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Daily RC Article 164

Religious Classification and the Misdirection of Western Responses


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Increasing reliance on religion-based classification of the people of the world tends to make the Western response to global terrorism and conflict peculiarly ham-handed. Respect for “other people” is shown by praising their religious books, rather than by taking note of the many-sided involvements and achievements, in non-religious as well as religious fields, of different people in a globally interactive world. In confronting what is called “Islamic terrorism,” in the muddled vocabulary of contemporary global politics, the intellectual force of Western policy is aimed quite substantially at trying to define – or redefine – Islam.

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However, to focus just on the grand religious classification is not only to miss other significant concerns and ideas that move people, it also has the effect of generally magnifying the voice of religious authority. The Muslim clerics, for example, are then treated as the ex officio spokesmen for the so-called Islamic world, even though a great many people who happen to be Muslim by religion have profound differences with what is proposed by one mullah or another. Despite our diverse diversities, the world is suddenly seen not as a collection of people, but as a federation of religions and civilizations. In Britain, a confounded view of what a multi-ethnic society must do has led to encouraging the development of state-financed Muslim schools, Hindu schools, Sikh schools, etc., to supplement pre-existing state-supported Christian schools, and young children are powerfully placed in the domain of singular affiliations well before they have the ability to reason about different systems of identification that may compete for their attention. Earlier on, state-run denominational schools in Northern Ireland had fed the political distancing of Catholics and Protestants along one line of divisive categorization assigned at infancy, and the same predetermination of “discovered” identities is now being allowed and, in effect, encouraged to sow even more alienation among a different part of the British population.

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Religious or civilizational classification can, of course, be a source of belligerent distortion as well. It can, for example, take the form of crude beliefs well exemplified by U.S. Lieutenant General William Boykin’s blaring – and by now well-known – remarks describing his battle against Muslims with disarming coarseness: “I knew that my God was bigger than his,” and that the Christian God “was a real God, and [the Muslim’s] was an idol.” The idiocy of such dense bigotry is, of course, easy to diagnose, and for this reason there is, I believe, comparatively limited danger in the uncouth hurling of such unguided missiles. There is, in contrast, a much more serious problem in the use in Western public policy of intellectual “guided missiles” that present a superficially nobler vision to woo Muslim activists away from opposition through the apparently benign strategy of defining Islam appropriately. They try to wrench Islamic terrorists from violence by insisting that Islam is a religion of peace, and that a “true Muslim” must be a tolerant individual (“so come off it and be peaceful”). The rejection of a confrontational view of Islam is certainly appropriate and extremely important at this time, but we must also ask whether it is at all necessary or useful, or even possible, to try to define in largely political terms what a “true Muslim” must be like.

This article critiques the Western approach to global terrorism and conflict, particularly in relation to Islam, emphasizing the pitfalls of relying on religious-based classifications. The author argues that such classification not only oversimplifies the diverse identities and perspectives within religious communities but also amplifies the voices of religious authorities, overshadowing the varied views of individuals. The piece highlights the dangers of categorizing people primarily based on religion or civilization, citing examples from British educational policies and the potential for alienation. Additionally, the article questions the efficacy and necessity of defining a "true Muslim" in largely political terms as part of Western public policy, urging for a more nuanced understanding of diverse identities and motivations.
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