The problem with the question : ‘Is Islam a Violent Religion’

As a young scholar, I am amazed at how easily such a question can be posed towards Islam and  Muslims, without second thought – as if it is the most normal and banal question that one can ask – indeed, many of my close friends and associates have asked me this question, in the past. But there is one simple problem with that question: It is a deeply racist, divisive and intolerant question. By asking this very question, we are putting Islam in an ‘exceptional’ category, and by extension, also putting Muslims in a special ( not elevated) but rather a demoted place, where their actions, ideas and thoughts cannot be understood by ‘normal’ processes, and somehow we need special tools to ‘figure out’ what is going on in their minds. This question also builds on deeply held Orientalist assumptions of what the ‘Muslims’ think or feel[i].

Photo credit :
Photo credit :

In a deeply ironic way, this question is anti-enlightenment, in that it presupposes our knowledge of others, without even investigating the phenomenon. It is just poor journalism. Here, I am specifically referring to the recent ‘debate’ started by Foreign Policy on ‘Islam is a religion of violence or peace’ and the particular stance of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Ali starts off her article by pointing out that since 9/11 and the “Global War on Terror,” the violent strain of Islam appears to have metastasized.” She further argues that between the three categories of Muslims – will determine the future of Islam. One wonders how she came up with this categorization – is she an expert on Islam, or Shari’ah or Muslim societies? The answer to each one is no.  While she pretends to offer an analytical view, it is nothing but her own imaginary constructs that guide her, in her analysis. The fact that a publication such as Foreign Policy chooses to highlight her arguments over other critical and scholarly voices such as those of Talal Asad, Abdullahi An’naim and dozens of similar scholars and activists shows either a complete disregard for credible scholarship or a bias towards sensationalism. In any case, this debate is not framed respectfully or appropriately.

Speaking of violence and the impact of ideologies in perpetuating it, is it not true that the GWOT de-stabilized the region we know as Iraq and also upset the geopolitical configuration of the region? Why are we not asking whether American militarism is justified or not? Can we ask whether ‘democratization’ processes have been violent, because indeed the GWOT and other attempts at bringing democracy to the Middle East have been extremely violent processes that have resulted in deaths of over 1.3  million deaths. A report by Physicians for Social Responsibility points out that “This investigation comes to the conclusion that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs[ii].”  These are credible numbers that actually point to the violence that has been caused in the name of spreading ‘peace’. So, can we ask whether our ‘values’ of promoting peace are violent? Can we ask whether ‘democracy’ is violent? Of course, any contrary evidence is brushed off by Ali, who seeks to look only in one direction – that which only proves her point.

What such narratives and the entire discourse of ‘Islam is violent’ creates is a ghettoization of Muslims. While I think there is virtue in debating the merits and de-merits of Shari’ah law or other related aspects, that impact values such as human rights and equal treatment of women, there is very little benefit to arguing for whether we should even consider Islam a legitimate religion – and this is the logical conclusion that Ms.Ali and others such as her reach. When she concludes by saying that we must not only focus on the violent extremism, but also the “We need to confront the nonviolent preaching of sharia and martyrdom that precedes all acts of jihad,’ she is taking her claims too far. There is real danger in this discourse, in that it marginalizes, stigmatizes Muslims and their religion and we are already seeing the negative repercussions of this – Islamophobia, hatred and bigotry.

The shooting of three Muslims in Chapel  Hill,N.C.,  the burning of the Sikh Gurdwara in Wisconsin and several others incidents point to the rising hatred and violence against Muslims and those who look like them. As Farhana Khera, Executive Director of Muslim Advocates points out in her OpEd in Washington Post, “American Muslims experience prejudice far more than they report to authorities. When asked anonymously in a 2011 Pew poll if they had been threatened or attacked in the past year, 6 percent Muslims said they had. Given that Muslims population is about 2.6 million of the population, Pew polls responses suggest that about 156,000 Muslims were victims of hate crimes[iii].” Ms.Khera further goes on to say that Justice Department believes that many of these crimes are not reported because victims believe the police will not or cannot do anything about it. The ‘real’ problems that Muslims face in the world are violence, bigotry and hatred, from those outside their faith community and also in many cases, from within. This is the truth that many reports and scholarly analyses showcase. That is not in dispute.  To the extent that this is a matter of ‘interpretation’ of texts, Ms. Ali is right. But to somehow link this violence to the entire belief structure of Islam is a logical fallacy that even someone familiar with basic tenets of Islam would not make.

As Noam Chomsky suggests in his essay ‘The Responsibility of intellectuals’ political analysis should be about looking for motives behind actions – and this analysis should go both ways – looking at actions and words of ‘others’ as well as our own[iv]. And to somehow assume that ‘we’ are always pure, clean and on the high moral ground is to be delusional. Democracy promotion, for instance has been deeply violent process that has cost millions of innocent lives. And ‘we’ are responsible for it. He further points out that creating an ‘open society’ and a ‘free’ one seems to have become a mantra, a dogmatic assumption that is not often challenged. He suggests that “If it is necessary to approach genocide in Vietnam to achieve this objective, than this is the price we must pay in defense of freedom and the rights of man.” This is the logic that Ms.Ali seems to be following.

Ayaan Hirshi Ali’s claims are nothing but screed and propaganda – aimed at provocation and incitement- but doesn’t meet the basic criterion of responsible journalism. It is peddling opinion as facts and beliefs as ‘truth.’ To call it scholarship would be an insult to those who practice it. The mark of any genuine scholarship or journalism is to look for ‘complicating evidence’ –stuff that challenges our assumptions and beliefs, and in this area, her entire argument falls flat. She is as dogmatic as the Taliban, and that is the real danger. We are dealing with a demagogue here, not an analyst.

[i]  A more detailed account of some of these ideas are in Carl Ernst’s Following Muhammad.

[ii]  Body Count, Physicians for Social Responsibility. March 2015 accessible at

[iii] Khera, F. Its hard to prove any hate crime. But for Muslim victims, its especially hard. The Washington Post. Feb 17, 2015

[iv]  Chomsky, N. The responsibility of intellectuals. Accessible at

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.

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in the West?

Is there a ‘God Problem’ in Western societies? Given the rise of the atheist movement, best exemplified by people such as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins and other famous celebrities who make a living dissing religion; the question is: Do they have a point when they say that religion makes no sense and people are fools to believe in it? While this is a reasonable claim, it is not true. People are indeed rational when they speak of religion and they do this by speaking to others (and themselves) in ways that conforms to norms of reasonableness. This is the key argument that Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociology professor makes in his book The God Problem, which carries out a discourse analysis of how people talk about religion. He argues that given a chance to speak, and with enough attention and patience, we will discover that most people will speak about religion in very reasonable terms. The crazy right-wing talk is just that – crazy- and is carried out by a tiny fraction of the minority, for political and other reasons, while the vast majority of believers are normal, reasonable people.

Photo credit: UC Press
Photo credit: UC Press

The ‘God problem’ is not only about belief, but about its manifestation in the real world. When radical extremists demand death for homosexuals or seek to legislate in favor of believers and discriminate against others, who don’t look or believe as they do; this problem becomes real. Also, the reaction of atheists to this is often very strong, leading to a war of words, and other times a literal war. This is the gist of what Wuthnow calls the God problem and one can appreciate how this is indeed a complex topic, not just in the U.S. but anywhere in the world, where people take their religion seriously. I have written about this in my earlier post about Religion in the Public Sphere here. Another problem that he has highlighted is the notion of religion and democracy and freedom of speech. Since much of dogmatic religion suppresses dialogue, critical thinking, this is seen as harmful to democracy.

Wuthnow argues that a highly educated society like the U.S. is a paradox of sorts, given that rationality is not supposed to go hand in hand with religion. He says: “The best educated tend to tilt away from the pattern of devout religious conviction, apparently experiencing some of the tensions between faith and intellect that the critics argue is there. But this is only a slight tilt. For the most part, well-educated Americans seen to have found a way to continue to believe in God and praying regularly to this deity.” This, he says is not because of bad education, wishful thinking or other factors; but rather the need for these believers to have their cake and eat it too. In this way, he argues that language mediates between belief in god and rationality.

Wuthnow suggests that people of faith adopt strategies (six of them) to help balance this tension between faith and reality. They are:

  1. Schema alignment – Schema alignment frequently takes the form of anthropomorphizing god- imagining God behaves like a human person. Studies by Barrett and Frank C. Keil asked students to complete stories about God and then compare these with students’ answers to abstract theological questions. Their answers frequently suggested that God acted like a person even though these were inconsistent with the students’ formal theological views.
  2. Ontological assertion – Affirming the existence of God without necessarily attributing specific actions to God. It is possible to make statements that emphasize being without explicitly suggesting action. Prayers are often of this kind. They assert the existence of God without associating any other action with God. God is more of a reality, presence, or being and less of an agent who engages in action.
  3. Contingency referents – These are devices that makes divine action contingent on human action or circumstances, and thus provides an explanation for apparent failures of the divine. They are a kind of warrant or explanation for why something happens or does not happen. Warrants for trust are a good example. They stop short of asserting that they can influence God’s actions and hence Pat Robertson’s assertion that he could change the direction of Hurricane Gloria came across as a cultural Faux pas. As Wuthnow adds, “A Muslim doctor says she believes firmly in the Prophet’s teaching that you should ask God for what you need, even if it is a shoelace or some salt. “God is going to provide it,” she says. She adds “ It’s not that he is going to give it to me in my hand. I have to struggle to get it. “ Other people explain that God will help them realize their dreams in life, but only if they work hard, or that God will help them avoid serious illness, but only if they eat right and have regular medical check-ups.
  4. Domain juxtaposition – Is another device that emphasizes transgressions of basic cultural categories, or at least strong contrasts between them, and is thus expressed by this rubric. Prayer implies that the human realm can somehow communicate with a divine realm. The two realms are necessarily juxtaposed. However, a juxtaposition of this kind must be defined, and doing so involves the construction of a symbolic boundary that both distinguishes the two and brings them together.
  5. Code switching – This involves using words that in context would imply supernatural action, but then changing the terminology to make the meaning of those words metaphorical or ambiguous. He quotes a Muslim woman, with a bachelors in Economics as saying “ As a scientific, educated mind, I don’t think it is true that I relate to God, on a very personal basis. But I believe it is the spirituality inside you that says, ‘This is the God that has created me. He’s going to take care of me. “ What is she saying? “ Wuthnow asks, before answering that there are two parts to her – two aspects to her persona that reflect different speech communities. Speaking as an educated mind, she cannot say that she personally relates to God But switching into her inner spiritual self, she can say that there is indeed a connection.
  6. Performative Competence – Is slightly different from the other devices in that it suggests that the appropriate way to assess a prayer is by talking about how it was performed. An example would be saying that a heartfelt prayer is good or especially meaningful because the speaker was sincere. Another example would be saying that a liturgical recitation of the Lord’s prayer is good because the exact words of Jesus are being spoken. A competent prayer is one that conforms to these expectations.

The only weakness that I found in this book is that he did not give a background about discourse analysis to those who do not know what it is. DA is a highly technical and rich field, which takes some background in sociological theory, linguistics, political science to grasp fully and perhaps a short chapter or even an appendix with some references would have helped. This is a thoroughly researched book, with over 200 in-depth qualitative interviews, with people of all faiths in the U.S. To this extent, it is empirically grounded and rich in data.

As Wuthnow points out in the conclusion, American religion has included parts of ‘spooky and weird’ behavior. From Evagelicals like Ted Haggard to other born-again Christians, there have been leaders who have preached things that would fall into that category. This ‘World rejection’ as Max Weber termed – has been a key feature of dominant religious philosophies in the U.S. He further points out that all these have been studied, but what has not been studied is the way reason manifests in this mix. That seems like a fair thing to say. We tend to hear only the crazy stories of healing or their ‘rational’ denouncements by atheists who can be equally extreme in their reactions. In between these two, we don’t hear the actual experiences of the people who believe, act out and affirm their faith, on a daily basis. This book does a good job of articulating and making sense of this belief. One of the ways that an act comes to be regarded as rational is through what Jurgen Habermas has called ‘Communicative Rationality,’ i.e., when something is deliberated in public, among all parties involved and a decision is reached.

This is a fascinating read, and if you have interests in religion, linguistics, and sociology or discourse analysis – The God Problem should definitely be on your reading list.

Religion in the Public Sphere – Good, Bad or Ugly?


With Christmas, ‘War on Christmas’ and ‘Creeping Shariah’ dominating our headlines, it looks like religion is making a comeback in  public discourse. Unfortunately, it seems to be for the wrong reasons – barring the Pope’s recent gestures of reconciliation with homosexuals and other minorities. But that doesn’t stop his critics from painting him as a ‘communist.’ Speaking of religion, it seems one is damned if you do take a position, or damned if you don’t take one. But in my case, I will take a position and point out (as others have) that religion can have a positive impact in the public sphere.

Image source :
Image source :

 The first time I had to deal with the issue of religion in public sphere was during my stint at Muslim Public Service Network (MPSN), an NGO that encouraged and trained young American Muslims to enter public service- broadly defined as anything from the nonprofit sector, media to the government. I served as its Executive Director for a year in 2012 and working in D.C. saw the implications of even mentioning Islam in public sphere. To be honest, for the most, things were ok. I would occasionally run into someone who would ask me absurd questions about our mission and who funds us, but other than that, things were ok. I saw these as ‘educational’opportunities and part of an adventure of working with a ‘hot button’ issue. With suspicions about our work and mission, the entire organization was on a watch, so as not to be perceived as something that we were not. Clearly, many of these fears were unfounded. It is only later that I started grappling with these issues at a theoretical level. Practice has informed my theoretical understanding, in this case.

Why are these issues so important? For one, because we are living in a diverse society and also with diverse claims made by various faith-based groups. With the (false) alarms of Shari’a creeping into the American system and some very real instances of the neoconservative influence on American policy (both domestic and foreign) in the recent past, religion and politics are inextricably tied in the policy debates and popular imagination in the U.S. The question that this gives rise to is: Should religion be part of the body politic? What role should –if any- Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism or for that matter any religion have in shaping public laws and morality? These are deep questions that don’t have a simple answer. And the fact that these keep coming up, time and again, in various shapes and form, begs us to look at them carefully and examine them for what they are worth. Given the high levels of religiosity in the U.S. and despite decline in religiosity in some quarters (Evangelical Christianity for one) religion as a social and political force is still strong. So, in this short essay, I will point out the benefits and dangers of this trend of religion in the public sphere – using Faith-based organizations (FBOs) as an example. Talal Asad, Robert P. George and Jose Casanova have written about these issues and I will use their ideas to examine the topic at hand. This is an ongoing debate and while I will argue for greater inclusion of FBOs in the public sphere, the debate is still open and my own understanding of these issues is still being shaped. Before that, we also need a clearer understanding of ‘secularism’ and ‘secularization’ processes and our assumptions about them.

Religion in the public sphere: Challenge to modernity and secularism? 

Robert P.George, considered one of the leading conservative intellectual has argued that there is nothing in the U.S. constitution that demands that religion not be part of the public space in politics. In this short video, he points out that separation of church and state don’t actually appear in the constitution. The establishment clause gives freedom to people from interference from the federal government. He argues that a robust polity in which all people with their values, drawn from their religious norms, should be able to participate to shape policies that they think are right and just. He goes on to point out: “Since its establishment by Congress, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has stood for religious freedom in its most robust sense. It has recognized that the right to religious freedom is far more than a mere “right to worship.”

It is a right that pertains not only to what the believer does in the synagogue, church, or mosque, or in the home at mealtimes or before bed; it is the right to express one’s faith in the public as well as private sphere and to act on one’s religiously informed convictions about justice and the common good in carrying out the duties of citizenship.” This may seem all good in theory, but are there problems with this perspective? There are quite a few, and one of the key ones is that this could be extremely distorted when a majority wants to enforce its will on others, through policy measures or other means. The pro-choice discourse is a classic case – and one that is not settled, yet.

Along similar lines, in his most popular and important book, Public Religions in the Modern World Jose Casanova, talks about religion and how it interacts with politics and culture in the public space. He has argued that the Secularization hypothesis has proved to be wrong and the growth of religion across the world is proof of this. “Secularization” as the end of mankind’s evolution and is a normative condition – and precondition for modern politics (through privatization of religion) and understood as emancipation from religious norms. He also points out the plural character of secularization processes. “We are in a ‘post-secular’ society,” Casanova points out.

In Europe, Casanova argues that since the Reformation, all great revolutions and changes, have been lead by secularists. Europe has had tensions between church and capitalists. In the U.S., there has been no tension between religion and capitalists as in Europe and hence, progressive movements appeal to religious values, not secular ones. “The U.S. has always been a paradigmatic case and the secular came aided by the religious,” he points out. It would be ludicrous to point out that the U.S. is less modern than Europe, since there is less differentiation in the U.S. The European category of Secularism is not relevant for the U.S. as it did not have a church to be disestablished. This analytic conceptualization is key, he further argues.

Casanova is pointing out here that there are different types of Secularisms, as much as there are different types of “modernities” as Charles Taylor has argued. To just think of one model of secularism, as it has occurred in the West is not fair and perhaps he goes on to point out that even within the West, there are significant differences. The way secularism is understood in the U.S. is not the same as it is understood in Europe. In the U.S. people are generally proud to be religious, whereas in continental Europe, much the opposite is true. “Even if people are religious, they will lie, saying they are nonbelievers,” he adds.

Talal Asad addresses these questions through addressing the discourse of Secularism. Asad also starts saying that “If anything is agreed upon, it is that a straightforward narrative of progress from the religious to the secular is no longer acceptable. But does it follow that secularism is not universally valid?” He further argues that the fact that secularism emerged in a certain western context, under certain circumstances and relationships of the state, with that of religion, it cannot be considered universally valid, for all times. The rise of secularism with the modern nation-state is undisputed and he cites Charles Taylor as another eminent thinker who has mentioned this idea.

            He further argues that the notion of secularism as used to denote a very clear set of ideals is also problematic, as in the west also there are several models of secularism for example that in England, where the Church has a prominent role to play in the affairs of the state, although indirectly. The definition of secularism and that of secular societies has scope to accommodate enough contradictions, he points out. The repeated intolerance in the United States, a largely Christian country with a secular constitution can still be understood as part of the characteristic that defines a ‘modern secular state,’ he says.


FBOs as a paradigmatic case

Faith-based organizations are unique in their reach and scope of services. With the growth of Catholic Church and increased diversity in the U.S. and also growth of other faith denominations in the country, the debate about the role of FBOs has become salient. Bill Clinton’s passage of the Charitable Choice and George W.Bush’s further championing of these initiatives in opening the Office of Faith-based Initiatives at the White House is seen widely as pushing a religious agenda in politics.

While this is partly true, the other side of the story is that the state has retrenched from its provision of social services. In a marketized economy, where these services were ‘outsourced’ to FBOs’, these organizations came to fill in the service. Though they have not been able to and possibly can never replace the government agencies, in terms of scope of work or their reach; they still exist and continue to provide important services.

FBOs can be seen as this bridge between religious institutions and the state – and in this sense, they are also controversial. Charitable choice provisions did make it possible for congregations to receive funds from the state directly. So, where does this leave us with? Are FBOs just proxies for the state and have the freedom to do their work, as long as they donot proselytize?

One of the ways to think of them is how Robert Wuthnow has argued – that is to look at them as organizations, who just have a different mission; but for all practical purposes, function as other secular organizations. A much deeper examination of organizational theory and dynamics is warranted here, and I will deal with that in another blog post. For now, suffice it to say that though there are different degrees of how much faith informs the mission of an FBO, not all are out to push their ‘religious’ agenda, as one would fear. There is some evidence that

So, in conclusion, I think there is space for FBOs in the public sphere and by extrapolation, for the expression of religion in the public sphere. Much good has come from religious expression too. Beyond the psychological explanation that Carl Jung pointed out. And for practical reasons – both at the level of individual and group identity, they are playing a key role in American society. When it comes to issues of social justice, equality and taking care of the vulnerable, FBOs are known to do a good job-infact, a better job than government agencies, as Robert Wuthnow and Ram Cnaan have pointed out in their research. FBOs can be helpful in solving many of our problems, but only if they do not end up promoting their own brand of religion/ sectarian ideology. This is critical for those recipients of their services, who do not agree with their ideology, to feel they are not being pressured.