Do we need theory?

Of late, I have been having a lot of conversations with people in the nonprofit sector. And one clear divide I am noticing is between those who ‘do’ stuff and those who ‘think’ about stuff and theorize about it. The assumption is that those who can, do and those who don’t, teach. You may have heard this cliché many times over. But is it true? And is it valid? Are all practitioners, heroes; who just show up, to sacrifice their time, energy, reputations and sometimes, their lives just based on how they ‘feel,’ or are they also operating on a model of the world that seems coherent and a narrative of how things work – in other words, a ‘theory.’ I think all of us theorize, to some extent and theorizing is an essential part of the meaning making process.

CW Mills
CW Mills. Source :Sociology.about.com

So, what is theory? It is nothing but a general explanation for a phenomenon at hand, using language and ideas that are mutually agreed upon. In various disciplines, the conventions are particular to that discipline, so theorizing is done in a particular way. For instance, in ‘pure’ sciences, such as Physics or Chemistry, empirically testing a theory is the gold-standard, while in Social Sciences, where such experimentation is not possible – you can’t dissect living people or go back in history to perform a certain thought experiment, with someone who is dead – theorizing happens in other ways[i].

Broadly speaking, one can theorize based on one’s methodological orientation – i.e., if one is a ‘positivist[ii]’, i.e., whether one believes in just empirical data and what it ‘tells us’ about the phenomenon being studied. On the other hand, there are those who theorize normatively, i.e., considering the value frameworks involved. While the philosophical debates about what constitutes ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are complex and I cannot explain them fully here, suffice it to say that knowledge is nothing but ‘agreement’ among competent people.

While grand-theories of the kind that Talcott Parsons and others came up with may not help you understand your own immediate life or your surroundings, other kinds of theorizing; based on sociological analysis of your immediate life may actually be very beneficial. This ‘grand-theory’ is a universalizing effort to understand the whole world or a big portion of it, through one or two key ideas or concepts. One can see this in play when uses words such as ‘reason’ or ‘rationality’ or Enlightenment thinking to understand the lack of democracy in the Middle East, for example. Is it helpful? I am not too sure. And C Wright Mills, the celebrated Sociologist was suspicious of it. Instead, he called for greater ‘empirical based’ theorizing, based on observing the particulars of each case/ society and theorizing for that particular case, while drawing out some general principles[iii].

And this brings me to the important point – why do we need theory and those who theorize, i.e., professors and ‘thinkers’? Wouldn’t just practice based work and tacit knowledge of the phenomenon or industry, be enough? The answer is, no.  I think we need theory for the following three reasons. There are many others, but for now; these three will suffice.

  • It helps us go beyond the immediate situation and help learn general principles, that may be applied in other situations
  • It helps build a body of knowledge, so others can apply it to build an understanding of their world
  • It advances human thinking and our ‘knowledge’ of our own selves and the world around us

So, the next time some hustler, who knows nothing about the field of study/ work you are engaged in tells you that you are wasting time, producing knowledge or ‘learning’ the theories, you know what to tell him/her.

We need hustlers, but we also need theorists. The world would be much poorer without either of them!

[i] For more see Sendberg – http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11186-011-9161-5

[ii] http://press.anu.edu.au//cotm/mobile_devices/ch07s02.html

[iii] See The Sociological Imagination ( CW Mills, 1959) for more.

Insiders and Outsiders

In a recent exchange about the Israel-Palestine issue with a friend,  he informed me that as an ‘outsider’ to an issue, I couldn’t fully appreciate it. As someone who has academically studied this issue, I do have strong convictions. As a fellow human being, I have sympathies. Finally, as an intellectual, I believe that I have (an informed) opinion of the topic.

On a similar note, as a Non-resident Indian, I am an outsider in India and the U.S., where this in-betweenness can create not only legal challenges – not being able to vote – for instance, but also put one in a strange situation, where speaking ‘on behalf’ of a particular idea or conception is suspect, simply because of one’s positionality.paper-people

This line of reasoning of insider-outsider can lead one on many slippery slopes.  For instance: Can I, as an Indian born Muslim really ‘understand’ Arab-American issues? Or for that matter, can I truly appreciate what a right-wing Hindu nationalist feels about India?  Finally, can I ever know what it is to be an ‘American’ or ‘Mexican’? Does belonging to a group give special access to knowledge or insights?

As Robert Merton points out in his classic essay Insiders and Outsiders, Merton points out that an extreme manifestation of the ‘insider’ doctrine can lead to arguments such as: only Blacks can understand Blacks and only women can understand women. He calls this extreme manifestation as the ‘credentialism of ascribed status.’ This, he contrasts with the credentialism of acquired status, on which meritocracy is based. In essence, this means that our brahminical attitudes are not well-founded and extreme ‘insiderism’ – the belief that you must be one to truly understand one – is fundamentally flawed. I tend to agree.

In today’s world, we are all insiders and outsiders, to some extent. The notion of a ‘community’ is changing so rapidly that academics may have to throw out many of the old stodgy definitions of ‘place-based’ community and the like. What is the ‘community’ of internet users, what about a refugee? What is his or her community? What about diaspora communities?

With an Indian background, lineage going back to the Middle East (from my mother’s side) and Afghanistan (from my dad’s side) I realize I am an ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ in more ways than one. I am currently in the U.S. and married to a Mexican-American woman. Though my Spanish leaves much to be desired, I believe our kids will inherit a far more complex lineage than mine and my wife’s. This is not to throw up my arms and say ‘We are all one’ or something similarly banal, but to actually carefully examine what all of this means. Does it mean that I have greater ‘authenticity’ when speaking of Mexican-American issues or those of the Middle East?

 The other extreme manifestation of this idea is to claim to know ‘everything’ about the other groups or individuals, by virtue of educational or other qualifications. While having indepth scholarly or professional expertise about other communities or groups may give us a lot of depth and gravitas, it does not fully give us an appreciation of what it means to live as the others do. Which is another way to say that there are limits to what we can ‘know’. Tacit knowledge cannot be gained by reading a book or just thinking about an issue.

One has to also live and experience a particular way of life, to truly appreciate it. In other words, we all need a measure of humility, before rushing to judgment about the ‘other’.

Are you an Insider or an outsider?

Do you have to be an American to write about America, or a Black person to write about African American issues? Or a Christian to write about Christianity? These questions get asked, quite often, especially in academic circles. While the general academic rule of thumb, or the ‘mood’ in academia today is that this is not an appropriate way to think, such line of thinking still persists. Academia prides itself in being above the narrow confines of partistanship – when it comes to politics – or religious or ethnic chest-thumping, though some of it does occur, nevertheless.

I came across an important essay by Robert Merton, a Sociologist, who has contributed much to our understanding of how knowledge is produced and the field of ‘Sociology of Knowledge.’  Titled, “Insiders and Outsiders,” (1969) where he talks, at length, about the ways that knowledge is legitimized, among groups of people.

Merton quotes Karl Polanyi, the celebrated intellectual, and I quote him here, at length to illustrate a fundamental point : That in a free society, people are free to choose their sources of information and should be able to judge the ‘truth,’ for themselves. While we live in a multi-cultural and multi-racial society, with no single claims to truth on any matter, there are groups that would contest that, arguing that there is indeed just ‘one way’ to do things – whether it is in the matter of choice of religion, politics or other issues. This is where the real thorn arises.

“in an ideal free society each person would have perfect access to the truth:

to the truth  in art, religion, and justice, both in public and

private life. But this is not practicable; each person can know directly very

little of truth and must trust others for the rest. Indeed, to assure this

process of mutual reliance is one of the main functions of society. It follows

that such freedom of the mind as can be possessed by men is due to

the services of social institutions, which set narrow limits to man’s freedom

and tend to threaten it even within those limits. The relation is analogous

to that between mind and body: to the way in which the performance of

mental acts is restricted by limitations and distortions due to the medium

which makes these performances possible”. [ Polanyi,1959, p. 68]

Merton explains that as there is growing distance between people in society, and a growing lack or mistrust, this function of checking and re-checking of facts is lost; and people tend to hunker down in their own narrow visions of what ‘truth,’ is. This is evident, I would argue, in any issue : Race matters, issue of religion or even issues such as national security. Any of these areas are contentious and full of emotional baggage. When one approaches these issues with purely pre-conceived notions and firmly held beliefs, which one is not willing to question, then we have a problem. Dogmatic beliefs do not inform us, they can only tear us apart.

Insiders and outsiders

Speaking of the processes that form these insiders and outsiders, Merton argues that social movements start off with the intention of bringing about a greater consciousness among people. They are however, formed primarily on the basis of ‘ascribed rather than acquired statuses’ (and identities, with eligibility for inclusion being in terms of who you are rather than what you are (in the sense of status being contingent on role performance). This presents the first significant problem – bias – excluding people just because of who they are. For instance, if someone tells me that I am not qualified to write scholarly material on America because I am not an ‘American,’ it’d be the case of appealing to an ascribed rather than ‘acquired status.’ For such a person, it wouldn’t matter that I am getting a Ph.D in the U.S. and have interacted, studied with, and worked with some of the leading intellectuals in this country. All that would matter is my ‘origin,’ and who I ‘truly’ am. This approach, Merton suggests, and I would argue, is the wrong one.

Credit : The Guardian.com
Credit : The Guardian.com

The ‘insider and outsider,’ discourse is not only deeply problematic, but also has basis in earlier discourses of exclusion of people, from acquiring knowledge. This almost Brahminical rigidity in excluding people from acquiring forms of knowledge has precedents in Nazi Germany, in the U.S.- during the debates about what sort of knowledge Blacks should receive – technical or liberal arts, etc. The most famous of these debates were between Booker Washington and WEB Dubois, while the former argued for a ‘technical,’ training for the newly emancipated Black man, while Dubois was in favor of a more liberal arts approach.

            In the strongest form, the insider argument can take the form of ‘Only a black person can write about Blacks, only  a Muslim can write about Islam etc.’ Academic training, capability and a curious mind mean nothing, according to this doctrine. For sure, if this were true, then none of the history we are reading today would be of any use, because it is often written by people who are not the ones who create it. They are most often, not people, who are like us.

The outsider doctrine holds that anyone who does not belong to the group can never fully and totally comprehend what is going on. It is easy to see how this is false. Just as there are incompetent outsiders, who bungle through their field work and interviews and act culturally insensitive – say, in an anthropological study- there are incompetent insiders, too. Extreme insiderism is nothing but ethnocentrism – the belief that one’s world is at the center of the universe – and this manifests itself in chauvinism of all kinds. Nationalism, race pride, pride in one’s religion, at the expense of others’ are all manifestations of this ‘insiderism.’

Academic study of any topic – whether it is religion, race or ethnicity is supposed to be an exercise in critical thinking and investigating the claims to truth, not indulging in propaganda. Therein lies the distinction between academia and propaganda.Academic training allows one to analyze and weigh the empirical proofs for and against a phenomenon and make an informed decision. As Merton reminds us, sociological understanding demands much more than ‘acquaintance with.’ It includes an understanding of methodologies and conditions and processes, in which people are caught up with. This often comes with training and years or practice.

On another note, here is take-down of extreme insiderism of Fox-News, watch this interview with Reza Aslan.

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.

Beyond the Melting Pot?

The recent Coca Cola Ad during the Super Bowl stirred up quite a controversy. While most of the negative reaction to the ad was misplaced racism, the ad did bring up an important question that for the most part, went un-examined: that of the myth of America as the land of opportunities and a place where hard work is rewarded.

The U.S. is a land where diversity is welcome and embraced. That is true, to a large extent. But it is definitely not a ‘melting pot’, where all cultures blend into one. The American immigration model is one where immigrants still keep their ethnicity intact, and are proud to be Italian-American, Syrian-American or Chinese-American. This is a fact that is taken for granted and widely accepted. Though there may not be much “Italian” “Syrian” or “Chinese” left in the second or third-generation Americans, they are still proud of what Herbert Gans called their ‘Symbolic ethnicity’. Unlike in European countries, where the immigrants are really expected to give up their traditions and literally ‘melt in’ the expectation in the U.S. is different.Melting Pot

This melting pot hypothesis has been widely accepted and bandied about, as an exceptional American trait. But upon close examination, it seems to fall apart, as I have pointed out. The ‘American mythos’ as the Princeton Sociologist Robert Wuthnow has called it is just that – a myth, one that has helped us navigate the growing diversity, but it has deep flaws in it.

Wuthnow’s argument is simple. He says that the narratives that we use to define immigration and also America as a nation are not accurate and we tend to make mistakes when we make these assumptions. The fact that hard work is rewarded in all cases is one such assumption, Wuthnow says in his book American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short. The book is based on narratives of immigrants and their efforts at assimilating in the U.S. There is a long-standing tradition of the immigrants assimilating in the country and making use of opportunities here, to succeed. To what extent is this part of the American mythos and how does it inform our understanding of America, is key, he points out. As Wuthnow goes on to say: “The deep narratives that shape our sense of national purpose are so inscribed in our culture that we accept them without thinking too much about them. The deep ways meanings of these stories influence how we think about ourselves, and at the same time bias us. For example, they encourage us to think that we are more religious than we are. They result in ideas on how to escape materialism and consumerism and are more wishful than what we imagine.” These assumptions become empty talking points or assumptions that we don’t closely examine and scrutinize, Wuthnow argues.

These myths, Wuthnow adds, are also about morality and about our rights and privileges and responsibilities. Taking the example of how early American thinkers imagined America, Wuthnow argues that there was a certain narrative that was created – of America as the land of for those who were saved. Material wellbeing in the newfound land was equated with spiritual health. This took on an emancipatory and religious tone, with the puritans claiming that the prosperity that they experienced here was due to their “passage,” through hardships. Walt Whitman wrote eloquently about the vision of America as a country that would welcome all and be a land that is full of ‘noble people’.

When Whitman wrote of America as:

Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time

 

He was also contributing to the American myth. Indeed, the trend of welcoming immigrants has been ongoing, despite a few hiccups along the way. Wuthnow also argues that the material progress that many immigrants made, instilled the belief in many of them that they were somehow superior to others. The immigrants also become ‘liminal figures’ who were quite literally between two places, the old home and the new ‘home’ in America.

The very notion of crossing over to come to a new ‘home’ in America is one that gives root to this idea. This is not always entirely positive, he seems to be saying. When he says “A society like this will always fall short of its aspirations, for our highest aspirations involve having a home, in which our values are nourished,” he could be interpreted as making a conservative argument. But one cannot deny that materialism and individualism in America has gone too far.

Wuthnow warns us that the success stories of the few cannot tell us the entire story of all those who came. Of course, there were those who didn’t make it, those who failed, destroyed their families to be in a new country. “ We must be careful how we approach these questions. Stories of the successful few are never accurate depictions of the many. They are not meant to be unvarnished truths even for their principal protagonists,” he says, pointing to the various gaps in this narrative that are often filled in by the ‘success stories.’

Robert Bellah et al in their book Habits of the Heart seem to be making similar arguments and Wuthnow borrows liberally from Bellah. Bellah argues in his book that there is a great emphasis on the individual in America and this needs to move away, and we need to re-focus our attention on groups, institutions. But there is a way for Americans to balance this individualism with commitment to the community, Bellah points out. While some exceptional people do it all the time, others struggle with this balance, he adds. Similarly, Robert Putnam, another political theorists has focused on the group and reaches the conclusion that we cannot bring about any change in the community unless the individual changes, for instance by deciding to watch less TV

Tensions in American society

Wuthnow’s argument is similar to the one made much earlier by Daniel Patrick Moynihan the New York Senator and academic, who wrote the famous book Beyond the Melting Pot with Nathan  Glazer. The core thesis of the book is that immigrant groups retain their ethnicity and that in fact this is not a bad thing. The duo studied ethnic groups in New York City and found that the rise of Irish, Catholics could be attributed to their group cohesion and the fact that they were able to retain group loyalties. This was a controversial statement to make in the 1960s’ – a time of heightened sensitivity about topics related to race, ethnicity. But it seems that their prediction has come true and we are all the better for it.

While immigrants have made this country a truly unique and blessed place, the myth of the ‘self-made’ man or woman that so pervades our capitalist economy is dangerous, Wuthnow seems to be pointing. He says that like Horatio Alger’s self-made men, we are all motivated and inspired by this image of the person who picks himself or herself and starts all over again. While alluring, this is not entirely true, as it decontextualizes the people – removing from the picture all those who helped the person, the family support, the friends who helped this person or the banks that lent the person money, not to mention the unique economic conditions, including market conditions that made this success possible.

Wuthnow’s observations about the materialism, growing individualism and lack of connection with others as being a danger to our democracy are incisive, sharp and clear. As he poignantly says :“The inner-directed Americans of today must become other directed. An individualistic ethic should be replaced by a social ethic. The solution to individualism therefore is not to become more fully identified with a group of one’s peers. When that happens, individuality is lost. The person becomes weak, not strong. What is needed is interaction with the group, not identification with it. Interaction implies give and take.”

This may as well be a prophetic prediction. While the America of 2014 is resilient enough to rise up to the occasion and denounce those bigots and racists who balk at a TV Advertisement that shows diversity, it still does not have the depth of understanding to step back and look at the myths that it believes in. And more importantly, the America of 2014 assumes many of the taken for granted narratives about immigrants, materialism and sense of privilege that are part of the mainstream discourse. This needs to change and people need to be more self-reflective and nuanced in their understanding of these issues.

 

Do We Need a New Civil Rights Movement for Religion?

 

As we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday this week, it is relevant to ask: Has religion taken the place of race in American society? What I mean by this is whether the taboos and other aspects associated with race in the 1960s and earlier have started to be associated with religion. While Dr. King and his contemporaries, most notably Malcolm X framed the civil rights discourse and used racial equality as a tool to achieve rights for the dispossessed, their discourse was infused with religious tone. While there has been a civil rights movement to include people of all races, there hasn’t been one for religious inclusion in the U.S. As several civil rights activists have pointed out, do we need a ‘new civil rights movement’ for this purpose?

Legacy of Dr. King, Malcolm X civil-rights

The simmering discontent that existed for decades before the civil rights movement burst into the scene and culminated in The Civil Rights Act of 1964, that ended the ‘Jim Crow Laws,’ and set in place new laws that made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or national origin. Two key figures who shaped much of the discourse around these issues in the 1960s were Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcom X. While Malcolm X’s legacy is seen largely as one of segregationist, this is a misinformed reading, as later on in his career, he moved strongly towards a civil rights approach and this ultimately led to his expulsion from the Nation of Islam, as I have written about this in my earlier post here.

            While both these leaders were at odds, with Malcom X calling for stronger segregation (at least in his earlier career) and painting Dr. King and others who sought integration as ‘house niggers,’ a term he used to define those who were bought over by the white man, he changed his views later on to become more inclusive. Dr. King on the other hand was an integrationist, and believed in the model following that set forth by Gandhi and Nelson Mandela (who became a nonviolent advocate only later on in his career). The goals of both these leaders were the same – equal rights for all and opportunity, irrespective of race. It is interesting to see how religion played a role in each individual’s life. Gandhi was a devout Hindu, and Dr. King was a Baptist minister while Malcolm X became a follower of Nation of Islam and later on, mainstream Sunni Islam.

 

Photo credit : NPR.org
Photo credit : NPR.org

The landscape of religion in the U.S.

Scholars of Sociology of Religion point out that the religious landscape in the U.S. is changing. And changing drastically. With the demographic shifts in the country, led lower birth rates among whites and other immigration related changes, Hispanic and Asian population is expected to rise and by 2050, the racial profile of the U.S. will look very different from what it is today. This is a fear that has been magnified by right-wing and fear-mongering groups to stoke up anti-immigration and anti-minority feelings both in Europe and the U.S. This is also leading to a change in the number of adherents of the more conservative American forms of Christianity, as this article points out how Evangelical Christianity is giving way to Catholicism.

This shift is also having a predictable reaction with the conservative camp clamping down on ‘progressive’ ideas. As this article points out about the recent changes in Arizona, : “The New Civil Rights Movement reported last year, the bill could also be considered the religious version of a “Stand Your Ground” law, allowing anyone’s practice or observance of religion to be an automatic “out.” In other words, it would give Arizona residents and businesses the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason, including because they are LGBT.” While the progressive movement is taking hold in the U.S. there has also been an equal push by the conservatives, led by the G.O.P., to oppose marriage equality, LGBT rights and other progressive agendas. malcolm-x-1

The gradual shift in the religious landscape is noticeable among the ‘new religions’ that have come into the U.S. (at least into the American public consciousness) – The Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, as analyzed by Robert Wuthnow, Princeton Sociologist of Religion. He points out that these new entrants face a new challenge – that of being unknown in the country – and calls for greater dialogue and interaction between the majority Christians and these ‘new immigrant’ religions. This narrative places the ‘emergence’ of the new religions in a post 1965 context, where looser immigration policies made it possible for greater number of people from Asia and Middle East to enter and live in the U.S.

            While there is no doubt that the number of people of these religions is rising, the amount of knowledge about them is not increasing proportionately. There is evidence to point out that ignorance, bigotry and discrimination against minorities in the U.S. is on the rise. Growing Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and fear of other minorities is a fact of life in the U.S. despite the best intentions and efforts by activists and educators. As these FBI crime rate statistics point out, the majority of the hate crimes reported have been against Jews.  As the report points out, race still is a dominant theme when it comes to hatred and attacks related to them. In summary, the report points out:

An analysis of data for victims of single-bias hate crime incidents showed that:

  • 48.5 percent of the victims were targeted because of the offender’s bias against a race.
  • 19.2 percent were targeted because of a bias against a particular sexual orientation.
  • 18.7 percent were victimized because of a bias against a religious belief.
  • 12.1 percent were victimized because of a bias against an ethnicity/national origin.
  • 1.4 percent were targeted because of a bias against a disability. (Based on Table 1

 

As Dr. Carl Ernst points out in this introduction to a book on Islamophobia in the U.S., the various trends in Islamophobia can be seen as part of the ‘othering’ of Muslims, similar to other groups such as Catholics, Jews, Mormons. As opinion polls show, over 50 percent people in the U.S. have a negative view of Islam in 2011, as compared to a lesser number in years preceding 2001. The phenomenon of Islamophobia can be understood in the context of political discourse, he seems to be pointing out, with examples of the Park 51 project and the burning of the Qur’an controversy both becoming salient in 2010, an election year. This is not a surprising fact, as this pattern seems to occur in other democracies as well- India being the most egregious example.

 

Finally, there seems to be the need for a new revolution for greater understanding of religion in the U.S. While there is a trend among certain sections of society to shun religion altogether, this is an impractical and impossible strategy, given how religiously observant Americans are. As Jonathan Benthall, the scholar of religion has pointed out “You may throw religion out the door, but it comes back flying through the window.” Religion is here to stay and we better make peace with it. And as in the case of the civil rights movement and many other movements before it; religion has made a positive contribution to make to society.