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Religion as a tool for the status quo: How politics can make wars holy and criticism blasphemous

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Guest column by Taylor Weech

All opinions are not created equal. Some are rooted in fact, careful study, dialogue, and analysis. Others come to the person who holds them in a dream or a vision, through tradition, or from repeatedly reading a single book.

We all have a fundamental urge to communicate and a right to do so. That right does not make us all correct, nor does it free us from criticism or hurt feelings. Without objective analysis and brutal honesty, fundamentalism and nationalism, which I argue are nearly inextricably related, loom as a huge threat to human society.

The othering of Muslims in this country, despite the similarities in core beliefs to the other dominant theistic traditions here, has sanctioned some of the most brutal state violence in history over the last 15 years in the Middle East. As a result, we’ve seen the emergence of violent Islamic fundamentalism. But really all fundamentalism represents a political strategy more than a religious position. In Iraq, Syria, and beyond, some people feel they’ve had enough drones, bombs, chemical warfare, and torture and want to take revenge by doing horrific things to send a message back up the imperial food chain. It would be as absurd to ascribe this behavior to all Muslims as it is to lump all Christians in with abortion clinic bombers. And yet, using the tools of nationalism, it’s been done. When I saw the first headline to the effect of “U.S. vs. Islamic State”, I felt disappointment and fear. Fear of how this fear of others would contract into deeper nationalism, division and violence. U.S. (us, fittingly) vs Muslims (them). Islamic State? Which one? Doesn’t matter, flatten all of them. They are not US.

Christian privilege in the U.S. creates a type of imagined assault on free speech, but no actual oppression. Like whiteness, our culture has presented Christianity as the norm in subtle ways that are much easier for people outside of the privileged group to notice. Many politicians and pundits don’t hesitate to refer to the U.S. as  a Christian nation, despite the fact that there are clear legal boundaries against that and dwindling statistics to back it up. As society opens up a new discussion on race and racism, white society reacts, knee jerk, to a factual and honest critique wanting not to believe. Feeling, in fact, as though maybe white people are the oppressed ones after all. In the same way, as religion’s role begins to fade in the life of the individual, assertions of state and cultural religiosity rise defensively. At the same time that irrational fear of Sharia law in the U.S. fascinates and upsets many on the Christian right, the same group ironically introduces and blocks domestic laws based on moral or religious affiliation. The recent debates over birth control, abortion, and wage inequality, taken up almost entirely by white and Christian males have the effect of restricting women’s actual freedom.

This is different from restriction of prayer in public schools, for example. It isn’t discrimination against the religious, it’s part of the firewall between church and state that, in theory, acts as one of many buffers against fascism. No one is telling Christians that they can’t believe or that they can’t worship however they please. Their symbols and traditions still utterly pervade society. Meanwhile, here, street level harassment and murder of Muslims or assumed Muslims is on the rise and women’s rights are backsliding in the name of protecting morality. This opens up justified criticism of the status quo. It has not created an anti-Christian backlash in practice,  but being told you’re wrong and being hurt can be amplified and conflated with actual oppression. That perceived threat leads Idaho to attempt to be an official Christian state. Fundamentalism grows as general religious belief declines. And as Chris Hedges and others have pointed out, national symbols, too, are sacralized and the lines blur between the two sets of symbols: America and Jesus. Not Jesus of the New Testament stories, but Jesus the magician who makes the fear in your stomach calm for a while. Jesus the potent drug. A pluralistic society threatens the addict of sameness and their defense mechanisms rear up.

My main lens for exploring these issues is in studying Palestine and Israel and doing solidarity work there. It’s probably the most misunderstood conflict around, at least for Americans, and a perfect example of the distortion of political acts through the lens of religion. Different from the imagined oppression some American Christians are feeling, a true suppression of free speech runs rampant in the case of Israel. Anyone, myself included, who criticizes the state policies of Israel is attacked, disinvited, and otherwise silenced under accusation of being anti-Semitic. Desmond Tutu, Alice Walker, Penelope Cruz, Danny Glover, and Emma Thompson are some recognizable names who have been branded as such. This bizarrely includes critics who are themselves Jewish. There are many Jewish critics of Israel’s apartheid policies who comprise groups like Jewish Voice for Peace who represent a huge opportunity to expose this false narrative and work for a just peace there as they pick apart the false narrative of holy war.

The selective outrage over religious persecution, real or imagined, is everywhere. In recent weeks, Americans have been stirred up over ISIS militants killing Christians. When the Christians are Palestinian, as is largely the case in the West Bank cities of Nazareth and Bethlehem, we can’t muster up the same outrage. Other Christians that the U.S. government doesn’t need to highlight at the moment, in African nations, or Christians in South America whose lives have been destroyed by our “free trade” policies. There is too much complexity in those stories to engage with in our devolved culture, but they reveal the racial and political dynamics that stew beneath the surface of supposedly religious conflicts.

Coddling religion holds us back as Jeffrey Tayler recently laid out in Salon, from embracing principles that could lead to broad peace and safety. Many religions started with a message of universal oneness and love of life, but devolve into the individualism popular in American culture with the power struggle and hierarchy that comes with it. At the same time, we can measure using science that innate understanding; the more we look, the more we see that we are all in fact one stuff and that we are killing our self. Our misguided idea that free speech means freedom from consequences of wrong speech embraces lopsided debate and global chaos. Some ideas, like fundamentalism, have had their time and desperately need to be replaced. Without speaking about them and criticizing them openly, this will never happen. Critical and public dialogue can be a first step toward righting this situation and part of that is events like tomorrow’s discussion.

Join SpokaneFAVS for a discussion on Religion and Freedom of Speech at its next Coffee Talk at 10 a.m., March 7 at Indaba Coffee/The Book Parlor. Weech is a panelist.

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One comment

  1. To fight their sin, first stop yours.

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