Divided by Faith?

by Craig Martin

It seems to be a common sense notion that people fight over differing religious beliefs. Consider the following paragraph from an NPR news story, which I take to be typical:

When Osama bin Laden declared war on the West in 1996, he cited the Quran’s command to “strike off” the heads of unbelievers. More recently, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan lectured his colleagues about jihad, or “holy war,” and the Quran’s exhortation to fight unbelievers and bring them low. Hasan is accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, last year.

We are to believe, apparently, that these people acted out of their Muslim beliefs, and against those who did not share their beliefs.

I am growing increasingly suspicious of this idea that people come to blows or “clash” over differences in belief or faith. I am of course in full agreement with the many anti-essentialist criticisms of the “clash of civilizations” thesis: there are no monolithic civilizations, and as such there can be no monumental “clash” between them (the last chapter of Chiara Bottici’s A Philosophy of Political Myth contains a particularly good version of this criticism). But this is not what I’m angling at here. What bothers me is the very idea that people fight over “beliefs” at all, monolithic or not.

Upon reflection it’s difficult to see how or why people could ever come to blows over differences in mere belief. If you believe that chocolate ice cream is the best, and I believe that vanilla is far superior, what practical difference does this difference make? Where substantial interests do not diverge, getting along is not that difficult. I assume that this is why liberal interfaith work tends to appeal to people with the same middle- or upper-class bourgeois lifestyle: when Jews, Christians, and Muslims of the same social class are living relatively identical material lives, of course there is unlikely to be any conflict of interests between them. Once a set of religious practices and practitioners are domesticated by late capitalism, it is difficult to see where a clash of interests might lie.

I would argue people don’t tend to fight over differences in belief; they tend to fight over conflicts of interest. However, characterizing conflicts in terms of belief has the effect of masking conflicts of interest.

I’m prepared to take this one step farther: perhaps the talk of “religious violence” as resulting from “beliefs” is not merely misguided, but is in fact motivated. Perhaps those who utilize the “divided by faith” rhetoric want to forget that conflicts usually follow from a clash of interests rather than a difference in beliefs.

Were we to openly reflect on our interests, we might have to think about how the interests of the American empire are at odds with the interests of others. We might have to reflect on the fact that al Qaeda’s stated reasons for attacking America were not that America is Christian, but that America is complicit in Israel’s domination of Palestine, that America has a military presence throughout the Middle East (which it uses to manipulate the oil industry), that America supported sanctions against Iraq that prohibited the transfer of medical goods (which resulted in the preventable deaths of many Iraqis), and that America’s military campaign in Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of a number of civilians.

One can read bin Laden’s statements on these matters in an edited volume titled The Al Qaeda Reader. However, the book blurb belies the very contents of the book. Rather than conflicts of interests, Random House’s website says that readers will find:

Despite our tendency to dismiss Islamic extremism as profoundly irrational, al-Qaeda is not without a coherent body of beliefs.  Like other totalitarian movements, the movement’s leaders have rationalized their brutality in a number of published treatises.  Now, for the first time, The Al Qaeda Reader gathers together the essential texts and documents that trace the origin, history, and evolution of the ideas of al-Qaeda founders Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden.

It seems the author(s) of this blurb failed to read the book; while this blurb portrays al Qaeda as a group acting out of a set of “beliefs” and “ideas,” the writings contained therein suggest that al Qaeda acts out of a conflict of interests.

Of course we needn’t take bin Laden’s claims at face value, nor need we take for granted the monolithic identities he constructs or assumes. On the contrary, I fully support subjecting his rhetoric to the hermeneutics of suspicion.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric that posits that he acts out of beliefs rather than a conflict of interests should simultaneously be subjected to the hermeneutics of suspicion. Perhaps the idea that we are “divided by faith” is designed to help us forget that the interests of the American empire are sometimes at odds with the interests of others?

(For more on the myth of religious violence, see Richard King’s contribution to this volume or William Cavanaugh’s book on the subject. For more on the rhetorical effect of talking about religion as a matter of inward belief, see the first chapter in Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion, or Russell McCutcheon’s book on the domestication of religion. For more on the characterization of religion as the irrational “other” of western empires, see Tim Fitzgerald’s book on the rhetoric of civility.)

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8 Responses to Divided by Faith?

  1. donovanschaefer says:

    Superb piece. More and more people are speaking of a “reified” Islam characterized by a few tenets of belief that compel the violent actions of the handful of terrorists who take on that mantle. But why is terrorism so new? Why had there not been conflict between “Islam” and the West for centuries (no, the Ottomans don’t count)? Because now we’re looking at a clash of interests. The “beliefs” are the same.

    This is the classic mistake of looking at our current geopolitical situation and assuming that it always has been and always was.

  2. donovanschaefer says:

    I’m noticing, too, an increasing misusage of words like “all” and “must.” This leads to common category mistakes like “*all* Muslims *must* make war on unbelievers,” usually with a tragically out of context or blatantly mischaracterized Quran excerpt attending.

    The logical fallacy of this is easy to spot. But I think there’s a deeper problem, here, which is the desire to make sweeping statements, to speak the language of apocalypse, non-complexity, and war.

  3. Are you saying that people aren’t motivated to engage in conflictual behavior by beliefs, but only by interests? If that’s the case, then how are you defining “interests”? Aren’t you in danger of reinscribing the very same reification that you’re ostensibly trying to get rid of? I mean, after all, couldn’t you just as easily say that people are motivated by beliefs about what their true interests are? Can’t you have a genuine interest in warding off challenges to a foundational belief? and if that’s the case, can you really claim a stable distinction between beliefs and interests? Just askin.

  4. Nathan, I was thinking about adding a paragraph anticipating that objection, but didn’t want to make the post any longer. You’re right: we shouldn’t reify this distinction between cognition and interests, and we shouldn’t say that people never act out of their “beliefs” (I was careful not to say that).

    If I were going to expand it, I’d make two points. First, cognitive elements are partially constitutive of my interests. For instance, our interests are usually connected to our communities, which are “imagined.” Second, I think that the phrase “manufacturing consent” makes sense—people can be persuaded to act against their best interests. This wouldn’t make sense if people only ever acted out of their interests.

    But I would still insist on the relative priority of a discussion of “interests” in any analysis that attempts to explain human behavior.

    What do you think?

  5. Ken says:

    Nice stuff Craig, thanks! One thought that strikes me is that what you are presenting seems a bit like the old saw that religions are not “really” violent, rather people “use” their religion as an excuse for violence that they are committing for other reasons. I realize you’re not saying anything directly about religion and violence one way or another, but your points do seem congruent with this perspective. And of course (at least it’s an “of course” to me) religions generally DO promote all kinds of violence, from justifications of war, to denigrating others, to sexism and patriarchy. So perhaps, in some situations where the sorts of conflicts of interests that you discuss arise, would you say that people might be tapping into the violence that does exist in their traditions? Which is to say, religion is still bound up in the violence in important ways? Or would you in fact consider religion to be incidental to the violence?

    • Steven Ramey says:

      You present the statement “religions generally DO promote all kinds of violence” as an uncontested fact. Do religions have agency? If we recognize religions as socially constructed (and contested) labels, then they cannot promote violence or peace, they cannot teach X, Y, or Z. People who identify with particular socially constructed labels assert that their religion promotes, justifies, and teaches particular concepts and actions. This is not a defense of religion or religions but an assertion about agency.

  6. Amod Lele says:

    I agree with Nathan and Ken’s concerns, and would take it considerably further. While you didn’t say people never act out of beliefs, you did say this (and italicize it): “What bothers me is the very idea that people fight over ‘beliefs’ at all, monolithic or not.” That seems to indicate pretty clearly that, while people may sometimes act out of beliefs, they never fight over them. Which I think is… shall we say a little hard to swallow?

    “Upon reflection it’s difficult to see how or why people could ever come to blows over differences in mere belief. If you believe that chocolate ice cream is the best, and I believe that vanilla is far superior, what practical difference does this difference make?”

    Ice cream? Seriously? C’mon, what kind of an example is that? What if I said “If you believe that governments should act in the way that the Qur’an tells them to, and I believe that they should follow the principles outlined by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice, what practical difference does this difference make?” Does the same logic apply? Are beliefs about the proper functioning of government as irrelevant to people’s political action as beliefs about ice cream? If so, your theory of belief is utterly bizarre to me (though I’d be interested to hear more.) If not, it seems like an example so completely unconnected to any serious opponent’s position that it frankly weakens your point more than strengthens it. I mean, I could just as easily ask “Do people really ever go to war over their interests? If one government promises me an ice cream cone and another doesn’t, am I really going to fight over that?” I don’t think the logic of that argument is any better.

    It seems pretty clear to me that both beliefs and interests matter (and are closely related to one another). Which one is more important in the actions of a given person or group seems like something that should be determined by an investigation of that particular person’s or groups’ actions, statements and circumstances, not by a generalization about “any analysis that attempts to explain human behaviour”. Is that a controversial position to take?

  7. Amod Lele says:

    Crap, forgot to close the italics tag and it wouldn’t let me go back and edit. Hopefully that’s not too annoying.

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