death and suffering
  10. Martyrdom
  11. Demonology
  12. Moral imperatives based on altruism
  13. Internalization of a moral code
  14. Sectarianism
  15. Identity politics
  16. The sacred-profane distinction
  17. Trance states
  18. From the local to the transnational
  19. Patina – Referring to having survived for a long time.

So what? One might be tempted to ask. While one can argue that Soccer satisfies almost (if not all) of the above criterion, does it become a “ religion,” despite not being considered one in a traditional sense. What about Scientology, which is struggling to being considered as a religion, despite not being accepted by many, including the liberal western states of the United Kingdom and France, where it is being viewed with much suspicion, and treated almost like a cult. This article shows how the “religion” of Scientology is being actively seen as a “fraudulent” faith.

This question of whether something is considered a religion is relevant also because of its public policy implications. There is something to be said about the negative connotation that the term “religion” has in certain circles. Certain societies and intellectual groups actively despise religion and religious practices and anything pertaining remotely to religion is seen with suspicion, if not active hostility.

While the United States guarantees freedom of religion and one can choose to believe in practically anything that one wishes, other parts of the world are not so tolerant. The case against Scientology in France centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test. The Independent quotes her as saying that in the following months, she paid more than €21,000 for books, “purification packs” of vitamins, sauna sessions and an “e-meter” to measure her spiritual progress, all fraudulent ways to “extract money.” While this article is not meant to defend Scientology or explain its doctrines, I merely used this as an example to illustrate one of the debates in the public sphere concerning religion.

Any debate about religion in the public sphere these days (and since the renaissance) has centered on how it impacts the “public sphere.” While one can argue about the need to keep religion in the private realm and separate the public sphere and religion – reality is much more complex. Robert Wuthnow, Jose Casanova, Jonathan Benthall – all world-renowned Sociologists and thinkers who have studied the role of religion in the public sphere have argued for understanding, accepting the role ( and indeed, the need) for religion to address some of our social evils such as poverty, hunger and homelessness. And it is hard to argue that religion( through faith-based organizations such as the Church, Mosque, Temple or Synagogue) continues to address these fundamental challenges on a daily basis. Religion is also making a comeback given the economic recession, the lack of government intervention in providing social security ( Western societies are facing this challenge more than others, if one looks at this closely). A recent IRIN article pointed out that just Zakat contributions ( charity given by Muslims) throughout the world is to the tune of between $200 billion to a trillion, which is more than 15 times the global humanitarian development aid, given by all the western nations combined. This staggering potential cannot be ignored.

I would like to believe that globally, there is a shift to pay attention to what religion is – in its various manifestations, its key role in the lived human experience and also its critical contribution to making our lives better. Finally, as Robert Wuthnow  famously said:  “ You may close the door on religion, but it comes flying through the window.” Perhaps it is time we make peace with the idea of religion and learn to live with it.