Thursday, October 02, 2014

Asani offers thoughts on religious illiteracy

I'm moving off health care for this post.  Sorry to those who object, but sometimes other topics (beyond soccer!) raise issues that I like to explore with you. This one is particularly appropriate as many of us enter into a special weekend, comprising both Yom Kippur and Eid-al-Adha.  Read on if you'd like.

If you're like me, a non-Muslim living in a world in which there is a lot of news about people of that religion, it can be confusing to separate the practice of the religion from the political and nationalistic contexts in which we often view it.  Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, gave a short lecture this week at Harvard that I found very helpful.  It was called, The Importance of Fostering Religious Literacy: The case of Muslims in the US.”

Ali started with a provocative slide, with the simple words, "Why do they hate us?" He explained that he had often heard this sentiment from non-Muslim Americans about Muslims in the rest of the world.  He then pointed out that he had heard exactly the same question from Muslims around the world about Americans!  Clearly, there is a lack of understanding going on, and he spent most of his talk addressing the reason, which he termed religious illiteracy.

He pointed out that there is global illiteracy about religion and culture.  This results in an inability to engage with the differences between us because we have a lack of tools to understand the differences.  Mutual stereotyping exists, and then ignorance means that encounters between groups ironically leads to more polarization.

He referred to Diane Moore and her book Overcoming Religious Illiteracy and presented some of her main points as follows:

Ali listed some manifestations of religious illiteracy:

1)  Equation of religion with devotional practice, rites, rituals, and ceremonies.
2)  The essence of religion is perceived as located in sacred texts.
3)  Religious traditions are seen as timeless and unchanging and monolithic. (In contrast, there is a huge extent of diversity within Islam.)
4 ) Religions are seen as actors having agency; i.e., there is a tendency to personify religion, but it's just a construct, not a being.
5) The use of religion as the exclusive lens to explain the actions of an individual or a community.
6) An entire religious community is held responsible for the actions of an individual.

He then expanded on Moore's conclusions and pointed to the dangers of religious illiteracy as leading to stereotypes and dehumanization, accompanied by less respect for diversity.  Such illiteracy can also be exploited by ideologues to promote extremism and fundamentalism.  Finally, he noted that democracy cannot function if one is ignorant and afraid of one's neighbors.

In closing he urged the audience to help educate themselves and others to differentiate between devotional expression and the study of religion; to consider religions as internally diverse as opposed to uniform; to consider religion as evolving and and changing, as opposed to being ahistorical and static; and to see religious influences as being embedded in all dimensions of culture, as opposed to the assumption that religions function in discrete, isolated, "private" separable contexts.

In summary, there was plenty of food for thought from a thoughtful man who would like us to be able to celebrate our differences rather than be fearful of them.

L'shana tovah and Eid mubarak!


Bob said...

There is no doubt that religious and cultural "illiteracy" leads to intolerance, fear and prejudice. However, to use this to explain, and seemingly justify, terrorism and murder is outrageous. To suggest that "religious illiteracy" explains why Americans might fear Muslims is the same explanation as to why Muslims reportedly hate Americans is equally as ridiculous.

Ignorance may lead to fear and prejudice, but we should not accept it as an explanation for the murder of innocent people. I think that there is very clear reason for why Americans might fear radical Islam, as well as radical Americans and others. Let us not suggest that their actions can be justified or simply explained because they just don't really know us.

Paul Levy said...

Wow, I don't think Ali or I suggested that this "explains, and seemingly justifies, terrorism and murder." I don't know how you can draw that conclusion from what he said.

To fear Muslims because they are Muslims paints every Muslim with the broad brush of the terrorist. How could we do such a thing?

It was like, in the old days, painting every Jew as a Shylock because they were Jews.

Or assuming every Black young man on the street is a possible mugger because he is a Black young man.

This is what Ali meant, I believe, when he said there is a tendency to personify a religion and give it agency, as opposed to recognizing that it is a construct.

BenK said...

One more sign of religious illiteracy is the notion that any person is without religion. Religion is the complete suite of beliefs and actions pertaining to purpose and meaning - that of oneself and others - and everyone has a religion, whether it is theistic, atheistic or otherwise. Even 'eat, drink, and be merry' is a statement of religion; a particularly prescriptive one.