Stop abusing religion

Back in the 1960s Americans were deeply divided on matters of war and race—with Christians in America on both sides of the divide. While Reverend Martin Luther King Jr and religious leaders associated with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference led protests and committed acts of civil disobedience demanding civil rights, they were countered by white Christian preachers in the south who warned of the dangers of violating God’s will by ignoring the punishment God had meted out to the “sons of Ham.” And while New York’s Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman travelled to Vietnam to bless US troops as they battled “godless Communism,” a Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan led fellow clergymen and women in protests against the war, often resulting in their arrest and imprisonment.
During this entire period, I do not recall Christianity being described as a warlike or racist faith. Nor do I recall King and Berrigan being referred to as “Christian protesters.” We did not engage in drawn-out theological debates to determine which interpretation of Christianity was correct. Rather we defined these individuals by what they did: “segregationists” or “civil rights leaders,” not “Christian segregationists” or “Christian civil rights leaders”—“supporters of the war” or “peace activists,” not “Christian supporters of the war” or “Christian peace activists.”
What we may have understood, at least implicitly, was that just because a person or institution uses religious language to validate certain behaviours that do not make their behaviour “religious.” Nor does this behaviour define, by itself, the religion to which the person or institution adheres. This is something that many in the West still understand, at least when it comes to Christianity. Despite President George W Bush indicating that America was carrying out God’s will in the Iraq war, we knew not to refer to that conflict as a “Christian” war. This understanding, however, has not carried over to our discussion of Islam. For reasons beyond the scope of this short piece, when dealing with Islam, political leaders, media commentators, and ordinary folk here in the West appear intent on using religious language to describe every aspect of life and all forms of behaviour, both good and bad, as “Muslim.” In doing so, we create confusion, leading to incoherence and some very strange policies.
For example, faced with the threat of individuals and groups using the religious language of Islam to validate their acts of terror, we refer to them as “Muslim terrorists.” But recognising that they represent only a tiny fraction of Muslims, we maintain that they “don’t speak for Islam.” This leads us down the tortuous path of attempting to define “good” versus “bad” Islam—creating a “state-sanctioned” interpretation of faith—something we would never undertake with Christianity. Another example: A colleague, for whom I have the greatest respect, wrote a book in which he first correctly debunks the notion of “Muslim terrorists,” but then goes on to write a chapter about “Muslim oil”—referring to oil coming from Gulf and Central Asian and some African countries. If “Muslim oil” can be defined in this way, does that make US and Canadian oil “Christian” or “secular democratic” oil?
You may recall the Obama White House sponsored a summit for “Muslim entrepreneurs”—focusing on entrepreneurs from “Muslim-majority countries and Muslim communities around the world.” Aside from troubling questions about the message sent to businesspeople from the Arab World, Indonesia, or elsewhere who are not Muslim, or how such an effort may exacerbate local sectarian tensions, what exactly is a “Muslim entrepreneur”? Or, for that matter, what is a “Christian entrepreneur” or “Hindu entrepreneur”?
At the end of the day, there are xenophobic nationalists, there are terrorists, there is oil, and there are people who start up and run businesses. They are better defined by what they do and not by their faith. A careless insistence on defining them by faith leads Western governments into the murky waters of defining “good” or acceptable religion, or of applying a religious litmus test on groups—political statements that are most certainly none of our business and can be dangerous.
A version of this appeared in The National, UAE. 
Excerpts have been reproduced here with permission.

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