The politics of religion in America in the Western world over the last several decades is really the politics of naming.
The most fundamental question of the politics of naming boils down to the following: When is it appropriate to apply a familiar, and generic, piece of nomenclature in describing what the public considers a criminal, morally offensive, or broadly reprehensible act?
A corollary to the same question is whether, if the generic term turns out indeed to be applicable, should we in good conscience mitigate the impact of deploying such a term by adding such modifiers as “radical,” “deviant”, “unconventional,” etc.?
Since the shocking events of September 11, 2001, and especially since the rise of ISIS in recent years, this debate has for the most part centered on how to describe Islam. For example, even though the idea that Islamic State, as it calls itself, represents the religion of Islam to some degree is in many ways obvious and self-referential, its loathsome brutality has led many, including President Obama himself, refuse to associate it at all with the vast and complex spectrum of Muslims that are a billion strong worldwide.
The President’s motivations may be more than political correctness. It may also constitute a legitimate fear about persecution of the majority of peaceful Muslims in American society. In fact, the increase in the number of crimes against Muslims and mosques in America following the Paris attacks and San Bernardino shootings has been significant, according to The New York Times.
But denying the obvious fact that Islamic militants and extremists, who are increasingly successful in their global recruiting campaigns, claim to be the true embodiment of Islam may be a counterproductive strategy with unintended, perverse consequences, as Muslim scholar Maajid Nawaz argues.
Refusing to call ISIS “Islamic”, according to Nawaz, deprives Muslim reformers of the ability to challenge ISIS’ arguments, which meticulously cite the Qur’an, by defining from an outsider’s perspective what Islam actually is and thus ceding the framework of debate to the extremists. Furthermore, he insists, “you’re only going to increase anti-Muslim hatred, increase the hysteria, like ‘he who must not be named’ — the Voldemort effect, I call it — by not naming the ideology. Because the average guy out there is going to assume the President is talking about the religion itself.”
As William McCants shows in his masterfully researched book on the political and textual sources of ISIS propaganda entitled The ISIS Apocalypse, the Islamic State can quote the Qur’an about as well as Billy Graham could routinely quote chapter and verse from the Bible. Therefore, as Nawaz suggests, the “ISIS-has-nothing-to-with-Islam” approach precludes all other Muslims from arguing the implications of the same sources to different ends.
What Obama and other well-meaning scholars like Haroon Moghul writing in Religion Dispatches miss entirely is that the history of religions abandoned long ago the pretense that there is anything that might be termed the “essence” of any particular religion, especially if that religion happens to have followers who offend our political or moral sensibilities. There is a certain “soft” prejudice among Western social progressives that for religion to be “legitimate,” it has to been benign, peaceful, and non-belligerent.
Tell that to the ayatollahs of Iran. Or even the nineteenth century American abolitionists who in the name of their own uncompromising, righteous God challenged the moral status quo ante when it came to slavery, leading ultimately to the Civil War, which was by far the bloodiest conflict in American history.
We applaud, of course, the outcome of the Civil War, but we forget that it was conditioned by the militancy of a faction of Christian evangelicalism at the time that illustrates Jonathan Z. Smith’s famous quip in his essay “The Devil in Mr. Jones” ( Imagining Religion, 1982, 111) that religion in reality is “not nice.” One would not deny certain militant Christian “fundamentalists” their own self-ascription of being Christian because of excessive political actions on the part of their own congeners, such as harassing abortion clinics, arming for Armageddon, or demanding religious “exemptions” from secular law which many progressives find unconscionable.
The ideological obsession with proper religious naming – a subspecies of what is popularly but often confusingly labeled “political correctness”, infecting not only public but also academic discourse, about religion – goes well beyond all forms of either Islam or Christianity. The so-called “cult wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, which still survive in some quarters today, is a case in point.
The basic argument of the time was whether many non-conventional forms of “alternative” religiosity, which sprung up from the late Sixties counterculture and came to prominence in the fall of 1979 with the mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana by followers of San Francisco preacher Jim Jones, should be considered an authentic form of indigenous spirituality or a dangerous social menace. The very term you chose to use to describe these movements, which often received poor press because of claims of authoritarian abuse on the part of its leaders, “mind control,” or outright criminal activity, indicated on which side of the argument you could be located.
Defenders of these movements, which often amounted to a small circle of university sociologists, demanded they simply be called “new religions” and tended to find just about any excuse to exonerate them as simply “persecuted” minorities from many of their misdeeds, even when they were convicted in courts of law. Critics employed the term “cult,” a word that in the past had conveyed a more neutral, or at least less derogatory, meaning, and the word itself almost came to imply by its various mention nefarious intent, especially if one added an adjective to yield the almost tautological phrase “dangerous cult” in the popular mindset.
Much of the controversy during the cult wars was whether followers of these different groups could be “brainwashed” in the same manner American prisoners were by their Chinese Communist handlers during the Korean War. The row became absolutely nasty during the 1990s.
As Charlotte Allen writing in the journal Lingua Franca noted toward the end of that decade, “the scholarly antagonists have frequently sought to discredit each other’s motives as well as their research. Competing to define the nature of cults, they have fought for control of their professional associations and quarreled bitterly in the courtroom.”. Of course, the debate itself had less to do with scholarly rigor than met the eye, even though both sides claimed without qualification that “science” was firmly on their side. As Allen pointed out, both sides were receiving not-so-above board financial benefits for the content of their “expertise.”
Advocates of the brainwashing hypothesis were often richly compensated by parents whose children had joined “cults” and therefore required authoritative testimony that their charges were in some kind clear and present danger to warrant court intervention. By the same token, Allen notes, many of their opponents were reported to be receiving remuneration in various guises from the “cult” groups themselves.
The defenders of these “new religious movements”, who came to be called “cult apologists” by their detractors, routinely insisted that their subject matter, which included such notorious organizations as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology, and Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan had the same spiritual bona fides as Methodism or Reformed Judaism, even though a Congressional investigation in the 1970s suggested that the “Moonies” might well be a front for the Korean CIA, while LaVey, the self-proclaimed showman, cited the con-artist Ambrose Bierce as one of his most important influences.
As I myself found out when I wrote a book on the complexity of the early Satanist phenomenon entitled Painted Black (Harper Collins, 1992), hell hath no fury than a group of “new religions” advocates-cum-sociologists) when you document that various criminals who committed murder and even went so far as to call themselves “satanists” might actually be acting on real religious motivations. Their fanatical form of political correctness at the time demanded that any psychopathological gesture or minor gesture must be immediately dismissed as “not real Satanism,” as if there ever was historically any kind of orthodox Satanism that one could measure their pretenses against.
LaVey’s obvious charades were far different than those of Adolfo Constanzo, the black occultist from Matamoros who ritually kidnapped and murdered American college student Mark Kilroy in the late 1980s as well as Pete Roland, the troubled youth from Joplin, Missouri who killed his friend with a baseball bat as a “sacrifice to Satan,” both of whose cases I wrote about in detail.
There is no evidence that LaVey, or any of the public “Satanists”, ever killed anyone. But the people who did perpetrate such acts, ranging from Richard Ramirez the “Night Stalker” to more recent cases like Texas teenager Victor Alas to self-proclaimed British “Satan worshipper” Moises Meraz-Espinoza were inspired by some kind of belief or rhetoric to a similar effect that came from somewhere.
The politics of religious naming – like most of American politics today – has become so polarized as a black-and-white choice between wholesale condemnation of certain religious groups, or their wholesale exculpation (with the consequent demonization of those who try to split the difference). The pandering of a good deal of academic “expertise” to their own constituencies has a lot to do with this phenomenon, but the general ignorance about religion and its nuances on the part of the public, which is often enforced by our uncritical secularist biases, is also a key factor.
We avoid confronting these nuances, and the aporias for public policy they sometimes generate, however, at our own peril.