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A response to "Go ahead, blame Islam"

onewhowalks's picture

In light of the Paris and Beirut bombings and the every rising feeling of insurmountable death and global terror, it feels like most people are searching for some solution. Some hope. Some escape. Much of the global terror and war of today are tied to religious disputes, which can cause confusion given that many of the main religions and spiritual practices around the world appear to preach justice and kindness, not death and destruction. Mark LeVine’s November 2015 article “Go ahead, blame Islam” for Aljazeera offers instead the idea that religion IS at the heart of the violence- this terrorism isn’t contradictory to scriptural code but a clear stem from it. This, combined with the blind following of religion common in many spiritual communities today, creates an apathetic and subsequently callous religious world moving increasingly further away from the compassion and kindness supposedly preached.

The Paris shooting was met immediately by an onslaught of calls for prayer. The hashtag that arose was #prayforparis, each article and status that came up included an urge for prayer, and the headlines on CNN that came up the morning after included the assurance that the GOP candidates foremost reaction to the tragedy was prayer for those affected. In a press conference after the 2015 Oregon shooting, President Obama said “our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” He encouraged voters to demand change from our nation regarding gun control laws. I am not saying that prayer doesn’t benefit the giver or the subject, but it is certainly less efficient than taking direct action to help a cause. In the same speech he talks about as a nation being numb to atrocities mass shootings. Prayer is presented through scripture as being a means of expressing one’s soul and vulnerability in hope of igniting change through God. However, I think the political response to terror being prayer is starting to feel empty. Where is the action? Furthermore, from a belief standpoint, at what point does prayer start to feel like a hollow investment? If one just keeps hoping and hoping for change but doesn’t take corporeal action, there's a trend towards reliance on prayer becomes simply an easy way to say one is creating change without actually putting in the time and effort to promote change. While prayer is effective in creating grounding, hope, and signifying solidarity, alone it cannot create a world where prayer is not necessary.  Furthermore, the hashtags and Facebook filters that urge prayer are beginning to feel like a capitalization of spirituality. This obviously would not be the first time that spirituality is conflated with money or consumerism, but when the words are put out there thoughtlessly they take on thoughtless meaning in the hearts of the people.

Frequently, even positive activist and charity work done in the name of religion seems to reflect a lack of agency in the contributors. In religious communities philanthropic work is often referred to as “doing God’s work,” a service for one’s lord. But this appears to me to in some ways represent a buffering from one’s own drive and emotion for activism. When phrased this way, the person is presenting themselves as a vessel. Vessels are by definition hollow. Where is the action in being hollow? Where is there conviction in puppetry? This terminology also starts to deal with authority and power; with God's service and missionary work, there is a clear example of promoting a "correct" way of living. Viewing one correct way of experiencing religion and interacting with the world, and actively working to impose this ideal, is in no way condusive to interdisciplinary or communal work. WIthout being open to others' perspectives, dispute is inevitable. In this light, religion as the basis for war makes total sense, as many readings of the main world religions promote conversion and dismissal of non-believers. 

Whether represented as a beacon for service and compassion or violence and terror, religion is often simplified to an extreme extent in casual reference. I have rarely heard the people saying it encourages compassion also saying it encourages violence; the nuance appears to be lost. Instead, it becomes easier to focus only on one part or another of whatever religion or denomination is being brought into discussion. Upon closer analysis, no scripture is truly as one-note as common themes would suggest. LeVine’s article brings up the quote from the Quran President Obama quoted once: “Whosoever slays a soul it shall be as if he had slain all mankind; and whoso saves one life it shall be as if he has saved all mankind.” This quote suggests that Islam is promoting only preservation of life, compassion, and global solidarity, but is followed immediately by declaring that people supposed to be enemies of Islam deserve “execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet.”  The Bible, too, is fully of paradoxes and contradictions that prohibit a true one-lens reading of it. To choose a benign example, even in just one chapter of one book in Genesis in which is described the number of animals loading Noah’s ark, there are multiple different options provided within one text. There are so many variables in these scriptures, so many options for the reader to believe in. I’ve heard it said in some theories because it was written by numerous different authors over many years, and in some because the author(s) wanted to prevent simple minded belief. This means that these texts are easily manipulated. There’s an ability to pick and choose what you want to see out of it. It would be extremely difficult if not impossible to believe in or enact every single detail or lifestyle recommendation the Bible prescribes. This means that it is upon the consumer of the religion to create a hierarchy of beliefs, to choose what they want to extract from the teachings for their own set of principles. So much is contradictory that choices MUST be made. If it is followed blindly, then it becomes too easy to simply absorb at face value many of the more destructive tenements of these religions. Furthermore, true education of what these texts hold allows people to make a more informed choice of what they’re choosing to believe in and sometimes kill and die for.

LeVine’s article references a study done through the University of Chicago which found that while parents of religious households claimed that their children were more empathetic and “sensitive for justice in everyday life” than non-religious parents did, the presence of religion was “inversely predictive of children’s altruism and positively correlated with their punitive tendencies.”  This is in direct contrast with popular social belief of religion being a basis and requirement for morality. The study suggests that this is contrast is due to religion-based morality being tied to rules and laws, not ration and reasoning. 

I think that agency is disregarded and forgotten about, a lot of the time. In that mindset, I think authenticity is an interesting word to bring into the discussion. How do you decide what’s the real exhibition of the religion? What are the main pillars of the religion? Even the idea of pillars is constructed; interpretations are chosen and then perpetuated by whichever main leaders of the religion of the time believe in. Who has the power to say things? What Martin Luther King Jr. chose to see in the Bible is different from the heads of the Westboro Baptist Church is different from the Pope, who is different himself from each Pope before him. Even just looking at the Pope specifically, each Pope is a person is a human with lived experiences, not just an empty vessel for a spirit or God. This person’s word is regarded as above much else and a sometimes unquestionable interpretation of God’s word, but this person changes, and with it, what is regarded as the correct interpretation changes as well. There’s an ideal that religion is conforming, that everyone interprets it in the same way, but in reality, spirituality is so specific to you and your experiences that there’s never going to be this intense solidarity. There’s an amount of motivation that has to come from lived experience.  Our beliefs can’t just be based off of one school of thought, text, constitution, scripture. It is impossible to make well-rounded and generally beneficial decisions if there is only one feeder for information and bias. Recognizing the individuality and personal nature of religion and spirituality, as opposed to a single-minded imagined community, is critical to moving away from violence and returning to compassion and justice.

To be driven by the black-white binary for morality religion offers is to simplify the world and the people who live in it. This is all I can think of that explains how our politicians call for prayer one minute and murder the next. Clinging to large institutional forces as the basis for all morals and actions begins detachment from actual agency and compassion. I don’t think that religion inherently negates these qualities, but clinging unquestionably and unwavering to any one institutional way of thinking promotes withdrawing into oneself. It’s too easy to sink into a pattern; without the juxtaposition of other cultures, communities, and minds, there’s no room for growth, consciousness, or agency, and without those, we begin to forget that our actions and beliefs effect those outside of ourselves. The return to justice, mercy, and compassion that LeVine calls for in the conclusion of his article will be reached, I believe, by encouraging a more nuanced and analytical approach to scriptural reading. It is in education that the empowerment to consciously choose what pieces of a religion to choose to prioritize and enact. 



works cited:

LeVine, Mark. "Go Ahead, Blame Islam." Al Jazeera English. N.p., 15 Nov. 2015. Web. <>.

Gross, Rachel E. "Children Raised in Religious Households May Be More Selfish." Slate. N.p., 06 Nov. 2015. Web. <>.

Decety, Jean, Jason M. Cowell, Kang Lee, Randa Mahasen, Susan Malcom-Smith, Bilge Selcuk, and Xinyue Zhou. "The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World."Current Biology 25.22 (2015): 2951-955. Science Direct. Elsevier, 16 Nov. 2015. Web. <>.

Jackson, David. "Obama: "Our Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough"" USA Today. Gannett, 02 Oct. 2015. Web. <>.



Anne Dalke's picture

I'm very glad to see this essay, very glad esp. to see you taking on directly some of the overwhelming questions raised by last week's acts of terrorism in Beirut, Paris, Mali...and to see you thinking frankly about the role that religion plays not only in assuasing grief, but in causing it. You follow LeVine in laying out the complex teachings of all the world's major religions-- advocating compassion, while advocating judgment-- and could add here the reflections of the Dalai Lama, that prayer is not the answer for the Paris attacks, for a " tragedy created by man.... The Dalai Lama says that he thinks a systematic approach instead of a spiritual approach to violence is necessary."

My thoughts for revision (should this be an essay you'd like to revise) would be to hone down the paper, make it more clearly focused, perhaps by putting what LeVine says into conversation with one of the texts we've read as a class. Friere comes immediately to mind, and not only because his is the essay we're still in the midst of discussing, and because he speaks so strongly (as you do here) to the need to combine reflection and action, but also because he identified himself as a Christian (=liberal Catholic) Marxist, and saw his work as one of encouraging spiritual growth. Here's a taste from Pedagogy of the Oppressed that speaks to some of the "white savior complex" we've been wrestling with this semester:

...the fact that certain members of the oppressor class join the oppressed in their struggle for liberation, thus moving from one pole of the contradiction to the other... Theirs is a fundamental role, and has been throughout the history of this struggle. It happens, however, that as they cease to be exploiters or indifferent spectators or simply the heirs of exploitation and move to the side of the exploited, they almost always bring with them the marks of their origin: their prejudices and their deformations, which include a lack of confidence in the people's ability to think, to want, and to know. Accordingly, these adherents to the people's cause constantly run the risk of falling into a type of generosity as malefic as that of the oppressors. The generosity of the oppressors is nourished by an unjust order, which must be maintained in order to justify that generosity. Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting the people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change. A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.”