P. Josh Hatala
Since the November 13 Paris attacks, right wing terrorism and support for the demagogues who fuel it has intensified in the US as largely unreported acts of violence against Muslims and Muslim communities grow both in number and intensity. Despite the fact that white extremists kill more Americans in the US than “jihadists”, the right-wing media juggernaut and certain Republican presidential candidates have tapped into the fears of dispossessed whites to ramp up and exploit a Muslim-as-terrorist narrative. The recent attacks in San Bernardino will, of course, reinforce this narrative, being framed as another case illustrating the need for white, Christian Americans to protect themselves from the Muslim “other” through vigilante justice, suspicion, and the expansion of the security state. While terror is real and wrong, and its victims matter, it is necessary that those concerned with social justice respond to this terror in ways that challenge the right’s invariably xenophobic and militaristic responses to such tragedies. This means building stronger bonds with the Muslim community, not demonizing American Muslims. Donald Trump’s recently constructed “memory”of thousands of Muslims cheering as the World Trade Center collapsed is pure propaganda, but it sells. The more vile and vitriolic his rhetoric becomes, the more Trump’s base responds with admiration and enthusiasm for Trump’s policies. For those of us still living in a “reality-based community”, Trump’s manufactured reality and his base’s response to it bring only astonishment and dread as attacks on American Muslims intensify .
Though it is unlikely that the cognitive biases of Americans swept up in an Islamophobic fervor will allow most of them to reevaluate their beliefs and fears, for those of us concerned with social justice, it is still worth noting some key points about the nature of religion and religious violence. For those who suggest that Islam is inherently violent, and thus needs to be rooted out, historian Karen Armstrong’s most recent bookFields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, serves as a corrective. In David Shariatmadari’s The Guardian review of the book, he writes:
“In her sprawling survey Armstrong shows that doctrine alone cannot give rise to intercommunal strife. Instead, it is usually a reaction to social upheaval and the new forms of structural oppression – gross inequality or overt persecution – that come with it. In the absence of these conditions, religion tends to encourage peaceful coexistence. To blame one or other faith, when the evidence shows so clearly that all types of violence have been committed in the name of all religions and none, is to supply an extraordinarily – you might say willfully – superficial reading of history.”
Armstrong offers a material explanation for religious violence, not an excuse for it. Religion, like a morally neutral tool, can be molded into a vehicle for oppression and violence, or a vehicle for peace and social cohesion. Religious belief informed the course of Europe’s Thirty Years War and the course of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life; it has served as a misshapen mechanism for delivering “Islamic” terror, as well as the impetus for the abolition of female infanticide on the Arabian peninsula in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) and the rise of scientifically and mathematically advanced Islamic civilizations.
Though the “new atheists” have often been at best simplistic and at worst reprehensible in their discussions of Islam, there are a few things they get at least somewhat right. Following the success of his 2004 The End of Faith, Sam Harris offered a concise critique of the monotheistic traditions in his 2006 Letter to a Christian Nation. Because it is a short book written for a popular audience it is necessarily limited in its depth of argument and engagement with the best theological minds- minds that would, quite likely, make mincemeat of most of the “new atheists'” claims. However, in Harris’ most compelling argument he suggests that believers use their moral intuition to guide and make fresh their interpretation of scripture- a fact that challenges the idea that scripture itself should be, and more importantly is, an ultimate source of knowledge for believers. Harris posits that secular moral and ethical trends within a society precede changes to scriptural re-interpretation and that it is these non-theistic progressive advances that in turn reshape readings of sacred texts. Although Harris does not delve deeply into what he calls “liberal theology”, he cites it, and not fundamentalism, as the worstoffender here. According to Harris, liberal theologians cannot say in one breath that God was wrong to drown humanity in a flood, but that Jesus is the Son of God and the Golden Rule is the pinnacle of moral revelation. He writes, “You are using your own moral intuitions to authenticate the wisdom of the Bible- and then, in the next moment, you assert that we human beings cannot possibly rely upon our own intuitions to rightly guide us in the world; rather, we must depend upon the prescriptions of the Bible.” Ultimately, “we decide what is good in the Good Book.”  Harris’ argument is challenging, but mostly to those who have not reflected deeply on their faith or who see scripture as somehow constructed outside of time and place, dropped here from another world. Again, understanding Karen Armstrong’s more sound argument serves as a way to overcome Harris’ simplicity. However, despite his deficiencies, Harris does understand that the nature of religious faith is often or partially socially constructed.
The force of Harris’ argument is challenged, however, by the progressive advances made by the world’s religions- advances that stem from the traditions themselves, or work in a kind of dialectical system made up of believer, scripture, and world, with each informing the other. In spite of the attempts of some fundamentalists in every faith to turn religion into an entirely reactionary force, religious ideas and communities have themselves often been forces for justice. Imagine the Civil Rights movement without the Reverend Martin Luther King and his idea of the Beloved Community, or Gandhi without the Bhagavad-Gita, or Malcolm X without the Qur’an. Harris similarly overlooks the Buddha’s role in disrupting the caste system, or Mohammad’s role in uplifting women and the oppressed. At its inception in 610 CE, Islam introduced the revolutionary concept of equality of all people, regardless of gender or social status. Islam became a liberating force uniting warring Berbers and for women this meant an enhanced position. As Lisa Beyer put it in Time Magazine, “For his day, the Prophet Muhammad was a feminist.” Actively engaged in liberating the marginalized sections of society, the principles Mohammad established through the Qur’an enhanced the position of women. For his time and place, Mohammad’s statement that “The best Islam is that you feed the hungry and spread peace among people you know and those you do not know,” was truly revolutionary and ran directly counter to more repressive Arabian tribal values. The same emphasis on equality- Paul’s insistence that there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, Christ- can be found in the Christian faith. Far from being alterations to the faith that were spurred by external notions of progress, these are clear examples of a progressive morality that grew out of religious traditions and religious communities that were, of course, rooted in particular cultural contexts.
Will sound reason and a cursory understanding of history convince the 40% of North Carolinians who favor outlawing Islam that they are misguided? Will it dissuade an arsonist from burning down a mosque and instead look to the social and political roots of extremism- roots that are inextricably connected to the United States’ own imperialistic role in the Islamic world? When one considers our long history of demonizing the “other”- particularly immigrants- it is doubtful. Popular enthusiasm for an easily identifiable enemy and a strong leader to save us from that enemy, the intellectual challenge of accepting a nuanced reading of history and geopolitics, along with decades of ingrained racial hatred are not easy obstacles to overcome. Just as material conditions give rise to a religious “type”, they also give rise to a political type. In this case, the same sense of hopelessness that turns a young Muslim into a soldier for ISIS turns vulnerable Americans- particularly white Americans- toward demagogues and the politics of hate. In an era of neoliberal austerity, where all hope for a meaningful future is shredded like so many social safety nets, extremism and polarization will increasingly become the new normal. It is the root causes of extremism that need to be addressed, not its symptoms.
So what can we do? Continue to act on our principles. Continue to connect to the justice filled heart of spiritual belief and practice. Continue to build connections with our Muslim brothers and sisters in our communities and demand an end to racial injustice, bigotry, and religious intolerance. Continue to craft our own counter-narrative that puts love and reason above hate and irrationality. We may not win, but we are possessed by a moral imperative to fight for the good and the just, so fight we must.
 Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 49.
 Lisa Beyer, “The Women of Islam,” Time Magazine (2001).http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,185647,00.html
 Mary Pat Fisher, Living Religions (Boston: Pearson, 2014), 383.