Friday, 11 March 2011

Americans on Islam and Violence

The Pew Reseach Center has put out the results of its survey on the attitude of Americans towards Islam and propensity to violence, to coincide with the congressional hearings called by Rep. Peter King. Fairly predictably, it shows a very strong correlation between rightist politics and the belief that 'Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence'. Ethnicity and religious denomination also seem to correlate, along the scales white-Latino-black and Protestant-Catholic-'unaffiliated'.  The prevalence of the association between Islam and a propensity towards violence is still high among Americans (at an average of 40 percent), but perhaps not as high as one might expect by reading the online comments posted to almost story relevant to the subject. One encouraging sign is that fewer young people say they believe there is any link. What the survey does prove is the persistence and prevalence of essentialist ideas about large religious communities. Maybe it's time that educational curricula made a deliberate effort to explain the diversity of opinion within such communities, emphasizing the way that believers, as individuals and as groups, emphasize the doctrines that suit their worldly interests and political dispositions. Any religion that has existed for so many centuries across such a vast geographical expanse offers a wide range of alternative doctines, many of them incompatible or contradictory. 'Islam' as a stable unitary construct hardly exists, except in the most banal sense, however much both Muslims and their enemies might claim that it does. Only individual Muslims can endow the label with meaning, and each Muslim does so in a way that is never identical to the way other individual Muslims do so. This is widely accepted among theoreticians (Aziz al-Azmeh comes to mind - "There are as many Islams as there are situations which contain it"), but it's clearly taking quite a while for this to sink in among the general public. One day, the Pew Research Center might offer people who respond to such surveys an option reflecting this insight.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. I'm reminded of Gandhi's comment to the effect that there are, in the end, as many religions as there are individuals (not meant to be taken literally of course but along the lines suggested in the post). Graham Fuller's recent book, A World without Islam (2010), is convincing in its argument that Islam is fairly incidental to the historical facts of colonialism and post-colonialism in the Middle East, meaning that it just so happens that personal and collective identity in this instance is Islamic: what matters is the historical narrative of geopolitics in the modern (and post-modern) era in which "the people" have not been accorded the space for and rights of individual and collective self-determination to the extent found elsewhere.

    One is also reminded of a remark (I paraphrase because I can't recall the exact quote) made by the Hungarian dissident György (George) Konrád prior to the Velvet Revolutions in East-Central Europe to the effect that "history takes no note of the mother breast-feeding its baby." In other words, history is, as we say, written (or once was written) largely by the victors and is essentially a chronicle of Hegelian "slaughterbench" at that; and the many Muslims throughout history who have practiced nonviolence in their daily lives is accorded little or no weight. Relatedly, the mass media gives little attention (unless compelled to do so, as in the case of recent events) to Muslims NOT engaged in acts of violence, for instance, to those who prefer nonviolent forms of civil resistance and social change (I'm not denying the possibility that resort to violence, as in just war theory, may be legitimate). Consider, by way of a concrete example and apart from the exceptional albeit limited attention accorded the works of Mary Elizabeth King or Sari Nusseibeh, the scant recognition given to the fact that Palestinians have often relied on nonviolent methods in their struggle for self-determination (especially in the first Intifada, but later as well), only to be met with unconscionable acts of violence by the Israeli military and security forces. I'm not claiming that Palestinians have largely foresworn armed struggle only that the media focuses only on the violence that goes with same and almost absolutely ignores other strategies and techniques, methods that are employed on a more limited scale and on a daily basis, admittedly and apparently as yet to little effect.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts here: such sentiment deserves wide circulation.