False equivalences when condemning Islam
Oct 24, 2010

False equivalences when condemning Islam

In our post 9/11 world, Islam is far too frequently condemned in western society by word and by action of politicians, the media and everyday people. Ideas like "Islam is a violent religion" are unduly prevalent.  The justification for such ideas is often in a false equivalence where examples are found of extreme violence and then implicitly (or sometimes even explicitly) extrapolated to arrive at this general conclusion. I aim here to discuss several reasons why this is not only a false equivalence but a misunderstanding of what religion is. The points are quite general in nature and apply to making generalizations about any religions; however, I have largely framed them in the context of attempts to condemn Islam and the "violent religion" question in specific.

Religion is undoubtably an important component of culture. However, it is but one factor among many that determine the local culture. Indeed, the local realization of religion in some specific community is heavily influenced by the culture itself. The result is that the way one experiences and perceives a religion is not absolute but varies greatly. A Muslim growing up in Toronto versus a village in Gaza are going to have very different perspectives on the world as a result of the very different cultures,  and indeed very different perspectives on their religion. We cannot easily disentangle religion and culture and as such to blame acts entirely in the religion ignores the influences of culture. Given our wars in some fairly backwards Islamic countries or 9/11 itself, our public consciousness is full of examples of horrific violent Muslim acts, yet the culture vs religion issues means we cannot use them as vilifications of the religion in general.

Religious identity can be seen as a way one experiences, relates to and understands ones environment. It is a lens through which the world is viewed. Thus while the actual lens used matters (Christianity, Islam or any other religion), the actual local environment remains key in what is actually seen. The result is that in a violent culture, perhaps in one which has been at war for generations such as in Palestine, that the outcome is going to lead to some violence is independent of what religious lens might be used. Because religion is the context by which people experience the world it is only natural that religion will frame their actions. So for example, a violent act may be carried out explicitly in the name of Islam but this is not necessarily an inditement against Islam as a religion in general. The societal forces that lead to this violent action may well trump the influence of the religious interpretation they are framed by.

While cultures may differ a lot, so to do the actual religions themselves. To use broad terms like "Islam" or "Christianity" often goes too far itself in establishing a false equivalency between the many disparate forms the religions take. Far from being homogenous, religions like Islam are very diverse.  Islam has 1.6 billion people, innumerable sects and variations in practices. Even within a given sect there is enormous regional variability.  One reason for this is that official doctrine is but one aspect of religion. Simply having the same set of religious documents like the Bible or the Koran, does not tell the whole story. Instead, the local community and its leaders with its own traditions and practices and beliefs are a large and perhaps larger component of religion than the documents themselves. What parts of the book and with what interpretations and emphasis the local religious community and its leaders use makes a tremendous difference. This further emphasizes the idea that the actual lens of religion being applied in vastly different cultures, such as Toronto compared to a rural village in Saudi Arabia, is itself very different and we should refrain from attributing too much meaning to generalizations about a religion using evidence from a fundamentally different region.

The variability within a religion completely dominates the aggregate differences between two different religions. By this I mean the following. Within a religion like Christianity or Islam there is a lot of variability between the most moral and peaceful people and the most horrifically immoral and violent people of which, worldwide, there are plenty of both groups. Compare this to asking, as an aggregate, whether one of Islam or Christianity is a more intrinsically violent religion. Even if there was a clear answer to this (I happen to think the three Abrahamic religions are fairly close on this question), we should be able to agree the differences are far less than the internal variability with respect to violence of either religion. In this sense, making a generalization about a religion in violence or other factors even if true is simply not relevant as a condemnation towards individuals of that religion. I should note that using the logic in this paragraph to dispel a generalization like "Islam is a violent religion" often is not aggressive enough in that it doesn't question the validity of the generalization itself; however, it is useful in that it gives the benefit of the doubt to the generalizations and maintains their irrelevancy regardless.

We have seen that religion is but one aspect of the general culture. We have seen that religion is a lens through which the environment is viewed but does not necessarily determine the environment. We have seen that a given religion itself is very diverse an multifaceted depending on the local region, community and customs. Even if all of these were to result in some significant aggregate differences between religions, it would be dominated by the variability within a given religion. The result is that we are forced to utterly reject any notion of using isolated examples of violence to maintain sweeping generalizations about the supposed violence of Islam.

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