Reza Aslan: There’s no divide between Islam and American culture—it’s people, not religion

July 27, 2017 • 10:00 am

If you’re willing to be a bit mendacious, there are two guaranteed ways to make a lot of dosh in America. The first is to pretend that you’ve had a near-death experience and have temporarily visited Heaven, seeing God, Jesus, and your long-dead relatives and friends. This reassures Christians that all will be well after death. An example of someone enriching himself in this way is neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who, though his book Proof of Heaven has been thoroughly debunked, continues to rake in oodles of cash thanks to credulous Christians.

The second is to pretend that religion is a uniformly good phenomenon—that nothing bad comes from it. Anything like the terrors of Islamist extremism, or the Troubles of Northern Ireland, comes from culture, not faith. Were there not religion, these apologists aver, something else would take its place, causing precisely equal amounts of evil.

Although Mariam Sobh made an odious video claiming that ex-Muslims (read: Ayaan Hirsi Ali) were motivated to leave the faith by the prospect of gaining fame and money by criticizing Islam, there’s a big downside to that: fear of death. A vociferous ex-Muslim is a threatened ex-Muslim, and that’s why Hirsi Ali has bodyguards. It’s much safer and easier to extol religion, and these days the big money and fame is in extolling Islam. Guilt-ridden liberals lap that stuff up like cats at a bowl of cream.

The prime examples of those who gain renown from defending religion against all comers are Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan. Today we’re discussing Aslan, who, unchastened by the failure of his CNN “spiritual adventure show” Believer, is back in the pages of Foreign Policy magazine with his piece “Reza Aslan argues: There is no divide between Islam and American culture.

This claim is problematic for reasons that you already know. First of all, many of the values imparted by Islam, and embraced by many (but not all) of its adherents, are truly in conflict with “American values”, at least as limned by progressives. Islam devalues women: in dress, in property rights, in giving them a role of temptresses, and so on; it is not a big fan of freedom of religion, especially for atheists; and it’s not a big promoter of gay rights or gay marriage. Further, at least as expressed by Linda Sarsour in her recent “jihad” speech, many Muslims, like Orthodox Jews and some extreme sects of Mormons and fundamentalist Christians, prefer to maintain semi-closed communities held together by identity politics. But unlike Orthodox Jews, the goal of some Muslims is to make their faith into a principle of government, for that’s what sharia law is. Here’s what Sarsour said:

Our number one and top priority is to protect and defend our community. It is not to assimilate and to please any other people in authority. Our obligation is to our young people, is to our women, to make sure our women are protected in our community, and our top priority, even higher than all those priorities, is to please Allah and only Allah.

Now of course many Muslim-Americans fervently desire to integrate into U.S. culture. Still, one can’t deny that certain values instilled by Islam, like those instilled by Orthodox Judaism and extremist Mormonism, are at odds with values of the wider society. That’s why the hyper-Orthodox and polygamous Mormons segregate themselves in enclaves where they can live their faith without being tainted by secular American culture.

Reza Aslan, of course, denies such a clash, but his reasons are deeply dubious:

There is no clash between Islam and American culture. In fact, there is no clash between any religion and any culture because religions are inextricably linked to culture.

Think of it this way: Culture is like a vessel, and religion is like water — it simply takes the shape of whatever vessel you pour it into. And this is why the prosperity gospel — the notion that what Jesus really wants for you is to drive a Bentley — can exist in the United States, and why the liberation gospel — the notion that Jesus was a warrior who fought oppression and poverty — exists in El Salvador. Both versions of Christianity are equally valid. They’re just dependent on the culture of the community to which they belong.

When you look at Islam in the United States what you see is an overwhelmingly moderate version of Islam, but more interestingly what you see is a highly individualistic form of the religion. Islam is a religion that often advantages the community over the individual, but in the United States, where the culture is rooted in radical individualism, you see a radically individualistic Islam forming.

The last paragraph itself notes the possibility of a clash between Islam and American culture, and yes, not all Muslims in the U.S. become “radical individualists.” But the first paragraph is just nonsense. When a minority religious group inhabits a society of a different faith, or no faith, their values not only are often derived from religion, but clash with values of the society in which they’re embedded. When those values deal with things like human “rights”, it can cause trouble. One cannot, for instance, sensibly say that there’s no clash between Islam and European culture, for that clash is painfully evident. (Again, I’m talking about religious values here, not the desire of Muslims to assimilate into Western culture.) It’s better in America, but my own observation of organizations like CAIR and Students for Justice in Palestine convince me that attitudes like Sarsour’s aren’t uncommon.

Because Islam, like Orthodox Judaism, is both a religion and a culture, in the sense of dictating ways of living throughout the day and not just at worship, Aslan can get away with saying that “it’s all culture.” But if large parts of that culture are drawn from religious scripture or dogma, then his statement is tautological and meaningless.

And if religions are inextricably linked to culture, why do you find people of nearly identical cultures, but of different faiths, in clashes that are sometimes deadly. In what respect do Shia and Sunni Muslims have different cultures if you leave out the disparate religious dogma that divides them? In what respect to Muslim men and women, or gays and straights, have different “cultures”? In what respect did Irish Catholics and Protestants have different “cultures”—if you leave out religion? Aslan would argue that these are cultural and not religious differences; but since he sees them as the same thing, that’s simply a ploy to exculpate religion, which is what he gets paid to do.

As the article goes on, Aslan even exculpates culture, saying “it’s just different people” who cause the supposed clashes. But here he slips up, because he then admits that these people are reflecting different “ideologies”, and ideology can include religion:

So he says this:

The clashes we see are created by people, not by culture or religion. When people say Islam doesn’t fit in with American culture, what they really mean is that it does not fit with their sense of self and their conception of themselves as Americans. It does not jibe with how they understand what Islam means. But they are doing what most people do when they try to define themselves, which is that they are defining themselves in opposition to an other. And for a great many Americans, that other is Islam. They know nothing about Muslims. They know nothing about the religion or its history. It’s just that Islam becomes a byword for whatever is not American.

But that contradicts this, which he states in the previous paragraph:

When people talk about the clash between religion and culture, it mostly stems from ideological reasons. Ideologies are predicated on certain absolutes, which provide a certain confidence about people’s identities and where they belong in the world. It’s how people construct their very understanding of the universe. Ideologies can include religion, but they can include nationalism, culture, and race. People who tend to fall back on ideologies are trying to create a sense of stability about who they are and how they see themselves in the world.

What this means is that the “people” who are said to clash with American culture, and here I’m referring to Muslims, are doing so because their ideology (read: Islam) gives them a sense of identity that is not the same as the “identity” of Americans. Yes, Americans have ideologies, too, but the clash I’m worried about is not between Christian ideology and Muslim ideology. I have no patience with Christians who demonize Muslims because they’re not down with Jesus as a prophet. What I do worry about, and what Aslan brushes off, is the feeling that Islam fosters values inimical to those that many Americans embrace, especially the values of democracy above theocracy and the notion of equal rights for all, regardless of sex, religion, or sexual orientation. This is not a clash between two religions. It’s a clash between religious values and Enlightenment values. I would not want to live in a country whose values and institutions reflect the ideas of Linda Sarsour.

Sarsour and Aslan are both dangerous because they want us to avert our eyes from a theology that is explicitly anti-democratic, and because that theology motivates terrible oppression against both Muslims and non-Muslims. Remember, outside the U.S (and even to some degree within it, Islam oppresses half of its own adherents: the women.

As far as I know (I don’t check), the only other person who blocks me on Twitter is P. Z. Myers.

41 thoughts on “Reza Aslan: There’s no divide between Islam and American culture—it’s people, not religion

  1. All very confusing. Aslan wants us to place all blame on culture, not on religion, yet admits that the two are intertwined? I don’t get it. The Shia/Sunni example is good, as would be Catholic/Protestant in Ireland.

    1. In my view, the Shia – Sunni thing is clearly a common culture thing. However, in the Irish case, the Protestants were derived from colonists sent from Scotland and England to help subdue the native Irish who were virtually all Catholic. It is hard to say this is a common culture case. The Irish case resembles a current Middle Eastern situation.

      1. That would depend on how finely you want to divide cultural differences. Broadly speaking, all humans living in the British Isles share a lot of culture today and through the previous century. As you point out, the differences are more religious than anything else, but you are correct that resentment towards the colonists was the origin of the troubles.

  2. … there are two guaranteed ways to make a lot of dosh in America.

    … and never, but never, overestimate the taste and perspicacity of the American public.

  3. “The clashes we see are created by people, not by culture or religion.”

    I don’t know if Aslan is just being dumb here or if he is being disingenuous. In any case this is rather typical bafflegab from him. Very obviously cultures and religions are composed of, are products of, people. And people’s behavior is highly affected by their culture, which includes religion.

    Regarding the “Culture is like a vessel, and religion is like water” passage by Aslan, it sounds like he is merely saying that people use their religion to justify whatever they want to. I agree that that is a common phenomenon. What I don’t get is how that is an argument against religion being a problem. Or rather, I can clearly see that it isn’t a valid argument against the propositions that religions affect people’s behavior and that religions are a problem for society.

    1. There are two words that always come to my mind when reading such articles by Aslan – cognitive dissonance.

      I couldn’t decide if he really believed this stuff or if he w5s just trying to square his own beliefs with the reality of Islam. I’ve basically decided that as a Muslim he just wants to exculpate his faith from any blame in the bad stuff done in its name. That takes a great deal of tortured logic and cognitive dissonance.

      The same is true of Karen Armstrong, though as a catholic (in the other sense of the word) she feels obliged to extend her explanations to all religions. It seems this is the journey Aslan is now on.

      1. I think you’re probably right about him. I think you could probably add a couple of big pinches of “seeking fame and fortune through the production and propagation of slick sounding bullshit” to the mix too. I usually just think of it as fraud.

    2. If the “clashes we see are created by people”, why do we end up talking to unelected, self-appointed bodies (such as the Moslem Council of Britain) rather than people as individuals? It couldn’t be because those bodies insist on representing those individuals as culturally and religiously homogenous, could it?

    1. Ah…good one. And if it’s just culture it is impossible to determine if the person on shore is man or woman.

      1. That’s not a person on the sand, it’s the beach tent they use to avoid being seen when they change into swimwear.

  4. While reading this I kept wondering where the sects within Islam fit in all this. Certainly Iran and Saudi Arabia are made up of people with ideologies. Is he saying that without Islam they would still snarl and snap at each other’s throats? The factions within Iraq? Is Islam holding them together or keeping them apart?

  5. Pew Research has just issued a massive report(193 pages) on the attitudes of American Muslims. It would take some time to digest everything in it. However, I did find one interesting finding in the section entitled “Most Muslims Open to Multiple Interpretations of Islam.”

    “Roughly two-thirds of U.S. Muslims say there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of Islam (64%), while 31% say there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of the faith. Changes in opinions on this question have been modest since the past two iterations of this survey. “

    I think the 64% number is encouraging. It probably is much smaller in countries that are overwhelmingly Muslim. Another finding is that nine-in-ten Muslims are proud to be Americans. Of course, within the minority of Muslims who believe there is only on way to interpret Islam or are not proud to be an American, radicalism can take root. All in all, I am optimistic that more and more Muslims will not see their faith in conflict with Enlightenment values. Of course, vigilance against domestic terrorism, from whatever source, must never be diminished.

    1. In Iraq, I understand, debate is a cherished tradition. The Iraqis are said to sit together for hours debating. I have to assume this means they generally think there are debates to be had concerning Islam. If true, I take that as a hopeful sign.

  6. If culture is a vessel and religion is water, then the vessel (culture) is most like a balloon that gets manipulated and distorted from its original shape when water (religion) is poured into it.

  7. Aslan’s desire to make religion, in general, and Islam, in particular, look good undercuts his good offices as a commentator. What I think he might have right in this case is that the harmful effects of religion can be restrained by culture (laws, attitudes, and institutions) of a country. In a country that is willing to let religion win over individual rights, though, its worse inclinations are realized.

  8. Here is the link to a Science Daily report of a study:
    “Do all people experience similar near-death-experiences? By analyzing people’s personal stories about their near-death-experiences, researchers look deeper into the chronology of different types of near-death-experiences”

    I haven’t looked into the veracity of the sources, just thought it was interesting in the context of this post.

  9. “There’s no divide between Islam and American culture”

    Islam means, in Arabic, submission or surrender (to god), don’t see how this is compatible with core liberal values like the freedom to think for yourself.

    “The clashes we see are created by people, not by culture or religion”

    History tells us : If you want to organize really big clashes you need an ideology, so religion or other ideologies are a requirement.

    1. Argument from etymology was never convincing to me.

      For instance, Christian literally means one who belongs to Christ; the suffix -ian is derived from the Latin -ianus meaning “belongs to”.

      (Delving deeper into the stranger world of etymology, “Christ” originally meant “oil” not “anointed one”)

      There are plenty of Christians who live peacefully in America. So I don’t see what the etymology of Christian has to do with their incompatibility.

      1. This is because American laws were made to match the wishes of the majority of Christians. E.g. monogamous marriage, not going around naked, resting on Sundays, Christmas and Easter as federal holidays.

  10. There can’t be anything more horrific than heaven.
    Let’s say you’re in heaven chatting with god and your long dead relatives. You decide to look in on your earthbound grandson because you love him so. As you watch, he is being sexually assaulted by a priest, as some priests are wont to do and there you stand in horror. What are the options?
    1) You can beg god to stop the abuse, but we know that doesn’t work because it happens all too frequently. You remain tortured with the visions of abuse for all eternity.
    2) You can tell yourself that it’s all part of god’s plan and it’ll be ok once your grandson is dead. Unfortunately that does stop the abuse. You remain tortured with the visions of abuse for all eternity.
    3) You turn away because you don’t care what happens. Congratulations, you’re an unconscionable prick.

  11. “….a theology that is explicitly anti-democratic….”
    “….especially the values of democracy above theocracy…”

    Okay, i have a slight issue with the concept that theocracies are not democratic. If you look at many theocracies, it’s evident that they’re brought about and maintained by a religious majority that actually want government by organized religion. Certainly there is oppression of minorities and women (as has not been uncommon in democracies), but what we are seeing in the middle east is, quite often, theocracy by overwhelming consent of the governed. This is the problem with the so-called “Muslim Spring” movement. As more or less secular dictators are overthrown, the people are democratically opting for governments and societies based upon Sharia.

    So this does actually bolster your argument that governments and societies under these circumstances are based on religious dogma. But it comes about because of democracy, not due to the lack of it.

    1. A democracy connotes a system of government where the majority rules, but also where the minority retains certain rights, particularly the right to speak out against the policies of the majority through free speech, a free press, and the ability to field opposition candidates in free elections. To the extent that a government deviates from affording the minority these rights, the less it can be characterized as a democracy. Hence, theocracies are not democratic despite their possible approval by the majority of the populace.

      1. I don’t think it’s necessary to go that far. “Democracy” simply means rule by the people. Incidentally I always seethe a bit when I hear someone say “the US is a Republic, not a Democracy.” Representative republics are better described as a subcategory of democracies. Similarly, nothing in the concept of democracy necessarily entails protection of minority rights from majority whims. That’s an extra facet our society has tacked on that just so happens to make the whole thing work a lot better.

        But anyway, the real reason that theocracies are not democracies is that even if they begin with a majority of people voting in religious leaders, once established, theocracy does not seek further input from the people. People can vote in monarchs or despots or oligarchs, and the resulting system has ceased to be democracy once established.

        1. If, as you say, theocracies are not democratic because they don’t seek further input from the people then a democracy implies that all people have a right to express their views with ultimately the majority holding sway. In practice, democracy requires that the minority has a voice. The Weimar Republic was democratic and ceased to be so when the Nazis took power. I don’t see how you are disagreeing with me. A democracy ceases to exist when the minority no longer has the right to express opposition to prevailing policies.

  12. How exactly can one separate religion from culture? My white, racist, homophobic, evangelical Christian relatives demonstrate that they are so intertwined that is worthless work to try to separate the two.

    1. You’re absolutely correct. The Cambridge Dictionary describes culture as “the way of life of a particular people, esp. as shown in their ordinary behavior and habits, their attitudes toward each other, and their moral and religious beliefs.” In other words, the number of religions and their belief systems play a major role in how individuals think and act in a given society. You can’t separate the influence or lack of influence of religion or religions in understanding the nature of a society’s culture.

  13. We are not one exclusive culture. Aslan might be more correct to refer to cultures since the United States includes a great diversity of cultures from all over the world.

    The conflicts originating within Islam goes back almost to the origin of the religion with the different notions of Sunni vs. Shia (and whatever other divisions there are.) In the formative years of Islam, ijtihad was practiced in which scholars and jurists could debate issues and arrive at consensus on any topic that hadn’t been covered by the Koran or hadiths. There are people who believe that “the door was closed to ijitihad” centuries ago and that the religion (plus science) has stultified ever since. There are those instead who say that the Shia still practice ijtihad, whereas the Sunni don’t. Muslim conflict is not exclusive to the west. There is an enormous amount of internal conflict and warring among the Muslims in their own countries. They are no more of one mind than the many different sects of Christianity.

    Perhaps Muslims in America want to practice their own versions of ijtihad individually rather than following only the Koran and hadiths or leaving it up to sharia decisions by imams and jurists.

  14. “As far as I know (I don’t check), the only other person who blocks me on Twitter is P. Z. Myers.”

    Safe space leftism. Looping tapes of puppy dog sounds. Major key circus music that would creep out a clown. Cultish behaviour with fake smiles and vacant expressions that would make Jonestown devotees scratch their heads. Are you blocked by Steve Shives as well? Go check!

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