Problems with The Problem with Islam: Approaching Religious Violence, Part II



By Suzanne Schneider

Last February, with the country still reeling from the mass shooting in San Bernadino, President Obama delivered an address before the Islamic Society of Baltimore that showcased his usual combination of nuance, sensitivity, and pragmatism in speaking about the threat posed by Islamic radicalism. Not that any of this mattered to his critics, whose prevailing custom has become to accuse the President of apologizing for Islamic terror.

As in his prior remarks on the subject, the President again tried to differentiate between genuine Islam and the perverted ideology that “misuses God’s name” and “draws selectively from Islamic texts” to justify acts of violence. In response, critics lampooned him for failing to understand the nature of the enemy or just how many of them (approximately 1.6 billion by the last count) exist. In the words of Frank Gaffney, the neo-nut political commentator turned foreign policy advisor for Ted Cruz, “If we are actually serious about defeating that ideology, we must be honest about its nature – and realistic about all its adherents.”

This analytic volley is old hat by now, and it is not getting any more intellectually satisfying. The President says the problem is not really Islam—“true” religion being peaceful, non-coercive, and pro-capitalist no doubt—while his critics claim that the Qur’an requires practicing Muslims to slaughter any infidels in sight. Religion either is or isn’t the problem. Is there an exit to this merry-go-round?

As I argued in the first installment of this three-part series on religious violence, most of our contemporary political and cultural discourse about Islam and violence seems to ricochet off of these poles. In order to unpack the assumptions that have been bundled within each position, I devoted the prior article to tracing a genealogy of “true religion” as it is commonly deployed in liberal circles and argued that its construction was closely tied to the larger transfer of political authority from the church to the early modern state. Religious freedom and religious violence are thus intricately related concepts, as only religions that abandon their right to coercive authority could be tolerated by a state seeking to guarantee its own monopoly on violence.

In this installment, I am going to take up the opposing view that—depending on the source—treats either religion in general or Islam in particular as inherently prone to fanaticism and violence. Granted, there are actually two quite distinct groups that take up residence on this side of the court: the New Atheists, for whom all religion is irrational and uniquely susceptible to violence, Islam being the most egregious variation on a general theme; and the Orientalist, neoconservative, or frankly Islamophobic camps within which Islam is viewed as fundamentally distinct from our peace-loving and recently discovered Judeo-Christian heritage.

Yet despite the significant differences between New Atheists figures like the late Christopher Hitchens and their counterparts on the Neocon-to-Loony Spectrum™, they all seem to operate under the assumption that religions are remarkably uncomplicated and historically stable entities that exist as cultural essences rather than embodied practices. In what follows, I will explore how this theoretical frame manifests itself in the thought and policy suggestions of those who argue that the Western world is locked in an existential battle against Islam. This is, after all, not merely about theories but about the practices that they support, and we would be well served understanding the validity of these assumptions before we investigate whether sand can glow.


Much like the liberal ideal of “true religion,” the genealogy of our current “Islam-is-the-problem” sentiment has much deeper, and more intellectually complex, roots than is commonly acknowledged. There is obviously the long and well-developed tradition of academic Orientalism in Europe and America, the practitioners of which often approached Islam as a coherent abstraction that was inherently fanatical, inferior, and threatening. In the more recent past, certain mile markers stand out, such as Bernard Lewis’s influential 1990 essay, “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” In his estimation, the material and political factors to which his contemporaries frequently attributed anti-American sentiment—ranging from neo-imperial economic practices to American support for the Iranian Shah and other oppressive regimes—were merely red herrings. “Clearly, something deeper is involved than these specific grievances, numerous and important as they may be—something deeper that turns every disagreement into a problem and makes every problem insoluble.” Rather, Lewis argued that “Muslim rage” stemmed from a cultural and possibly even psychological incapacity to come to terms with subordination:

The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat. The first was his loss of domination in the world, to the advancing power of Russia and the West. The second was the undermining of his authority in his own country, through an invasion of foreign ideas and laws and ways of life and sometimes even foreign rulers or settlers, and the enfranchisement of native non-Muslim elements. The third—the last straw—was the challenge to his mastery in his own house, from emancipated women and rebellious children. It was too much to endure, and the outbreak of rage against these alien, infidel, and incomprehensible forces that had subverted his dominance, disrupted his society, and finally violated the sanctuary of his home was inevitable.

Several well-seasoned Orientalist tropes surface here in Lewis’s attempt to attribute Muslim rage to some form of mental or cultural inadequacy: First, that it is even possible to speak of “the Muslim” as a unitary figure with defined attitudes toward modernity, women, secularism, etc.; second, that social, political or material circumstances are of relatively little importance in explaining this “mood and a movement” that transcends “the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them;” finally, that Muslims are naturally domineering and cannot psychically accommodate themselves to conditions of subordination or even equality. We should note the closeness of this notion to cruder formulations in which Islam—conceived in the same monolithic fashion as “the Muslim”— is always seeking to conquer and convert, never content to merely exist alongside its neighbors.

For Lewis’s arch-intellectual nemesis, Edward Said, this approach was both profoundly anti-empirical and dangerously divisive, resting upon the assumption of a fundamental difference in human material between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This assertion of difference is not, as we shall see, without its points of tension, but it is still crucial to propping up the science of Orientalism:

“For Orientalism was ultimately a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, the West, ‘us’) and the strange (the Orient, the East, ‘them’). This vision in a sense created and then served the two worlds thus conceived. Orientals lived in their world, ‘we’ lived in ours… A certain freedom of intercourse was always the Westerner’s privilege; because he was the stronger culture, he could penetrate, he could wrestle with, he could give shape and meaning to the great Asiatic mystery, as Disraeli once called it. Yet what has, I think, been previously overlooked is the constricted vocabulary of such a privilege, and the comparative limitations of such a vision.”[1]

As a body of theory that took pains to maintain its internal consistency in an almost guild-like manner, Orientalism acted like a grid that filtered all episodes of human behavior through a pre-existing screen that determined the range of acceptable truth. For Lewis, it was not unthinkable, but rather impossible given everything else he “knew” about “the Muslim,” to seriously consider that impoverishment or political oppression could be the source his anti-Americanism. That is, that unlike ourselves—who we assume to be complex beings driven by numerous forces, many of them rational and material, some of them unconscious or visceral—“the Muslim” is a remarkably simple figure whose agitation springs not from material realities, but from a bruised cultural ego.


Bernard Lewis

With its emphasis on religion as a cultural form that existed independently from larger historical processes, Lewis’s piece helped popularize the now common sentiment that Islam is hostile to both modernity and secularism. He argued, not incorrectly, that the epistemological division of human experience between “religious” and “civil” or secular affairs was a Christian creation with no clear parallel in the Islamic (or indeed, in any other) world. But when filtered through the Orientalist grid, this historical observation about early modern Europe is transformed into the root of Islam’s backwardness: We had a Reformation, they did not. We are modern; they are not. Here it is worth noting that adherents to this view claim it was the West’s capacity to free itself from the irrational chains of religion that justify its claims to cultural superiority. And correspondingly, it is Islam’s failure (or inability) to recognize a clear distinction between a secular realm—of the state and indeed, of violence—from a voluntary and private religious one that had led to the current crisis. Or in Lewis’s phrasing, ‘they’ have yet to either adopt or even respect “our Western perception of the proper relationship between religion and politics.”

I hope the reader can see that, as I described in the first installment, at the heart of this narrative lies a question about law and thus violence – the coercive power of religion, the proper arenas of state compulsion, the proper site of sovereignty – in short, over whom or what can monopolize the legitimate use of violence. Within such a scheme, the presence of a religious legal system like shari’a poses a definitive challenge to the state’s capacity to create a secular civic space within which it alone possesses authority over the minds and bodies of its subjects. Shari’a, according to most accounts, is by definition hostile to the democratic principle of equality and simply cannot tolerate the presence of anyone—liberated women, atheists, homosexuals—who departs from the straight path. Suggestions for “fixing” Islam have thus been mainly twofold: abandonment or reformation.

Operating with far fewer intellectual resources than Lewis, Frank Gaffney is among the many contemporary figures to seize upon the former approach. In “It’s Shariah, Stupid,” a piece written in response to President Obama’s Baltimore speech, Gaffney made Islam 101 professors everywhere shake their heads in collective bewilderment. As a national figure of some renown whose Center for Security Policy claims to be a leading intellectual resource for issues affecting American security, Gaffney demonstrates remarkably little understanding of what this root of all problems—this “shariah”—actually is. Here he is worth quoting at length:

In much of the Muslim world, the Islamic State’s ideology is known as ‘shariah.’ While IS [the Islamic State] has been particularly effective at branding itself as the world’s foremost enforcer of that brutally repressive, supremacist doctrine, the truth is that it animates every other jihadist group, as well – including Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban, Boko Haram, the al Nusra Front, al Shabaab and the granddaddy of them all: the Muslim Brotherhood.

Our ability to acknowledge this reality, let alone act effectively upon that recognition, has been greatly hampered by another fact: Shariah is also regarded as the true practice of Islam by nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran, and by the religious authorities of Cairo’s Al-Azhar University…

To be clear, many millions of Muslims don’t practice their faith in accordance with shariah. Yet, many millions do. And the latter are obliged by shariah to engage in jihad or holy war.

Apparently Gaffney is confusing shariah, which sounds bloody awful, with shari’a, which is not a fixed body of law but rather a system of legal reasoning whose rulings—on jihad as well as countless other issues—are as diverse as the individuals issuing them. That is why the “shariah” of Iran or Saudi Arabia is different from that of Malaysia or the sheikhs of Al-Azhar – who, in truth, often don’t even agree with one another. Shari’a is not an ideology, unless you are among the few who are super ideologically committed to the hermeneutics of jurisprudence (in which case, Rabbi, I salute you). We can see the almost comic meaninglessness of the point by translating into English: it’s akin to saying that the United States, Cuba and Russia are all ruled by “the law,” and thus essentially the same, and that any countries governed by “the law” are liable to harbor extremism going forward. More pointedly, given ISIS’s disdain for classical modes of jurisprudence and the scholarly class in general—i.e. the chief things associated with shari’a as a legal system—the notion that the Islamic State’s “ideology is known as ‘shariah’” is deeply uninformed. Adherence to a certain form of shari’a can be ideological, and it is true that ISIS claims to practice a pure form of shari’a. But do lots of other practicing Muslims think they’re misguided fools? Yes, absolutely.

Edward Said

Edward Said

Gaffney’s “shariah” acknowledges none of this, as he is solely concerned with the question of violence. Yet living one’s life in accordance with shari’a, whatever that might mean, has implications for activities ranging from eating to signing contracts. Indeed, Gaffney either ignores or doesn’t know about the vast range of human activities that are regulated by shari’a and yet unrelated to warfare. Grouping the millions of individuals who, in various ways, try to live their lives in accordance to shari’a with those that support ISIS is both intellectually preposterous and politically divisive. Given this reality, the argument that Muslims who “practice their faith in accordance to shariah” are inherently threatening is akin to saying that Muslims can only be benign once they stop practicing Islam.

Yet abandonment is only one option, and a wide variety of commentators who concern themselves with Islam prefer to call for a Reformation instead. This tactic represents a perennial favorite among both neoconservatives—ranging from the “religion building” efforts of Paul Wolfowitz and Daniel Pipes to more recent attempts by the Clarion Project to provide “a platform for the voices of moderation”—and liberal figures including Thomas Friedman, Salman Rushdie, Ayyan Hirsi Ali, and Bill Maher, just to name a few. Despite their disparate positions on other pressing issues, there is a remarkably common impulse among mainstream thinkers to attribute the crises gripping contemporary Islamic societies to the failure of secularism to take root. While these critics often do assume an essential difference between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ they nonetheless can only propose a re-tracing of modern Euro-American history as a solution. In short, why can’t ‘they’ be more like ‘us’?

I have thoroughly dismantled the idea that a Reformation along Protestant lines would mitigate Islamic violence elsewhere, and it scarcely deserves any more of our attention. That said, in the context of identifying religion as the primary driver of violence (e.g. of ISIS, al-Shabaab, et al.), there is something of interest to note among voices that think Islam must either be reformed or transcended. Despite substantive disagreements about other issues, these figures still treat Islam, in the grand Orientalist tradition, as a coherent culture that is seemingly distinct from material life or historical processes. How else to explain the revolving door of pundits quoting verses from the Qur’an as if they are the direct causes of terror attacks, the intervening 1400 years of human history being largely beside the point? Or to account for the persistent insistence that Islamic violence is both wholly internal to the tradition and distinct from broader social currents, despite arguments from scholars like Oliver Roy that we might consider terrorism within the same analytic frame as other modern phenomena like mass shootings?

Yet, in the view of Lewis and his disciples, the struggle between fundamentalism and other, “more tolerant, more open” versions of Islam is one in which “we of the West can do little or nothing,” meaning that this is an internal cultural struggle that (unlike any other component of their modern lives), Muslims must work out alone. In such a scheme, culture—where religion supposedly resides—seems to exist utterly independently of the larger machinations of power. Translated into the present, this approach would suggest that the global spread of Salafi Islam, largely financed by one of America’s chief allies (and indeed, beneficiaries) in the Middle East, is just another thing that Muslims need to work out internally.

The politics of this position are not hard to derive. To identify Islam as the problem, is also to imply something of equal rhetorical and practical weight: that ‘we’, whether defined as Americans or other inhabitants of Earth during the period of late capitalist modernity, are not the problem, and that ‘we’ have nothing to do with the modern forms of Islamic violence, many of which arose historically in response to colonialism and occupation. To be clear, this is not to claim that Western colonialism, economic practices, or diplomatic maneuvers caused Islamic radicalism, which would just be the mirror image of the view I am disputing. But rather, quite as common sense would dictate, religions are embedded in the everyday life of their adherents and are subject to extreme fluctuation depending on the surrounding environment. Treating religions as coherent abstractions obviates what should be the most pressing question – why do religions get expressed in certain ways at certain times? Why do a number of Islamic radical groups arise at the turn of the twenty-first century and not in the early sixteenth or late nineteenth? Presumably they had Qur’ans back in those days. However, because this is a historical, rather than theological question, I’m afraid an analysis limited to the Islamic textual tradition won’t take us very far.

Finally, just as ‘we’ seem to have some global influence on the clothes people wear, the beverages they drink, and the types of schooling they seek, ‘we’ might also be more mixed up than we acknowledge in the history of others’ religious cultures. Moreover, if we think seriously about Islamic violence as a product of modernity—as linked to broader historical forces like social alienation, technological innovation, and challenges to traditional elites—the problem suddenly seems part of ‘our’ world as well, and one which no amount of carpet bombing can solve.

In the next and final installment in this series, I will make the case for a historical, rather than cultural, explanation for contemporary Islamic violence. Perhaps there is a way off this merry-go round after all.


[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). 43-44.


You can read part 1 of “Approaching Religious Violence” here.


Suzanne Schneider is the author Politics of Denial: Religious Education and Colonial Rule in Palestine(forthcoming) and is currently working on a book about religious violence and the modern Middle East. She is the Director of Operations and a Core Faculty member of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, a non-profit education and research center, and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Religion and Media. Suzanne received her Ph.D. in 2014 from the Department of Middle East, South Asian and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University.

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