Mary Kate Winn: The subjective nature of religion

Wednesday, January 11, 2017 - 11:33am

A few years ago, a friend told me that she thought the world would be a more peaceful place without religion. Considering all the violence that has been committed in the name of religion, from the Crusades to 9/11, it’s an easy conclusion to draw. As a Catholic, though, the statement felt more like an accusation, and it stung.

I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for most of my life, so Catholicism is a central component of my identity. My Catholicism, my religion, always promoted love, tolerance, acceptance and peace. My religion taught me to value and cherish human life, so what does the Lord’s Resistance Army have to do with my Christianity? Fundamentally, I felt that the actions of others, in history and present times, could not define my religion. The way I understand Jesus, his actions and his message means that to me, human life is sacred and precious. Thus, anyone who claims to be Catholic but acts in a way that disregards that value of human life cannot be practicing my Catholicism.

For me, my faith means the opposite of violence and hatred. Having my religion, and by extension, my values, associated with the promotion of violence and intolerance was alienating and demeaning. The same is likely true for hundreds of millions of Muslims around the globe when their religion is deemed inherently violent by pundits, respected publications and the U.S. president-elect.

Recent attacks committed by terrorist organizations who preach a radical, violent version of Islam have seemingly brought the entire religion up for debate. The question of whether Islam is inherently violent has led to discrimination against and alienation of Muslims in the West. In France, where many terrorist attacks have occurred in the name of ISIS, towns have been banning Muslim women from wearing burkinis at the beach. Despite court rulings that mayors do not have the right to ban burkinis, several French mayors continued to enforce the ban. In the United States, as we know, our president-elect responded to the Orlando massacre by saying he “appreciate(d) the congrats on being right on radical Islamic terrorism” and reiterating his call to suspend immigration “from areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies.”

And so, fear begets discrimination. As one recent ISIS defector put it, “we were happy when Trump said bad things about Muslims because he makes it very clear that there are two teams in this battle: the Islamic team and the anti-Islamic team.” Essentially, when more than 1.6 billion Muslims are grouped in with extremists and Islam is painted as violent, we are taking the bait and playing right into ISIS’s hands.

But, if Islam is not violent, how should we understand groups like ISIS? I think it’s useful to look at the intersection of violence and Islam the same way I viewed the intersection of violence and Christianity. Last semester, I took a class called “Anthropology of Islam,” and the more I learned about Islam, the more similarities I saw between Islam and Christianity. Both religions have sacred texts that are at times conspicuously violent because they are ultimately products of their times. But just as the Catholic Church promotes pacifism because it interprets the Bible in a more nuanced manner, so too do many Muslims interpret Islamic texts in more intelligent and holistic ways than ISIS does.

For example, I can read in Exodus 35:2 that someone who works on the Sabbath Day should be put to death, but I can recognize the endorsement of violence as an indication that violence was tolerated in 6th-century B.C.E. Therefore, I prefer to focus on the Bible verses that encapsulate Jesus’s values and promote love, peace and understanding, like Galatians 5:22-23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” This isn’t just willful ignorance or selective reading; it’s an informed analysis that looks at the bigger picture. Similarly, cherry-picked quotes from Islam’s texts are used to justify violence, but these violent quotes entirely miss the point.

Since there is no Muslim equivalent of a pope who gets to have a final say on what the Quran means or what is considered Islamic, there are varied interpretations of Islam. Islam is shaped by those who practice it, and since it is practiced in different countries all over the world by people with different life experiences, there is a wide array of forms and understandings of Islam.

In fact, more than 120 Islamic scholars from around the world published a letter to ISIS saying: “You have misinterpreted Islam into a religion of harshness, brutality, torture and murder. This is a great wrong and an offense to Islam, to Muslims and to the entire world." Importantly, these scholars used Islamic theological arguments to refute ISIS’s interpretation of Islam. As Nihad Awad, the director of the Council on American Islamic Relations said, “They have a twisted theology. They have relied many times, to mobilize and recruit young people, on classic religious texts that have been misinterpreted and misunderstood."

The subjective nature of religion means that it often can be a reflection of each person, group and society that practices it. When I attend Mass in different areas, I often find that churches vary according to the values of each area. In Ann Arbor, for example, my experience at St. Mary’s Catholic Church has shown me a church that values social justice, promotes inclusion and is actively involved in the community. Other churches that I have attended, however, have pushed more conservative agendas. Religion manifests according to the social and cultural conditions in which it is practiced.

Thus, it stands to reason that religious violence says more about the area it emerges from than it does about the religion. ISIS, after all, does not exist in a vacuum. It emerged from the chaos and conflict in Iraq and Syria, and it continues to exploit these factors to gain power and control. So, when examining the intersection of religion and violence, we should not assume that correlation means causation. This means that we should look more critically at ISIS’s claims to Islam instead of taking their propaganda at face value. It also means that the solution to homegrown terrorism in the United States isn’t a blanket ban on Muslim immigration.

Mary Kate Winn can be reached at winnm@umich.edu.