Reza Aslan versus Bill Maher: Learning the crucial difference between culture and religion
Responsible schooling, governance, international diplomacy, accountability and conscientious citizens are the demands of modern society. However, popular media despite its presence in every home, remains the most ignorant, irresponsible and manipulative aspect of modern life.
With its capacity to communicate instantly, the world with its current atmosphere of extremism, global stress and social and political upheavals is more open to suggestions in a way it was never before. Therefore, manipulation by entities with access to an audience has wider influence than before.
Labels are among the pithiest vehicles of language. They appeal most strongly to unthinking individuals, starting with those of all faiths in the pulpit to the common man. A single label – apt in a certain connotation, allows a person to categorise every aspect of life, to encapsulate it into that and this, good and bad, safe and dangerous.
The creation of scapegoats is a human instinct. It was the Jews for Hitler and following their immigration to the US, as a result of the potato famine, the Irish Catholics for the Americans. Till well into the 19th century, “negative stereotypes imported from England characterising the Irish as pugnacious, drunken, semi-savages were common and cartoons depicting the Irish as small, ugly, simian creatures armed with liquor and a shillelagh pervaded the press”.
Since 9/11, language has been powerfully used against Muslims to manipulate global sentiment and perception. Islam and Muslims, the current scapegoats, have been generously helped into the position by Muslims themselves and by others, but none so much as the media. The words ‘Muslim’, ‘beard’, ‘mosque’, ‘jihad’, ‘hajj’ along with many others, have all acquired a potent negative undertone that they do not possess by definition. So much so that anything related to these terms takes on a similar unquestionable impetus which translates into strong social and political consequences.
Reza Aslan, the author of ‘Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth’ and ‘No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam’, in his bouts with CNN and Fox ‘journalists’ such as Lauren Green and Bill Maher underlines this fact. Referring to Maher’s disparaging remarks when he called Muslims ‘mutilators’ (label) and ‘honour killers’ (label), Aslan said that,
“The problem is that you’re talking about a religion of one and a half billion people, and certainly it becomes very easy to just simply paint them all with a single brush.”
Aslan pointed out the difference, a crucial one between culture and religion. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural not an Islamic or Christian practice. It takes place in countries that may be predominantly Muslim or Christian, and has to do with the social practices of the people, not with their religion. Confusing the two is a common trap. Calling it an Islamic practice lays one more damning accusation on the religion which is now blamed for so much that it lays itself open to whatever comes.
What is cultural does not necessarily constitute the religion of a particular society, although the two may coincide. The burqa in the subcontinent is a cultural and not a religious mode of dress, although it has come to represent the particular brand of Islam practiced in the region.
By allowing these labels to slip by unnoticed, we participate in the prejudices and stereotypes they have come to represent, at times unknowingly placed there by journalists but very often quite deliberately by the media and world leaders. Amongst the youth, jihad, a powerful tool towards good is now synonymous with the act of blowing up one’s self and a great number of innocent bystanders, by a bomb strapped onto one’s body.
By participating in the blame game, we fail to recognise faults where they genuinely lie and to do something about them. We fail to educate ourselves and perpetuate the consequences of these labels into our future.
It would be an exercise to pick out as many of these labels as possible, starting perhaps with the ones in this short piece written on the subject.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.