Religious Extremism and the Making of Analogies

Religious Extremism and the Making of Analogies

No sincere, thoughtful Jesus-follower should ever condone the rhetoric, strategies or practices of those Westboro Baptist Church folk. But I also believe that sincere, thoughtful media commentators like Arsalan Iftikhar (aka “The Muslim Guy”) must be more radically careful with analogies. We all must.

In an interview for NPR’s Faith Matters series, on May 9, Arsalan says, “The analogy that I always give…is that extremists like Boko Haram are about as Muslim as the Westboro Baptist Church is Christian.” To a degree, this might help as a relatively simple correlation. The forces at play in the WBC and in Boko Haram—ideologies which would use/abuse/distort religious teaching (not to mention religious identity and God’s perceived will for humanity)—may be of a similar root.

As the authors of Hope in Troubled Times argue, ideology happens when a political or societal end becomes absolute; current values or norms get re-defined; and a means to reach the goal gets selected. The authors go on to offer a theological insight, which, I believe, is applicable to most adherents claiming Christian or Muslim faith: “No goal or end may allow us to elevate the means to achieve it outside the reach of genuine truth, justice, and the love of God and neighbor.”

However, with regard to ideology and means, there is a gaping deficiency inherent in the correlation between the WBC and Boko Haram. Hate-spewing, sign-holding, wrath-demonstrating and lawsuit-filing are not remotely in the same category as bombs and automatic rifles, kidnapping and killing.

Such correlations, in fact, may actually serve to minimize or distract from essential, critical public discourses for the common good. For example, we must do justice to the reality that the theological-political worldview and the contextual (local and national) background for the respective “Christian” and “Muslim” agendas of the WBC and Boko Haram are extremely different. Therefore, differently conceived comprehensive responses are demanded.

But to the basic point: No matter the repulsive awfulness, rhetorical violence is not morally or socially equivalent to physical violence.

Whatever we may say of the WBC, physical violence is not its preferred medium for instigating or igniting social change like it is, unequivocally, for Boko Haram. I believe we must be ruthless in this kind of distinguishing even if it brings us into uncomfortable and disquieting conversations about religious identity. I see this as part of fighting the good fight for the sake of the common good and against the kind of unrelenting violence that seeks to do physical harm and to take life in the name of God.

Of course, there is a link between rhetorical and physical violence. No one should be so naïve as to disregard numerous historical examples—or the psychological-social connections. But there is also a distinction with a difference. And here is where Muslims and Christians do ourselves a disservice when we are something less than excruciating in these high-octane moments of inter-religious analogy.

So, given the predilection for kidnapping, killing and other forms of violence, it seems far more likely, far more apt and far more useful to compare Boko Haram with a character like Uganda’s Joseph Kony and The Lord’s Resistance Army. And, indeed, this is an analogue which Arsalan also discussed in the NPR interview, and which others have made.

Moreover, the Norwegian Anders Breivik vividly and sadly comes to mind. In July 2011, he bombed government buildings in Oslo and shot up children in a youth camp. The targeting of children is a particular note of correlation. Although, in this analogy, there remains a glaring difference: Boko Haram is an increasingly influential group actor connected to wider Islamist-terrorist streams; Breivik was, at the end of the day, the prototypical solitary actor emboldened by a deluded personal manifesto.

While we’re at it, can we arrive at a more radically honest place with regard to religious texts?

For instance, I truly don’t think it gets us anywhere to offer pithily, as Arsalan has, that Boko Haram should pick up a Qur’an. This kind of response casually bypasses (unwittingly) the sociological underpinnings of most modern terrorism—the “complex causality,” as Jennifer S. Bryson noted in the wake of the Boston bombings in April 2013. Boko Haram’s religious, political and social agenda is chock-full of complex causality.

Besides, asking Boko Haram to pick up a Qur’an is an exercise in missing the hermeneutical point. Their movement purports to be centered in the Qur’an: “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors” (5:44-50). Which, being interpreted means: the Qur’an does not nicely or neatly or even selectively interpret itself. Neither does the Bible. Neither does any text, for that matter. Most of us accept this.

As a counter-example, I appreciated Faheem Younus’s incisive Muslim response to the Boston bombings—although, his more narrow concern was American Muslim identity. He said, “[Change] will come when the ideology of a violent jihad will be completely purged from the admired Muslim scholars who perpetrate and sanction it.” Now that’s a commentary with some actual teeth and quite a bite, theologically and practically.

For Muslim leaders as for Christian leaders—even if the act is like talking to the air—it is more constructive for us to say to religious extremists of all ideological varieties among us: “Listen to the majority interpretive community that frames your religious identity by means of the sacred text and a comprehensive reading of it."

Naturally, that’s not nearly as clever as “Pick up a Qur’an” or “Pick up a Bible.” It won’t get you page views. It’s too wordy; it’s clunky. And, of course, most extremists who associate with our religious communities will never listen anyway.

Still, I think it’s a more appropriately textured way of engaging text and interpretation as it relates to religious identity. Especially when our Books are part and parcel of the thorny issue—one thorn, if you will, within “complex causality”—we must diligently say a whole lot more than, Feel free to pick up the Book, and here are a few select verses to read.

If Muslim media responses lean toward highlighting #BringBackOurGirls as an occasion to withstand the obvious, unfortunate tide of North American or Western-styled Islamophobia, I can understand. I, too, am involved and invested through Peace Catalyst International in pushing back that tide.

Thankfully, Arsalan, Faheem and other Muslims are actively and energetically going about the painstaking internal community work among Muslims at home and abroad. Likewise, there are many Christians doing the same within our communities, bound as they are to text and interpretation. Now, if we could just tidy up the making of analogies.

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