27 October 2014

Reza Aslan Knows How to Address Religious Bigotry. Is Anyone Listening?

So here we go with some valuable Reza Aslan wisdom.  He has been in the media quite a lot, recently, and for good reason.  The man knows of that which he speaks - and does so factually, kindly, and with good humor.  Plus he has the patience to continue repeating what people need to know and understand.  But why must he continue to repeat himself endlessly?  Well, I would say its because sacred ignorance makes poor listeners of everyone.  

Reza Aslan has a realistic perspective about religion, in general (outside of dogma unique to individual religions on which he also has a good handle).  And he has earned numerous degrees in religion and theology, so has the credentials needed to be taken seriously.  Additionally, his video about his most recent best selling book, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" is excellent.  Two recent books have been on the New York Times best seller list:   "No god but God: The origins, Evolution, and the future of Islam", in 2005 and "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth", last year.

Being a comparative religion dilettante, myself (with no degree in the field but a long time interest and years of study), what he says that no one else is saying and needs to be said, rings true with me

Aslan was recently interviewed by Salon's Elias Isquith, for Salon, 10 October 2014 in part because of the  way he repeatedly stands up to bigoted comments without loosing his cool.
"EXCLUSIVE: Reza Aslan on Bill Maher’s anti-Islam crusade: 'Frank bigotry'" ("Author and scholar who's quarreled with comedian over Islam before tells Salon why this time is different")  And he was an Op-Ed contributor to the New York Times two days earlier with his article "Bill Maher Isn’t the Only One Who Misunderstands Religion"

Reza Aslan lets loose on atheists for a while in this Salon interview, and is totally on target as well as being factual without being unkind ". . . they tend to read the scriptures more literally than any literalist I know."  Yes,  I have noticed that, myself, in the way some atheists talk about religion - the way they assign ignorant beliefs to religious folks which few religious folks have.  Religious folks interpret their religions differently than they were interpreted centuries ago.   And I'm not referring to the politicalization here of religion which tends to corrupt every religion over the centuries, but instead the way in which we understand the spiritual lessons that are taught in relation to our own times and places.  But the thing about religion (any philosophy or body of knowledge, actually) is that when it is universal the understandings of the profound truths religion teaches, flexibly fit into any time and place, rather than being limited to interpretation only in terms of the environment of origin.  Aslan refers to that as being part of religious literacy.   So many religious folks are not literate religiously, so how could we expect atheists to be? 

Aslan points out a basic important idea about religion that seems to escape notice of government and media, universally, and thus, unfortunately the general public. 
To point out the obvious the example he uses is a cultural belief that is being superimposed upon religion in a specific nation.  "It is really the single most basic idea about religion, that it marries itself to whatever culture it comes into contact with. If you ask a Saudi Imam why women in Saudi Arabia can’t drive, he’ll say, “Because Islam demands it.” But that’s absurd because, first of all, Islam demands no such thing; and secondly, the only country in the world in which women can’t drive is Saudi Arabia.  So the inability to understand the difference between a cultural practice and religious belief is shocking among self-described intellectuals."  Oh, yes.  That is so very true.  Not understanding the difference leads to bigoted blanket statements - as Aslan points out.

Reza Aslan does not talk about ISIL or Afghanistan, but I consider both to be an example of his comment.  The media would love to blame Arabs for ISIL.   Yes, when it comes to ISIL the media so wants to blame Arabs and Muslims, but the terrorists are clearly foreign to the region.   We know lots of them are Chechens - probably a majority of them . . . the same brutal trouble-makers who created chaos and raised havoc in Syria . . . until they changed their location to take hostage a piece of land we currently refer to as ISIL. 

And how does this relate to Aslan's comment?  Well, it looks like the Chechens are still trying to spread the Russian revolution, or expand the U.S.S.R.'s Communist Empire.  Does that make ISIL a "Russian" invasion?  Well of course not - technically - without the existence of the U.S.S.R that is not possible.   But maybe, culturally, that is exactly what they are doing - even though the Chechen terrorists claim to hate Russia and in fact claim they are motivated to do what they do by that hate. 

The ISIL Chechens are gloating because of doing something U.S.S.R. but did not succeed at doing. U.S.S.R. did  not understanding the importance of religion in the lives of the people in nations which it wanted to include in it's empire.  But look what Chechens have done by using and abusing religion to foment rebellion in Syria, and victimize Syrian people; and look at what they are doing now in what they claim is their very own ISIL territory.

To understand ISIL better it is necessary to have a better understanding of Chechens, for the purpose of understanding the difference between being driven by religious beliefs, and being driven by cultural practices associated with the politics of their ethnic history and environment.  And that means we need to take a look at Afghanistan too.


"The Secret Battles Between US Forces and Chechen Terrorists" provides some insight into that.  However there is nothing much secret about any of this, and we sure didn't need Wikileaks to tell us what was blatantly obvious - that Chechens have been involved in the training and fighting of the terrorist in Afghanistan

Daryl Morini says about U.S.S.R.'S "Viet-Nam" in Afghanistan:  "The fear of militant Islam affecting Moscow’s control over its Muslim population was also behind the Kremlin rationale for war. This particular mentality, whether right or wrong, continued in the guises of two full-scale Russian wars in Chechnya. Finally, the prestige of socialist ideology was also at stake in Afghanistan . . . "

And why does that matter?  Well, the longer the inability to understand the difference between a cultural practice and religious belief is evident in bigoted statements that are made about religion, the longer there is avoidance about understanding the politics driving the problems, and thus the long term solutions evade those who want to blame the problem on religion rather than politics.  And the longer unwarranted blame of religion goes on.

What does this have to do with Aslan's comments?  Well, the lack of religious literacy he points out, is not simply theoretical, or a reaction to Islamophobia.  It is definitely connected to real world problems as an underlying cause and an exacerbation of problems.

Daryl Morini says "Ten years of war against a popular Afghan resistance stirred discontent within the USSR, and probably contributed greatly to the collapse and popular unrest of 1991."

Do Americans not realize the "Afghan resistance" (aided by U.S. during U.S.S.R's time in Afghanistan) is having exactly the same effect on  U.S.A.?  Knowing this would be the result many did not want the U.S. to militarily address problems in Afghanistan.  But so to does the resistance wherever we are involved in military action, create discontent at home.  For example We need to get our heads on straight, collectively as Americans, and understand that in all the centuries Afghanistan has existed, its people have become expert at skillfully using their mountainous terrain to fend off outsiders whether they are would be invaders, terrorists wanting to hide out, and/or there by invitation.  Leave them alone to fight their own battles and solve their own problems.  They have managed to do it for centuries and foiled invasions all that time.  No matter what the predominate religion, the political differences created because of differences in interpretation of religion. are due to cultural difference.  Just like the Chechen terrorists of ISIL now do, the Afghanis hiding out in the mountains adopted a culture of using their flawed interpretation of religion as a weapon.  Clearly Aslan is on to something important when he talks about the inability to understand the difference between a cultural practice and religious belief.  It is, indeed, shocking - especially in otherwise astute people.

Other gems in the Aslan's Salon interview:  "I always say that it’s not enough to just know more about your neighbor’s religion. We have to become a far more religious literate people. It’s bizarre that we are the most religiously devout, developed country in the world, and yet our understanding of the historical, sociological, philosophical and cultural aspects of religion is so uninformed and basic."

Religion is a matter of identity
much more so than it is a matter of beliefs and practices, and that is something that is very, very difficult for Americans to understand."

Truly.  That is why the fear-mongering Islamophobia of our politicians repeatedly proves they are unable to differentiate between the cultural influences of a nation and religious influences which are also subject to cultural influences.  More specifically the bigoted comments indicate there is no understanding of unique cultural influences that determine the way in which religion is interpreted because of culture.  Until they can differentiate, and until the media can and does, our military actions in predominately Muslim lands seem increasingly to be an exercise in charging around like an angry bull in a china closet because of not addressing the actual political problems that are reflected in destructive ways in religion.  Essentially religion is being used like a "human shield" by terrorists whose actions and attitudes are all politically motivated.

Given our own "separation of church and state" which is designed to protect religions and government from one another, if we really truly understood the profundity of that as Americans, then we would also understand the protections it provides for us.  Because of this we have no need to do ideological battle because of religious differences competing to influence government, and corrupting government in the process.  Religious differences, politicized, are proven to have the potential to create internal strife at best,  civil war at worst.  Anyone remember that it was religious strive in England that landed the Puritans and Pilgrims on the east coast of North America?  These facts should be well known -  should not have been forgotten.  If we truly understood that we are protected from these problems in our nation by the separation of church and state, then how could we and our elected and appointed government officials have so many obvious problems understanding the difference between cultural practices in nations and their influence on interpretation of religious beliefs in a nation where there is no separation of church and state?  Or do we not understand because we DO protect religion and government from one another, and simply can not comprehend the extent of trouble that not doing so has the potential to create?  Either way we have a lesson to learn.

Understand this: the undue influence of religion on government because of cultural interpretation about which all do not agree, and the undue influence of government on religion when it adopts a specific interpretation of religion with which all do not agree politically, results in the political problems that potentially victimize segments of the population . . . as we see in Afghanistan and other nations where we are involved  militarily, that do not separate "church and state".

I have long found it interesting to learn from individuals why they believe what they believe.  Myself, I like to learn these things that Aslan tells us we need to know about all religions and denominations - as long as I am convinced  it is not a conversion effort - that it is clearly understood the purpose for discussing religion is for the purpose of religious literacy.  And I know many folks feel similarly which might be why some might not be open to learning anything about any other religions or denomination, unless it is very clear to them it is not a conversion effort.

Of course it is importance to differentiate between the culture of a nation, and the religion as uniquely practiced because of that culture, in  nations that do not separate church and state.  When we do not fully comprehend a political environment in nations that do not separate church and state because of our nation's lack of religious literacy, we unnecessarily endanger our nation, other nations, our front line troops, and the people in the war-torn nations.